In 1850, a 32-year-old German philosopher named Karl Marx, an exile in London with his wife Jenny and their three daughters, spent a miserable January sick in bed with the flu. When he finally recovered in February, he tried to get back to the British Museum to do research for his freelance journalism, the family’s only source of income, but to his dismay he realized that he had pawned his coat the previous Fall. Not only was the weather still dangerous to his health, but since the British Museum’s Reading Room only admitted properly dressed gentlemen, the long walk through the cold London streets would have been a waste of time anyway.
Not since Jesus has a man who lived such a precarious and impoverished life had such a tremendous effect on history as Karl Marx. Only a few decades later, the Social Democrats were the largest political party in the German Reichstag. The short lived Paris Commune, which had actually been more anarchist than socialist, was generally believed to have been inspired by Marx’s writings. In 1917 and 1948, Marxism would become the official ideology of the two largest countries in the world. To this day the American ruling class spends trillions of dollars on weapons and propaganda to make sure the ideas of that perpetually broke and virtually unemployable little German exile in London never again get a fair hearing by the international working class.
I don’t know if The Young Karl Marx, a semi-fictionalized biographical drama by former Haitian Minister of Culture Raoul Peck is a great film, or even a very good one, but I do think it is an important film, or at least one worth spending two hours of your time to watch. The movie, which follows the lives of the young Marx and Engels from 1843 right up to the eve of the Revolution of 1848, and Marx’s thirtieth birthday, begins somewhere in the absolutist state of Prussia, where the class relations at the time more closely resembled eastern than western Europe. We see a group of German peasants gathering wood in the forest, taking only what’s already fallen into the ground, careful not to pull any fresh branches off the trees. As a voiceover describes the difference between scavenging and theft, and points out that the law makes no distinction between the two, we hear the sound of hoof beats, a mounted posse armed with iron bars and clubs. The miserable, bedraggled peasants scatter, but it’s too late. Most of them, including the children, are clubbed over the head, left to die in the woods of traumatic brain injury.
Later in the film, in a very brief scene you might miss if you blink or get up to go to the bathroom, Peck suggests that the massacre in the Prussian forest might have not have actually happened, that it might have been have been all in the mind of Marx who, in between bouts of dire poverty and the struggle to come up with a coherent definition of the concept of “property,” was having a nightmare. At first it seems like a curious dramatic choice, since the forest massacre is by far and away the strongest scene in The Young Karl Marx, but it makes a lot more sense when we realize that the film is basically a prelude, a brief romantic interlude about the beginning of the very deep and lasting friendship between Marx and Frederich Engels, a light string quartet before the storm and stress of a Beethoven symphony.
The political struggle in The Young Karl Marx is not a class struggle. Indeed, it’s about the birth of the very idea of class struggle. As various historical figures, Marx and Engels, the anarchist thinkers Bakunin and Proudhon and the early, primitive socialist William Weitling, compete for the attention of small, but highly militant groups of workers and artisans, we begin see the young Marx and Engels take control of the European left from the tired, middle aged Proudhon, the cordial yet slightly buffoonish Bakunin, and the passionate, yet vague and self-dramatizing Weitling. The climax of the movie comes in 1847 at a meeting where the anarchist League of the Just is dissolved and reformed into the “Marxist” Communist League, the group that would eventually become The First International.
The meeting, where Engels defends the concept of class struggle against his anarchist critics, who asset that socialism should be based on the idea that “all men are brothers” and not that “all men are enemies” feels surprisingly modern to me. If you’ve ever gone to an Occupy inspired “general assembly” or spent any time on leftist social media you realize how well Raoul Peck has captured some of the aggression and belligerence lying just beneath the surface of so many liberals and anarchists. Marx and Engels are precise, probing, thoughtful, earnest. Their anarchist and liberal opponents are loud, narcissistic, vague, all about themselves. In one astonishing scene where Marx manages to convince a group of workers and artisans that “everything changes,” that the existing relations of production are not “the way things always are” but a temporary, historical state imposed on society by the ruling class I was on the edge of my seat. I felt as if I had been transported back in time to a meeting where I not only got to hear Karl Marx himself, but Karl Marx in the process of working out the idea that would later make him famous. In other, where Engels calmly stands his ground against a tall anarchist gentleman ranting on about the ideal of universal love, we realize that the young man would probably rather punch Engels in the face than embrace him as a a brother.
Indeed, as slight a work as The Young Karl Marx is, Raoul Peck does succeed in making it clear why the American ruling class today arms itself against the ideas of Marx and Engels, not Bakunin, Proudhon or Weitling. We understand why every trendy hipster in Williamsburg with a trust fund likes to call himself an “anarchist” and why Democratic Party, neoliberal propagandists are so anxious to condemn the very idea of class struggle as “racist.” In 2018 Marxism is no mere specter haunting Europe. It is is dangerous, and alive.