young carlmarx

Revisiting The Young Karl Marx in the time of a Global Pandemic

Written by; Priyanka Aravind

There have been International films (animations and documentary included) which engaged with the life and philosophy of the founder of Communism like Year as Long as Life, Godard’s Week End, Marx Reloaded etc. The Young Karl Marx (Le juene Karl Marx) can be called a 2017 historical drama or an engaging biopic of Marx, directed by the Haitian film maker and political activist Raoul Peck. The film screened in that year’s Berlin Film Festival was co-written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer. It has an Imdb rating of 6.6/10, whereas The Guardian’s review of Peter Bradshaw gave 4/5 saying, “It shouldn’t work, but it does, due to the intelligence of the acting and the stamina anad concentration of the writing and directing.”


The film begins with a bleak scene of emaciated, ghost-like people being hacked and tortured by the Prussian police for gathering twigs from the forest. That is the picture of the Europe in the 1840s, at the peak of absolute monarchy before the gradual formation of the working class organisations. On the one side there are the filthy rich factory owners, the aristocracy who are called the ‘bourgeois’ and on the other, the over exploited workers who live in the slums (the proliterait). Peck had brilliantly captured the plight of the labourers through a scene inside the Ermen & Engels Mill in Manchester (owned by the Engels family) where the owner doesn’t give any assistance to the woman worker who loses her fingers while running the machine, but on the contrary dismisses the rebellious Irish worker Mary Burns (who is later to become Engel’s wife) who protests. The antagonism of both the classes as well as the Irish- English tensions are portrayed well.

The film stars August Diehl (Marx), Stefan Konarske (Engels), Vicky Krieps (Jenny) and Hannah Steele (Mary Burns). The film revolves around the meeting and camaraderie of both giants of Communism and explores their personal lives as well. A ragged, sharp journalist Marx meets his intellectual partner Engels; a renegade rich kid of a factory owner, in Cologne of Germany in 1844. They shared contempt for young Hegelians, whom Marx scoff as social critics. They set out to write ‘Critique of the Critical Critique’ which gets published as “Critique of the Holy Family”. By a coup of the ‘League of Just’ autumn congress, they restructure the association with the slogan of ‘Workers of the World, Unite’and The Communist League was born.

Until his friendship takes off with Engels, he lives in a bohemian penury with Jenny, who had left her restful aristocratic life in her Westphalen family for her love to the revolutionary thinker Marx. Marx is hunted down by both bill collectors and the police of Prussia from Cologne to Paris, and later to Brussels for his critique and subversion of the State. Here one thing has to be noted that, both words ‘criticism’ and ‘critique’, although they look similar have very distinct roots and etymology. Marx was the practitioner of critique.

The role played by Jenny (a rebellious aristocrat who marries Marx) and Mary Burns (Irish factory worker) in the lives and work of both Marx and Engels is also dealt with in the film. Jenny is shown as a revolutionary of great intelligence in the combination scene with Proudhon, where she criticizes the senior philosopher’s (author of ‘The Philosophy of Poverty’) abstract understanding of property and theft. These women’s role is nevertheless significant, despite its marginalisation, if not total absence in the history of Communism.

Karl Marx wrote in his Communist Manifesto (1848), that “a spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism.” Today nearly two centuries later, in a global Capitalist world hit by Corona Virus, the spectral appearance of Communism and Marx’s ideas of an egalitaian society are being more relevant and discussed across the world. We have seen how the capitalist nations have utterly failed to save the lives of their citizens, investing on war with poor public health management systems. Today, the disaster capitalism is keen on cashing the pandemic with a price hike on the essentials like masks, sanitisers etc, while offering free tests to the elite. Let alone the case of USA, in India 16 migrant workers were mowed down by a train as they unfortunately slept over railway track en route their homes on foot. The killer train is a symbol of the State’s apathy to its own workers whom, it needs to build up the cities, but are treated as nobodies in the long run.

In the meantime, Cuba had done exemplary work by sending their medical team to different nations, as well as receiving the British ship with Covid patients on board; while none else did. The state of Kerala too stands apart from the other Indian states with its commitment and care about the well being of the people. The poor and depressed classes are being taken care of along with the fight against Covid 19.

corona virus in india

We can see that the film is a product of thorough research in Marx’s life and contributions. Therefore, the film can also serve as an entry point into Marx’s texts for a curious reader; otherwise a drab emotional drama with unending talks. There is a major take away for practising Communists from the film as well; the argument between Marx and Wilhelm Weitling (played by Alexander Scheer). A younger Marx sees through the hollowness of Weitling’s crowd pulling speeches, and says that its offensive to arm up workers with no theoretical doctrine. Are our leaders capable of envisioning the future and rise above petty party politics? Do we have the unstoppable spirit of critique in us? As Marx says in the film, “Ignorance hasn’t helped anyone.”

Corona has definitely given us a blow to stop for a while and reconsider our policies. We shall not be investing hugely on wars yet to come, but strengthen the public health systems and the basic infrastructure. Rather than spending crores on statues, the money shall be educating the girls and boys of deprived classes. The idea of an equitable society, with equal opportunities and a shrinking gap between the rich and the poor shall be the new standard for measuring development. Haven’t we yet learned that human being can survive standing together, as a society? Together, we shall break the chains of the virus, and predatory capitalism.

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