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The Young Karl Marx    cover image

The Young Karl Marx 2018

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Passion River Films, 154 Mt. Bethel Rd., Warren, NJ 07059; 732-321-0711
Produced by
Directed by Raoul Peck
DVD, color, 118 min.

General Adult
Marxism, Industries, History

Date Entered: 07/27/2018

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of communist China into a powerhouse of global capitalism, the name and life of Karl Marx appears to many students as ancient, largely irrelevant history, swept into that dustbin of history that Leon Trotksy predicted would be the fate of the capitalist order. This dramatization of the early Karl Marx brings to life the heady world of ideological ferment in the 1840s that transformed Karl Marx and his good friend and associate Friedrich Engels into leaders and icons of a global communist movement.

The story starts in 1843, when the forces of capitalism had gathered, uncontrollably, to create new kinds of cities, driven by steam, coal, and iron. The young Marx was a muckraking journalist, exposing the corruption and injustice of the emerging industrial capitalist system in his homeland, where he faced censorship and the threat of violence from the authorities. Those experiences shaped the more studious and academic Marx who transformed the chaos he witnessed in his native Rheinland, and then in London and Paris, into a coherent theory of history and a plan of revolutionary action. Having teamed together with the son of a wealthy English industrialist, Friedrich Engels, he found a way to meld theory with words, ultimately producing one of the most productive and influential writing teams of all history. The film ends with the production of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, which seemed to its contemporaries to describe perfectly the fatal flaws of capitalism and its seemingly inevitable demise.

Marx’s genius was to connect political revolution with industrial and economic revolution, which began to spread to all of Europe from England by the mid-1800s. These transformations, in Marx's view, had destroyed the economic foundations of the feudal order and paved the way for two new antagonistic classes: the ruling class of the bourgeoisie (the one who operated the new factories and the urban spaces they inhabited) and the exploited class of the urban proletariat (living then mostly in squalor and filth in the disgusting and fetid new urban housing located near the incredibly dirty and polluting factories). He had placed himself and all like-minded people into a position of leadership for this new social class, which was fated, in his view, to inherit the future. On the eve of the 1848 revolutionary upheaval that rocked all of Europe Marx and Engels penned, as if prophetically, their famous Communist Manifesto that seemed both to describe and to predict the revolutionary moment.

Telling this dramatic story of the birth of the modern era of revolution and economic upheaval is no small challenge. The film is especially good at conveying a key point: Marx lived in a time when activists believed that changing the world meant first developing an objective science of human society. Marx’s ability to proclaim the superior objectivity of his ideas versus his revolutionary rivals was critical to his growing influence over the workers’ movement. The major historical protagonists of the era are all here, including the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Bakunin and the radical German socialist Wilhelm Weitling. The film ably conveys this story of intellectual debate, against the backdrop of the personal and economic challenges the young Marx faced in his improbable journey to becoming one of history’s most influential human beings.

The film also highlights one of the ironies of this era – that the revolutionaries were mostly not working people but aristocrats and middle-class professionals. They had converted thinking about revolution into a full-time profession, either because they were independently wealthy, as with Friedrich Engels or Mikhail Bakunin, or because they had found patrons. The film also illustrates the intersection of the personal and private lives of the revolutionaries: Engels, in rebellion against his industrialist father for whom he worked, and Marx, writing and publishing, in part, to gain the money to feed his growing family. It is ironic, of course, that Engels used the money of his capitalist father’s enterprise to bankroll the development and publication of Marx’s revolutionary ideas.