The Young Karl Marx [subtitled in part]

This one for the most part didn’t do it for me. Now the task is to try to figure out why and to articulate that.

It’s a biopic of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as young men in their 20s, for about the half dozen years leading up to their publishing The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

With scenes in Prussia, France, Belgium, and England (at least—I don’t recall if there are any others), the characters move seamlessly from German to English to French (again, at least—there may be other languages), sometimes in the same conversation. For example, Engels and his father are Germans living in England, and when they converse they go back and forth between German and English. In the version I saw, everything other than the English is subtitled.

Marx is a newlywed with a baby at the start of the movie and soon they have a second baby, and Engels meets his eventual common law wife very early in the movie. (I looked it up later, and they never formally married because they were philosophically opposed to the institution of marriage. I’ll just refer to her as his wife to keep it simple. By the way, in one scene he introduces her as his wife.) A fair amount of the movie is about the domestic life of these folks, more so the Marxes.

There’s an interesting contrast in that Marx is presented as perpetually broke with an upper class wife from a wealthy family, whereas Engels is from a wealthy family and has plenty of money and has a working class wife (a radical Irish gal who was fired from his father’s factory for her political insubordination). The couples aren’t quite reverse parallel, though, in that Marx wasn’t really working class. He was from a fairly well-off, prominent family. Maybe he was still mostly broke during this period of his life, but it wasn’t because he was working class.

Which kind of reminds me of David Foster Wallace remarking on the sometimes obscure or surprising class distinctions in the Russia of Dostoyevsky’s novels, where the poverty of a poverty-stricken student (e.g., Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) is manifested in his having only one servant and struggling to pay her. Like Raskolnikov, however broke Marx might be at any given time, he’s still of the class to have servants rather than be a servant.

The domestic life of these couples is one of three main themes or subjects in The Young Karl Marx, and I’d say it’s the one that gets the third most attention of the three.

A second theme is the political and philosophical context of their ideas. To some extent they were highly regarded and successful amongst left wing writers and activists during this time, but their ideas (and their personalities) also at times brought them into conflict with significant figures and groups on the left. Obviously a movie isn’t going to go into great detail in explicating complex works of social science and philosophy, but we do get at least a sense not only of the ideas they espoused but of how they differed from those of some of the other people on the left at that time.

Describing it very loosely: compared to some of the folks they clashed with, they wanted fully and soundly articulated theory over vague rhetoric, they wanted action to go along with that theory rather than being content just to theorize and hope that somehow someway people would later act on it, they wanted radical systemic change rather than incremental change or change within the existing system, they were more willing to break the law or run afoul of established power in general, and they were more willing to use violence.

The third theme, and arguably the one that gets the most emphasis, is the relationship between Marx and Engels. They come across like a couple of cocky, intellectual, ambitious college students who love to drink and debate ideas all night while dreaming about how they’ll change the world. For all intents and purposes this is a buddy movie.

So why does this movie feel more like a failure than a success to me? I mean, it wants to be the Marx and Engels version of The Motorcycle Diaries (a movie I didn’t love, but liked modestly more than The Young Karl Marx); why does it fall short of that?

I’m sure part of the problem I had with it is that it’s not a documentary, and because I’m very conscious of the fact that non-documentaries give themselves the freedom to falsify certain elements either for reasons of entertainment or ideological effectiveness, that prevents me from really trusting the specifics of—and therefore the inferences to be drawn from—what I’m seeing. So if viewers are invited to think that Marx was inspired to come up with such-and-such an idea by this experience he had with his wife, or that Engels persuaded some publisher to take a chance on their material because he made this or that point to him in conversation, or that their rival in some radical political club was something of a self-important buffoon, you really don’t know how true any of that is or whether the filmmaker had some other reason for depicting these things.

Because I’m so used to thinking of Marx and Engels, especially Marx, as older, bearded figures, maybe I had a little trouble adjusting to their being presented as so much like a couple of college kids partying and having intellectual discussions in their dorm room. Whereas it was easier for me to connect with Che Guevara as an idealistic student, since he died young and it’s natural to associate him with a kind of youthful romanticism. Then again, I also sort of found the notion of Marx and Engels as 20-somethings to be appealing precisely because it felt more novel and unexplored.

I’d say The Motorcycle Diaries is more effective on a gut level at showing why someone like Guevara would have been radicalized by the injustice he witnessed in his youth. Not that The Young Karl Marx doesn’t try or isn’t effective at all in this regard, but it didn’t reach me emotionally in the same way.

I doubt much of it is a matter of my being bothered by these two main characters being lionized more than they deserve. I see them as very complex and in some ways problematic figures as far as their ideas and their influence on history, but I don’t see them as out-and-out villains like people on the right might—I don’t feel like with this movie I’m seeing a celebration of the young adulthood and development of someone like Ivan the Terrible, Hitler, or Trump.

In the end, I just felt bored all too often during this movie, like everything from the love stories to the depictions of the plight of the working class, to the debates amongst the intellectuals was OK but not as gripping as it’s intended to be.

Maybe the main thing watching this movie did—arguably the main positive that I take from it—is it caused me to reflect about Marxism and related matters. In thinking about what to write in this piece, I find a lot of that stuff bouncing around in my head. But I’m going to keep such comments to a minimum, because if I get going too far down that road I’ll be biting off way more than I can chew. It’s a huge set of topics, and the idea of trying to articulate and explain all that I think about such matters feels intimidating to say the least. So just a few quick observations:

I’ve always believed that Marx, and Marxists in general, were far, far better at articulating what’s objectionable about unbridled capitalism—a truly ghastly, inhumane system—than at tasks such as predicting and defending what is to replace it and the path to be taken to get there.

Did Marx and Engels succeed in changing the world for the better, as they so passionately worked for? Well, as far as what people who explicitly called themselves Marxists or communists, especially those that achieved state power anywhere, have done in the intervening almost two centuries, the answer is somewhere in between yes and no but closer to no. As far as people more broadly speaking on the left who are in any significant way descendants of Marx and Engels ideologically, I’d say more yes than no.

Where they differed from their near-allies on the left in the movie, I was at least as often against them as for them. I’m a Gandhian pacifist whose moral philosophy puts an overwhelming emphasis on means over ends, so their pooh poohing of kindness, civility, nonviolence, etc. when faced with implacable class enemies did not appeal to me.

Has history proven them wrong in this regard? Well, I guess that’s a mixed bag. I’d say when leftists have pursued their ends with violence, it has mostly been bad, especially where it has meant a violent overthrow of government. (See the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge, and many more.) But someone on the other side could plausibly claim that we wouldn’t have made nearly the progress we have in certain areas if, say, striking workers had never strayed from the most civil, nonviolent, straight and narrow. For that matter, for all they have been demonized, I’d even take certain left wing dictators over the alternative. For instance, I view Castro more favorably than I do Batista and most or all of the Latin American dictators that the U.S. has supported over the years.

Related to that, what is history’s verdict on Marx and Engels’s insistence that the capitalist system as a whole needs to be overthrown, and that piecemeal, incremental change within the system is the wrong approach? So far at least, I think they’ve had the worst of that debate. There has typically been more freedom, more democracy, less avoidable human suffering, etc. where capitalism has been modified by pressure from the left than where it has been overthrown and replaced by a (so-called) communist state, or for that matter where it has successfully resisted pressure from the left.

But whatever is criticizable about Marx or about the political left in general, it’s important to keep in mind the evil they’re fighting against. If a class of slave owners, say, defends their privilege such that someone seeking to free slaves fails in a way that the consequences are worse than had he never tried, then, yes, you need to look at what was morally or strategically wrong with the approach he attempted. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the consequences are not attributable solely to the person who unsuccessfully challenged the injustice, but also—even more so—to the perpetrators of the injustice.

Maybe capitalists have so effectively entrenched themselves at the top that attempts to dislodge them will do more harm than good, but that is hardly a defense of capitalism. You know, when six year old supernatural monster Anthony in the short story and later the famous episode of The Twilight Zone “It’s a Good Life” has his authority challenged, it works out tragically badly for the challenger, and sometimes others through collateral damage, but that doesn’t mean Anthony is a good guy in the story and that he’s not to blame for any such bad consequences.

One of the key points of Marxist philosophy, and one of the ways Marx differed from many of his forerunners and contemporaries, is the notion that the social/political/economic systems and relationships that constitute society change only when the material conditions of society change (as opposed to changing as a result of, say, intellectuals articulating brilliant arguments for why it would be justified for them to change).

Marx thought those conditions had changed or were about to change in the relevant ways to result in the demise of capitalism, but that could have been more wishful thinking and impatience than anything. (The way people routinely convince themselves that a correct reading of prophecy shows that the Second Coming will conveniently occur in their lifetime.) Not to mention there’s a tension between that materialism and activism, in that if you’re using ideas and rhetoric to get people all fired up to force changes then you’re really not relying on the material facts on the ground to inevitably bring about change.

It may be that Marx the theoretician was more right than Marx the activist in the sense that perhaps what will most change if not end capitalism isn’t Marxists actively trying to defeat it, but forces that are difficult to predict or control such as major technological advances or the devastation caused by climate change or other environmental issues. That is, material changes in the facts on the ground, just as he thought.

Anyway, obviously it would take hundreds of pages to even semi-adequately delve into this stuff, so I’ll stop here. The Young Karl Marx is a respectable effort, but it’s a narrow thumbs down for me.

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