Friendship and Historical Materialism in Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx

by Daniel Garrett Volume 26, Issue 9-10-11 / November 2022 21 minutes (5234 words)

“His most profitable undertaking has been to reveal the reality that is hidden behind the formal values of which the bourgeois of his time made a great show. His theory of mystification is still valid, because it is in fact universally true, and is equally applicable to revolutionary mystification.”
—Albert Camus, on Karl Marx in “Historical Rebellion,” The Rebel

The human condition—our challenge remains to see ourselves and the world whole. We look for insights into experience, culture, the arts, history, and politics; and sometimes when we find an insight, we are overwhelmed by its originality and power, and begin to see it as ideal, and in isolation, and soon rather than reforming thought or experience in a healthy way, that insight becomes another source of deformation, something more to be overcome. The philosopher Karl Marx worked to identify principles and practices of insight and incitement to change; and in his identification of the conflict of classes, the exploitation of workers, and a labor theory of value, and the possibilities of communism, of shared property and resources, Marx seemed to have found a new path forward. However, looking at history, especially as embodied in Russia and China, one can see that communism limited rather than expanded human freedom. Why did communism find a place in those countries, rather than in England or the United States? Was it because Russia and China had simpler societies, an illiterate and larger peasantry? Was the relative complexity of culture in England and the United States resistant to a single ideology? Many people did not expect either Russia or China to become a revolutionary state, as they did seem to have a long downtrodden, even resigned peasant class rather than a self-aware (industrial or urban, rather than agricultural) working class, as Germany and England were thought to have. Certainly, there were, as well, American thinkers and writers—people given to idealizations, able to accept ideas in isolation—as well as labor union activists who were attracted to communism, many of whom would come to call it the god that failed. Such concerns—economics founded on collective ownership with public policy directed toward public benefits—can seem quaint, now merely historical, but the possibilities of social change are always with us; and Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx allows us to consider that hope, that project.

Raoul Peck, a filmmaker born in Haiti and educated in Germany, is developing quite an oeuvre: Haitian Corner (1989), about torture and revenge, set in Haiti; Lumumba (2000), a dramatic portrait of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba; Sometimes in April (2005), a Rwandan genocide story; I Am Not Your Negro (2016), a documentary featuring James Baldwin, and his activism and reporting during the civil rights movement of the 1960s; and The Young Karl Marx (2017), about the friendship between two philosophers and political theorists, Marx and Engels, as they engage historical materialism. Raoul Peck began studying industrial engineering in Germany, but his increasing exploration of culture and politics—he enjoyed drama, jazz, and visual art, and had activist friends, with whom he participated in political demonstrations—led him to cinema. His are works of contemplation and intervention. Raoul Peck has a long view of history, and an awareness of the strategic importance of art, culture, institutions, and political participation. His dramatic audiovisual feature presentation of the early career of Karl Marx, a decade in the making, seems like a small gem among his conscientious films, recognition and renewal of a great thinker’s early and lasting power. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), born in Prussia (Germany), the son of a lawyer and reformer (and a Jewish convert to the religion of Luther) with a regard for literature and philosophy, Heinrich Marx, Karl was home-schooled until twelve, before attending a Jesuit high school and then the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin, studying law and philosophy, and he received a doctorate from the University of Jena. He sustained a disciplined and lifelong study of some of the most important questions of his or any era; but despite Karl Marx’s committed and important work, finding theory in practice, Marx was impoverished, and sustained by his wealthier friend Friedrich Engels, until Marx’s death of pleurisy in London. Raoul Peck’s motion picture, co-written by Pascal Bonitzer (a contributor to Cahiers du Cinema), focuses on the work of its biographical subject, making the photoplay a rarity (watching it, one may want to know more about Marx’s family, education, romance of his wife, and relationship to culture)—whereas so many portraits of artists, intellectuals, and thinkers are salacious considerations of drink, drugs, failings, fights, and lovers. Peck finds in Marx’s work fact and logic, with an awareness of competing forces in society, a method of analysis that is still a useful tool.

“Marx’s originality lies in affirming that history is simultaneously dialectic and economic,” noted essayist Albert Camus in his book The Rebel (Vintage/Random House, 1956; page 198). The Young Karl Marx, Raoul Peck’s film, begins with the young philosopher Karl Marx’s critique of the persecution of desperate peasants, who go into forests to gather dead wood, something considered theft, for which they were arrested or beaten or even killed. Marx, a passionate but poor writer married to a well-born woman, was censored for his examination of political power. Meanwhile, someone who would become a lasting friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels, was working in his father’s English cotton mill and studying industrial production from the perspectives of both boss and worker. The two men, alone and together, would become part of a dynamic insurgent intellectual political culture. The film, confident, intelligent, succinct, follows their meeting, their close friendship, discourse, and research, and their encounters with activists, editors, and writers, and their concerns with love and money, controversies and exile, and ends with their collaboration in 1847 on The Communist Manifesto, published in early 1848. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called the motion picture audacious and engrossing (February 22, 2018); and Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, the British newspaper, reviewing the film a year earlier after a Berlin film festival screening, found it sinewy, focused, cerebral, absorbing and gripping (February 12, 2017).

Intellectuals, artists, and activists are always trying to give us a view of the world that is persuasive, that seems truer than those offered by others. The political critique of Marx and Engels may have been made more powerful for its inflections of intimate knowledge and appreciation. Adam B. Ulam, a Harvard scholar, wrote of how that critique was balanced by surprising appreciation in his book, The Bolsheviks: the Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia (Macmillan, 1965): “That fashionable term of modern psychology, ‘ambivalence,’ could be inscribed over the whole vast structure of thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For looked at closely Marxism is not a collection of simple prescriptions of unreserved enthusiasms and destatations. Few things in Marxism appear as clear-cut as its call for the overthrow of capitalism, few of its descriptions as moving as its indictment of the capitalist as exploiter, the man who lives upon and grows rich from the toil and suffering of the vast majority of the population. Yet, in the Communist Manifesto and Capital there are passages of almost lyrical character in praise of capitalism. Modern capitalism has in the space of a few decades, writes Marx, contributed more to the welfare of mankind than all the preceding social and economic systems. It has bound nations together not only through trade, but also through an intercourse of ideas,” writes Adam Ulam in The Bolsheviks; and, summarizes Ulam, “In brief, it has meant civilization and progress” but “the progressive and benevolent role of capitalism has come to an end” (page 139).

Does capitalism require more than reform? Is revolutionary necessary? What are the alternatives, other than communism? There have been various films—dramatic features and documentaries, celluloid film and digital video—that have attempted to show us what it might be like to live in a communist society: among them, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie, 2002/2005); Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925); Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000); The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993); Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008); Communism: The Promise and the Reality (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000); Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965); Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Ernst Thalmann: Son of His Class (1954) and Leader of His Class (1955); Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003); The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984); Lal Salam (Venu Nagavalli, 1990); Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995); The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987); The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962); 1900 (or, Novecento, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976); October (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928); Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981); Returned: Child Stories of Nepal’s Maoist Army (Robert Koenig, 2008); Rosa Luxemburg (Margarethe von Trotta, 1986); and Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993). Amazing that the dream of communism lasted as long as it did, in light of the fact that soon after the Russian revolution, the assertion of old forms of power were clear in the Soviet Union. “Within a year Russia would have a Red Army and Navy in which death would be the penalty for major infractions of discipline. The Soviet secret police would be created and would infinitely surpass in its severity and efficiency the once dreaded Tsarist Okhrana. If one were to use political terms in their real rather than the conventional and propagandistic sense then one would have to say that October 25, 1917, marks not only the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution but also the beginning of the counterrevolution carried out by the same party” (Ulam, The Bolsheviks; page 383).

Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx returns us to an original hope, to the source of both damage and vision. The photoplay, of course, is very intelligent, and well-made, while being provocative for its subject—although communism no longer has the same shock or thrill that it had once (the experiment seems to have been a failure, according to most). However, as art, there seem to be missing dimensions: I want to know more about the place of the cosmos and nature, of music, painting, and poetry, of religion, and of family in the life of Marx. What kind of relationship did he have with his father and mother? What was his early education like; and what inspired his interest in politics? Did he have a regard for Jewish traditions? What relation did his wife Jenny have with her own family? What were the significant parts of their lives that did not involve politics? What, after Marx, was the remainder of the life of Friedrich Engels like? The Young Karl Marx is commendable for treating the thought of a political philosopher seriously—it fills a gap in general public knowledge; and it begins with poor people collecting dead wood in a forest, an act considered theft, with Marx (actor August Diehl) commenting that people know the difference between that scavenging and a genuine crime—and to persecute people for false reasons awakens and deepens their moral sense and begins to foment opposition. Of course, forms of extreme surveillance and punishment are intended to harness the spirit as much as corral behavior. In 1843 Karl Marx was a writer and editor in Cologne for Rheinische Zeitung, a philosophical periodical influenced by Hegel and subject to the laws of Prussia; and Marx’s written commentary is censored, and he and his journal colleagues—whose work Marx finds too literary, too vague—are arrested; yet one of them offers Karl work in Paris, where he moves and lives with his aristocratic wife Jenny and their baby. Four years older than the dark-eyed, curly-haired Karl, Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps), who misses her family and a favorite attendant, is concerned about a servant girl’s theft, but as they owe her two months’ salary, Karl does not object to that theft. Does Jenny want to return to her disapproving family; or will Karl ask his editor for money owed? The motion picture makes plain how editors are both enablers and exploiters of writers.

The philosopher Proudhon speaks of workers creating wealth yet suffering poverty, arguing for liberty and security as natural rights, at a political rally attended by Karl Marx (August Diehl) and his wife Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps), who abandoned boredom and wealth for love and shares Marx’s understanding. There, Karl Marx meets Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (Ivan Franek), and Marx and Jenny take issue with Proudhon’s abstractions, and his defining of property as theft—and point to the consequent difficulty of defining theft: a conundrum, as to call property theft is to deny the possibility of ownership (if there is no ownership there can be no theft). Marx’s ideas are further developed after he renews an acquaintance with Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) at the well-furnished home of his editor Arnold Ruge, who is generous with refreshments while owing Marx payment for work. (Ruge published the short-lived German-French Yearbooks, for which Marx was a writer and editor. Ruge was not the only person they both knew: Moses Hess encouraged each toward the new faith—socialism; although they would break with Hess for his focus on nationality and race.) After Marx and Friedrich Engels spar a little, Engels, the author of The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1945), compliments Marx for putting Hegelian philosophy back on its feet, for being a genius; and Karl Marx (August Diehl) compliments Engels for his examination of both workers and owners in his own work. Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a well-dressed man of sensual appetites as well as intellectual and political commitments, had observed the difficulties of workers in his father’s Manchester (Ermen & Engels) cotton mill, where Friedrich has been a clerk and befriended workers. Friedrich Engels is a sophisticated, suave figure: a lover of languages, and a sportsman (he fences, rides, swims), Engels seems to have been capable in a variety of ways, among them business and military service—facts alluded to, more than dramatized. The two men, Friedrich and Karl, leave the Ruge apartment and run from the Parisian police, who are checking identification and authorization documents; and they go to a cafe, where they play chess and drink and talk about the importance of materialism, of changing the world—and they plan to write a book together. Karl studies, begins to elaborate a labor theory of value; and the two men see the abstract and material aspects of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s work but value the materialist more, while rubbing shoulders with other thinkers and artists, such as the painter Courbet. I would love to have heard a conversation among an intellectual, an artist, and an activist on the different approaches to changing consciousness and thereby helping to change the world. These figures, in principle and practice, both complement and contest each other’s authority, perspective, and vision.

Karl Marx (Diehl), to a Paris political gathering drawn from different cities, probably the Communist Correspondence Committee, speaks of work as a commodity laborers are forced to sell, and he encourages a radical way of thinking that gets him in trouble following an attempt to kill the king of Prussia. Marx and his wife Jenny (Krieps), who is pregnant, are given twenty-four hours to get out of Paris, the likely result of international pressure. Exile to Brussels, Belgium, where Marx has trouble finding work and is forbidden political activity, will further impoverish Marx. Friedrich Engels, born in Prussia, the son of a prosperous Protestant businessman father with factories in Barmen and Manchester, for whom Friedrich works, is comfortable in body but somewhat divided in spirit: Friedrich (Konarske) enjoys fox-hunting and card-playing, as he tells his father, who is offended by the sacrilegious title of his son’s collaboration with Marx, a work of criticism (The Holy Family, 1845), and responds that Friedrich consorts with communists and loose women; but Friedrich—a past admirer of Heine and Hegel who has moved on to more radical thought—feels implicated in the exploitation of workers—Friedrich sees them as exploited but with a fighting spirit, a transformative force. (The senior Engels wants to know what he should tell Friedrich’s mother, his wife, Elizabeth, about her son—and Friedrich stalks away; but, apparently, Friedrich was close to his mother—and it might have been interesting to see how and why.) Friedrich visits his Irish lover, the unschooled but smart and forceful Mary Burns (Hannah Steele) and her sister Lizzy (they meet in a shabby dwelling); and he calls his father a walking prison. Mary Burns has arranged a meeting with the League of the Just, an activist group, for Engels and Marx, who have been writing each other letters: while Engels writes of his own social contradictions, Marx complains of poverty but speaks of a book Marx wants to write—and Engels sends Marx money and tells him of the planned meeting with the League of the Just, a meeting that Jenny, having giving birth with the aid of longtime Westphalen family servant, encourages Marx to attend. Most of the League men are hard and cynical, although Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), an inspiring speaker and organizer, is poetic; and Marx dropping Proudhon’s name among them boosts the friends’ credibility. However, a subsequent meeting in Brussels with Wilhelm Weitling, Karl Grun and others does not go well, with Marx criticizing the lack of precision in the Weitling associates’ political language. Raoul Peck is not afraid to show Marx as someone willing to hustle and bully—which may suggest egotism or the inevitable corruption of politics. Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), a tailor and an activist who appeals to sentiment rather than being a scientific socialist, says that criticism devours everything then devours itself. Marx and Engels, later, are reprimanded for their rude disrespect by the League of the Just, but the League asks them to become members and to help with revising its political platform.

Marx (August Diehl) and Engels (Stefan Konarske) meet Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) in Brussels and asks him to work with the League—which has been joined with Marx’s Communist Correspondence Committee—but Proudhon is too busy; and Proudhon (Gourmet) gives the men his book, The Philosophy of Poverty (1847), warning against internecine bickering, but Marx writes a response, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Marx and Engels are becoming controversial even among radicals (the influential Marx would die a legal citizen of no nation). At a London congress of the League of the Just, others try to keep Engels and Marx on the margins, but the crowd votes to allow Engels to speak and they soon take over, giving the group a new name and motto: The Communist League—and Workers of all countries unite. There is momentum in their quest to change the world; but how will they communicate their vision to the general public, to the world’s workers? In Ostend, while Jenny and Mary talk about family, children, and work, Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895)—Engels who, eventually, would write The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (1888); and would edit and publish much of Karl Marx’s Capital after Marx’s death—encourages Marx to work on a political catechism, on a declarative doctrine: and together, the men and their companions work on the manifesto: _A spectre is haunting Europe… The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat…The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization_—or so that is how I remember that last scene.

What is the nature of reality? Of what does the world consist? What does it mean to be human? The writer and cultural theorist Stuart Hall was one of many who remind us of how meaning itself is constructed, an important fact perpetually forgotten, periodically remembered—originality as well as rebellion begins with remembrance, with knowledge of what has been created before we act. Stuart Hall, a revered intellectual, the director of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and New Left Review editor, wrote of meaning as being embedded in language and its categories, in an invoked combination of signs and symbols. In Hall’s Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg (Duke University Press, 2016), Hall wrote, “Meaning is not something which is out there in the world apart from language which language, acting simply like a mirror, reflects. The world is what it is, and societies use the instrumentality of symbolism to make certain relations in the world intelligible to them. They have to impose a system of meaning on the world. The system of meaning is derived from the categories into which they break up the world, and from the rules of combining and recombining those meanings which they have identified for themselves. Meaning and intelligibility are articulated onto the world. It is not given or already present in the world and then simply expressed or reproduced through language” (page 66). Stuart Hall, who had a sense of the past, present, and future, was interested in formulations of philosophy and politics as well as culture that offered useful (radical, reforming) conceptions of social interactions. Yet, Stuart Hall looked beyond idealizations to the knotty, loose, messy ways in which daily existence is usually lived; and he recognized Marx’s attempt to use philosophy to illuminate practice; and, as Hall wrote, “Marx offered many formulations of the relationship between subjects and history in his efforts to arrive at the notion that, although it may be said that men and women make history, they do not do so under conditions of their own choosing. They are always placed and located in social relations whether they will it or not. Thus, from a very early stage of his writings, Marx insists on the decentering of the subject. Whether his polemic is aimed at philosophical or anthropological humanism, the move away from notions of a fully transitive historical agent is central to Marx in any period,” wrote Stuart Hall in Cultural Studies 1983 (page 100).

Raoul Peck, who had grown up while there was dictatorship in Haiti, said that life in Berlin introduced him to the texts of Karl Marx, which he found instrumental in understanding capitalism, the clash of classes, and social inequality. I myself, a country boy living in a city, relished possibilities, loved the arts, and had read a variety of writers affirming complexity, intelligence, sensitivity, and rebellion before reading Marx in college; and I recall a professor’s leading our class through Marx’s manuscripts of the 1840s, which still maintained the consideration of human complexity and sympathy in addition to attempts at materialist or scientific analyses. I know that many of us look for a great key to understanding, but usually a key, despite our hope or insistence, opens some doors but not all—and other keys are needed: and in the time in which I studied Marx, many people were combining his insights with those of Freud, Foucault, Derrida, and American and international political critics, activists, and artists. The achieved understanding did more for one’s conversations and friendships than for political change—which remained difficult, taking place on a more primitive plane, often involving the contentions of old tribal hates and the promotion of virtues—compassion, justice—that were not always desired or even respected by majorities of the voting populace. Years pass—and there is some change: often we see cycles of progress and retrogress, retrogress and progress. Of course, Peck has asserted that Karl Marx was more descriptive than prescriptive—if true, that would be something to remember.

Karl Marx described a world in which society was created and destroyed and built anew by the clash of classes, expressed in the domination, exploitation, and transformation of the material world—of nature, of resources, of men and women and children. The goods and services on which society depended and thrived were the result of exploitation, labor that was contracted, and alienated from desire and pleasure, but paid for incompletely and unequally. The modes of production—in human relations, and in technology—shaped sensibilities, shaped society. His was a view of a world that lacked justice, and that required transformation. Some of the thinkers who anticipated or influenced Karl Marx who prepared the way for Karl Marx, as direct antecedents or interesting competitors were Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Charles Fourier, Francois Guizot, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Moses Hess, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Francois Mignet, David Ricardo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Augustin Thierry, and Adolphe Thiers; and some of the intellectuals, writers, and artists Marx influenced are Theodor Adorno, W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Walter Benjamin, Angela Davis, Daniel DeLeon, John Dos Passos, Terry Eagleton, Ralph Ellison, Eugene Genovese, Jean-Luc Godard, Antonio Gramsci, David Hare, Ernest Hemingway, Sidney Hook, C.L.R. James, Fredric Jameson, Georg Lukacs, Manning Marable, Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, Toni Morrison, George Padmore, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Steinbeck, Raymond Williams, and Richard Wright. Was Karl Marx a scientist? A prophet?

“The very core of his theory was that work is profoundly dignified and unjustly despised. He rebelled against the degradation of work to the level of a commodity and of the worker to the level of an object. He reminded the privileged that their privileges were not divine and that property was not an eternal right. He gave a bad conscience to those who had no right to a clear conscience, and denounced with unparalleled profundity a class whose crime is not so much having had power as having used it to advance the ends of a mediocre society deprived of any real nobility,” wrote Albert Camus of Karl Marx in the chapter “Historical Rebellion,” part of Camus’s commentary on literature and philosophy, and rebellion and revolution in the book The Rebel (Vintage/Random House, 1956; page 209). Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a philosopher, essayist, and journalist as well as a distinguished writer of fiction and drama: he wrote The Stranger (1946), The Plague (1948) and The Fall (1957). I recall reading while in high school Albert Camus’s play Caligula, published in his Caligula and Other Plays (1958), and then in my twenties his essays in The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) and my early thirties his fiction; and I seem to rediscover a different aspect of Camus’s work in every decade. Camus is always appropriate: he recognizes the difficulty of changing human nature—and the fact that one person’s achieving dignity and honor can be a model for practice and a symbol of victory for others. Albert Camus brings insight to extraordinary thought and extreme experience while himself remaining comprehensible and compassionate. Yet, Camus, who recognized similarities between the capitalists and communists in their shared focus on technical production and economics, recalls Marx’s ambiguous anticipation of a dictatorship of the proletariat before the dissolution of all classes, a prospect likely to be chilling to those who cannot remember any safe or even sane dictatorships. How often do morality and power share a throne? “Marxism is not scientific; at the best, it has scientific prejudices,” declared Camus, finding historical reason as romantic as any—especially in its denial of chance and affirmation of determinism—although such reason may be made compelling through the imposition of terror (The Rebel; page 220).

Conformity or change? Reform or revolution? In Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx, Engels (Stefan Konarske) enters a private club with Marx (August Diehl) and Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), wanting to get out of the cold, and there Engels meets one of his father’s friends, a factory owner who employs child labor. Engels, Marx, and Burns chide the man about his factory’s conditions, working hours, and wages; and the owner says that if labor costs more, there would be no more profits, and with no profits, no economy, and then no society. In returning us to a vision of young Marx and Engels, filmmaker Raoul Peck brings us back to a time of possibilities: what did they think, what might they become, how might they change the world? We can see the contradictions and the suffering that they observed and their clarity and courage in trying to address them. We can set those possibilities against what has happened since, the successes and failures of political struggle—and in light of one of the recent cyclical crises in capitalism, which brought banks to the edge of failure and lost people jobs and homes, amid the dwindling power of labor unions’ ability to protect fewer and fewer members. The film does not answer every question about the lives or philosophies of Marx and Engels—I would like to have seen more of their relation to culture, and to know more about how they thought of sensuality and spirituality. Did they have favorite foods or music? Did they like their neighbors? Did they have patience for ordinary people not part of the political struggle? Were there any established political leaders that they liked just for trying to make improvements? Some may think the film was inadequately personal, others too personal. On the World Socialist Web Site (March 15, 2017), reviewer Peter Schwarz, likely after a (Berlin?) festival screening, had noted that some of the film’s dialogues are hard to understand because of the complexity and drama of the action—Schwarz thought there was too much about the personal lives of Marx and Engels; and he seemed to argue with the nature of narrative film, with its limited ability to sustain intellectual discourse—although in such cinema, ideas come as well in the form of character and gesture, atmosphere and surrounding objects as well as plot, and do not have to be explicitly named, as they are embodied ideas, readily perceptible. Peter Schwarz emphasized the significance of Karl Marx’s revolutionary focus on manufacturing production and political practices, on participation in labor and political struggles. Whereas, as I remarked earlier, film critic Kenneth Turan (The Los Angeles Times) found Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx audacious and engrossing, and Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) thought it cerebral and gripping, Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic (March 2, 2018) was impatient and irreverent, noting communism’s contrary legacies and faulting the film for being too simple and tedious; and Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor (February 23, 2018) declared the film had little depth, finding the sensibilities of its two male lead characters repellent, and wanting the film’s treatment of history to have both more intensity and more irony. Critic A.O. Scott, in the New York Times (February 23, 2018), whose perspective remains prominent not merely for his perception but for the prestige and popularity of his publication, appreciated the presentation of a contentious history and admired its performances and portrait of a struggling writer, remarking on the film’s display of the simultaneous necessity and marginalization of women’s efforts, and Scott commended the film’s precision and insight. Of course, more than one writer alluded to the violent history of political practice in the name of Marx around the world in the last century. (DG, October 2018)

This article was submitted in October 2018

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 26, Issue 9-10-11 / November 2022 Film Reviews   bio pic   friedrich engels   karl marx   raoul peck   russian history