Michael Swartz / March 2, 2018

A ‘Young Karl Marx’ for the Youth of the World

Marx is portrayed as a sympathetic figure for today’s youth, enamored as they are with socialism.

While there’s no shortage of subjects suitable for heroic portrayal on the silver screen, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has chosen to create movies about those who are dear to him. His documentary about writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was nominated for an Oscar last year, and it’s possible that his newest film will be a nominee next year as well. Its subject: Karl Marx.

In “The Young Karl Marx,” Peck has chosen a subject that’s definitely unique: “There’s a reason why there’s been no other film about Marx in the Western world, ever,” Peck explained. (Might that reason be the legacy of tyranny and terror created by the movement his works spawned?) The biopic comes from the perspective of a man who further opined about The Communist Manifesto, “When you read the first chapter, it’s exactly a description of what’s happened in the last 30 years. The expansion of capitalism. The total craziness of speculation. The fact that it will invade the whole planet. That’s exactly what happened. So it’s important to know your history. Otherwise you’re just a puppet following the next populist who promises you paradise.”

Peck’s film, however, looks at the four years in Marx’s life immediately preceding the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. It depicts a struggling young writer and editor with a wife and growing family, and something of a “bromance” between Marx and fellow traveler Friedrich Engels, who co-wrote the book with Marx. Taken from correspondence, meeting notes and quotations, this modern-day treatment of Marx is designed for a certain target audience. “Marx gets a sex scene, drinks too much with Engels … and complains about not getting paid on time, but ‘The Young Karl Marx’ also spends a lot of time in heated intellectual exchange, as the intemperate Marx argues with other revolutionary luminaries of the day,” according to one glowing review. Even more thrilling to Peck was the reception the film received abroad, “where youth movements centered meetings and reunions around screenings.”

To make Marx into a more sympathetic figure, Peck even goes so far as to deny that for which many give him and Engels credit (or blame): “Marx and Engels would have probably been the first ones to be shot” during the Bolshevik uprising, asserted Peck. “This incredible monster that was fabricated after the Russian Revolution has nothing to do with their ideas.” Isn’t it amazing how many nations have tried communism and just not implemented it correctly? After all, how bad can the philosophy really be coming from a regular-guy family man and his closest comrade, right?

In defending his movie, Peck even looks at current events, noting, “You can see, like, even the young kids from Florida right now who are protesting and asking for more gun control. They have understood the connection between money, between capital, between profit and that there are people who are capable of choosing the worst decision if it will preserve their profit.” While Peck is speaking the truth in some limited cases, the vast majority of us endeavor to make the best decisions in pursuit of a common good within a system that’s been shown without fail to create the most positive outcome for the most people. After all, Peck had to use the capitalist system to finance his film, even as funding was “difficult to assemble.”

“The Young Karl Marx” isn’t the kind of film that will challenge “Black Panther” and its $700-plus million (and counting) take — particularly with the decidedly mixed reviews “Marx” is getting. But that’s not the point. In a way, this movie flips the Saul Alinsky rules on their head by making the dreaded Karl Marx into a sympathetic figure not unlike any other young hipster who’s struggling to get by, at a moment in time when socialism is the philosophical love interest among our misguided youth. Contrast that with the treatment most capitalists (or Christians) receive on film, and you’ll see why some may be upset at what Hollywood considers a film worth promoting for dirty capitalist profit.

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