A specter is haunting the political discourse — that of the “crude-rude-sexist-and-sometimes-racist-straight-white-male leftist pig.” All the powers of the old, economically conservative, socially liberal Democratic Party have come together to exorcise this specter (or, preferably, the far left as a whole): Clinton loyalists and Obama superfans, The New Republic and The Atlantic, Peter Daou and Amanda Marcotte.
This so-called “alt-left” or “dirtbag left” or “Bernie Bro” or “brocialist” archetype is neither new nor exclusively American. In the UK, socialism’s “absolute boy” Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism for his supposedly “laddish” tendencies. The misogyny of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, including a notorious incident in which male activists yelled lewd and degrading comments at a female speaker at a rally against the Vietnam War, fueled second-wave feminist organizing in the late ’60s and ’70s. (Around the same time, 30-year-old Bernie Sanders published a bizarre pro-feminist essay that opened by assuming all men fantasize about raping women and all women fantasize about being raped. The gender essentialism that pervades the piece has not aged particularly well.) A few years ago, the Occupy movement was taken to task for its largely white, male leadership.
For those of us on the left who acknowledge that this figure exists — even if we find liberals’ obsession with him opportunistic and more than a bit hypocritical — the question is: Are gross dudes endemic to all political movements (including mainstream feminism), or is there something in particular about socialism that attracts them? Whether he means to or not, I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck revives this age-old question with his new film, The Young Karl Marx, which tenderly chronicles the early adulthood of the most influential anti-capitalist in human history.
Spanning the period between Prussian officials’ termination of Reinische Zeitung, a left-leaning newspaper Marx had edited and somewhat radicalized, in 1843, and the completion of The Communist Manifesto five years later, the movie is a portrait of the revolutionary thinker in his 20s. We follow a newly married Marx (August Diehl) and his adoring wife, recovering aristocrat Jenny von Westphalen (Vicky Krieps), to Paris, where he founds a journal with the Hegelian philosopher Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer). Despite their chronic poverty, the Marxes have children, and Jenny cares for them while her husband drafts blistering attacks on his enemies, picks fights with his allies, and gets drunk enough to vomit in the street.
Karl and Jenny are very much in love. They fall into bed in the middle of the day and, as a woman with fiery political convictions, she charms the Paris intelligentsia. But the crucial romance in the film blossoms between him and a new collaborator, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske). The affair begins at Ruge’s place, when Karl stomps in to overhear his peers griping about what a pain in the ass he is but leaves with Friedrich after the two men grudgingly admit their respect for one another’s work. A slapstick chase scene ensues when a group of French officials asks the Germans for their papers. They drink and talk shit and play chess late into the night. Poor Jenny awakens alone the next morning, opens the door to Karl’s study, finds Friedrich on the floor, and then cooks breakfast for her husband and his new intellectual conquest. (According to Francis Wheen’s biography, Karl Marx, the real Marx-Engels honeymoon lasted ten blissfully intoxicated days. Pity the neighbors.)
In most films, this is the moment when a love triangle gets nasty. And yet, surprisingly — or perhaps not, given Jenny’s bottomless respect for Karl’s intellectual and political pursuits — no conflict emerges between her and Friedrich. On the contrary, she’s encouraged by the relationship. In a private conversation, she confides that Karl “doesn’t make friends easily” and pleads that Friedrich “please try to calm him.” Both of Marx’s long-suffering soulmates stick by him when a careless public comment about a recent attempt to assassinate the King of Prussia gets him exiled to Brussels. They tolerate his politically suicidal (and historically accurate) attacks on the arguably shoddy economic views of more popular leftist figures like the ur-anarchist Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and the anti-intellectualism of the vain, effusive socialist leader Weitling (Alexander Scheer).
In the years immediately following his exile, Marx’s powerful ideas transform the Christian League of the Just, with its “all men are brothers” ethos, into the revolutionary Communist League. But Engels is the one who pitches that change and then talks his friend into writing a “catechism” for the proletariat — a project that would become The Communist Manifesto. He also dispenses cash when the Marxes are broke. Meanwhile, Jenny keeps Karl fed, clothed, sexually satisfied, and intellectually stimulated as their family grows. (It’s to Peck’s and Krieps’ credit that Jenny, who could have been reduced to an acquiescent helpmate, comes off as lively, sharp, and politically engaged.)
The film’s subtle argument is that she and Engels deserve much of the credit for the impact Marx made on history. This isn’t a controversial observation. Marx relied on Jenny, one of the only people in the world who could read his atrocious handwriting, to transcribe his essays. And in his biography of Marx, Wheen writes that “Engels served Marx as a kind of substitute mother — sending him pocket money, fussing over his health, and continually reminding him not to neglect his studies.”
Despite their chronic poverty, the Marxes have children, and Jenny cares for them while her husband drafts blistering attacks on his enemies, picks fights with his allies, and gets drunk enough to vomit in the street.
What’s unsettling about this thought-provoking and occasionally electrifying biopic is that it minimizes Marx’s moral responsibility for his recidivist dirtbaggery. The film doesn’t mention that one time, before his marriage, when he brought a poet he worshiped, Bettina von Arnim, home to meet Jenny and let the older woman drag him around like a lover for the entire visit. He played and partied and drank up money his family needed. As Wheen recounts, Ruge observed of the anti-capitalist icon, “Everything he sees he wants to ’have’ — a carriage, smart clothes, a flower garden... in fact the moon.” Marx preached marital fidelity and argued that Communism would end the scourge of prostitution but, in 1851, fathered a child with his maid and got Engels to claim the boy was his. This particular incident falls outside the film’s timeline, but couldn’t Peck at least have brought Karl and Jenny’s babies into the frame often enough for viewers to grasp the impact his recklessness had on his family?
The upshot is that The Young Karl Marx undervalues the sacrifices Jenny and Engels made to facilitate the dissemination of its hero’s ideas, even as it celebrates the guidance and support they offered him. Marx appears to be constantly frustrated by his philosopher peers’ politically disengaged, middle-class lifestyles and his worker allies’ lack of intellectual rigor. He comes across as childlike, brash, uncompromising, and ultimately loyal and decent, if not always sweet.
Despite my reverence for his work, I’m not so sure that’s the case. In college, I read a biography of Marx (I’ve long since forgotten which one) and learned that during his own student days he demanded heaps of spending money from his parents but ignored their letters and pleas that he visit them. When his father finally died, he skipped the funeral because he had more important things to do. I think the anecdote made a bigger impression on me than the title because I had already met so many leftist men who treated the people who loved them terribly. Some of them were brilliant, some weren’t — and the relative value of their ideas didn’t increase my estimation of them or the pleasure I took in their company.
Peck implies that Jenny and Friedrich, both children of wealthy families, get a thrill out of their dangerous adventures with Karl. “Happiness requires rebellion,” Jenny insists. For his part, he’s in love with a working-class Irish firebrand who was previously employed at his father’s factory. We understand that these two are basically the same, each living out a sort of 19th-century version of Pulp’s “Common People" even as they defend principles in which they truly believe.
Does his caretakers’ cultural tourism, and the enthusiasm with which they support his antics, mitigate Karl’s behavior? Does the power of his ideas redeem him, not just for remaining a child after he’s become a father, but for every other act of hypocrisy, selfishness, and malice he’s known to have committed? Do you have to be a stubborn, single-minded, unrepentant dirtbag to change the course of history? Was a figure like Emma Goldman, who lived her anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, free-love ideals, doomed to have a comparatively limited influence? The Young Karl Marx answers all of these questions in the affirmative. Marx and Engels’ takeover of the League, Peck suggests, marks the moment when the global anti-capitalist movement became more than a utopian daydream.
He’s more right than wrong, I fear. And a country that elects a white, male confessed sexual predator president while leading chants calling for his moderate, accomplished female opponent to be locked up is clearly too backwards in its gender politics to support a brilliant leftist woman or person of color with a small army of self-sacrificing minders and a DSA agenda. This may explain why so many of the far left’s loudest voices still turn out to be guys like Matt Taibbi — although the growing movement against powerful men who prey on powerless women will, hopefully, catalyze the emergence of better representatives. It’s about time. The paradox Marx left us with is this: A truly transformative revolution won’t be possible if, when it comes time to rewrite the rules of society, it’s the same ones as usual doing the drafting.