‘The Young Karl Marx’ on the road to ‘The Communist Manifesto’
From left, Vicky Krieps as Jenny Marx, August Diehl as Marx, and Stefan Konarske as Engels.

The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the early months of 1848, is among the most read, most widely translated and most highly influential documents in human history. No person with any pretense of understanding the modern world can honestly consider themselves educated without some familiarity with this seminal revolutionary text.

A new film, The Young Karl Marx, explores the world of radical European thinkers and activists in the 1840s, an era of intensified political crisis, as they scuttle back and forth between Germany, France, Belgium, and England in search of safety and livelihood, and as they sharpen their ideological wits.

The film principally revolves around the question, At what point did so-called “scientific” socialism separate out from other strands of political thought, such as anarchism, libertarianism (in its 19th-century definition), cooperativism, universal brotherhood, utopianism, nationalism, nihilism, historical materialism, apocalyptic Christianity and other philosophical currents?

This question is inherently of substantive interest, and one wonders why film has not previously contributed much about the lives of these indispensable historical figures. Perhaps some long-forgotten items on this theme will yet surface in the cinematography archives of the late socialist countries of the Soviet Bloc, but I suspect that socialist filmmakers were always more concerned about making art that would illuminate current or past class and labor struggles than in delving into the semantics of polemical dialectics from two centuries ago.

Enter the original, pathbreaking filmmaker Raoul Peck, hailed for his 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin, and for previous films about Patrice Lumumba and other topics. The director, screenwriter and producer was born in Haiti and raised in Congo, the U.S. and France. He attended university in Berlin, where a four-year course on Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital was part of his education, alongside heady debate around the work of such thinkers as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and others. He possesses the breadth of personal experience, as well as the ideological preparation, to take on as a dramatic treatment the creation of The Communist Manifesto.

Based on thorough historical research, especially into the lively correspondence between Marx and Engels in the 1840s, Peck’s film nevertheless avoids didacticism. The two budding scholars appear here in a kind of symbiotic “bromance” (that moviegoing audiences have come to love), alongside their life partners, wife Jenny Marx and companion Mary Burns, who have active, participatory roles in the boys’ intellectual development. Jenny pokes some good-natured fun at her husband and his new friend, who in 1844 are preparing a polemical rejoinder to the Young Hegelians: She suggests they call it “Critique of Critical Critique.” Yes, some of those debates could get kind of gnarly!

Peck is uninterested in the aged, gray-bearded Marx with the bothersome boils on his tush acquired from years of reading in the British Library; here, in his late 20s, he is all quick with the repartee, given to the occasional drinking bout, the political exile bounding through back alleys escaping the police, passionate lover and adoring young father of two, and by now already becoming financially dependent on his younger, far wealthier friend.

Nor is Peck concerned—not in his film anyway—with what later generations, movements and states made of Marxism. Here he reminds us of the youthful, fresh, emancipatory, clearly and elegantly reasoned and poetically rendered impulse to revolution that has inspired billions of working men and women ever since 1848.

It somehow comes as no brutal shock to see that in those days too, writers were censored, promises of payment were slighted, editors arrested and publications banned.

It’s probably irreversible that history favors Marx as the senior partner to Engels, yet the latter’s singular work on his own, apart from his collaboration with Marx, is far more than a footnote. It was Engels’ own work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, which, based on personal observations and research in Manchester, informed Marx of the factual, material research out of which theory must grow. And it was Engels who introduced Marx, then a new refugee in England, to the writings of the British economists, such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith, who did much to establish theories of labor and value.

“Property is theft” has become one of the oft-quoted slogans of the anti-authoritarian left, seen on T-shirts worldwide. It derives from the writing of French anarchist Joseph Proudhon, who figures in The Young Karl Marx as the protagonist’s foil. The idea is represented on-screen in the opening shots, where peasants gathering firewood in the forest are mercilessly hunted down by armed horsemen protecting the landowners’ “property.” Proudhon is shown surrounded by his admiring acolytes, and both Marx and Engels genuinely do admire him. But in the course of dialectical sparring with Marx, Proudhon’s slogan is revealed to be bombastic and romantic, abstract and confusing. Whose property? And if property is indeed theft, then what is theft? One step along the road to the further refinement of socialist ideology.

Further debates within the halls of the radical League of the Just show the poverty of empty posturing without a firm ideological and material foundation—a problem that carries through all the way to the present. (“Republicans and Democrats are simply two wings of the same capitalist party”—so then we get Donald Trump, thank you very much!) The vague sentimentality of their banner “All Men Are Brothers” (which ignores the question of opposing classes) in time and through struggle gives way to the revolutionary call, “Workers of the World, Unite” (which also, significantly, resolves the gender problem).

The historical dialectical materialist theory that the successor Communist League embraced would help forestall adventurous plans, such as the League of the Just had entertained, to raise an international proletarian army to crush the bourgeoisie. The crushing, and the ensuing disillusionment, would certainly have gone the other way, as happened with the famous Revolution of 1830 memorialized by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (novel, film, and musical). Action without correct theory is futile, and often worse.

If viewers come to this film for the biopic—lush cinematography, sensitive lighting effects, well appointed interiors, period costumes, and attractive leads—they won’t be disappointed. Scenes of urban poverty and life among the lowlifes—not unlike what one might see on the Skid Rows of dozens of American cities today—convey the depths of immiseration the all-important profit motive created in the Industrial Revolution. In England at that time, the Irish were the despised and superexploited underclass, and Peck makes us aware of this fact in generous helpings.

Engels, as most Marxists are aware, was the privileged son of the owners of textile mills in England, and was not oblivious to the irony in the contrast between his pro-working-class thinking and his income. He is shown in constant rebellion against his father (Peter Benedict). The strikingly filmed factory scenes are powerful reminders that working people have always endured the most dangerous and humiliating conditions, including then ubiquitous child labor, if they are to try and keep body and soul together. One point that might have been clarified (unless I missed it) was the source of the cotton for the mills—most of it from Southern U.S. slave plantations, no?

The acting is excellent throughout. August Diehl plays Marx, and Stefan Konarske, Engels. Jenny Marx is played by Vicky Krieps, and Mary Burns by Hannah Steele (whose dialogue is strangely recorded at so low a level to be incomprehensible at times). Proudhon is played by Olivier Gourmet, and Wilhelm Weitling, a Christian proto-communist, by Alexander Scheer. The actors speak in German, French and English according to place, time and interlocutor. Subtitles are provided.

The closing montage, distantly reminiscent of early Soviet cinematography, is a fast-moving but thoughtful index of Marxist imagery that today’s audiences will find readily familiar, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Two visionary young men, ages 30 and 27 upon publication of the Manifesto, set out to alter the course of history. Don’t be afraid of the polemics; they only set the scene for a very human, intimate drama that just so happens to have changed the world. See the trailer here.

The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx)
Directed by Raoul Peck
Screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck
2017, 118 minutes
Opens in New York and Los Angeles February 23


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.