Bottles of Karl Marx-themed champagne were unlikely mementos last weekend as Chinese tourists snapped up merchandise on an auspicious day for the German town of Trier.
Marx would have turned 200 and his hometown marked the occasion with a festival featuring the unveiling of a statue of the philosopher gifted by the Chinese government.
On one side of the street, fans of Germany’s Communist Party waved their red flags fervently. On the other were the critics of the commemoration, who find little to celebrate in Marxist thinking.
The three-tonne statue is controversial and the Germans are said to have asked the Chinese to reduce its size, although Trier’s mayor Wolfram Leibe says there’s no shame in accepting the gift.
“In Germany, we have this situation again and again with difficult, complex personalities of history – we want to hide them in the woods,” he said. “So it was a conscious act to bring Karl Marx into the city… We don’t have to hide him.”
Cynics say that the statue is more about creating a photo opportunity for the flood of Chinese tourists (the mayor denies it, saying that Trier already runs out of accommodation during the busiest holiday periods).
China’s ambassador to Germany, who turned up for the unveiling, took a loftier tone, arguing that his country had “modernised” Marx’s thinking. China is now responsible for 30% of global economic growth, he added, and “for that we can thank Karl Marx”.
Back in Beijing Xi Jinping championed Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times” and vowed that Marxism would serve as a “powerful ideological weapon for us to understand the world, grasp the law, seek the truth, and change the world”.
How that holds in a country where consumerism is rampant, and the wealth gap between wealthy and poor is growing by the week, is a question worth pondering.
But in the meantime there is a conscious effort to make dialectical materialism more meaningful for Millennials, with a documentary titled “Marx Got It Right” from the state broadcaster CCTV. “For some, Marx is just an image of someone who always has a big beard, and Marxism is just a bunch of concepts or a few exam questions,” the show’s host told his youthful audience.
Class struggle hasn’t been getting much of a mention in the Marx makeover, however, although notions of Party primacy are getting wider play, with the message that socialism with Chinese characteristics is the new flag bearer for his ideas.
“Actually Marx already predicted that there could be a kind of socialism which combined socialist principles with the achievements of Western capitalist civilisations but he didn’t say how this kind of socialism would work since there was no evidence available during his lifetime,” a Party school professor claimed in the Global Times. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics proves Marx’s prediction.”
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