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Movie review: the Young Karl Marx

Faline Bobier

April 16, 2018

The Young Karl Marx is a film directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. It was first screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2017.

How fitting, though, that it is only now reaching North American audiences in 2018. At a time when it seems the ideas of Marx couldn't be more relevant, 200 years after his birth. When hundreds of thousands of youth organized across the US in huge “March for our Lives” events opposing gun violence, repeated mass shootings in American schools and the unholy alliance between politicians and the N.R.A. The speeches on the day were inspiring for the political sophistication and bravery of the very young. It is this spirit of rebellious youth that Peck captures in his film about Marx.

Peck, who made the phenomenal 2016 documentary "I am not your Negro", about Black American writer and activist James Baldwin, has a gift for making the political vibrant, which is not surprising given his history.

He was born in Haiti in 1953. At the age of eight, Peck and his family fled the Duvalier dictatorship and joined his father in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. From March 1996 to September 1997 he was Haiti's Minister of Culture until he resigned in protest, along with the Prime Minister and five other ministers.

Historical materialism

Rather than trying to cover Marx's entire lifespan, Peck wisely focuses on a short period from 1843-1848, during which time Marx meets Friedrich Engels and embarks on a lifetime political collaboration and friendship. It is in this period that Marx will begin to develop the ideas that will shape his immense contribution to the history of radical thought and to future revolutionary movements.

At the time Marx and Engels meet in Paris, Engels is 24 and Marx only a couple of years older. There's a rather belaboured scene that has them escaping from Paris police, but it does underscore that this is not the Marx of many years later, plagued with boils and scribbling away in the British Museum.

In a useful voiceover Peck opens the film by setting the scene for what will follow: "Europe, ruled by absolute monarchs, racked by crisis, war, famine and recession, is on the verge of change. In England, the industrial revolution transforms the world's order and creates the new proletarian class. Workers' organizations are founded, based on a ‘communist’ utopia in which all men are brothers. Two young Germans will disrupt this notion, thereby transforming the struggle…and the world's future."

The film clearly shows how the ideas Marx and Engels develop don't just spring fully-formed from their super brains. They use the currents of thought that exist at the time, and the lived experience of the poor and working class, to develop what will become historical materialism.

When Marx first meets Engels, he praises his recent book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, as a first-rate work. Engels likewise praises Marx's writing, although he suggests that Marx may want to read Ricardo and Adam Smith, in order to better understand economics, which is fundamental to understanding this new system of exploitation. Here we see Marx struggling with the beginnings of his labour theory of value, which will point the way to the actual agent of change—the working class, the potential gravediggers of capitalism.

We see Marx's frustration with the idealism of the young Hegelians, his rejection of anarchism when he says to Bakunin, "I am no anarchist." He sees much to admire in the work of Proudhon, a French utopian socialist of the time: "Your book is the French proletariat's first scientific manifesto."

However, Marx will eventually break with the utopian socialists because, as he says: "They dream of improving a system that naturally produces poverty. Not of transforming it."

The way Peck illustrates Marx's political development, through his discussion and debate with Engels, with his wife Jenny and with the competing political ideas of his time, seems to lead organically to some of his most profound insights. For example, it's after a drunken evening with Engels that Marx comes to the realization that, "Philosophers have simply interpreted the world – yet it must be transformed."


If there is an over-arching theme of The Young Karl Marx it is the idea of constant transformation. In a scene where Marx is addressing a craft workers' meeting in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine one of the workers shouts out that there's no point in railing against the slavery of the new industrial system because "There'll always be bosses and workers".

Marx replies: "'There'll always be' is a bourgeois notion. Capital wants us to think that. But everything moves. Everything is subject to change. Nothing lasts. All social relations – slavery, serfdom, salaried work – are historical and transient."

Marx and Engels are themselves transformed by the experience of meeting each other, of exchanging ideas, of coming into contact with the radical ideas of their age and their interactions with workers, as in Engels' contradictory experience as the son of a factory owner in Manchester, England.

As he says to Mary Burns, an Irish factory worker who is sacked by Engels' father for speaking out about injustice in the workplace, "I hate and despise the bourgeoisie". Burns and Engels would become life-long companions, but Engels would remain conflicted about his class position, although it's this class position which allowed him to support Marx and his family in the years of exile in London, while Marx toiled to bring his master work Capital to fruition.

The depiction in Peck's film of Marx and Engels as very much partners and collaborators, as when they labour over what will become The Communist Manifesto, goes very much against the academic grain, which has often attempted to paint Engels as the 'crude' materialist against Marx's more sophisticated and nuanced political theorist. Thankfully Peck doesn't subscribe to this attempt to decouple the work of the two men and in so doing to weaken the import of their collaboration.

Fitting also that the film ends with the publication of The Communist Manifesto on February 21, 1848. A month later would see the revolutions of 1848, a series of republican revolts against European monarchies. They would ultimately end in failure, but that wouldn’t be the end of the story.

And neither is it the end of Marx's story. The voice over at the end of the film refers to Marx's eventual exile in London where he would be financially and politically supported by Engels and Jenny, so that he could work on his key work Capital, which he left unfinished at his death: "An open, immeasurable work because the very object of its critique is in perpetual motion."

In the end credits of the film Peck gives us this sense of perpetual motion with Bob Dylan's “Like a rolling stone” playing over images of major events since Marx's time: the two World Wars, the 1930s crash, the struggle against and eventual ending of apartheid in South Africa, the movement against the Vietnam war, to return again to images of despair among stock brokers and financiers as the system crashes once again in 2008.

Peck's film comes at a time in history when new challengers are showing themselves willing and able to take on this monstrous system that Marx understood so profoundly. May The young Karl Marx give them inspiration for the struggles ahead.

Register today for Join the Resistance: Marxism 2018, a two-day conference April 27-28 in Toronto, including the sessions “The changing working class” and “Revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx.”

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