Karl Marx’s Revolutionary Brussels

by Steven Hermans

I walk the cold deserted streets of Brussels on the 1st of November. The sun rises in front of me over a thousand chimneys, quickly spreading light and shadow over the sidewalks. It gives the red-tiled rooftops the colours the night took away. I squint my eyes and pull up my shoulders, and put my hands a bit deeper still in my coat pockets. It’s Monday morning but the streets are empty; November 1st is All Saints Day, the day when Catholics remember the dead. I am in Elsene, a suburb of Brussels, where newly arrived Eurocrats and long-time African immigrants live side by side in tall, slim, soot covered city houses that seem to stem from the 1920s, but were really built in the 70s.

Occasionally, the drunk flaneur with a penchant for architecture can see zigzag patterns and vertical lines on Art Deco facades that point to the flower-like curls of an Art Nouveau window frame. They hint at a more glorious past, when Brussels was the home of psychoanalysts, avant-garde artists and cake-eating bourgeoisie. An era when Belgium was booming from the wealth of its industry, its transport sector and its colony. Today, with the factories in China, the motorways clogged and the Congolese independent, the capital of this dying industrial nation felt like it would live through another day, but with death in mind.

I notice a plaque on the side of a house. It says: Ici vecut Karl Marx 1846-1848. Here lived Karl Marx 1846-1848. I didn’t know that, although I live close by. The house gave no other clues — it was ordinary, not fit for a rebel mind.

When I come home, and after I finish napping, I start my research. I find out that Marx lived in five different places in Brussels between 1845 and 1848. He received political asylum in Belgium when he was kicked out of France, and enjoyed for three years the freedom of speech of Belgium, which had one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe at the time. In 1848 he fled again, after becoming too much of a nuisance to the Belgian authorities.

In Belgium, Marx had the most productive time of his life. It was here that his ideas of dialectical materialism took shape, and here he wrote The Communist Manifesto together with Friedrich Engels. He used the central location of Brussels and the modern railway system and postal services to network with his friends and communist colleagues in France, Germany and England. Thus he set up the Communist League together with the communists from London and entertained contacts with German emigres across Europe.

I go out looking for clues of Karl Marx, the legendary philosopher who influenced politics more than any thinker before him, although he never lived to see it. All the houses where he once lived are now destroyed, but the churches, which he wanted to disappear so badly, are still standing. The mighty Sint-Goedele cathedral is still chiming her bells in Saint-Josse, in the Rue de l’alliance where he first lived. At least Marx would be happy to hear that the mass sits empty on Sunday morning.

Marx lived at number 5, in a run-down worker’s house. Next to him, at number 3, lived Friedrich Engels, his main collaborator who helped shape his ideas into a coherent theory. At number 7 lived another early luminary of socialism, Mozes Hess. He converted Engels to Communism and gave Marx an insight into social and economic issues of the day. Hess was also the founding father of Zionism. Knowing that, it seems the 20th century started here, in 1845, in an unremarkable street of an unremarkable town, now sucked up into the agglomeration of a new metropolis. Where the three workers’ houses once stood, a glass and steel building now rises up. Clerks go in and out to handle a fund for professional diseases, as it says on the doorbell.

At Grand Place, Brussels’ most famous square, I visit Le Cygne, the swan. According to legend, Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto here, drinking wine and smoking a nice cigar. But Marx was too poor for that, instead he used the backroom of the bar to educate workers about their exploitation by the ruling elite. I imagine they must have been rowdy evenings, with a charismatic agitator like Marx in front of a drunk, desperate and uneducated audience. At the time a quarter of the population of Brussels was on welfare, and the living conditions for workers were appalling. Many worked 15 hours a day for a pittance, and sent their daughters out on the streets to work as prostitutes.

Thinking about these things, it is clear that his revolutionary ideas were not purely theoretical; Marx must have had a firm empirical grasp of poverty while he was living in Brussels. I am not poor, and I drink a glass of beer whilst pondering the madness of it all. The power of his ideas; shaping nations, instigating revolutions. His ideas made me go to a bar I would never go to, visit a street where there is nothing to see but bureaucracy and enjoy it. Although the tangible evidence of Marx and Engels stay in Brussels has long since disappeared, their ideas are still floating around. Not in the cityscape (no one knows what kind of ideas float there), only in the heads of people concerned with the fate of the working man.

After his stay, Marx moved to a part of town called Sablon, next to another big church. Ironically, where his house once was are now the dwellings of a large investment bank. When I pass by, there is a drunk beggar in front of the skyscraper. His beard is more yellow than grey. I don’t give him a coin. On the steps of the church sits a bag lady. I don’t give her a coin either. I keep walking, until I end up at the Rue de Jordaen again, in front of the house where my journey began. I decide there really is nothing to see, and I am better off reading Das Kapital, or watching sports on TV.

At the other end of the street lies a small park. I sit down on one of the benches and watch the last leaves fall from the birch trees surrounding the grass, as I contemplate global revolution and the fate of the world.

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