Eighty years ago while Hitler's stormtroopers were burning supposed subversive and decadent books on huge bonfires in German towns and cities, Britain's labour movement set up the Marx Memorial Library in London.
Although the events coincided, the nazi book burnings were not the stimulus behind its establishment. It had been planned for some time to mark the 50th anniversary of Karl Marx's death.
Marx Memorial Library director of archives John Callow points out that there were still people active in the labour movement then who actually remembered Marx.
"To them he wasn't that heroic remote figure sitting up on his pedestal in Highgate cemetery. He was a living breathing man who had spent most of his career working here in Britain with the developing labour movement," he explains.
The intention in setting up the library in Clerkenwell Green in a former charity school for the children of poor Welsh families working in London, which had also served as Lenin's office when he copy-edited the pages of the Bolshevik paper Iskra, was not just to honour this giant of the international revolutionary movement.
It was born too from a desire to establish a train of recognisable Marxist thought in Britain and to take it to the audience intended for it.
"In setting up a library and a workers' school in 1933, the founders of the library were doing something intensely practical. It wasn't about sticking books and papers behind cases but about making them available to the working class," Callow says.
Unlike during the 1960s and '70s, Marxism had no expression in the universities. It was hidden from its natural constituency.
Education for the bulk of men and women finished at 14, 15 or 16 if they were lucky. Empire Day was celebrated in schools to spread imperialist ideas among young people.
"So the workers' school was there basically to put Marx before people and to encourage debate and to mainline those ideas into the British labour movement, which it did with great success," Callow enthuses.
Simply to mention some of the tutors lecturing at the school - from Christopher Hill to EP Thompson, JD Bernal, Francis Klingender and Eric Hobsbawm - highlights the quality of the education it offered.
Until the advent of the library and a workers' school anyone intent on studying Marxism had to read German and yet, in Marx's native land, not only his works but the entire fruits of the Enlightenment were going up in smoke.
This was attested by, among others, Jack Tyrrell who found himself in Germany during a cycling holiday across Europe and was politicised by the enormity of what he had seen.
He joined the Communist Party and the Marx Library on his return, remaining a stalwart until his recent death.
The two organisations have co-operated over the decades on a number of initiatives, not least the annual commemoration of Marx's death at his monument in Highgate cemetery, for which the library acts as trustee.
This year's oration, which takes place on Sunday, will be delivered by German Left Party chairman and former German Democratic Republic premier Hans Modrow, attracting people from left-wing bodies, trade unions and officials from a number of London-based embassies.
"While we look after the grave and keep it spick and span, no-one can own Marx," Callow acknowledges.
"It's a monument that means a great deal to an awful lot of progressive people across the world.
"It has withstood bomb blasts. In fact, you can still see that a chip was taken out of Marx's nose. In 1978, a fascist group hit Marx Library, the Highgate monument and the Morning Star.
"Marx's grave was pretty much blown up. As you looked at it, his head listed to the left, which people thought appropriate, but it made quite a mess of it."
Some of Britain's trade unions contributed to the fund to restore the Marx bust and there is a growing awareness among the unions that the library is worthy of support.
"We've had great backing from the trade union movement, culminating in that wonderful exhibition in Manchester a couple of years ago of posters that the Morning Star covered," says Callow.
"We've had terrific support from Paul Kenny of GMB, Aslef have been very helpful recently, both Bob Crow and Alex Gordon of RMT have been excellent friends to the library, while Ucatt was traditionally good to us as well.
"In the past we had Derek Simpson and Amicus, who were very good to us, as was Tony Burke and the print section, and I'm happy to say that under Len McCluskey those relationships have been built up once more. We have a really good spread of trade union supporters."
A paradox of recent history is that, while the collapse of the Soviet Union and the east European socialist states hit many strands of the left in capitalist Europe hard, the end of the cold war has in some ways benefited the Marx Library.
"People from across the political spectrum are more willing to come to us with an open mind and to want to read, think and debate about Marx.
"Now we can work more easily with schools, colleges and target education material," says Callow.
"It's a lot easier since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"There isn't the same fuss or furore that was made when Ken Livingstone's GLC made the library a modest grant back in 1983 for example on Marx's centenary."
Despite that, the library did experience hard times after 1991, which had enormous implications for how it did its business.
"What you can say in favour of the way that the library operated through very difficult times was that there was an absolute commitment to keep it in existence and true to its first guiding principles. It didn't try to change its name, to hide its Marxism in various ways or to go down a new Labour, more anodyne route," says Callow.
"The downside was that this decline of the left led to a form of defensiveness that was not conducive to really building the library or to putting ourselves centre-stage."
Many people who wanted to join the library found it difficult because of the siege mentality, but that period is over and the 80th anniversary is viewed as an appropriate occasion to encourage a fresh enrolment.
The library is keen to receive membership applications from individuals, trade union branches, local trades councils and other groups sympathetic to its work.
"The more you put yourself in the middle of the movement the more you see yourself as being part of a current of progressive history rather than a backwater or an adjunct to it," Callow explains.
"We want to be where we were in 1933 as an intellectual powerhouse and you can't do that in a vacuum. You can't do that by excluding people. You can't do it by refusing to debate fundamental ideas.
"Debate and engagement are things you cannot afford to be frightened of. You can't have a museum of the mind."
Anyone interested in joining can write to the library requesting a form. Annual membership costs £20 waged or £10 unwaged/low wage, pensioners or students.
There are plans afoot to put membership online, which would make the library's reach increasingly global. The library website already registers hits from across the globe, including a recent request for information on Argentinian volunteers who fought in the International Brigade in Spain.
Marx Library's archives on the war in Spain fully deserve that overused word "unique."
"This is a real treasure with battle reports, letters, postcards, photographs from practically every British volunteer who was over there. If you're interested in the Spanish civil war you really have to come to the Marx Library to do serious research on the 15th brigade," says Callow.
The preservation of the Lenin Room, where the Russian revolutionary leader worked, also stands in stark contrast to the post-1991 frenzy of destruction in eastern Europe when countless memorials to Marx, Engels and Lenin were toppled.
A recent acquisition has been Georgi Dimitrov's leather overcoat, which he donated to Harry Pollitt when the British Communist leader arrived in Moscow in inadequate clothing in the 1930s.
After Pollitt died, the coat found its way to International Brigader and Morning Star foreign editor Sam Russell, whose family presented it to the library on his recent demise.
"One other jewel in our crown is that we have the best run of Daily Worker/Morning Star in existence, including the editions produced illegally during the war by the Daily Worker supporter groups, the different daily editions, up to five a day, and the Scottish Daily Worker. There's also the earlier Sunday Worker, which is sadly underused," says Callow.
Despite all financial hardships he is passionate about securing new Marxist books and materials on Marx at a time when most research libraries are either clamming up because of budgetary cuts or going to the wall.
"That's why it's so important that the Marx Library holds the line as a safe haven for all these incredible fruits of the lives of generations of radical British men and women who fought for a better world."
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