A Portrait of the Revolution as a Young Man

Stephan Hammel

4 min read

A review of Raoul Peck's film on the young Karl Marx

Raoul Peck, the Oscar-nominated Haitian filmmaker best known for I Am Not Your Negro (2016), has written and directed a film tracing the early political career of Karl Marx. As he finds himself reminding interviewers lately, the very fact that the film was funded and made should surprise us. Movies about Marx were historically the purview of the Eastern Bloc. Not one ever found financing in the 'First World.' Its arrival in theaters naturally raises concerns that the film will compromise its artistic potential in attempts to achieve ideological balance and avoid propaganda. The Young Karl Marx Peck delivers, however, is not aimed at neutrality (or, even, directly at artistry): This is not just a movie about Marx, but a Marxist movie about Marx. So it is that we can evaluate the film from the perspective of its intended audience: the new generation of post-Cold War socialists, many of them understandably alienated by an often grey and severe Marxist-Leninist inheritance.

The film consciously provides a platform for fresh engagement with pre-Soviet scientific socialism, covering the handful of years between Marx's earliest political polemics for the Rheinische Zeitung around 1842 and the drafting of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Despite its title, the film is not a hagiography of Marx himself, but a dramatic reconstruction of the approach to politics he and Engels refined over the course of that decade, as revolutions broke out across Europe. The secondary characters we meet are mouthpieces for various positions. And Marx himself spends almost the entirely of his screentime outwitting and criticizing them.

As a film, it is downright conventional. If there was a time (and there was) when Marxist artists hotly debated the question of the right form for art to take if it was to serve the cause of social revolution, that moment has passed for Peck. Scaling back experimentation in form, the film aims for clarity on the internal logic of the content. Just as Peck doubtless intended, it provides for exposure to the early Marx's Marxism with little sacrifice on the part of the viewer. It contrasts markedly with, say, Alexander Kluge's overwrought film about Capital. It is no La Chinoise.

If scientific socialism is the film's protagonist, its antagonist isn't any one of Marx's ideological rivals—Proudhon, Weitling, Bakunin—but their collective penchant for mistaking the abstract for the concrete, a tendency that pervaded Marx's political moment (and ours). The film's opening scene is of Rheinland peasants gathering fallen firewood from what had once been ownerless forest growth. Blind, mute Nature, now private property, is violently defended by armed guards against its would-be human users. Passages from Marx's 1842 essay on the legal transformation of wood gathering into theft overdubs peasants falling to the ground under swords. The point is clear: under the new property régime, human beings are sacrificed so trees can be defended. As Marx writes in that essay:

"The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honor, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea. If the Cuban savages had been present at the sitting of the Rhine Province Assembly, would they not have regarded wood as the Rhinelanders' fetish? But a subsequent sitting would have taught them that the worship of animals is connected with this fetishism, and they would have thrown the hares into the sea in order to save the human beings."

The first time we meet Marx, he bristles at the thought that ideas alone are worth defending. Critique, after all, doesn't bleed. And the certainties of theory are won at the expense of unreality. Later, we see Marx and Jenny politely remind Proudhon that his slogan, "Property is Theft," is ultimately empty rhetoric: the very concept of theft presupposes the institution of property. Here and throughout, a revolutionary Romanticism animates Marx and Engels's ire against parallel political tendencies. This comes to a head in a rousing speech in which Engels wins over the League of the Just to the pair's revolutionism. Under their theoretical leadership, the League renames itself the Communist League, and changes its slogan from the idealistic and quasi-religious, "All Men are Brothers," to a non-metaphorical plea: "Workers of All Countries Unite." "Men are brothers" is a mere ideal, Engels insists, because in the present they are pitted against one another as enemies. And this through no fault in their personality or piety, but as a result of objective conditions. The propertyless are coerced, under pain of starvation, to sell their capacity to labor to a propertied class whose wealth grows ever larger through exploitation.

Peck's Marx is at his most compelling when he confronts fellow Leftists for substituting the fruit of careful analysis for pleasant illusions. In a farcical demonstration, Wilhelm Weitling lifts up his pants leg to reveal scars from wounds he got at the hands of state henchmen who would silence him. The viewer no longer has to be convinced that a symbolic leg is not made less symbolic having been broken. Weitling, whose rhetoric earned him ardent followers in the 1840's, insisted on accessible slogans and the importance of popular enthusiasm. In the film, Marx asks Weitling and us: "What true theoretical basis justifies your activities?" "Ignorance," he insists, "never helped anyone."

While the question may have been posed to Weitling, it implicates an American Left struggling to find its theoretical footing. For activists today, there appears to be little obvious reason to devote a great deal of time acquiring disreputable Marxist sophistication. Political economy is politically suspect, anyway. After all, how could Marx fail to collude with the reified economics he critiqued? This film's explicit defense of the continued relevance of Marx is grounded in the thinker's stubborn call for political action unfettered by the felt need to condescend to workers. Well-versed audiences will no doubt notice that the film distorts the internal debates within the League of the Just. Whereas the historical Marx and Engels were at pains to draw the organization away from Blanquist conspiracy, the pair on screen argues against compromised idealism. That the film closes on the conflict between Reform and Revolution is no accident. Peck calls for a turn away from pleasant illusions to incite the need to win the class war. As the country debates single payer healthcare and universal basic income, the position Peck stakes out is a refreshing one. For the revolutionist, that is.