Review of "The Young Karl Marx"

The Young Karl Marx
A film by Raoul Peck
Review by Richard D. Wolff

I expected little, worrying that the last half-century’s relentless demonization of all things Marxist – especially in the US - would have wormed its way into a movie about Marx. Driven above all by fear of censorship, career damage, and/or direct persecution, that demonization accompanied the near-total banning of Marxists from most of the teaching, political, and journalistic professions. I can use myself as an example. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was never assigned one word of Karl Marx’s writings nor exposed to anything beyond brief, breezy dismissals of Marxism by professors. I searched far and wide to find a Marxian economics professor for my graduate studies. I found one, Paul Baran, the only Marxist in Stanford University’s large economics faculty where I got my masters degree. Then I finished at Yale for my PhD in economics and once again encountered not one professor who ever
assigned a word of Marx’s writings. From the 1950s to the present, demonization plus ignorance enabled those peculiar, uninformed denunciations that characterize most mainstream commentaries on Marx and Marxism from liberals and conservatives alike.

That context is what makes Raoul Peck’s new film different, surprising, and worthwhile. Marx is a sympathetic young man with strong views. Jenny is a real partner, a wife who loves and supports him while seeing his flaws and weaknesses. That she is shown concerned above all with children and domesticity reflects the times portrayed, not the film’s blindness. This is underscored by showing Engels’ wife to be an engaged political fighter alongside him who chooses to not have children as a concession to their shared commitments. The film weaves the personal and familial into the political and theoretical with a consistent, sensitive realism.

Peck tries repeatedly to let Marx and Engels express core elements of the theories they were beginning to develop in the years before 1848 when they crafted the Communist Manifesto (with which the film ends). In those years, Marx was only starting on the path to the mature economic analyses achieved in his writings in the 1850s and 1860s culminating in Capital. Partly for that reason and partly bowing to the artistic limits of the film form, the theoretical expressions are not always clear enough or sufficiently worked out to make the analytical cases Marx’s mature work does. It could have made the film theoretically richer and stronger - if less faithful to the historical record - had Marx’s statements been reformulated as condensed summarizations of his eventually formulated insights.

Yet Marx’s politics in the film are well-crafted. Peck presents Marx’s famous impatience with the vague, abstract, and utopian imaginings of his fellow revolutionaries fairly, if also sharply. Marx’s implacable grasp of the bitter conflict located at the core of capitalist production - the polarization of surplus-producing worker versus surplus-appropriating capitalist – is approached from multiple vantage points and in varied social settings (much as they always are in people’s lives). Without belaboring the point, the film exposes the fatal flaws of reformist projects: (1) their failure to grasp capitalism’s constituent, bitter conflict over the surplus with its horrendous social consequences, and (2) their failure to understand that one of those consequences is the relentless project of destroying or distorting those reforms.

Toward the end of the film, an interchange between a businessman friend of Engels’ father and Marx and Engels has the businessman explaining why child labor is necessitated by market realities which he equates with “society.” By thinking and acting as if no alternative to capitalist society exists, the businessman seeks to escape any responsibility for the horrors of the capitalist system he supports as he profits from it. Marx and Engels nicely expose this for the ignorant partisan politics it reflects. The scene ends reinforcing the notion that the two sides speak different languages used to describe different worlds.

Moving back and forth between the intelligent tenderness among Marx’s family members to the raw conflicts underlying bourgeois Europe of the time, this film provokes thoughts and emotions that make it easy for me to recommend that you go see it.

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