Saturday, May 12, 2018

Slogans and Concepts: More on The Young Marx

I was asked to write a longer review of The Young Marx to be published in Italian. I am posting the English here.

Once one gets over the initial shock that a movie about Marx was made in 2017 then the next question that follows is what Marx, or what of Marx is being put on the screen. Raoul Peck’s film gives something of a hint with its title, The Young Marx, that this story is going to be a story of Marx’s formation, but the question remains as to a formation of what exactly. The film opens with a scene that is more historical than biographical, it will close with one also, as the camera follows a group of Prussian peasants gathering felled wood. Over this image there is the voice of Karl Marx reading from his “Debates on the Law on the Theft of Wood.” The passage in question focuses first on the conceptual distinction between green wood and dead wood. The first is removed from the living tree while the latter has already removed itself from the tree, is no longer even a property of the tree. As Marx argues there is an essential difference underlying these two different acts, a difference that cannot be effaced by calling both acts theft. Then, just as the images on the screen show us the violent persecution of the wood gathers, Marx’s words give us a warning, “You will never succeed in making us believe that there is a crime where there is no crime, you will only succeed in converting crime itself into a legal act. You have wiped out the boundary between them, but you err if you believe that you have done so only to your advantage.” The scene then cuts to a cobblestone street with the title card Cologne, April 1843. We see the page that Marx is reading from, and the offices of the Rheinishe Zeitung under siege. Marx’s compatriots, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner, blame him for the persecution by the police, arguing that his writings have pushed too far. Marx responds that the writing of his collaborators are far too vague, devoid of ideas and concepts. The police at the door at least demonstrate that his writings have had an effect, have changed the world rather than just interpreted it. Taken together these two scenes set not only the tone of the film, but its central problem: how to replace slogans with ideas and to connect these ideas with the force and struggle of history? 

The first scene, that of the violent suppression of the collection of wood in the commons is more subtext than text for what follows. Marx’s words suggest a limit to exploitation and the destruction of the commons, that actions that the ruling class appears to take in its own interest actually undermine it by fomenting revolt. This point is not returned to in the film, but it offers something of an answer to the question why Marx now. Recent history has been marked by not only the enclosure of every commons, from nature to knowledge, and the redefinition of every activity, from education to all of social life, to the advantage of the owners of the means of production. The inevitable push back has yet to arise, at least in any large scale, but the idea that there might be limits to exploitation and austerity, that the ceaseless pursuit of surplus value ultimately negates itself, is perhaps the Marxist idea of hope. The peasants are just given to us in images, not voices, their suffering, the violence done to them, and their predicted vengeance are given as a silent and necessary force of history.

It is the second scene that defines much of the narrative of the film. The young Marx’s struggle is not defined as primarily a struggle against the influence of Hegel or Feuerbach, a struggle from idealism to materialism, but a struggle to produce concepts rather than slogans in the field of politics. The film focuses not so much on Marx’s philosophical development, but his political one, foregrounding the struggles with French Socialism and the League of the Just. Or, more to the point, it presents Marx as one who wants to make politics philosophical and philosophy political, suturing the two together through a critique of society and history. 

Three scenes try to illustrate, to the best of their ability this labor of the concept. One, at a gathering of trade workers in France, Marx gives a lecture explicating the idea of labor power as a commodity, a commodity one is forced to sell in order to live. A heckler in audience yells that there will always be bosses and workers. To which Marx replies, in a reversal of the dictum “always historicize” that “there will always be” is a fundamentally bourgeois notion. Change and transformation is the basis of history. In the second scene focusing on a concept, Marx explains to a bourgeois factory owner that it is not "society" that will collapse if capitalists cannot make a profit but the existing "relations of production," but even this scene despairs at defining the concept and what is at stake in it. The two scenes give us some of the fundamentals of Marx’s thought, namely history as a process of change and transformation and the focus on the relations of production rather than the moralizing notion of society, providing a sketch of the concept of the mode of production, but they do so in scenes that a primarily pedagogical in their nature. There is a fundamental difficulty to these scenes: too short, too filled with undefined concepts and ideas, and they function as only shout outs to the in crowd that are indecipherable to outsiders (as the factory owner says, the phrase relations of production sounds “Hebrew” to him), too long and they risk turning the film into a filmed lecture. There are some exceptions to this, a third conceptual scene has Karl and Jenny Marx explaining to Proudhon that is often quoted phrase, “Property is theft” is but an image “chasing its own tail” that falls apart upon further reflection. In this scene the concept is not just stated, or even given in a polemic, but developed in such a way that concept and character are revealed at once. We get Marx’s conflict with Proudhon, but also a sense of his relation with his wife, Jenny. It is a brief scene, and one dedicated more towards the destruction of a vague slogan than the creation of a concept, but it is worth noting because of the way that it ties together the ideas on the page and the characters on the screen.

A fair amount of screen time is dedicated to not only Marx’s relationship with Jenny but also Engel’s relationship with Mary Burns. The fact that both of these marriages are in some sense cross class, bringing together individuals from different backgrounds, most sharply in the case of Engels relationship with Mary, is touched upon but never really expanded or developed beyond some romantic clichés about the poor little rich boy and the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In a similar manner Marx’s marriage to Jenny Marx, née Von Westphalen is only addressed through a series of references to the good family and the radical who swept her off her feet. The intersection of class and gender is reduced to something recognizable to anyone who watches romantic comedies It is not just that these are clichés from the world of romance that makes these elements disappointing, but one can only wonder what a more contemporary Marxist analysis could do with the intertwining of class and gender. The film hints and suggests rather than develops the notion of what Marx’s thought, of what communism, might mean for a reorganization of not just the relations of production in the factory but also in the family. To do so would entail going beyond the limits of Marx’s thought, but not necessarily Marxism.

Peck's film gives us one conversation between Mary and Jenny, a conversation that just barely passes the famous Bechdel test. Mary and Jenny mostly discuss their husbands and their kids, but Mary also reflects a desire to not be constrained by children and family, to be "free" and "poor."It is in all likelihood an invented conversation but one that gives testament to desires and lives hitherto not represented. 

The major thrust of the film is the writing of the Communist Manifesto and the replacement of the vague slogan “All Men are Brothers” with “Workers of All Countries Unite!” The first is founded upon vague moralism and the second on a concept of history, the mode of production, and society. The film ends as it began with the words of Marx being read over scenes of workers all over the world intercut with scenes of the printing and dissemination of the Manifesto itself. To follow the logic of the film the words are now more precise, more conceptual, clarifying the role of history, struggle, and exploitation in the making of the world. It is a victory of a sort. Marx and Engels have been able to replace the moralizing criticism of the socialists with a critique of capital, slogans have given way to concepts. The imperative to be brothers is replaced by class struggle. Unfortunately, the film offers very little to clarify why these concepts are still relevant and meaningful today, demonstrating their ongoing efficacy, ending with a montage of figures and moments from Che Guevera to May ’68 and Nelson Mandela as Bob Dylan plays us out. All of these images suggest that there is some way to connect concept and the masses, ideas and politics, that such a connection was possible once. The only question that remains is how to do this again, to make theory a material force, but that is more than any movie could do. Any more and the police would be at the door. 

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