Karl Marx as a young man, played by August Diehl . Photo: Youtube Karl Marx as a young man, played by August Diehl . Photo: Youtube

This portrait of the most important thinker of the modern age shows a man who was much much more than the popular caricature of a grey beard

Most people’s image of the eponymous creator of Marxism is probably shaped by the gargantuan bust of his head over his grave in Highgate Cemetery or by similarly imposing portraits on giant flags from the bygone Soviet era.  Of course, it suits the ideological agenda of Marx’s political enemies today to promote the image of him as an elderly and forbidding personality, rooted in the nineteenth century and devoid of relevance to the modern world. One of the most welcome aspects of Raoul Peck’s new biopic is the presentation of a younger, more dynamic version of Marx that foregrounds what might be the less familiar qualities for some of his burning idealism and passionate commitment to toppling oppression wherever he encountered it. The film was released in Europe last year to generally positive reviews but has now been given a limited release in the UK from this March. Anyone interested in the life and times of the man recently voted Greatest Thinker of the Millennium can learn a great deal from a film which manages to be entertaining, informative and geared towards reclaiming Marx as a figure for our times, not just his own.

Formative years

The director, Raoul Peck, comes with a suitably impressive left-wing pedigree. Born in Haiti, he learned his filmmaking craft in Berlin and has previously produced biographical movies about the radical African politician, Patrice Lumumba, and the US civil rights legend, James Baldwin. He has also produced a French TV series about the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint Louverture. Peck explicitly wanted to make a film that provides not just an interesting reconstruction of an historical milieu but also a reminder of the ongoing relevance of Marxist analysis to the crises of the 21stcentury. In an interview regarding the film, he explained his purpose in making the film: Well, it’s to understand how our society functions—a society that is embedded in capitalism. And what Marx did is analyse this society, and today his analyses are even more urgent and necessary than before. You can see like even the young kids from Florida right now who are protesting and asking for more gun control. They have understood the connection between money, between capital, between profit and that are people who are capable of choosing the worst decision if it will preserve their profit.

Radical democrat

This film focuses on a short but crucial period in Marx’s formative development between 1842 and 1848. Within those six years, we see Marx make the transition from radical democrat, primarily concerned with journalistic observations and philosophical debates, to socialist activist and theoretician, building a revolutionary party and pioneering the ideas of historical materialism. German actor, August Diehl, in a performance that exudes the kinetic energy and penetrating intellect that the historical figure undoubtedly possessed, plays the title role. The film thankfully is no rose-tinted hagiography and Marx is portrayed as a powerful presence who frequently fell out with countless comrades over political disputes and questions of strategy. Many of the key personalities of this formative period of Marx’s career are vividly brought to life; characters such as Bakunin, Proudhon and Moses Hess who you probably never expected to see featured in a mainstream movie.

Massacre in the woods

The film opens in 1842 when young Marx is one of the leading journalists on the radical newspaper, The Rhenish Gazette. One of his articles on the persecution of peasants illegally gathering wood attracts the ire of the authorities and the paper is consequently closed down. The first scene dramatises the merciless slaughter of the wood-gatherers by property owners on horseback who regard the pursuit as little more than sport. Marx would later write of how this episode provoked a new direction in his thinking:In the year 1842-44, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung1, I experienced for the first time the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests. Marx is predictably angry about the censorship and agrees with his editor, Arnold Ruge that radical politics is more likely to prosper in France. The two men subsequently move to Paris in 1843 and try to set up another journal that becomes the Franco-German Yearbooks.

Marx meets Engels

His wife, Jenny Von Westphalen, accompanies Marx on his journey into exile (one of many he would undertake over the next few years). Her underrated contribution to the genesis of Marxism is recognised in the film as we see her directly involved in important political discussions, assisting her husband with translations and advising him on tactical points. The film makes it clear that she was far more than a loyal wife but also a person who was morally and intellectually committed to the project of proletarian self-emancipation in her own right, and also someone who willingly sacrificed the considerable opportunities provided by her aristocratic background. 

Paris in 1844, of course, is also the scene of the historic meeting of Marx and Frederick Engels (played with suitable charm and wit by Stefan Konarske).  The two men had briefly met two years previously in Germany but it was during the legendary second encounter that they had the opportunity to exchange ideas at length. The film shows the two men initially wary of each other’s formidable reputation but then coming together for an epic all-night discussion at the Café de la Regence that culminated over the next ten days in a joint commitment to developing the theory of historical materialism. Engels noted of this event: When I visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time.

Engels points young Marx towards the study of political economy and away from the primarily philosophical debates that had pre-occupied him in Germany. A lot of the dialogue between the two featured in the film has the ring of authenticity as Peck has stated he made a particular point of drawing on their correspondence when he was writing the screenplay. Any sympathetic viewer who has read significant portions of Marx and Engels will find herself smiling with recognition at many sections of the script.

Engels v Engels

The director also shows us the personal battles Engels went through with his father, who as a senior figure in the Engels and Ermen textiles company, was less than thrilled about his son becoming involved in revolutionary politics. Engels Senior was also a devout Lutheran, giving him another reason to threaten to cut off his wayward son who had already written tracts outlining a materialist and atheist view of the world. Like the Marxes, Frederick Engels’ commitment to left-wing activism involved turning his back on what could easily have been a life of personal advancement and affluence, without any fear of social ostracism. Of course, Engels’ sacrifice was of a slightly different nature as he reluctantly maintained his position in his father’s company in order to secure financial support for the Marxes.

The film dramatises Engels’ controversial relationships with the Burns sisters from Manchester. Mary and Lizzie at different times married him and, like Jenny Marx, were important political figures in their own right. We see Lizzie introducing Engels to the working-class subculture of industrial Manchester that would feature prominently in his pioneering study of the Condition of the Working Class in England.  The film probably exaggerates the role of the sisters in organising early Communist organisations but rightfully gives them credit for facilitating contact between Marx and Engels with the nascent Irish immigrant communities in northern England.  

Partners in revolution

The two men’s  first major collaborative ventures are then dramatised: a theoretical attack on utopian socialists in the work known as The Holy Family, and shortly afterwards, an organisational project to re-invigorate the League of the Just, one of the first important groups of the time that sought  to  conduct revolutionary activism on the left. These scenes portray Marx as the coruscating critic of what he regarded as obsolete approaches to radical action. One of his rivals for influence on the German left was William Weitling, a tailor who propagated the message that the urban working class was not strong enough to participate in revolution and that, alternatively, artisans and peasants should be the essential sources of recruitment of revolutionaries.

Political showdown

Weitling also argued that conspiratorial tactics based on a handful of militants were the best way to overthrow the status quo. Marx and Engels, in contrast, had made the crucial theoretical breakthrough that Europe was locked into a process of capitalist industrialisation that would give the proletariat an ever-increasing role as the key agent of revolutionary change from that point onwards. The corollary of this was that only mass working-class action would be sufficient to deal a deathblow to the system. The scene based on this political showdown echoes a description by David Riazonov, one of Marx’s first biographers:

We learn that Marx, pounding his fist on the table, shouted at Weitling, “Ignorance never helped nor did anybody any good.” This is quite conceivable, particularly since Weitling, like Bakunin, was opposed to propagandistic and preparatory work. They maintained that paupers were always ready to revolt, that a revolution, therefore, could be engineered at any moment provided there be resolute leaders on hand

New epoch

After winning the theoretical battle for control of the League, the film’s closing scenes portray the historic meeting in 1847 of the renamed Communist League in the Red Lion Pub in Soho, at which Marx and Engels are commissioned to write the Communist Manifesto. This defining text is completed early the following year, just as Europe is swept by a tidal surge of revolutions, inaugurating a new epoch of working-class militancy.

The end credits underline the contemporary resonance of the ideas pioneered in the Manifesto, showing footage from revolutionary upheavals of our times such as the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter protests in the US. Predictably, this film will not receive a widespread release in the UK but socialists of any particular persuasion will find their time well spent finding out where it is showing near them.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

Tagged under: