Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx

Jonathan Beecher

University of California, Santa Cruz


Raoul Peck, director of The Young Karl Marx and co-author of its screenplay, has led a remarkable life. Born in Haiti, raised in the People’s Republic of Congo, he attended school in Kinshasa, Brooklyn NY, and Orléans, France. After earning his baccalauréat, he moved to Berlin where he studied chemistry and engineering, discovered Marx, and found his vocation as a filmmaker. He began making feature films and documentaries in the 1990s, served as Haitian Minister of Culture in 1996-97, and gained international fame with his 2000 biopic of Patrice Lumumba. Since 2010 he has been president of the French national film school. In 2016 his Oscar-nominated film, I Am Not Your Negro, gave new life to James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir Remember This House. And now he has produced an alluring biopic on the years in which Marx became a revolutionary.

Raoul Peck’s fascination with Marx is longstanding. “All I am today is because of the structure that I got when I was studying the work of Marx,” he said in an interview recently. “At that time, in the 1970s and 1980s, you needed to confront yourself with those books, because it’s your past, it’s your present.”[1] Peck argues that today, Marx’s writings are more relevant than ever, and he insists that The Young Karl Marx is not a period film, despite the care that he and his collaborators have obviously taken to get the settings, the costumes, and the décor right. Then why focus on just a few years in Marx’s life, from his twenty-fifth to his thirtieth year? His answer to the interviewer, Kaleem Aftab, was that he wanted the film “to go back to the moment of creation.” He wanted, in other words, to depict the process that led to the writing of The Communist Manifesto, and he wanted to do this in a way that would enable young people to “see themselves” and the choices facing them reflected in the film.

The Young Karl Marx opens with a dramatization of the events that caused Marx to publish an article in the Rheinishche Zeitung in 1843 defending the right of poor peasants to gather fallen wood for fuel in the forests of wealthy landowners. It concludes with the publication of The Communist Manifesto. In between, the film focuses on Marx’s life as an exile, first in Paris (1843-45), then in Brussels (1845-48). This was a hugely important period in Marx’s life and in the development of his thought. This is when Marx discovered socialism and the proletariat, inaugurated his life-long partnership with Engels, and adopted the French Revolution as the prototype for a future German revolution. During these years Marx made the concepts of political economy his own and then criticized them in the light of French socialism and German historical theory. He studied the French materialist philosophers and found in their work weapons to turn on Hegelian idealism. At the same time, he used Hegelian categories to understand labor and material life, proceeding from the unmasking of religious alienation to a critique of alienated labor based on the assumption that we are our own creators—that we form and develop ourselves by transforming the world around us in cooperation with other human beings. Finding a cinematic equivalent to any of this was obviously a challenge!

Peck chose to focus on the budding friendship between Marx and Engels and their own relationships with the women in their lives, Jenny Marx and Mary Burns. Indeed, the whole film can be seen as a Romance with four central figures. We see Marx and Engels and their women incessantly talking, arguing, and learning from each other. Engels, who often defers to Marx, tells him that he is a genius. Marx replies, “Your knowledge of the working world is unparalleled.” The final thesis on Feuerbach—“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”—is hit upon by Marx in the course of an all-night, alcohol-fueled discussion with Engels. Engels also provides emotional support to Marx. In January 1848 in Belgium when Marx laments that he has no money and no more energy and is sick of writing, Engels lifts his spirits. “But we’re winning,” Engels says. “And now we need a communist manifesto.”

All of this—and there is much more—has led some reviewers to call The Young Karl Marx a “Buddy Movie” or a “Bromance.” But the role of the two main women in the film is also huge. Jenny Marx is portrayed as an active participant in many of Marx’s intellectual discussions with Engels, and she helps with revisions on the final draft of The Communist Manifesto. Engels’ partner, the Manchester mill worker Mary Burns, is likewise given a significant but historically unlikely role as an intermediary between Marx and Engels and the League of the Just in London. There is also toward the end of the film an intimate and touching conversation about motherhood between Jenny Marx and Mary Burns. This would be more credible if we did not know from a variety of sources that Jenny Marx never approved Engels’ liaison with Mary Burns and only reluctantly received her in her home.[2]

When The Young Karl Marx was released six months ago, it got mixed reviews. Some reviewers complained that it included too much philosophy; others that there was not enough. While it was called a “Buddy Movie,” some argued that Peck’s great accomplishment was to put the developing relationship between Marx and Engels in a social and political context. Variety called it a “safe and slightly dull movie” that “tames the radicalism of its subject.”[3] The normally astute Stuart Klawans of The Nation found it hard to take seriously this “improbably lush and deadpan-funny epic about a pair of two-fisted materialists and the bodacious babes who loved them, as they brawled and rollicked their way toward writing The Communist Manifesto.”[4]

Others took the film more seriously. (As I do.) Scott McLemee in Jacobin called it “a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man.”[5] In an enthusiastic review of this “Bromance of Ideology,” A. O. Scott of The New York Times described the film as “both intellectually serious and engagingly free-spirited,” noting that it is rescued “from the twin dangers of tedium and sentimentality” by the “clarity” of its handling of relations between the personal and the political—“its ability to perceive the way the eddies of personal experience flow within the wider stream of history.”[6] Finally, Kate Aronoff, a contributor to The Intercept and a writing fellow at In These Times, described The Young Karl Marx as “a film whose time has come.” In her view the film speaks to young political activists and provides “this new generation of socialists—those who may never have cracked open the Grundrisse—with an accessible entrée into the ideas upon which today’s socialism is built.” She concedes that the film flirts with the conventions of period dramas, but for her The Young Karl Marx is “above all, an ideological coming-of-age story for a generation doing exactly that.”[7]

My own response to the film is strongly positive. I was caught up in it. Although I’m anything but a young political activist, I loved it. I think it evokes beautifully the world in which the young Marx and Engels lived; and it brings to life a host of minor—and not so minor—characters whom they attacked, argued with, and (occasionally) learned from, while working out their own ideas: the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin; the windy Christian communist Wilhelm Weitling; the Young Hegelians Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess and Karl Grün. Even the wealthy memoirist and improbable friend of Marx, Pavel Annenkov, has his moment on the screen. The casting is fantastic. Almost all the actors look like the individuals they represent, and the one who does not, Olivier Gourmet, nonetheless delivers an exciting and finely-drawn portrayal of Proudhon.

The four principals are excellent. August Diehl makes a smart, sardonic Marx. Stefan Konarske is an earnest, somewhat dandified Engels. Vicky Krieps is perhaps more free-spirited than the historical Jenny, but she makes the character enormously appealing. Hannah Steele’s Mary Burns is, as she should be, fiery and resolute.

Raoul Peck knows the correspondence of Marx and Engels very well—he has lived with it for many years–and the screenplay is full of little details from the letters they sent and received. There are also playful allusions to the intellectual and artistic world of the 1840s. For example: the setting for one of Marx’s meetings with Proudhon appears to be the studio of Proudhon’s friend, the painter Gustave Courbet, and for just a few seconds of screen-time the camera focuses on an artist’s model in a setting reminiscent of Courbet’s painting L’Atelier.

This is not to say that I find the film (in A.O. Scott’s words) “scrupulously faithful to the biographical record.” I think that the genre of the biopic, which condenses a life— or in this case, five years of a life—into a narrative lasting two hours requires that all sorts of imaginative liberties be taken. The important thing is that the whole should be coherent and illuminating, that it should convey a point of view, and that the liberties that are taken should not be too far out of line with what we can learn from historical sources. In these terms it seems to me that the treatment of Jenny and of Mary Burns is anachronistic. But still many of the other imaginative liberties taken by Peck seem to me to be wholly appropriate and justifiable.

An obvious problem for anyone seeking to make a film on Marx’s formative years is that he spent the greater part of his time during this period simply reading and writing. The drama is almost entirely intellectual. In Brussels, after his expulsion from Paris in February 1845, Marx became much involved in political organizing. As the film shows graphically, he and Engels succeeded in 1847 in taking over the League of the Just and then renaming it The Communist League. During his sixteen months in Paris, however, Marx plunged into that “endless sea of books” which, as Arnold Ruge observed, was his real element.[8] In this film, apart from a brief scene in which Marx is shown reading Ricardo, we don’t see much of Marx in his study. But Marx’s writing in Paris also grew out of his contact with the life of the city. He found Paris exciting. It is probably just as well that Peck does not make anything of Marx’s one known visit to a Parisian dance hall—a visit known to us through a passage in The Holy Family in which Marx mocks a poor German critic whose Kantian categories do not permit him to appreciate the “frank human sensuality” of the dancers.[9] But we do see a lot of Marx and Engels drinking and playing chess in cafés in Paris and Brussels.

More important than Marx’s occasional forays into dance halls was his discovery in Paris of the world of workers and artisans. It was in Paris that for the first time Marx met real workers. Many of these workers were members of the large German community of journeyman artisans who had come to Paris in search of work. But his most memorable encounters seem to have been with French workers. Marx refers to his visits to meetings of French communist workers in the 1844 Manuscripts, The Holy Family, and in a letter to Feuerbach. The Young Karl Marx does include a substantial sequence on such a meeting. But significantly, whereas the film shows Marx intervening and in fact lecturing French workers, the impression one gets from the sources is of an admiring, appreciative, and largely passive Marx who would rather observe the workers and listen to them than lecture at them. “You would have to attend one of the meetings of French workers,” he wrote Feuerbach, “to appreciate the pure freshness, the nobility which burst forth from these toil-worn men.”[10]

The general problem that this film raises is how to find filmic equivalents for reflection and intellectual discovery. Moreover, much of Peck’s evidence comes from correspondence so one of the “liberties” that he takes at several points is to turn written exchanges into dialogue. The most striking example of this concerns Marx’s relations with Proudhon. There is a famous exchange of letters between Marx and Proudhon in 1846 in which Marx invites Proudhon to serve as the Paris correspondent of an international Communist Correspondence Committee designed to coordinate communist theory and practice throughout Europe. Proudhon replies positively but in guarded terms that suggest that he already suspected that Marx would not share his libertarian and undogmatic views: “Let us work together, if you like, to discover the laws of society, the ways in which these laws are realized, and the process by which we can discover then. But for God’s sake, when we have demolished all the à priori dogmas, let us not think of indoctrinating people in our turn.”[11] What Raoul Peck does is to have this expressed by Proudhon to Marx at a meeting of the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels in May 1846, a meeting that Proudhon did not actually attend. This seems to me to be an example of appropriate imaginative license.

Similarly, phrases from Marx’s 1847 polemic against Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy, turn up in the film in a fiery speech given by Marx in London at the November 1847 conference of the League of the Just. In the film Marx’s speech concludes: “The last word of social science is, as George Sand said, ‘Struggle or death: the bloody conflict or oblivion.’” These are the very words with which Marx’s book concludes: “Le dernier mot de la science sociale sera toujours: ‘Le combat ou la mort: la lutte sanguinaire ou le néant. C’est ainsi que la question est invinciblement posée.’ – George Sand.”[12] One could cite other instances in which Peck turns written exchanges into face-to-face interactions. Marx’s first encounter with Proudhon in the film takes place at a political meeting where Proudhon is speaking. Marx interrupts him and questions Proudhon about his conception of property, questions which Marx actually raised in his writings. Again, the actual confrontation is imagined, but its substance is real.

Finally, there are a number of moments in the film in which individual thoughts and acts are presented as social experience. The most striking example comes at the very end of the film where Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary Burns (and possibly also the Marx family housekeeper, Lenchen Demuth) are shown sitting around a table at the Hôtel de la Couronne in Ostend in January 1848, reading the final draft of The Communist Manifesto aloud and making last-minute changes. It is a moving scene, and it creates the impression that the Manifesto was the product of a collective effort. This is true only in a limited sense. We know that in the summer and fall of 1847 Engels had been working on the draft of a “communist credo” or “catechism” to serve as a statement of principles for the newly named Communist League. At the Second Congress of the League held in London from November 28 to December 8, Engels’ revised version, now called “Principles of Communism,” was accepted as the draft for a final statement. After the Congress Marx and Engels spent two weeks in London and Brussels. In late December Engels left for Paris; in January 1848 Marx made major revisions to Engels’ draft and composed the final version alone.[13]

In the end, the Communist Manifesto included little that Marx and Engels had not already said. What was new was the way it was said—the cascade of images from “the specter haunting Europe” at the outset to the “chains” of the conclusion, the extraordinary depiction of the limitless power and global reach of modern capitalism, the production by the bourgeoisie of “wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals,” the evocation of the bourgeois present as a time of constant upheaval in which all fixed relations are swept away and “all that is solid melts into air.” The rhetorical power of the text, the relentless logic of the argument, and the clarity and forcefulness of the language, now virtually devoid of Hegelianism, are powerfully captured at the conclusion of the film through extracts from the first few pages of the Manifesto, while images of the new world of industrial capitalism—trains, gears, spinning mills—are shown on the screen.

Before turning to the credits, which are set against a montage of images of modern social, political and racial conflict, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” one last title appears on the screen: “Exiled to England, supported by Jenny and Friedrich, Karl Marx would keep writing his key work, Capital, until his death.” Here are the final elements in what is at least in some respects a mythic picture of Marx. It is now pretty well established that Marx abandoned work on Capital not long after the publication of the first volume. The later unfinished volumes appeared after his death, thanks to the efforts of Engels and Karl Kautsky. During his last decade and a half, Marx involved himself in the work of the International, commented extensively on German politics, learned Russian, and pondered the possibility of the development of socialism out of the Russian peasant commune. Engels lived on for a dozen years after Marx, and it was left to him to take possession of Marx’s legacy—to define the contours of “Marxism” and to establish Marx’s place in history as the founder of “scientific socialism.” In doing so, Engels attributed to Marx his own deterministic “materialist conception of history.”

Two years after Marx’s death, recalling their earliest relations, Engels wrote that from the beginning he and Marx quickly discovered that they spoke with one voice. “When I visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, it was clear that we were in complete agreement on all theoretical questions; our joint work dated from that time.” Engels continued, “When, in the spring of 1845, we met again, Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history in its main features.”[14] Much recent scholarship has been critical of this claim and focuses on the differences between Marx’s thought and that of Engels.[15] Such distinctions do not fall within Raoul Peck’s purview. His concern is with what united them and what they accomplished together. His film, which is both a celebration of Marx and Engels and a vivid evocation of their world, shows that a traditional account of Marxism can still have great power.

Raoul Peck, Director, The Young Karl Marx, France/Belgium/Germany, 2017, color, 118 min, Agat Films et Cie, Velvet Film, Rohfilm, Atémis Productions, et al.


  1. Interview with Kaleem Aftab, The Independent, May 2, 2018.
  2. Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 225-227; Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York: Liveright, 2013), 177; David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (New York: Harper Colophon, 1973), 178.
  3. Owen Gleiberman in Variety, February 13, 2017.
  4. Stuart Klawans in The Nation, April 23, 2018.
  5. Scott McLemee in Jacobin, February 2018.
  6. A.O. Scott in The New York Times, February 23, 2018.
  7. Kate Aronoff in The Intercept, March 13, 2018.,
  8. Arnold Ruge quoted in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Interviews and Recollections (Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981), 8.
  9. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Critique (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), 91. MECW IV, 68.
  10. Marx to Feuerbach, August 11, 1844, in MECW III, 355. See also Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, 113, and Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in Early Writings, tr. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (New York: Vintage, 1975), 365. MECW III, 313.
  11. Proudhon to Marx, May 17, 1846, Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon, 14 vols. (Paris: Albert Lacroix, 1875) II, 198.
  12. Karl Marx, Misère de la Philosophie, ou Réponse à la Philosophie de la Misère de M. Proudhon (Paris: Alfred Costes, 1950), 211.
  13. Stedman Jones, Karl Marx, 239-240.
  14. Frederick Engels, “On the History of the Communist League,” October 1885, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, 2 vols. (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), II, 344. (MESW). Also in MECW XXVI, 318. ouse, 1962), II, 344.
  15. Stedman Jones, Karl Marx, and “History and Nature in Karl Marx: Marx’s Debt to German Idealism,” History Workshop Journal, 83: 1 (April 2017), 98-117; Paul Thomas, Marxism and Scientific Socialism (London: Routledge, 2008).
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