I was thoroughly enthused and inspired by Raoul Peck’s film The Young Marx, when I watched at the ICA, London recently, writes Derek Wall. However, I appreciate that not everyone who has seen it was as happy as me, so I will try discuss both what I felt was wonderful and what can be criticised about it. The film looks at the life of Karl Marx but it is very much the story of Jenny Marx (his wife), Frederick Engels and Engels’s partner the working class Irish woman Mary Burns. It might also be said to be the film of the Communist Manifesto.
I found it highly enjoyable and entertaining. The political content was also, to my mind, sophisticated and important. I can imagine someone going to the cinema to watch it and becoming convinced of the importance of Marx’s work and throwing themselves into a life of communist political commitment.
The film opens with a scene in a German forest of peasants collecting fallen wood, a right to use the commons. The peasants are attacked by soldiers on horseback, the loss of commoners rights and the enclosure of the commons, was said by Engels to have been a key reason for Marx’s turn to communism. The film tracks Marx and his wife Jenny, as they are exiled first from Germany and then France, before finally settling in Britain.
The film details the strong comradeship between the four main characters. To my mind a very great virtue is the emphasis put on Mary Burns. A working class Irish woman in Manchester, she met Engels and they became lovers until her death 1863. Her death and the coldness of Marx’s reception to the event, was the one time, Marx and Engels came close to falling out ( See here) After Mary’s death, Engels then lived with her sister Lizzie, who he eventually married.
Surprisingly little is known about Mary, for example, few documents or letters survive about her but she plays a pivotal role in the film. Engels, best known as co author of The Communist Manifesto, was the son of a factory owner and ended up working for the family firm in Manchester. Mary Burns may have introduced Engels both to members of the English working class and encouraged him to support the struggles of the Irish people. The key word is ‘may’.
Engels book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1845, might have been difficult to research for an author who was both German and a capitalist, Mary perhaps was important to putting him in touch with workers. The Condition of the Working Class in England was greatly admired by Marx and must have helped cement their lifelong political relationship.
Raoul Peck knows his Marxism thoroughly. A former minister of culture in Haiti’s left wing government of the 1990s, his films include I am not your Negro, about the African-American novelist James Baldwin and the polemical Profit and Nothing But or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle. He has produce a film aimed at popularising Marxist thought and linking it to contemporary 21st struggles against capitalism, racism and a ranger of injustices. The film is a poetic and beautiful piece of militancy.
However, it is possible to criticise The Young Marx and some viewers will be less moved than me. A careful examination could I am sure be used to catalogue a huge list of historical inaccuracies. Most of these involve Mary Burns. Mary becomes a central character, as I am sure she was in the events depicted, however while she was no doubt an important influence on Engels the film takes some poetic license with her life. She is seen as introducing Marx and Engels to the League of the Just, who commissioned them to write the Communist Manifesto. However, there is no evidence for this at all or indeed for some other parts of the plot involving her.
This is a film with a genre that relates to many mainstream plot devices that audiences will be familiar with. Thus, the existence of numerous jokes, sex scenes, family tensions (between Engels and his reactionary father) and even, a rather contrived chase through Paris, might all be viewed as cliched and unnecessary.
My view is that the film bridges the gap between demanding political film making and entertainment and should be praised for doing so. While there are inaccuracies, Peck’s understanding of Marxist concepts is extremely strong and key notions of the need for class analysis, intense political struggle and the refinement of conceptual analysis to inform such struggle are made. Marx and Engels disputes with such figures as the anarchist writer Proudhon and the trade unionist Wilhelm Weitling are portrayed with intensity.
Watching The Young Marx was a delight and I hope all of us who have benefitted from engagement with Marx’s work will encourage others to watch it.