During the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989, democratic revolutionary movements took their revenge on the hated symbols of the communist systems which had been imposed since 1948. From East Germany and Hungary in Central Europe to Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in the Baltic region, populations forced to live in the grim and brutalising architecture of state socialism rose up not only against their rulers but their rulers’ taste in public decor. Statues of Lenin were torn down and smashed, along with the figures of more obscure but nonetheless hated communist figures, and even those of Karl Marx himself. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, similar though less destructive clearings of statues followed, though many remained – the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013-14 led to many still-standing statues of Lenin being destroyed where they stood.
The remains of forty years of state-imposed political architecture, little of it wanted by the populations forced to live among it, were for the most part swept into graveyards for the former regimes. One of them is seen in the 1995 film Goldeneye when Sean Bean emerges from the statue graveyard “back from the dead” (much subtlety) and in a short monologue proves he would have made a far superior Bond to Pierce Brosnan. Some of these clearing-houses for dead statues and architecture were turned into museums. In Budapest, Hungary, one can visit a solemnly presented Memorial Park. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the main home for the former communist statues is Grūtas Park, less of a museum and more of an unofficial Soviet-nostalgia theme park which remains highly controversial.
Statue-smashing is comparably rare in the UK but the recent campaign at Oxford University to force the removal of Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes is shaping up to be the closest analogue. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa succeeded in having the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town removed one month after beginning its protests and inspired similar protests elsewhere, the most notable being at Cecil Rhodes’ home institution at Oxford. The campaign has been extensively reported on and discussed, with particular attention paid to the alleged hypocrisy of its leader Ntokozo Qwabe, who attends Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and comparisons made between the “war on history” being waged by the Islamic State with the campaign’s efforts to remove a statue of a long-dead Victorian statesman.
These discussions are being had elsewhere, but one thing should be considered when making the decision to remove or preserve the statue of a figure blamed for the theoretical and political implementation of oppression. In London’s Highgate Cemetery, a large cranial bust of Karl Marx was erected by the Communist Party of Britain in 1956, the same year the Hungarian Revolution was brutally crushed by the Soviet Union. Millions of people who are alive in 2016 suffered under regimes that were avowedly Marxist in their orientation, whether their right to claim status as ‘socialist states’ was legitimate or not.
The irony of Rhodes Must Fall, influenced by the myriad of ‘theory’ which proliferated through Western universities under the direction of New Left thinkers and ultimately by the mantle of Marx himself, is that it must turn against its own forebears if it wants to be logically consistent. The statue of Marx in Highgate can be a painful – indeed ‘triggering’ – reminder of a hated ideology for anybody who has lived in a communist or ex-communist country, such as millions of Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians. And it does not stop with Marx. Perennial student pinup icon Che Guevara was both a revolutionary hero and a state executioner responsible for the murder of thousands of Cuban political prisoners. Michel Foucault, beloved of post-structuralists and people whose favourite words are ‘intersectional’ and ‘experience’, naively analysed and shamelessly grovelled at the feet of the Iranian theocrats who would become famous for lynching gay people and trade unionists from cranes. Indeed, it is difficult to postulate the existence of totalitarian and history-destroying post-colonial regimes like those of Iran, Zimbabwe and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia without the ‘theory’ of the Western far-left.
Unlike the communist statues removed at the Fall of the Wall, the Rhodes of Oriel College is not an imposing, omnipresent monolith erected in every city park. If Rhodes Must Fall is morally serious, it should commit not just to the removal of a symbol of Victorian imperialism but to all monuments to oppression and the ideologies which create it.
Of course, we could leave the statues where they are, perhaps adding some explanatory footnotes, and accept the solution to humanity’s problems do not lie in destroying the past.