It is not easy for a director to take on a feature film on the life of Karl Marx – what with him being arguably the greatest thinker of all time. And Marx was not only a thinker but also an actor in political reality – both at the grassroots in his times, and in his world-wide influence until today. Also, as Marx said of himself, with his usual accuracy, he was the most “calumniated” person of all time.
No wonder the director limited the film to only the “young” Marx.
Raoul Peck with his 2017 film called “The Young Karl Marx” has created a fine biographical depiction of Marx’s early life, and also a touching movie picture of those tumultuous times.
The film succeeds in showing how the young Marx and the young Engels, those unlikely heroes and even unlikely friends, helped create each other as the huge philosophers they ended up becoming.
The film also weaves into the story their politically important, as well as absolutely adorable, respective wives, Jenny and Mary. The four of them together managed a truly monumental, historically important feat: They create a new current that is in advance of the ancient socialist currents that were merely “idealistic” – in the sense of having been well-meaning, aiming at a utopia, hoping to somehow dream the future into being – and that were not, at the same time, based on any idea of existing reality. Marx, with the help of the other three, invented a form of analysis of the existing flow of history – political, social and economic reality, set in time – which creates, in turn, a component of how to reach the socialism in our imagination, from where we are situated in time, in history. This would later be known as “Marxism” or strictly speaking “historical materialism”. It means simply that a new kind of socialism was from then on imaginable – not just starting with an idea, but starting also from existing society, and from whatever dynamics are already at work within the existing order, towards socialism. This unification of philosophical analysis of reality with political struggles for socialism is their unique contribution. And the film brilliantly depicts it.
The film shows the previous currents. And how the young Marx, mockingly, challenged them. It includes aspects of Marx not usually remembered – Marx as hedonist, and Marx with a sense of humour – someone who can deride existing socialist currents with a gentle, generous humour. In the film, we see the cheeky young rebel he was. We are more used to emphasis being put on the enormous compass of Marx’s knowledge, on the incredible depth of his thinking, the honesty of his piercing intellect – this being what his legacy is. So, it is refreshing to be reminded of his youthfulness.
The film is, in other words, about the Communist Manifesto: that very first document that will link the political aim of socialism with the flow of economic and social history. It is the very first document that links that newly born lower class, the proletariat, to philosophy.
Interestingly, it shows Marx, perfectionist that he is, as a somewhat reluctant drafter of the Manifesto that would then be put before the Communist League for adoption.
It is a film about before the time that Marx had even started what was his later chef d’oeuvre, the three volumes of Capital, and for which he became the one-and-only theoretician that, ever since then, all political scientists, social scientists, and especially economists – often subsidised or directly paid by the bourgeoisie – have to challenge for the next centuries, day and night!
In this way, being about the young Marx, the film whets one’s appetite for a sequel.
In the process of showing his and Engels’ role in the Manifesto, the film depicts with tenderness and precision, the life of working people in the big Manchester factories that Engels’ father owned, including what the bosses call the “Irish dogs”, the life of English traditional skilled artisans and even, in dream-scenes, the life of the German agricultural labourers gathering dead-wood and being killed for it – in fact the real story of how Marx came, as a young lawyer, to call into question that particular part of what is usually conflated into “private property” that was actually social property. (The film, again to its credit, gives a central role to Marx’s attack on only that part of private property that is social property – one of Marx’s greatest contributions, and which capitalist ideology still until 2017 conflates as “all private property”.)
The film also depicts and refers to the nature of political meetings from before the times when political parties were permitted. From the raw class-struggle politics of the factory floor, to the mobilization of League of Just Men that saw workers trying to unite “all” men as “brothers” (forgetting in every other sentence that in the previous sentence they had called their bosses “enemies”), with passing reference to the older form of organization around the “salon” held in the houses of various high class intellectual women.
Marx and Engels, the film shows, were not “pre-destined” to be friends, but each so profoundly admired the other’s written work from before they met that they shared a mutual respect that ran very deep: Engels says it was the precision and spell-binding character of Marx’s analysis that impressed him; Marx was fascinated that Engels’ work was the only meticulous study of working class life and yet it was produced by a man who was the son of factory owner! Both observations hold good until today.
The film not only gives a depiction of the lives of working class people, and of the political manifestations of their struggle, but also shows the life, as Marx and Engels live it – in Paris, in Brussels, in London – in class society of the times, which is class society of today. They were the commentators, the journalists, the writers who, by their commitment, were constantly open to repression.
And in the end, the title “The Young Karl Marx” ends up being a pun: the man when he was young, and the relevance (or youthfulness) of his ideas – until today.
Review by Ram Seegobin and Lindsey Collen
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenplay: Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck
Actors include: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Kreips.
Original film is in three languages: German, French, English (depending on who is speaking, and where).