Marx and Thatcher: how memorials have become the lightning rods of 21st-century protest

Marx’s tombstone was vandalised with a hammer in February 2019. Paasikivi via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Marx and Thatcher: how memorials have become the lightning rods of 21st-century protest

In January 2018, Westminster Council turned down plans for a four-metre high statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square. The council explained that a new statue in the square, which is already home to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, would lead to “monument saturation”.

But there were also concerns that a memorial in London to Britain’s first female prime minister – still a divisive figure – would be likely to provoke protest and potential vandalism. A year later, when Grantham – where Thatcher grew up – announced it would host the memorial, it said the 10-foot statue would be placed on a plinth of equal height to deter vandals.

At around the same time this decision was announced, on February 5, the grave stone of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery was vandalised by an unknown assailant using a hammer. The chief executive of the charity that maintains the cemetery has remarked that the Grade I listed monument would “never be the same again”. A fortnight before that, the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park was similarly vandalised, although this time the perpetrators used white paint. It was the fourth time in only six years that the memorial has been defaced.

Meanwhile, various other memorials are provoking increasingly intense debate, especially in the US and Britain, where campaigns for the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, transatlantic slavers, and empire builders continue to garner support. So why are memorials and monuments provoking such interest and even anger?

Power and memory

In part, the answer is that this is by no means new. After all, despite their apparent “concrete” qualities, memorials invariably provoke intense debate – and those arguments do not simply disappear once the memorial is built. This is particularly the case following regime change: see, for example, the attacks made on royalist sculptures and statues during the American Revolution or the removal of Soviet era statues in places like Hungary and Poland.

And who can forget the iconic images of the toppling of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad during the invasion by US-led forces in 2003? To destroy or remove a memorial is a recognised mechanism through which a newly arrived power asserts its presence and delegitimises its predecessor.

Of course, such moments of “regime change” are relatively rare – and the recent acts of vandalism noted above are clearly of a different order and scale. But they are indicative of the same essential truth: that public sculpture is always inherently political. Seen in this light, a society’s commemorative architecture is a very visible record of its politics of power.

This would explain why in Britain the memorial landscape bequeathed by the Victorians and Edwardians is so disproportionately white and male. This was the class and gender in power – and the events and individuals they commemorated are, in a sense, reflections of themselves.

It was a similar situation in the early 20th-century American South, an age of legalised segregation and racist violence – and the Confederate memorials made in its midst are its commemorative signature, the architecture of Jim Crow. For many African-Americans, these were the purposefully intimidating statues often established in Southern cities by the very same people as were simultaneously adding racially discriminatory statutes to Southern law books. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights campaign launched a courageous attack on the law books – but many of the statues remain.

Contesting the past

In recent years, various interest groups have emerged to contest the existing commemorative landscape, challenges that are expressive of a thriving politics of social protest – as well as of changing ideas of exactly what and who is worthy of veneration. Those involved, many of whom are simultaneously protesting against inequalities in the present, rightly perceive that public sculpture is never value-free. This is why they question the continued legitimacy of signs and symbols that are decidedly out of step with the values of 21st-century multicultural democracy – see, for instance, the ongoing debate about the legacy of the slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

These challenges and campaigns have in turn helped produce new statues suggestive of modern ideals, such as the one dedicated to Millicent Fawcett in London, or the removal of “old” statues to those now seen as divisive figures, such as the memorials to Confederate leaders in the US.

Divisive: police in Charlottesville, Virginia set up a perimeter around a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee to prevent a repeat of the 2017 violence.between white supremacists and counter protestors that left three people dead. EPA-EFE/Jim lo Scalzo

But on the other hand, this era of engaged commemorative discussion and debate has also produced a far more shadowy set of activities: acts of monument vandalism. Such acts are clearly very different in purpose and process to the carefully planned removal of, for instance, Confederate memorials, with the latter the product of local campaigns and legislative oversight. But acts of vandalism nonetheless exist at the other – illegitimate – end of the same spectrum of activity, one which finds in certain monuments a power and presence to contest.

This has also been intensified by the rise of social media, where details of a planned attack – or some other form of “intervention” – can circulate and recirculate and draw new waves of energy, support or anger. And this can double back on the memorial itself. Suddenly, thanks to the echo chambers of social media, a statue that has been in place for longer than anyone can remember, takes on new meaning and potency.

This is becoming increasingly visible given the social fractures and fissures recently exposed in the US, Britain and Europe by the rise of new populist nationalisms as well as the connected emergence of competing visions of both the past and present. In this moment, the stone and statuary of earlier times have become the lightning rods of a politics of protest and counter-protest as various groups and individuals contest the commemorative landscape of 21st-century society – both in situ and online.