‘I was entranced by its playfulness – parts of it are very funny’ … illustrations from Martin Rowson’s The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel Photograph: Martin Rowson/SelfMadeHero
Karl Marx and I go back a long way. Like a lot of children growing up in the 1960s, I was obsessed with the Soviet Union and its unreachable otherness. What’s more, my father had actually been there to attend scientific symposia. I have a clear memory, aged about six, of standing in our back garden and him saying to me: “What do you mean, you don’t know who Karl Marx is?” I replied, rather tearfully: “But I know who Lenin is.”
As I grew older, the obsession continued. At about 15, I finally read The Communist Manifesto and it made complete sense. I instantly got the Dialectic, the inexorable, tectonic grindings of All History Hitherto, the Class Conflict and all the stuff about the inevitability of the ultimate victory of the downtrodden over their oppressors. Moreover, in its compelling combination of reason and romanticism, I was entranced not only by the manifesto’s universal scope but also its playfulness. Parts of it are very funny.
Soon I’d devoured Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, visited the Soviet Union and, aged 19, wrote a thankfully unpublished novel that hinges round a fictitious Marxist uprising. As a student, I joined the Communist party, although I only hung around for a week. After I graduated I sold a cartoon series to New Statesman titled Scenes from the Lives of the Great Socialists, based on hideously contrived puns on the defining dicta of Marxism. A typical example shows Friedrich Engels standing on a toilet seat peering into the flush mechanism and saying: “Hey Marx, there’s a couple of those antique Stradivarius fiddles in here!” To which Marx replies: “Clearly the violins inherited the cistern!”
Steam and iron … how modern industry appears in Rowson’s work. Photograph: Martin Rowson/SelfMadeHero
When these cartoons came out as a book in 1983, there were calls for it to be banned from Collets, the old leftie bookshop in London. This was one reason why I hadn’t bothered making a fist of it in the CP: I’ve always subscribed to Orwell’s line about every joke being a tiny revolution, though a lot of people believe that None of This Is a Laughing Matter.
Obviously, as a professional satirist, I disagree. And I reckon Marx would have done so, too. Not nearly enough people struggling through Theories of Surplus Value give themselves a break by reading, for instance, Marx’s journalism from the 1850s for the New York Tribune, which matches Simon Hoggart, and occasionally even Jonathan Swift, in its scathing hilarity.
Anyway, Marx stuck with me in the following 30 years: I illustrated a couple of books by the Australian Marxist Kevin Killane, and Marx himself made cameo appearances in my comic-book adaptations of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It was after that last book was reissued in 2010 by SelfMadeHero that the publisher commissioned me to adapt Francis Wheen’s wonderful 1999 biography of Marx.
‘I envisioned the manifesto as a rolling tsunami’ Photograph: Martin Rowson/SelfMadeHero
I’m a hack at heart and, like Marx, I dice with deadlines. Marx, then aged 29, knocked off The Communist Manifesto over a weekend in Brussels at the end of January 1848 after he received an ultimatum from the Communist League in London, who had commissioned the work from him the previous autumn and were still waiting. It had also been my practice to eschew storyboards and make it up as I went along. But confronted by the Wheen book, I decided to pay my son to write the script. He did an excellent job, but it left me with nothing to do except draw to his direction. I got bored. I felt like nothing more than a machine. I was, in fact, alienated from my labour in a textbook Marxist way and, in line with pure Marxist theory, I rebelled. Having taken seven months to draw just five pages of finished artwork I gave up and returned my advance.
So now I had unfinished business with Marx, and occasionally images would flash into the back of my mind of great geological slabs of History grinding against massive clumps of the Dialectic. Then SelfMadeHero asked if I fancied adapting The Communist Manifesto as a comic book for Marx’s 200th birthday. The whole thing came instantly into my head. I clearly envisioned the manifesto as a kind of rolling tsunami, made up in equal parts of blood-and-iron industrialised steampunk, apocalyptic John Martin and mounting fury that builds up to a climax at the end of Section One: Bourgeois and Proletarians, before breaking on the beach of History and turning into straightforward standup comedy. It’s leavened throughout with private gags, personal score-settling and the kind of Rabelaisian filthiness Marx would have enjoyed, I hope that is what I’ve achieved.
The former Tory home secretary Kenneth Baker, with whom I (and Steve Bell) sit on the board of London’s Cartoon Museum, insists on calling me a hardline Marxist-Leninist. I’m not. If anything, I’m a kind of William Morris anarchist, all for equality and down with hierarchies so we can all have some fun. Stripped of the doctrinaire dogma, that’s how I read Marx, too. The most important part of The Communist Manifesto remains its analysis of how the amoral mechanics of capitalism commodify human beings and reduce them to meat machines existing solely to be milked to make the already rich even richer. Which by anyone’s reckoning is no fun at all. And 170 years after he wrote The Communist Manifesto when, by the latest count, 43 individuals possess as much wealth as half of the rest of humanity, I reckon Marx still has a lot to say, and I hope I’ve helped him say it yet again.
- The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel is available from SelfMadeHero