Marx at the Movies
Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx opened on Friday, February 23 at the Metrograph in N.Y. and the Laemmle Royal in L.A. It is the story of how the youthful Marx and Engels became fast friends and worked together as a team to overcame the obstacles they faced in order to build the first communist organization in history based on a scientific analysis of the capitalist system. For millennia, the lower classes had always dreamed of overthrowing their oppressors and creating a new world based on freedom and equality but it was only in the 1840s that a theoretical basis for such a transformation was developed. At the risk of neglecting to add a spoiler alert, the film ends happily with Marx and Engels sitting down at a table to crank out the Communist Manifesto with Jenny Marx beaming down on them. That was a happy ending to the film even though capitalism lives on ghoulishly 170 years later. So, it is up to us to write our own happy ending today.
Much of the two hours of The Young Karl Marx entails events that will not be familiar to most people, including even someone like me who has been involved with Marxist politics since 1967. Adhering to the highest standards of historical accuracy, Peck and co-screenplay writer Pascal Bonitzer, who was the editor of Cahier du Cinema from 1969-1985 during its most rigorously Marxist phase, created an ensemble case that included characters such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess, et al. Except for Proudhon, who perhaps some Counterpunch readers might recognize as a founding father of anarchism, these men are cloaked in obscurity today even though they were major political figures in the 1840s.
In order to understand their role and the debates that pitted Marx and Engels on one side and the philosophical communists on the other, my recommendation is to read the first relatively brief five chapters of Franz Mehring’s 1918 Karl Marx: The Story of His Life that is online at the Marxist Internet Archives before seeing the film. You certainly avoid this but an investment of four hours or so of reading will help orient you to the characters and their conflicts. I also recommend the first five chapters of Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx: a Life that won the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 1999. It is far more detailed than Mehring’s work, especially in providing anecdotes about the bohemian and drunken escapades of the young Marx and Engels that might remind you of the wild times of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Wheen is a witty and elegant writer who provides key information about Marx’s evolution:
Marx’s own ability to discuss communism was hampered by the fact that he knew nothing about it. His years of academic study had taught him all the philosophy, theology and law that he was ever likely to need, but in politics and economics he was still a novice…His first venture into this unexplored territory was a long critique of the new law dealing with thefts of wood from private forests. By ancient customs, peasants had been allowed to gather fallen branches for fuel, but now anyone who picked up the merest twig could expect a prison sentence. More outrageously still, the offender would have to pay the forest-owner the value of the wood, such value to be assessed by the forester himself. This legalised larceny forced Marx to think, for the first time, about the questions of class, private property and the state.
Indeed, the film begins with a scene of emaciated and poorly clad peasants gathering wood in such a forest until a cavalry troop rides into their midst delivering blows as they flee in terror, including women and children.
Peck and Bonitzer made the perfect calculation when they chose the early years of Marx and Engels for their film. This was a time of deep insecurity for Marx and nothing works better for plot development than a “perils of Pauline” theme. Marx is always one step ahead—barely—of the cops beating down his door either for failure to pay his rent or for writing an article that pisses off some head of state. Engels always came to the rescue when it came to money matters but was obviously unable to forestall his partner being exiled from France, especially when he was considered just as much an “enemy of the state”. Generally, Peck avoids melodrama but he wasn’t above one scene that veered ever so slightly into Jason Bourne territory. Walking down the street in Cologne, Marx and Engels turn a corner and spot the cops in an ICE-like roundup of “illegal” immigrants. Since Engels lacked proper papers, Marx suggested that the two of them go on the lam in separate directions. After being chased down various alleys one step ahead of the gendarmes, they finally meet up later and go for a drink.
Marx is played by August Diehl, who played the Nazi officer in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds who had a shoot-out with Brad Pitt’s men in the basement beerhall. Stefan Konarske plays Engels as a nonchalant, adroit child of the bourgeoisie while Diehl’s Marx is a cantankerous, combustible genius with an iron will. Suffice it to say that both characters are very much in the spirit of how they are described in Wheen’s book on Marx.
Despite not having working-class origins, both men hated the bourgeoisie from an early age. To some extent, this had to do with disgust over its suffocating moralistic norms that were found to the extreme in 19th century Germany but all the more so over its treatment of working people. I was surprised to learn from the film that Engels had a long-time relationship with an Irish textile factory worker named Mary Burns. In addition to being his lover, she was able to serve as a guide to working-class life in Manchester that helped Engels to gather the material for his 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Even though Engels always considered Marx the more capable of the two in developing communist theory, he was instrumental in opening his eyes to how capitalism operated on a ground floor level, something he understood as a factory manager himself—his day job. In addition, Engels convinced Marx that reading the British economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill was essential for developing a political economy that could supersede theirs. All this is presented in Peck’s film.
Marx made a living—fitfully—as a journalist to both popular and scholarly journals. We see him plying his trade at the Rheinische Zeitung, where Moses Hess was the editor. Hess was a non-observant Jew and self-described socialist that Marx and Engels regarded as a comrade until they began to figure out that socialism had to be established on a rigorous theoretical basis. Hess was the pioneer of “True Socialism”, one of the idealist, post-Hegelian tendencies in Germany that objected to capitalism on a quasi-religious basis. Marx treated it derisively in the Communist Manifesto:
To the absolute governments, with their following of parsons, professors, country squires, and officials, it served as a welcome scarecrow against the threatening bourgeoisie.
It was a sweet finish, after the bitter pills of flogging and bullets, with which these same governments, just at that time, dosed the German working-class risings.
While this “True” Socialism thus served the government as a weapon for fighting the German bourgeoisie, it, at the same time, directly represented a reactionary interest, the interest of German Philistines. In Germany, the petty-bourgeois class, a relic of the sixteenth century, and since then constantly cropping up again under the various forms, is the real social basis of the existing state of things.
Marx’s next job was with the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals) in Paris, a scholarly journal edited by Arnold Ruge. Ruge and all the other contributors were still under the influence of Hegel’s philosophy that Marx had abandoned by this point. The journal was an attempt to continue with the ideas that had been put forward in the Rheinische Zeitung until German censorship made it impossible to continue.
By the time he began working with Ruge, Marx had washed his hands of all things Hegelian. This accounts for the testy exchanges between Marx and Ruge in the film. To draw a line in the sand between philosophical socialism and scientific socialism, Marx and Engels wrote a book titled The Holy Family that is dealt with at some length in Peck’s film. Written in 1846, The Holy Family is a lengthy and dense manuscript that is only of interest to scholars today. (Can you imagine Peck and Bonitzer peddling such a script to Hollywood studios? I can’t.)
When Marx and Engels are not quarreling with the Young Hegelians, they are debunking Proudhon, who was one of the most respected socialists in the early 1840s. Played by Olivier Gourmet, a regular in Dardenne brothers films, he is a gentle soul unmatched to Marx’s polemical fury. In confronting Proudhon and the other philosophical socialists, Marx probably struck most men and women as “over the top” including Carl Schurz who described Marx in a memoir written 40 years after they had gone their separate ways:
Marx’s utterances were indeed full of meaning, logical and clear, but I have never seen a man whose bearing was so provoking and intolerable. To no opinion, which differed from his, he accorded the honor of even a condescending consideration. Everyone who contradicted him he treated with abject contempt; every argument that he did not like he answered either with biting scorn at the unfathomable ignorance that had prompted it, or with opprobrious aspersions upon the motives of him who had advanced it. I remember most distinctly the cutting disdain with which he pronounced the word “bourgeois”; and as a “bourgeois,” that is as a detestable example of the deepest mental and moral degeneracy he denounced everyone that dared to oppose his opinion. Of course the propositions advanced or advocated by Marx in that meeting were voted down, because everyone whose feelings had been hurt by his conduct was inclined to support everything that Marx did not favor. It was very evident that not only he had not won any adherents, but had repelled many who otherwise might have become his followers.
All this is borne out in The Young Karl Marx. Marx’s charisma rested solely on the power of his ideas. In a climactic scene, we see Marx and Engels making the case for scientific socialism in a conference held in London by the League of the Just. Standing up to the worker delegates who revered Wilhelm Weitling, a tailor and thereby one of their own, Marx said that the time for idealistic notions devoid of class distinctions was over. It was the task of the working class to lead a revolution in its own interests and to become masters of society. It was the power of Marx’s words that convinced the delegates to adopt a proposal by Marx and Engels to create the Communist League, not his personality.
To understand how the formation of the Communist League led to the spread of communist ideas that persist until this day, no matter how many times pundits declare its death, put The Young Karl Marx on your calendar.
Earlier this month, the German website Marx200 conducted an English-language interview with Jason Barker, the director of the 2011 documentary Marx Reloaded that caught my eye. It seems that Barker has come out with a novel titled Marx Returns that is set in London, 1849. Marx, the main character, is “persecuted by a tyrannical housekeeper and ignored by his sexually liberated wife”, according to the book’s website. He “immerses himself in his writing, believing that his book on capital is the surest way of ushering in the workers’ revolution and his family out of poverty.” Reading this reminded me why I shy away from fiction.
As it happens, the 56-minute documentary Marx Reloaded can be seen online. I would describe it as a gathering of all the Marxists that populate the pages of New Left Review, including Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Rancière and others not so well known. It also draws from bankers, libertarians, and one John Gray, who I have always found insufferable. Gray is like all those other people writing for the Financial Times and other top-draw bourgeois newspapers and magazines during the subprime mortgage meltdown who considered Marx relevant once again but concluded their articles with the judgment that communism never worked in the past, nor will it work in the future.
As the title implies, the documentary resonates with the 2003 The Matrix Reloaded, concluding with Zizek et al being asked to choose between red and blue pills. Some like Hardt choose the red pill of communism reluctantly while Zizek opts for a third but unidentified pill.
With the presence of Zizek and other post-Marxist geniuses, you would probably not be surprised to learn that the film is thick and heavy with two messages. One, that the factory worker of Marx’s day is no longer an agency for communist revolution. Two, that the fetishism of commodities, just one element of Marx’s overall theory, is the reality that prevents us from rising up and transforming the system. The case is made that advertising, the Internet, Banana Republic, etc. maintain an iron grip over our consciousness, thus making revolution impossible. In other words, they reprise the plots of the films in the Matrix franchise.
Writing for the LA Review of Books, Jason Baker—a self-described Althusserian—concludes an article titled “Althusser’s Philosophical Disorder” with this:
Philosophers, regardless of how they define themselves, have the duty to fight for the dis-order of the system, and for the contingency of what’s called “philosophy,” wherever its creative experiments may lead, be they “theoretical” or “practical” in orientation. Who knows? Resentment and ridicule — and I dare say the “madness” of philosophers — may even serve as proof that they are winning the fight.
Maybe it’s time to remind us of what Marx once said in a critique of Ludwig Feuerbach, a Young Hegelian: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
To conclude with more of a warning rather than a review, I advise Counterpunch readers to avoid The Death of Stalin like a plague. It opens on March 9th and is advertised as a dark comedy about the Byzantine in-fighting in the Kremlin after Stalin’s death in 1953. There’s nobody more critical of Stalinism than me but I found this film to be as stupidly anti-Communist as the atrocious “comedy” about North Korea titled The Interview that provoked the “Guardians of Peace,”, a group of hackers tied to North Korea, to wreak havoc with Sony Pictures’ computers.
I confess to having walked out of a press screening after 30 minutes but if you trust my judgment on films, a word to the wise should be sufficient. Directed by Armando Iannucci, the creator of the HBO series Veep, it is cruder than any SNL sketch I have ever seen. Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev as an utter buffoon, resembling more the con he played in The Sopranos than any Soviet chief. Stalin is portrayed as a foul-mouthed Cockney-accented stick figure as are all the others involved in this lame palace intrigue. Only a single critic found it “rotten” on www.rottentomatoes.com.
For a sharp take-down of the film elsewhere, I recommend Samuel Goff’s review in the Calvert Journal. Goff, a researcher and supervisor in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, writes:
Iannucci and longtime co-writer Ian Martin are experienced comedy craftsmen, and this is a fine cast. And while there’s no real suspense involved (spoiler alert: Khrushchev wins), there’s plenty of material here for a black political farce. So what does Iannucci get so wrong?
First of all, there is the irony that this liberal critique of the historical falsification associated with Stalinism — the end credits play out over a montage of blacked-out photos — leans heavily on a raft of historical inaccuracies. As has been pointed out elsewhere, at the time of Stalin’s death, Molotov had long been sacked and Zhukov demoted to the provinces; Beria’s eventual downfall, which the film squeezes into a few days, actually took several months and was prompted in part by events in East Germany (as always with Iannucci, the concern is with several shouty men in a room, rather than any wider context). More worryingly, the deaths of about 1,500 people in crushes around Stalin’s funeral are casually attributed to trigger-happy NKVD officers in order to make a point about the rivalry between Beria and Khrushchev, an unnecessary, even callous addendum.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for Counterpunch.
This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.