By Marc W. Polite
The origins of modern socialism is a story that is not often told. When people think of communism and socialism, they often think of totalitarian states or countries that have strong social welfare programs. Some political observers would have many believe that socialism and communism are 20th century tendencies. However, when reading and studying closely, one finds out quickly that these ideas have their roots in the 19th Century. The Young Karl Marx shows the life events of Marx, as well as the political realities faced by European reformers and radicals of the 1840’s.
Directed by Raoul Peck, The Young Karl Marx depicts the meeting of German philosophers and activists Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Peck, who is also the director of the critically acclaimed James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” has created an interesting bio pic that also covers much of the political struggles that these two collaborators endured. August Diehl plays Karl Marx, and Stefan Konarske plays Frederick Engels, the infamous co-authors of the 19th century revolutionary tract, the Communist Manifesto.
There were socialist tendencies in Europe that predated the Communist Manifesto and its publication in 1848, but what Marx and Engels co-authored constituted a break with those other formulations. The Young Karl Marx delves into this, showing the influence of his contemporaries such as Proudhon and Weitling among a few others. In the years of their collaboration leading up to 1848, the film documents the censorship, exile, and police harassment of these two German writers. In German and French with English subtitles, the movie shows the activity of The League of the Just, an organization of socialists across Europe that Marx and Engels would join and forge into the First Communist League.
Adherents to Marx and Engels emphasis on revolutionary socialism and the inability to reform capitalism, would come to be known as Marxists.
This film, is instructive for our times. There is a resurgence of interest in socialism due to worsening conditions in this country. In the time of Marx and Engels, capitalism had the capacity to expand. Today, in this era of late stage capitalism, it only does so at the expense of other parts of the world. Inequality is worsening, and threatens wider war and plenty of barbarism. Although this document was published 170 years ago, it still accurately describes the human condition. 19th century conditions were brutal, and the 21st century seems to be headed back in that direction. French economist Thomas Piketty in his work Capital in the 21st Century alludes to this new reality.
Peck has created a film that inspires people to return to the big questions. Marx once famously remarked that “philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it.” In these trying days, millions are beginning to ask how to do that. The Young Karl Marx is a film worth seeing and discussing.