Film review: The Young Karl Marx (2017)

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth (1818-1883). I recently watched this film that covers the period when the young Marx became friends with Friedrich Engels, a relationship that lasted a lifetime. It deals with the period from 1843-1849, a time as Marx, his wife Jenny, and his young daughter moved from Paris to Brussels before ending up in London. The film ends with Marx and Engels publishing the Communist Manifesto.

I realized that although I had read some of Marx’s works, I knew very little about his life and this film gave a good background, though one has to be wary of the accuracy of biopics. His wife Jenny von Westphalen, whom he married in 1843, was a baroness, the daughter of Prussian aristocracy who gave up everything to marry a poor, Jewish, atheist, communist. They struggled financially all their lives, but got help from the wealthy Engels.

Friedrich Engels, on the other hand, was the son of a wealthy German industrialist who owned factories in the UK. His father was symbolic of the repressive and exploitative capitalist class that Engels fought against. He married Mary Burns, one of the workers in one his father’s factories. The film shows how Jenny and Mary shared in the ideals of Marx and Engels and were themselves fiery advocates for the cause of worker’s rights.

Kate Aronoff wrote about the film and how its ideas resonate with young people today in the UK and US in the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

While it flirts with the conventions of period dramas, “The Young Marx” is, above all, an ideological coming-of-age story for a generation doing exactly that.

In this, “The Young Karl Marx” engages in its own kind historical materialism, to use a loose sense of the term. Marx’s work — and socialist and academic interpretations of it, in particular — can feel hallowed, like infallible sacred texts sent down from on high. True to life, the Marx we see is no saint: He drinks too much, has sex, procrastinates, burns bridges, and is a sometimes absent husband and father. What Peck offers is a human (albeit unmistakably flattering) portrait of Marx and Engels, men who were each shaped deeply by their circumstances — the particular moment in history that they happened to find themselves, the idiosyncrasies of the movements they aligned themselves with, the friends and partners with whom they collaborated, maybe even the number of drinks they had on a given night.

While [director Raoul] Peck unfortunately downplays Engels hedonism, it’s still gratifying to see a man who’s been so roundly either forgotten or misinterpreted get his due. In a similar vein, Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps) is a well-developed character and her husband Marx’s interlocutor, who — along with Engels — helps provide the emotional, financial, and intellectual support that made it possible for Marx to develop into the thinker he was. We also get an endearing portrait of Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), Engels’s wife from the polar opposite end of industrial Europe’s class divide; Engels — the well-to-do son of a Rhineland manufacturer — met Burns, a textile worker, as he was researching “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” published in 1845.

Raoul Peck, then, can’t really take credit for making Marx sexy again. Capitalism and all its attendant horrors did that for him. What he, Marx, and Engels offer are a few prescriptions for today’s young socialists looking to challenge capitalism: better theory, more practice, and maybe even a few wild parties along the way.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. mailliw says


    Whoever wrote that article has never read Marx.

    “Read nearly any passage in the German philosopher’s voluminous and long-winded oeuvre and one is struck by his sense of absolute certainty. He lays claim to truth and leaves no room for doubt.”

    In fact Marx’s central message was that one should doubt everything. Marx would have been appalled by those like Lenin who portrayed his work as absolute truth.

    You need to divide Marx and his work from the many bad things done in his name, for which he was in no way responsible.

    Absolutely central to Marx was the worth of humanity.

    “I do not know who the author, Russell A. Berman, is but his knowledge of history and ability to think logically is amazing.”

    He doesn’t know much about Marx though, which I think leads to me doubting that he can think logically, as it is hardly logical to write articles about subjects of which you know very littel.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ mailliw
    Whoever wrote that article has never read Marx.

    Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: They may have tried but clearly they were only there to condemn and make a fool of themself at the same time.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ mailliw

    I did say “amazing” I did not say amazing good. I tend to forget Canadian sarcasm does not always translate well.

  4. mailliw says


    “I did say “amazing” I did not say amazing good. I tend to forget Canadian sarcasm does not always translate well.”

    My apologies, the sarcasm passed me by there. I wonder if Professor Berman will be able to explain this puzzling “free market capitalism” thing to me? Surely this is an oxymoron? Capitalism is intent on destroying the free market and replacing it with monopolies and cartels.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 mailliw
    I wonder if Professor Berman will be able to explain this puzzling “free market capitalism” thing to me?
    Of course he will. And he will do just as good a job as he did with Freud.
    Re “free market capitalism”, as was pointed out in that seminal economics work “The Wizard of Oz”, don’t look behind the curtain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *