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March 12, 2018

Film: The Young Karl Marx

I recently watched and very much enjoyed director Raoul Peck's new film, The Young Karl Marx. (It's still in theaters, but is also available to rent on the major platforms.)

The movie spans a short segment of the young philosopher's life, roughly five years, concentrating on Marx's relationships with his wife, Jenny, and his close friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. The narrative culminates with the authoring of the The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, just prior to Marx turning 30.

Instead of a full review, suffice it to say that Peck did a fine job keeping to the history and biography. While still a movie, the effort at fidelity—to people, names, events, language used, etc.—is admirable; Peck did considerable homework. It is also a good piece of filmmaking: the acting and casting are both excellent, the story well told, and the set design nicely detailed.

Also, instead of provide a primer on Marx's thought (see note below), I wish to simply express my hopes that the film reaches a sizable audience. Karl Marx is on that list of writers who are severely misunderstood and fictionalized due to a lack of reading their work. This list would include Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky, and (I recently decided) Thomas Hobbes. However, on such a list, Marx is probably at the top, especially for Americans.

For those new to Marx, I might suggest starting with the movie, actually. As mentioned, yes, it's a movie, not a documentary. But the film does a nice job of humanizing the historical figure, affording him a much needed third dimension.

Some who are new might also be a bit standoffish. This is likely on account of what you have heard your father, uncle, or grandfather say about Marx and "communism" (sermonizing about such topics tends to be a male-dominated activity). Three of the more popular distortions:

1. Marx's thought was on display in the Soviet Union, and what more proof do you need that Marxism is terrible?

2. Marx wanted people to live like ants in a colony, and because people are not ants, "socialism would never work."

3. Marx once said "I am not a Marxist," and therefore didn't believe his own philosophy.

Point 1 is simply wrong and only requires consulting some basic history; the World Book encyclopedia would probably be adequate. Point 2 is my personal favorite (the "people aren't insects" bulletin) and is based on the assumption that Marx was laying out a utopian blueprint, which he wasn't; Marx's work constitutes a methodical and philosophical critique of capitalism. And point 3, while correct in a literal sense—those are his words—Marx's point was that he was not a "Marxist" as the label was being applied in France at the time.

Some reviewers and critics have maintained the film was too intellectual, while some felt it was insufficiently so. I feel Peck struck a nice balance, allowing space for history and concepts as well as a good bit of drama and fun. I've seen it twice now and will likely go in for thirds. A movie worth checking out.


For those looking to get acquainted with Marx:

The School of Life has a ten-minute crash course on Marx on YouTube. For a very short (93 pages) and clear introduction to Marx's life and philosophy, I would suggest David McLellan's book Karl Marx. For a fully developed biography and examination of his thought, I started last year, have returned to, and recommend Jonathan Sperber's relatively recent Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013), which includes a good amount of historical context.

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