“ Der junge Karl Marx” (The Young Karl Marx) is a historical drama that covers the revolutionary, theoretical and political activity of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the period from 1843 to 1847. This is the period when Marx and Engels began the joint work which became the foundation of the scientific worldview of the proletariat.
Within the limited framework of a film, Raoul Peck tries his best in order to present both the rich theoretical work of the two revolutionary thinkers as well as their militant activity. Despite the difficulty of the task the director uses effectively the powerful tools provided by cinema as a means of disseminating ideas.
In the given period (1843-1847), Marx and Engels dedicated themselves in the effort to create the first Communist Party, alongside the writing and elaboration of the Manifesto of the Communist Party which was adopted as the programme of the “Communist League”, a workers’ union that was the successor of the so-called “League of the Just”. The history of the Communist Manifesto is intertwined with the course of scientific elaborations and research by Marx and Engels, including the elaboration of the materialistic concept of History, the research on the function of the capitalist mode of production and the shift to the study of Political Economy.
Despite its flaws, the film tries to familiarize the viewer with the revolutionary thought of Marx and Engels thus providing the necessary stimuli for further search about the lives and work of two of the most influential thinkers in human history. The 1840s was an extremely fruitful period for Karl Marx and Engels: Before the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote some of his most remarkable masterpieces such as the “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843), “On the Jewish Question” (1843-44), “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844), “The Poverty of Philosophy” (1843-1847). Engels wrote his exceptional work “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845) and they jointly wrote “The Holy Family” (Critique of Critical Critique, 1844) and “The German Ideology” (1846) which was published in 1932. At the same time, they had a rich journalistic activity in the “Rheinische Zeiting” and, a little later, through the “Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher” (German-French Annals).
The materialist inversion of Hegelian dialectics, the critique of the inadequacies of earlier materialism and especially Feuerbach’s materialism, the formation of the materialist conception of History, the study of the classical bourgeois political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the first critical economic research of Marx (which laid the foundations for the writing of the “Capital”), the criticism of utopian, petty bourgeois theories such as those of Proudhon et. al, are achievements made in this extremely productive period.
The 1840s was also a period that was dense in activity for Marx and Engels. They were both studying and thinking about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. They were persecuted for their revolutionary activity by the authorities of various states in Europe, something that is depicted in the film. During those years they were forced to live in exile in Paris and Brussels, under the watchful eye of police surveillance mechanisms. The two great revolutionaries fought against the oppressive mechanisms of the bourgeois mechanisms and were often forced to act under adverse circumstances.
The film highlights the fact that Marx and Engels were militant revolutionary intellectuals, active participants in the political activity for the interests of the working class. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” Marx wrote in Thesis 11 “on Feuerbach”, a phrase that encompasses the very essence of Marx and Engels work and activity.
“Der junge Karl Marx” portrays the battles that Marx and Engels gave in order for the Communist League to accept the Manifesto as its program. They were difficult and hard ideological battles. The League of the Just, which was its first name, had been founded in 1836 in Paris by German workers and intellectuals who had been influenced by various utopian and petty bourgeois socialist ideas. Marx and Engels fought against the “true socialists” headed by Karl Grün, a group that was propagating the “unity of classes” and “universal love” thus preventing the development of the workers’ class consciousness. They also fought against the views of Wilhelm Weitling, an honest but ideologically confused militant worker and activist. Most significantly, the two revolutionary thinkers fought against the influence of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon which hindered the independent political revolutionary struggle of the working class. In his sharp critique towards Proudhon, Marx wrote: “He wants to soar as the man of science above the bourgeois and the proletarians; he is merely the petty bourgeois, continually tossed back and forth between capital and labour, political economy and communism” (The Poverty of Philosophy).
Marx and Engels fought against the adoption of the erroneous and misleading slogan “All men are brothers” by the League of Communists and promoted the known phrase “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”. The film tries to convey this struggle as much as possible, while the script seems to be well-written based on the ideological and political controversies of the then era.
The movie begins and ends with several quotes from the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, the emblematic work of Marx and Engels which remains an invaluable guide of the marxist revolutionary worldview. The opening phrase – “a spectre is haunting Europe; the spectre of communism” seems to come from the future, underlining the historical mission of the working class as the gravedigger of the capitalist exploitative system.
In the end of the film there is a text referring to Marx and Engels’ “unfinished work”, while it is implied that marxism has been a “general theory of criticism and questioning of everything”. It is true that Marx didn’t finish the writing of the “Capital”, but the theory of Marx and Engels is neither a “general theory” that “criticizes and questions everything”. nor a “unfinished work”. Marxism is a scientific worldview that guided and continues to guide the activity of millions of workers across the world. It is an alive theoretical framework which was enriched by Vladimir Lenin and other significant thinkers and continues to develop, having a ability to provide answers to the contemporary problems arising by the living reality. Marxism never gets old because it is a renewable resource of inspiration by itself.
We are by no means film critics. But given the above, we can say that despite all its imperfections “Der junge Karl Marx” is overall a decent film that corresponds to the educative role of arts and, as such, it can stimulate the viewer to search further about the life and works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, especially to those who are interested in the study of Marxism.
“Der Junge Karl Marx” (The Young Karl Marx), 2017
Directed by Raoul Peck
Written by Raoul Peck and Pascal Bonitzer
Starring: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps.
* Nikos Mottas is the Editor-in-Chief of In Defense of Communism.