Bust of Karl Marx
Materials: cast metal alloy
Dimensions: 13 centimeters high
Place acquired: Kiev, Ukraine, via eBay, 2008
Place of manufacture: Soviet Union, 1960s
In 1845 Karl Marx famously wrote the lines,
‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’
The fact that this little bust of him was mass-produced, probably in its thousands, in 1960s Soviet Russia is testament to the fact that Marx did change the world. But by 2008 this one was for sale on eBay from a seller in the post-soviet Ukraine, which hints that perhaps he didn’t manage to change it in any permanent way.
The bust was originally intended to grace the desks and shelves of Soviet offices and factories. It shows Marx as a rather bourgeois looking 19th century gentleman with one hand clutching the lapel of his frockcoat and gazing down in a patrician manner from on top of a plinth formed by a thick leather-bound tome. This is his magnum opus Das Kapital. He looks a bit like Moses with the Ten Commandments.
This biblical appearance is perhaps intentional. In the context of the Soviet Union in the 1960s the idea of orthodoxy was paramount and, just like the bible, the written word was a controller of that orthodoxy. So this little statuette is saying more than just that Karl Marx was an important and inspirational thinker. It is implying that his written work is the font of all correct thinking.
The bust was made for a society where political thought was carefully policed, and the cost of goods was centrally controlled. But, along with countless other pieces of old soviet memorabilia, it now has to take its chances on an open market and its monetary value (and its meaning) is likely to shift according to who wants to buy it, and why. Is it a trophy of the West’s cold war victory? Or is it a piece of ironic nostalgia? Or perhaps it is still a tribute to a great thinker. To the eBay seller in Kiev it was a commodity pure and simple, and it’s safe to say that I paid much more for it than its controlled price back in the USSR.