Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Young Karl Marx (4½ Stars)

This film is entitled "The Young Karl Marx", but it's just as much about Friedrich Engels. It tells the incredible true story of these two young men from 1843 to 1848. We see how they met, how their friendship developed, and how they won influence in the emerging class struggle in Europe.

I admit to having known nothing about these two men before watching the film. I welcome comments from anyone who knows more about their lives.

The film begins in 1843 when Marx was 25 and Engels was 22. They were two very different men from different backgrounds. Karl Marx was born into a relatively poor family in Trier. His wife, Jenny of Westphalia, came from a rich family, but she was disinherited because she married a Jew. (Please remember that German prejudice against Jews didn't begin with Adolf Hitler). When the film begins he's working as a reporter in Cologne for a newspaper that writes articles critical of the government.

Friedrich Engels was a wealthy man with no need to work. He was born in Barmen, near Wuppertal, but in 1843 he was living in Manchester, where his father owned a clothing factory. (He had other factories in Leeds and Liverpool). Engels was supposed to act as the factory's manager, but he spent most of his time at home writing. He openly challenged the way his father ran the factory, accusing him of treating the female machine workers as slaves. He entered into a relationship with an Irish worker called Mary Burns. He called her his wife, even though they were never legally married.

The two men had met briefly in the past, but they became friends when they were both in Paris in 1844. Karl Marx was writing articles for a French publisher, struggling to make enough money to feed his wife and his daughter. Friedrich Engels (who called himself Freddy) was taking an extended vacation to meet and talk to French Communists.

Early Communism was a vaguely defined movement with no clear political aims. Different leaders had different goals. Some were anarchists, others believed the world could be saved by abolishing money, others just wanted workers to be better paid. Several leaders are presented in the film, probably people who would be known to anyone who has studied history or politics, but they were unknown to me. Throughout the film dates were flashed on screen which were presumably significant dates in the development of Communism.

As the years pass the two young men gain influence in the movement called Communism. Marx wrote books refuting the theories of other Communist leaders, often using philosophical arguments. For instance, a public speaker claimed that personal property shouldn't be allowed, and it should be considered theft to own anything. When he called for property to be stolen,  Marx interrupted him by saying "If property is theft, you're asking us to steal theft".

Based on the evidence of the film, Marx was destructive while Engels was creative. Marx was an expert in tearing down the ideas of others, whereas Engels was a genius in proposing new ideas. The two men complemented one another perfectly.

The two men separated at times, but they always remained in contact. Freddy returned to England while Karl moved to Belgium. Freddy sent Karl money on a regular basis so that he didn't need to work. It's ironic that neither of the two men who fought for the rights of the working class were truly workers.

I can understand the reason for the rise in popularity of the ideas of Marx and Engels. In the mid 19th Century most of Europe was ruled by monarchs, very few of whom cared for the interests of the people. (A rare example of a good monarch was Franz Josef I of Austria, but he didn't ascend to the throne until 1848, after the events of this film). Another reason for the social upheaval was the industrial revolution, which was still in its early stages in the 1840's. The early machines required their operators to stand in place and carry out repetitive movements, for which they received very little pay. Coal was essential to the industrial revolution, and men were sent into the pits to carry out hard labour. This work was just as hard, maybe even harder, than what slaves had been required to do in previous centuries. At the beginning of the film Engels' father claims his workers are free, but Freddy contradicts him. He says that the workers have no other way of earning the money they need to survive, so they aren't free to leave, they really are slaves.

I'm well aware that modern society has very rich and very poor people, with a third group in the middle, the middle class. There's a big barrier to prevent people from the poor class (I find that expression better than working class) rising into the rich class (also a better expression than upper class). The rich class think of themselves as a closed circle. Anyone from the poor class who somehow finds a means to rise in wealth is taxed heavily to keep him in his place, while the rich class aren't taxed for staying where they are. The middle class is also taxed heavily in an attempt to push it down to the level of the poor class. The battle of the poor and the middle classes to better themselves or just to survive are little more than slavery. If someone really does succeed in elevating himself to the rich class, surviving the punishment of taxation, he's grudgingly accepted as a new member of the club as long as he learns how to behave like one. He might be an inventor, a football player or an actor, but whatever his background he's expected to conform by becoming one of the oppressors. This is especially depressing in the case of rock musicians. I feel sad when I see a former rebel living and acting in a bourgeois manner. I'll name only Ozzy Osbourne. If money can corrupt a rock God like him, I'm glad I'm not rich.

Karl Marx didn't want to abolish money. If I understand him correctly, he didn't even disagree with some people having more than others. What he wanted was for everyone to have enough. How much is "enough"? It isn't a single figure. "Enough" is the amount required to escape virtual slavery. "Enough" is the amount you need that you don't have to work. I am a big believer in a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a regular payment given to everyone who lives in a country, regardless of his wealth, employment status or health. This regular income should be enough to pay for the basic necessities of life, i.e. food, clothing and accommodation. It shouldn't be enough for luxuries, like a car, holidays or expensive habits. Anyone who wants more should work. Anyone who doesn't want more can live a simple life and enjoy the time on his hands.

Some political parties have voiced support for a Universal Basic Income, and there have have been limited experiments, but I fear that no country will ever introduce it as a system. The rich class will never be prepared to release the poor class from slavery.

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