Movie Review: The Young Karl Marx

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By Brad Stevens

Young Karl Marx
August Diehl as Karl Marx in The Young Karl Marx

In this extraordinary moment, in the midst of pandemic and social isolation, Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is a powerful and relevant viewing option. It begins with a graphic depiction of the events described in an article Marx wrote entitled, “Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood.” A group of poor and destitute men, women and children are brutally attacked by Prussian authorities as they gather loose wood lying in the forest. Marx’s article about these events contributed to his forced exit from Germany. Attacks on the poor in defense of private property is an important theme in the movie. The connection to events occurring at our moment of history is evident.

There is no director better equipped than Raoul Peck to direct such a film. Born in Haiti and raised in the Congo, he is an activist and a Marxist. He served as the Minister of Culture of Haiti, from March 1996 until September 1997. Amongst his other films are Lumumba (2000) and I Am Not Your Negro (2016). All his films are engaging and artfully aid in increasing political and class consciousness. Although no other film has been made about Karl Marx, Peck has been able to skillfully bring him to life while capturing the political and historical situation in which he wrote, analyzed and struggled. Perhaps most importantly, this movie conveys why Marx’s work remains critically important to any effort to understand and change our world.

Becoming drawn into the movement alongside Marx and his closest associate and comrade, Frederick Engels, the audience is able to see him, not as a hero, but as a fallible human being, committed to clarifying and changing the world around him. Early in the movie, as he begins his collaboration with Engels, in a paraphrase of one of his most famous quotes, he ponders, “Philosophers have tried to understand the world, our task is to change it.” How he goes about this task, and, whether it is even possible, is the message of The Young Karl Marx. From the beginning, we witness the struggle with Young Hegelian intellectuals, utopian socialists, anarchists and idealists of that time. At a political gathering in France, when asked if he is a socialist, Marx adamantly responds, “I am a materialist.” We see throughout the movie that his efforts are to systematically ground the incipient movement in the actual objective and historical moment. He and Engels find themselves clarifying and debating the abstract and idealistic notions that prevailed. Their ceaseless efforts came at a tremendous cost. It was a dangerous endeavor. They were expelled from or pressured out of several countries across Europe. Marx and his family continuously faced hunger and poverty.

Eventually, as a result of their growing reputations in the working class movement, we find Marx and Engels securing a highly sought meeting with the League of the Just. The League was a semi-clandestine group of leader of the working class from different parts of Europe. Badly depleted and battle worn from their skirmishes with despots and the rising bourgeoisie, Marx saw the opportunity to infuse the movement with “sound ideas.” The internecine struggles within the movement provide historical lessons and parallels to the situation today. The Young Karl Marx gives us a glimpse into the nature of change. It is ripe with unavoidable political infighting and turmoil. It often entails fierce debate and requires statements and assertions to be proven. It requires arduous and intense struggle. A real change in society can only occur through this slow, tedious and grinding process of building coalitions and alliances, in networking, in finding the correct slogans and in creating a change of consciousness and thought.

Marx and Engels successfully transformed the League of the Just into The Communist League. It was infused with new purpose and strategic direction. They turn their attention to the creation of a program for the Communist League. The Communist Manifesto is hammered out and ensures that workers now have a clear and precise understanding of their life and their objective condition. We get to hear the words of the Manifesto as they are hammered out by Marx and his closest comrades, “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation…A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld whom he has called up by his spells…The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”

The importance and lasting significance of The Communist Manifesto is a powerful and lingering aspect of The Young Karl Marx. It is as profound and relevant today as it was in 1848. In the midst of a global pandemic, after decades of capitalist expansion and rampant speculation, and the destruction of the environment, the Manifesto remains compelling and true.

The Young Karl Marx is a movie well worth seeing, more than once!

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