“The Young Karl Marx”: a Film Whose Time Has Come

The film provides a new generation of socialists with an accessible entrée into the ideas upon which today’s socialism is built.

A still from The Young Marx directed by Raoul Peck. Photo: The Orchard

A specter was haunting the Inner Harbor. Gathered at the Hilton Baltimore last weekend were the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. For decades, the CPC has been a well-meaning but largely ineffectual expression of the left wing of the House Democratic caucus.

But something has changed, and this year their strategy session was joined by delegates from openly left-wing parties around Europe, all members of parliaments in their respective countries. Among them were a few characters who don’t usually frequent Democratic Party functions: socialists.

One was British Labour Party Member of Parliament Diane Abbott, who could — pending the result of the next U.K. general election — become one of her country’s top-ranking officials. Abbott was the first black woman elected to Parliament and a lifelong organizer. Like the Labour Party leader and potential future prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, she’s also a socialist, a word she didn’t shy away from in her address to the CPC gathering. The label had landed her, Corbyn and other Labour MPs squarely on the back bench for most of their long careers in government, with socialist policies laughed off almost as quickly as they were voiced, under conservative and Labour governments alike.

In the last few years, something changed. Corbyn’s run for Labour leadership brought tens of thousands of people — many of them young and anxious about the direction of global capitalism — into the party’s fold, excited to not just vote for but actively campaign in support of a man who’s called Karl Marx a “great economist.” In a snap general election this summer, Labour outperformed even the most optimistic of expectations.

They didn’t win, but did displace Tory Prime Minister Theresa May’s majority and pick up 30-odd seats in Parliament. Abbott and others credit their surprise success in large part to the party’s manifesto, prematurely leaked to a conservative press that thought its unveiling could put the nail in Labour’s coffin. Tory-leaning tabloids warned of the party’s plans to “nationalize energy, rail, and mail” and “scrap tuition fees.” It turns out that’s exactly what many voters wanted to hear.

“I have contested eight general elections,” Abbott told me on Saturday. “I have never had people come up to me in the street and say, ‘I really like your manifesto.’” She explained that the dreaded S-word and proposals therein hold a particular resonance for young people: “They know that the current system isn’t working for them. It’s hard to have much commitment to capitalism if you don’t have any capital, and no prospects of getting any.”

It’s amid today’s socialist resurgence that audiences will watch director Raoul Peck’s latest film, “The Young Karl Marx,” now screening on limited release in the U.S. and available on demand. “I never thought someone would finance a film like this,” he confessed that he had doubts about the viability of his new release.

Peck has a storied career, including an Oscar nod for last year’s “I Am Not Your Negro” about James Baldwin, a string of critically acclaimed films and a stint as Haiti’s minister of culture. If there was ever a time within it to make an adoring biopic about one of history’s most controversial and influential thinkers, it’s 2018. And that’s because the film is not, as Peck has said, about history, but about the present — and made specifically for today’s young people.  

Indeed, the specter haunting the U.K. is here in the U.S. as well. Socialist Bernie Sanders — a co-founder of the progressive caucus, as it happens — is holding strong as the country’s most popular politician, and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America continues to tick upward after a post-election explosion. Democratic socialists are even winning elections, including in places like Virginia and Montana. Millennials in particular are flocking to socialism, unencumbered by the hang-ups that plagued their parents’ generation. For those who grew up in the wake of the Cold War, socialism means “Medicare for All” and more humane and democratic workplaces, not gulags and Five-Year Plans. Capitalism, for those who graduated college in the mid-2000s onward, meant a searing financial crisis, unemployment and underemployment, itinerant labor through endless internships, and insurmountable student debt.

Connected to all this popular outrage at the system bequeathed by baby boomers was a series of uprisings — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, and more. Millennials have been at the forefront of each. And while none of these movements articulated their politics as uniformly socialist — some underpinned by an affinity for anarchism that Marx would have recoiled from — they all sent out rallying cries that have helped move people in a radical direction: We’re getting screwed, and we’re pretty sure capitalism has something to do with it.

That many are now coming to socialism through activism, rather than theory, is probably more of a blessing than a curse, and might finally allow the socialist left to shed its image as the province of crotchety, dogmatic newspaper-sellers raring to pick fights about the political leanings of Rosa Luxemburg’s murderers. Peck’s film touches on the endless amount of time that Marx (August Diehl) spent in rhetorical combat — through letters, pamphlets, books, and backroom maneuvering at conventions — even before the advent of Twitter (which, had it been available to him, may have prevented even the completion of a single volume of “Capital”).  

What Peck’s film does well, then, is provide this new generation of socialists — those who may never have cracked open the “Grundrisse” — with an accessible entrée into the ideas upon which today’s socialism is built.

There aren’t many spoilers to give about a theory-laden movie depicting a long-dead man whose every word has been scrutinized across the globe for well over a century. That said, this review will be relatively free of them. To summarize: “The Young Karl Marx” tracks Marx’s career from the turbulent years of 1843 through 1848, spanning the philosopher-cum-economist’s exile from Germany at age 26 through the publication of the “Communist Manifesto,” a multi-lingual reading of which the film concludes with. Its most important plot point is his meeting a bright-eyed, similarly young Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) in France, and the core story traces the development of their friendship and intellectual partnership. While it flirts with the conventions of period dramas, “The Young Marx” is, above all, an ideological coming-of-age story for a generation doing exactly that.

In this, “The Young Karl Marx” engages in its own kind historical materialism, to use a loose sense of the term. Marx’s work — and socialist and academic interpretations of it, in particular — can feel hallowed, like infallible sacred texts sent down from on high. True to life, the Marx we see is no saint: He drinks too much, has sex, procrastinates, burns bridges, and is a sometimes absent husband and father. What Peck offers is a human (albeit unmistakably flattering) portrait of Marx and Engels, men who were each shaped deeply by their circumstances — the particular moment in history that they happened to find themselves, the idiosyncrasies of the movements they aligned themselves with, the friends and partners with whom they collaborated, maybe even the number of drinks they had on a given night.

Peck, for instance, posits a likely apocryphal origin story for Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”: a drunken night out with Engels. Stumbling home, Marx confesses to his new friend that their many rounds of drinks have led him to an epiphany, going on to paraphrase one of that work’s more memorable lines: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”


A still from “The Young Marx” directed by Raoul Peck.

Photo: The Orchard

Aside from providing some color, the drunken hijinks are, at least in spirit, historically accurate. As former British Labour Party MP Tristram Hunt notes in his biography of Engels, he was a champagne socialist before there was such a term. While vitally attuned to the struggles of the working class and among the first to the barricades in the German revolutions of 1848, Engels also hosted regular ragers for London radicals at his Primrose Hill home, and was known to indulge — often alongside Marx — until the early hours of the morning.  

“Engels’s personal exuberance was an expression of his political ideology,” Hunt wrote, “an almost Rabelaisian belief in the capacity of socialism to fulfill human pleasure. It was an attractive, seductive approach to progressive politics which has since been abandoned. In the 20th century, the myriad factions which Marx and Engels inspired systematically sucked the life out of left-wing politics. Composite motions, sensible dress, study groups and a paranoid avoidance of decadence — these were the attributes of proper socialists. But that was never how Engels envisioned it.” (Ironically, it took the New Left of the 1960s, which positioned itself against the Marx-inspired Old Left in the U.S., to bring back that blending of politics and pleasure.)

While Peck unfortunately downplays Engels hedonism, it’s still gratifying to see a man who’s been so roundly either forgotten or misinterpreted get his due. In a similar vein, Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps) is a well-developed character and her husband Marx’s interlocutor, who — along with Engels — helps provide the emotional, financial, and intellectual support that made it possible for Marx to develop into the thinker he was. We also get an endearing portrait of Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), Engels’s wife from the polar opposite end of industrial Europe’s class divide; Engels — the well-to-do son of a Rhineland manufacturer — met Burns, a textile worker, as he was researching “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” published in 1845.

In all its love stories and montages, “The Young Karl Marx” might be Peck’s most conventional production. It doesn’t manage to avoid cliché entirely, either; a too-long scene of Marx and Engels running from the cops feels a little forced as a tool to showcase how young Marx really was. Where the film shines through, though, is in its politics. Above all, it’s a defense of historical materialism, not so much against the right, as against corners of the left prone to naval-gazing and radical platitudes.

Marx’s critiques of his contemporaries on these fronts are two-fold: of the Young Hegelians writing “vague” philosophy without an intent to transform the world (the audience to which his “Theses” and 1844’s “The Holy Family” were directed), and of the fledgling, anarchist-aligned workerist movement of early industrial Europe, more rooted in the factories but inclined toward self-congratulatory rhetoric. Trolled by Marx on this point in the film, religious-tinged left orator Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer) cites the letters supporters have written to him as evidence that their work with the League of the Just — of which Marx, Engels, and Weitling were all members at the time — was having some measurable impact on the world; it wasn’t.

It’s in these two conflicts that “The Young Karl Marx” highlights what made him such a remarkable thinker: his endless appetite to continue learning and incorporating challenges and critique into his own thinking, admitting his own mistakes and imprecision as his beliefs and circumstances morphed over time. Throughout his life, Marx would critique not just his comrades, but also his younger self. In “Capital,” for instance, he would recant some of his and Engels’s more brash pronouncements from the “Communist Manifesto,” like the idea that more exploitation coincides with more immiseration.

In a letter to one of the Young Hegelians depicted in the film, Arnold Ruge, Marx writes that “what we have to accomplish at present” is a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be. … I am not in favor of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.”

As a student in a left and occasionally Marxist-leaning economics program, I’m biased in saying that Karl Marx’s ideas remain a valuable tool for understanding the world in 2018. Yet just as admirable, and maybe the biggest takeaway from “The Young Marx,” aren’t the ideas Peck shows us on screen. Marx, as we see him, is a model — and an imperfect one, at that — for a way of thinking and doing politics: not either theorizing for theories’ sake or practicing politics without a vision for how to actually change things.

It’s not hard to imagine the right rankling at “The Young Karl Marx”: How dare Hollywood lionize a man responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities? The New Yorker offered its own version of this line: “Marx comes off, above all, as a supreme tactician whose empathy remains abstract; the movie’s hidden hero is the radical humanist Wilhelm Weitling, who foresees destructive violence arising from Marx’s ideological purity.”

Despite arguments from New York Times columnists to the contrary, there are few young American socialists who will defend Stalinism or the more authoritarian practices of socialist-aligned governments around the world. If the DSA convention in Chicago this summer was any indication, the millennials joining that organization’s fold are excited as much about the ideas and vision of socialism as they are about having the chance to participate in the kind of democratic processes that the American political system has historically worked to keep them out of. Burdened by five- and six-figure student debt and an Earth that may well be uninhabitable soon thanks to decades of corporate excess, it’s no wonder millennials are looking for culprits to grapple power away from. And capitalism, at this point, will need to do better than raise the ghost of Stalin to scare them off.

Raoul Peck, then, can’t really take credit for making Marx sexy again. Capitalism and all its attendant horrors did that for him. What he, Marx, and Engels offer are a few prescriptions for today’s young socialists looking to challenge capitalism: better theory, more practice, and maybe even a few wild parties along the way.

Top photo: A still from “The Young Marx” directed by Raoul Peck.

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