200 years young
Friday, 23 February 2018 10:40

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.


The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.


......and its name is Communism
Friday, 23 February 2018 10:40

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest