Overview: The Young Karl Marx
I never thought I’d see a well-made and entertaining movie where one of the dramatic highlights has Marx and Engels successfully promoting scientific socialism against utopian dreamer socialism – ‘All Men Are Brothers’ – Really? Are the Bourgeoisie your brothers? No! …. Marx and Engels show the League of the Just the error of their ways, and succeed in turning it into the first Communist League. Yes! Yes! I almost had tears in my eyes.
Raoul Peck’s movie is a fascinating insight into the early years of the most important and influential double-act in history. What were Marx and Engels doing before they met, how did they meet and how did their collaboration affect each of them? What were their family lives like, and how did they relate to and interact with the other leading figures of the day? It’s a great story, well-acted and beautifully filmed.
A major theme for me, and something that wasn’t as apparent as it should have been, was the critical impact Engels had on Marx. Engels provided much needed funding, without which Marx would not have been able to continue writing, but he also made two other critical interventions – he urged Marx to read the British economists – including Smith and Ricardo – from which Marx was able to fully round out his at that time more Hegelian approach – and he realised the importance of writing a short and accessible polemic, which became the Communist Manifesto – the most important secular book ever written.
Also running through the movie is the reactionary backdrop against which Marx and friends were writing. The Prussian state was of course particularly oppressive, and one of the first scenes of the movie has the young Marx thrown in jail along with the other writers of a subversive newspaper. Later he gets deported from Paris for writing an article criticising the Prussian king.
And then we follow our swashbuckling heroes as they confront injustice – there’s a cool scene towards the end of the movie where Marx confronts a factory owner that relies on child labour, and is able to debunk all of the justifications he gives for this state of affairs, leaving the factory owner humiliated (and rather angry, it must be said) – get drunk together (Engel’s is a much more accomplished drinker than the lightweight Marx) – and have sex … no, not together, although at some points in the movie the boys do seem to be closer to each other than they do to their respective partners.
And finally there’s the interesting contrast between Marx’s more traditional approach to the family and relations with women – he marries a woman from an aristocratic family, and has two children – to the more feminist Engel’s open relationship with an Irish woman that used to work in his father’s mill before being sacked. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie has Marx’s wife and Engel’s partner discussing whether Engel’s partner would ever have children – an expectation then even more than today – to which she answers that if Engels wants children he can have them with her 16 year sister, when the time is right.
And then, to make sure that you leave the cinema punching the air in a Workers of the World Unite salute, the closing titles feature a montage of revolutionary footage against a Bob Dylan soundtrack. Here is the rose, here dance.
My rating: 9/10