While spending a semester in London last year, I happened to have started reading Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons (2012) around the same time that I revisited Karl Marx’s grave. Only on the occasion of writing this short introduction, which has taken me back into the thick of Wiegman’s book and somehow to that autumn in London, am I starting to make sense of my two visits to Marx’s grave. The first time I had visited the gravesite was over a decade ago, when I was a graduate student and had made a special pilgrimage from my abode in deepest south London to Highgate Cemetery in the north. Once I arrived at the grave, I awaited the epiphany that I thought must surely come; Marx was singularly important to me, and I had braved two bus connections and a sweltering Underground journey. Detecting no signs of an imminent epiphany, I snapped a picture of the tombstone because, well, it was unclear what else was to be done. I read and reread the epitaph, which is in two parts: on the top it says “Workers of all lands unite”; on the bottom, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” After having snapped some more pictures and examined the names of the lucky few buried immediately around Marx, I reflected on this epitaph, allowing the passion of the first part, from the Communist Manifesto, to color my reading of the second part, from Theses on Feuerbach. Workers of the world must unite because the aim is to change the world, not merely to interpret it. I took this reading of the epitaph as inspiration and ignored the suspicion that by means of this flat-footed reading I had managed to convert the epitaph into a platitude. If an epiphany was not forthcoming, I was determined to have a helping of inspiration, even if it came in the thought-equivalent of kitsch (which is, of course, to be valued).
When I revisited the gravesite last autumn, I did not arrive with the expectation of an epiphany because the grave had already disappointed me on that score ten years ago, and I had since learned a thing or two about epiphanies and knew they could not be summoned. So I reflected once again on the familiar [End Page 129] epitaph, and this time I was taken by its second part. Dwelling on its meaning as an epitaph rather than a polemic (which is how the statement is deployed in the Theses, and how it resonates in The German Ideology, for which the theses were an outline), I found the epitaph poignant because Marx would spend the rest of his career returning to the interregnum between these two relations to the world: interpreting it/changing it. Or, to phrase it in theoretical parlance, theory and praxis. If the “point” is to change the world, then the book in which Marx makes this point amply demonstrates that one must also interpret the world. After all, Marx arrived at this abyssal insight while interpreting the limits of Young Hegelians and their philosophical idealism. But returning to the statement in its form as epitaph, its resonances are both mournful and bittersweet—mournful, because the relationship between interpreting the world and changing it remains a conundrum that my beloved object, Marxism, cannot resolve for me (and Marx could not do so for himself); bittersweet, because the gap between theory and praxis remains a generative and rich hiatus that enables thought instead of cutting it off. So thought itself is no longer merely interpretation, but a kind of reaching and a form of search—open to the world and its changes, but also unsettled because it risks being discrepant with respect to its goal.
As I mentioned, around the same time that I revisited Marx’s grave, I had begun reading Wiegman’s recently released Object Lessons, which was teaching me a great deal about wanting things from my objects of study. I wanted more of Marx and ten years ago, faced with the silence of his tombstone, I took from him...