In the century and a half or so since his death, Karl Marx’s life and immense body of work have invited both popular and scholarly attention. The theories he put forth in his writings offer an alternative to predominant forms of governance and economy and have, of course, underpinned the foundational philosophies of several nations. The facts of Marx’s life and work, however, are oftentimes obscured by both the arbitrary elevation of the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto and various socio-political reactions to the emergence of communism as a movement and ideology. With regard to the former, as Terrell Carver notes, the Manifesto was not widely read upon its initial publication and was nearly forgotten by the early 1870s, when another wave of revolution swept Europe (Carver 68). In terms of the latter, campaigns by leaders of all political stripes have gone to great lengths to misconstrue Marx as a villain who advocated the theft of personal property and the suppression of individual rights.

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For every misinformed reaction, however, there are efforts to critically analyze and expound upon his work and legacy in order to present a more accurate and academically rigorous portrait of the man. Carver’s essay on the posthumous rebranding of the Manifesto undertaken by Friedrich Engels and Steger’s exploration of the resuscitation of Marxian thought in the aftermath of 1989 represent two such efforts. Likewise, the 2017 film The Young Karl Marx presents both men’s historical and personal contexts which inform their revolutionary writing. The three texts are helpful to examine in concert because they help illuminate the ways in which Marx and Engels both responded to the distinct challenges of their time and provided commentary on social and economic conditions which persist into the present. Thus, they have remained relevant in multiple respects.

Viewing The Young Karl Marx in conjunction with reading Carver’s work is especially helpful because of the ways in which each fill in the narrative leading up and following the composition of the Manifesto. The film crucially concludes as Marx, Engels, von Westphalen, and Burns are compiling and editing the Manifesto (The Young Karl Marx). While the narrative builds toward the composition of the Manifesto (and, perhaps, inadvertently frames the publication of the tract as the high point of Marx and Engels’ careers), it also shows the experiences which solidified the groups’ approach to the burgeoning communist philosophy. The Young Karl Marx establishes the groups’ social and historical context and the viewer discerns how their interactions with the intelligentsia and laborers of Europe—as well as personal struggles with poverty—were foundational in their critiques of the stages of history and social stratification of the Western world. The concepts upon which emergent communist texts are built, such as the distinctions between the bourgeoisie, proletariat, and the lumpen-proletariat or the fundamental ways in which the particularly insidious form of capitalism introduced by the Industrial Revolution reshaped the family, are best understood by examining how Marx and Engels (as well as figures like Bakunin, Proudhon, and Grün) experienced them over the course of the nineteenth century. The Young Karl Marx provides a taste of that insight.

Carver suggests that, following Marx’s death, Engel’s subsequent work on posthumous editions of the Manifesto helped create the popular impression that Marx was, to a small degree, a more solitary figure. The film, however, firmly establishes Marx’s reliance on von Westphalen, Engels, and Burns as both intimates and points of professional connection in the years leading up to the composition of the Manifesto. Indeed, it seems The Young Karl Marx correctly positions the creation of the Manifesto as both a collaborative effort and an effort intended for the Communist League that may gain greater significance at a later date. Carver’s essay supports this latter point in his remarks about its largely ephemeral status and relative unimportance in the lives of its authors in the wake of the immense changes taking place across Europe (Carver 69).

Despite the facts of the Manifesto’s existence from 1848 to 1872, it has been raised as an integral communist text since the late nineteenth century and retains its essential status despite multiple soundings of the death knell of communism. Steger’s survey of the radical left’s response to communism’s alleged demise following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumphalism of neoliberal globalization (he provides an in-depth look into David Harvey’s ruminations, specifically) presents one current perspective on the enduring applicability of Marxist thought and the Manifesto, in particular. Marx and Engel’s attention to the ways in which capitalism requires, “…geographical expansion, spatial reorganization, and, most importantly, uneven geographical development,” (Seger 185) and their, “…insights into the geographical dynamics of capital accumulation and class struggle on a worldwide scale,” (Steger 186) are suggestive of their texts’ ongoing reliability and relevance—quite contrary to neoliberal proclamations of the death of Marxism. Indeed, Marxist thought is quite well-equipped to deal with the ramifications of capitalism’s geographic reorganization.

The Young Karl Marx reflects this timeliness by creating an engaging portrait of the key moments in which the brilliance of Marx, Engels, von Westphalen, and Burns converged, and the group revolted against both the prevailing society and the largely-ornamental leftist standard of the period. While the film is not necessarily dense with regard to theory, the director trusts the intelligence of his audience and does not shy away from presenting key elements of the early Marxist thought. The Young Karl Marx is as much about exploring the early life of Marx and his immediate circle as it is about providing commentary on the philosopher whose work is in another period of revival in light of increasingly disproportionate wealth accumulation and charges of generational burnout as a result of late-stage capitalism. As the film and the Carver and Steger texts point out, the life and works of Marx and his companions remain significant and influential within the realms of both history and the present.

    References
  • Carver, Terrell. “The Manifesto in Marx’s and Engel’s Lifetimes.” The Cambridge Companion to The Communist Manifesto, edited by Terrell Carver and James Farr. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 67-83.
  • Steger, Manfred B. “The Specter of the Manifesto Stalks Neoliberal Globalization: Reconfiguring Marxist Discourse(s) in the 1990s.” The Cambridge Companion to The Communist Manifesto, edited by Terrell Carver and James Farr. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 175-194.
  • The Young Karl Marx. Directed by Raoul Peck, performances by August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet, and Hannah Steele. Diaphana Films, 2017.