Review: The Young Karl Marx

How far is it possible for a film to bring to life the ideas, energy and humanity of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? Mark Winter enjoys Raoul Peck’s new film.

The Young Karl Marx. Dir.: Raoul Peck. Running time: 1 h 58 m

Raoul Peck, the director, studied Marx for four years as a student of economics, and says that the purpose of the film is as follows:

“How do you come to answer this world-wide ignorance, how do you come back to the fundamentals of the beginning of the story? And that particular story is the beginning of the industrial revolution, what we today call capitalism. It was important to me to deliver to this generation instruments (for) their own analysis.”

In The Young Karl Marx, Raoul Peck has produced a film which covers the six years (1842-1848) leading up to the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

One of the early scenes is a dramatic reconstruction of the callous and violent treatment of German peasants for “stealing” the dead wood which had fallen onto the forest floor, with a commentary by Marx on the means by which the privileged are able to create law to suit their own private interests.

Marx enters the narrative as a journalist, but one of a very particular type. He is a writer who takes sides, and is prepared to take on those who protect private property through the law and the state:

“The criminal nature of the act does not consist in the attack on the wood as a material object, but in the attack on the wood as part of the state system, an attack on the right to property as such, the realisation of a wrongful frame of mind.”

From this it is possible to get a sense that this is a mind prepared to look beyond the surface appearance of things, and one prepared to contest authority. His articles in the Rheinische Zeitung draw the attention of the authorities, the editorial team are arrested, and the paper is closed down. Dissent has its consequences, and Marx moves on to Paris.

We see Marx’s early relationship with Proudhon, and his subsequent fierce critique of anarchism and mutualism. Marx challenges the notion that “property is theft”, and it is here that we get one of the film’s surprises. For it is Jenny von Westphalen, Marx’s wife, who puts the argument in an elegant and sophisticated manner. Level-headed, because there are scenes where the young Marx clearly loses it, and destroys his theoretical opponents without any thought for the possible consequences, Jenny Marx is portrayed as a passionate and engaged “Marxist”, fully involved in the early development of the socialist movement. Why is she living with the penniless Marx, she is asked, when she could have had the pampered and protected life of the bourgeois wife? In response, she fires back that “happiness requires dissent”.

Similarly, Engels is shown as owing a huge debt to Mary Burns, the Irish factory worker who opened doors while Friedrich was studying the conditions of the new working class in Salford, Manchester.

We move on to our lead actors, and their communist bromance. Marx is not one to mince words at their first meeting, but we see how their critical partnership develops despite their obvious differences in wealth and status. Peck has relied faithfully on the correspondence between them, so we can assume this is a faithful portrayal.

So does it deliver? Peck creates a set of credible characters in Marx and Engels, while bringing the debates and ideas of the time centre stage. We follow a linear narrative, and get a strong sense of where they come from, and where they wish to lead. These are the superheroes of the socialist movement, and I couldn’t help wishing they’d had the treatment and distribution afforded to the mainstream: Marx II and Marx III are begging to be made. As for Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, I was left wanting more.

And the Communist Manifesto itself? I’ll leave the summary to Eric Hobsbawm:

“This small pamphlet is by far the most influential single piece of political writing since the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.“

“Curiously, the politically quite unrealistic optimism of two revolutionaries, twenty-eight and thirty years of age, has proved to be the Manifesto’s most lasting strength. What might in 1848 have struck an uncommitted reader as revolutionary rhetoric – or, at best, as plausible prediction – can now be read as a concise characterization of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. Of what other document of the 1840s can this be said?”


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