Karl Marx/Winston Churchill/London in 2015

Karl Marx: The memorial to Karl Marx is a bust at his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery in North London, far from the madding crowds of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. If you visit, you will find flowers, candles, perhaps three or four visitors lingering around the statue. This is the way London remembers a man who profoundly affected recent world history. The victors write history, it is said. Surely, London is the creation of the victorious British bourgeois class that so impressed Marx, though he was no friend of it. Why would London support a grand memorial to Marx?

On the other hand, looked at in another way, it is fitting that Marx’s memorial is so modest. Imagine a towering, grand edifice built to commemorate a man who, in all his immense personal ambition, still aimed to undo the Great Man view of history—the Ayn Rand notion that history is made by and is the story of Great Men. It is good that there is a memorial to Marx, and just as well that it is a modest one.

Winston Churchill: Churchill is a Great Man, at least to the British elite. Witness the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral. He is everything that Marx is not. British bulldog. Nationalist icon. Wartime savior of Europe. Arch-imperialist. Racist. Failed defender of empire—did he not in his own lifetime watch the Empire slip out of British grasp?

London is his city. And it’s not. For every solemn notation on tourist maps of shrines to the man who called Africans “savages” and sent millions of Indians to their death to save Europe (see: Bengal famine), there is a black or Indian Briton whose very presence in the streets of London is a kind of repudiation of Churchill.

London in 2015: Where is London’s Lincoln Memorial? Where is its Raj Ghat? Architecture is not just visual—it is not just some structure that you gaze at from a distance. Rather you experience architecture tangibly. You touch it, feel it, walk through it. Even in 2015, London assaults you at every turn with its architecture of war (Trafalgar Square), torture (Tower of London), pillage (British Museum) and privilege (Buckingham Palace). London manhandles you with its buildings.

Then again, tear away your eyes from the buildings and consider the ordinary people beneath the extraordinary architecture. Consider the languages on the tube, the foods on offer in the restaurants, the local cultures on display on the television channels. A different—global—city emerges. A post-imperial city, with all the contradictions implied. Not necessarily the city of Marx, but nor so obviously the city of Churchill.