On the film: The Young Karl Marx

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Raoul Peck’s film, which has recently been released in Britain, provides us with much to think about on the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, and we certainly recommend it to our readers. But as the following article shows, it still needs to be viewed with a critical eye… 

This is a film that's surprising because it seems to rehabilitate the character of Karl Marx. Surprising because in choosing to cover five years which perhaps were the most decisive in Marx’s life  - from 1843 to 1848- Raoul Peck aims to break with the caricature of a solitary genius acting outside of the world of the workers. But does he really achieve this? Without doubt the angle from which Raoul Peck deals with the life of Marx corrects somewhat the idea that Marx and Engels were inventors of abstract notions such as "class struggle", "revolution" or "communism". The film does show how these two men, who played a key role in the revolutionary movement, were won over to a cause that had been born well before them from the womb of the proletariat of the most industrialised countries of the 19th century. In this we think that the vision of Peck is totally different from the more rabid intellectuals who, not without a great deal of dishonesty, try to demonstrate that the works of Marx carry the germs of the Stalinist tragedy[i]. And yet this film doesn't totally break from the image of the providential hero, which considerably weakens the attempt to show the militant dimension of Marx, his contemporary relevance, as well as the decisive role that the proletariat will have to play in the transformation of society.

The film correctly emphasises the decisive meeting and the unshakeable collaboration between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the rebellious son of an industrialist, who opened Marx’s eyes to the political potential of the working class and to the importance of political economy. However there is a lack of subtlety in the portrayal of this meeting, where the coldness of the formal introductions in Arnold Ruge’s drawing room suddenly gives way to declarations of mutual fascination in a night of drinking and games of chess where the two men come to perfect agreement and Marx compliments Engels for having opened his eyes, drunkenly declaiming the celebrated phrase: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the task from now on is to change it". Paradoxically, it's a central scene since it announces the vision of the character that the film will develop: a Marx who is not a philosopher, a historian, or an economist but a militant of the workers' movement, addressing himself to workers in meetings, polemicising with Proudhon and his petty-bourgeois reformism or with Weitling and his Christian idealism.

What’s more the hardships of the life of a militant are not neglected. If the element of repression is somewhat flippantly depicted when Karl and Friedrich play cat and mouse with the police in the Paris suburbs, the frustrations and traumas of exile, the poverty of daily life, are shown in their cruel reality. These moments show the strengthening links of friendship and love but also those feelings engendered by militant passion. Raoul Peck thus reproduces a whole revolutionary milieu first in Paris and then in Brussels and London. But, despite all this, these scenes offer an excessively personalised image of the debates and the process of clarification within the revolutionary milieu of the time. For example, Raoul Peck seems to attribute to Marx the discredit suffered by Weitling in the League of the Just, whereas the first to call into question the idealist and messianic aims of the latter were Schapper[ii] and a great majority of workers of the German Workers’ Association in London. We know that Marx followed this polemic with a great deal of attention since it revealed a break between a sentimental communism and the scientific communism that he himself advocated. Through the creation of correspondence committees, the London Association got closer to the conceptions of Marx on the direction to give to the movement and consequently distanced itself from the conception of Weitling. Thus the virulent discussion at the Brussels Correspondence Committee of March 30 1846, shown in the film, ended up in a split that was already a long time coming. In fact the director remains a prisoner of the democratic vision of debate and political action because the attention is regularly drawn to the theoretical jousting between leaders and charismatic chiefs, which obscures what was essential: the theoretical effervescence and the complex, collective reflection which already characterised the workers' movement at that time.

This confusion increases in the way that the relationship between Marx and the League of the Just is treated. We recognise that Raoul Peck wants to show that Marx and Engels had understood that the salvation of humanity resides in the historic role that the working class has to play. They also understood that it was necessary to rid themselves of all idealism, all ethereal, illusory and utopian speeches on the means to attain a superior stage of human society; that the working class needed a practical theory in order to understand the world which had engendered it, and to understand that its situation was not set in stone but transitory.  What the film tries to show, with a certain fidelity it seems to us, is the need for the working class to develop a revolutionary theory and the conviction to act upon it. On the other hand, the way in which the rapprochement between Marx and the League of the Just is shown contains the idea that Marx was ready to engage in intrigues, an ambitious Marx playing on his intellectual stature in order to win the majority of the revolutionary avant-garde to his side. In this version of events, Marx and Engels seem almost to seduce the leaders of the League; they go out of their way to get into contact with them, not hesitating to exaggerate their closeness to Proudhon in order to extend the network of correspondence committees into the east of France. Contrary to the wooliness of the film’s treatment of this event, it was the League, under the aegis of its spokesman Joseph Moll, who invited Marx to join. In their Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, Boris Nicolaevskyi and Otto Maenchen-Helfen write: "he explained in his own name and that of his comrades that they were convinced of the rightness of Marx’s views and agreed that they must shake off the old conspiratorial forms and traditions. Marx and Engels were to be invited to collaborate in work of reorganisation and theoretical reorientation[iii]. However Marx hesitated in accepting, still doubting the real will of the League to reorganise itself and get rid of the old conspiratorial and utopian conceptions. But "Moll stated that it was essential that he and Engels should join the League if it were really to shake off all its arcane shackles, and Marx overcame his doubts and joined the League of the Just in February or March 1847”[iv].

While it’s true that the weight of personalities was quite strong in the workers' movement of the 19th century, the film, by isolating the theoretical contribution of Marx and Engels, gives the basic impression that this movement depended entirely on personalities of genius. This is confirmed in the unfolding of the congress of the League of the Just on June 1 1847, which Marx didn't actually go to - officially for lack of money but really because he wanted to await the decisions of the congress before definitively joining the League. This scene is a caricature because it presents the congress as a fight between personalities where a minority of "elite" militants are supported or contested by applause and cries from the great majority who remain passive. This is a deformed vision of the real proceedings of a congress of a revolutionary organisation.

Despite the harsh nature of their living conditions, the politicised workers attached great importance to learning and to the deepening of political questions, especially through reading pamphlets. Thus the congresses were not some sort of oratory competition where each side had its own champion, but fundamental moments in the life of a revolutionary organisation with long debates where each militant takes part in the expression and confrontation of positions whatever their theoretical capacity. In his Contribution to the History of the Communist League Engels shows the studious reality of the first revolutionary congresses of the proletariat: "At the second congress which took place at the end of November and beginning of December the same year (1847), Marx was also present and in a debate that was quite long - the congress lasted for ten days at least - he defended the new theory"[v].

To sum up: it's not a question here of denying the decisive role of Marx and Engels in the evolution of the revolutionary movement but of situating their trajectory within the proletarian movement and of underlining that their inestimable contribution could not have happened without this great movement which still makes the working class the active subject of history. The caricatures that the director sometimes gives us mask this reality by putting the accent on the preponderant place of individuals and their providential role.

Art doesn't have the job of serving a political cause. However, the content and form of a work can send a message. While we applaud Raoul Peck’s efforts to exhume Marx from the cemetery of history, the manner in which the film relates certain moments of his life tends to pervert and deform the political lessons that we can draw from them[vi] . This is what we want to try to correct with this article.

DI, 28.10.17


[i]  Which is the message of the programme 28 minutes on Arte in an edition on October 1917.

[ii]  Schapper was the spokesman of the German Workers' Association of London at the time.

[iii] Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, Pelican Books, 1976, p 131

[iv] ibid

[v] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1885hist.htm

[vi]  All artistic works are influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by the ideas of the ruling class at the time. We see it very clearly at the end of the film where there's an accelerating succession of images which is supposed to offer a vision of the devastation produced by capitalism but in reality seems to make all kinds of amalgams, in particular between Stalinism (Che Guevara, Mao, Mandela...) and marxism. Stalin was the hangman of the real communists who followed the approach of Marx. This is the odour of a subtlety distilled poison recognised by the French Communist Party (PCF) and that's why this Stalinist party has been to the fore in publicly praising the film.