Monday, December 11, 2017

Why do the literati hate Marx (and Engels)?

Note on Facebook from a UK comrade:

Why do the literati hate Marx (and Engels)?

Last week the National Theatre screened a live performance of “The Young Marx” from the newly opened Bridge theatre in London. Sir Nicholas Hytner previously the Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London directs the play. It is a farce whose aim, it is claimed, is to present the ”human” side of Marx. Why would they want to do this, especially as the first production in Hytner’s new multi-million pound theatre? Basically, to discredit Marx’s theoretical and political legacy by portraying him - and Marxism - as farcical. As the Financial Times put it: ‘Been and Coleman (the play’s authors) find comedy as well as pathos in an extraordinarily accurate account of the thirtysomething Karl Marx’s debaucheries and predations in 1850s Soho.’ It is claimed that everything in the play is based on fact. What these people so hate – and are fearful of - is Marx (and Engels) scientific analysis of the workings of capitalism, his revolutionary commitment and involvement in working class struggle, and his explanation why the very workings of capitalism would produce its own gravedigger, the working class. And that all this is pertinent in today’s world.

There isn’t anything sacrosanct about Marx’s life. Placed in some serious context it might be fun to devise a plot involving Marx and Engel’s pub-crawls up the Tottenham Court Road and other foibles (the FTs so-called “debauchery) - if you are that way inclined. Moreover, radical groups and individuals, to this day, involve themselves in perennial inanities, and Marx had to put up with all sorts of cranks and misfits. Indeed, Marx was not amiss to using comedy to make serious points. In this regard, he wrote a satire of many such individuals in his “Heroes of the Exiles” and their ‘venomous internecine struggles, … petty personality conflicts, complicated intrigues, pretentious political manoeuvres and sordid compromises with the realities of living in exile with "dubious sources of income"’ (Rodney Livingston, translator). Our authors choose instead to trivialise everything, sneering at, and dismissive of Marx’s world historic achievements. A whole chunk of the play is focused on Marx and Engels sexual relationships, hypocritically inviting the audience to judge their morality. Hytner wants us to laugh knowingly at something he self-admittedly knows nothing at all about. In the Q&A session after the performance that I attended, Hytner claimed disingenuously to have read the first 5 pages of Capital, only to give up, he said, because he found it unintelligible (he didn't say which volume). You see: science is useless if it takes a little effort to understand, especially if it defies common sense. So much for quantum mechanics!

Little wonder that the writers and director prefer to facetiously counter-pose the perceived iniquities of the man rather than encouraging the audience to think about his thoughts. So, the plot has Marx climbing up and down chimneys, hiding in cupboards to avoid creditors and running across rooftops to escape the secret police – presented as harmless Keystone cops. A potentially amusing scene has Marx in a pawnshop explaining the difference between use value and exchange vale. But that is immediately undercut by portraying him as being so stupid to be outwitted into giving away his wife’s family silver, rather than raising money. What a laugh! He is depicted as fighting a duel out of jealousy against a supposed would-be seducer of his wife. Marx did indeed fight a duel, except it took place when a student youth long before he became in any way political, let alone a communist. It had nothing to do with his love life. What is also true is that Marx applied for a job on the railways – to the laughter of nine tenths of the audience - but in 1862, not 1850. In another “statement of fact” the playwrights have Marx engaged in a brawl in the British Museum, thereby belittling the long hours of intensive study he engaged in there. Charles Darwin is drawn into the carnage. Whilst Marx greatly admired Darwin, the two never met. Jenny Marx, for her part, is presented as the long-suffering housewife, fending off suitors, rather than the political activist she was, who, alongside Marx, willingly subordinated her lifestyle to revolutionary activity. Moreover, she was fully involved in Marx’s theoretical and political work. She joined the “League of the Just” – a precursor of the Communist League – before either Marx or Engels. Then, towards the end, they have the nerve to portray Engels attacking Marx for being too academic and self-centred, and implying that Marx’s identification of the working class as the agency for overthrowing capitalism was purely theoretical. This is just at the time they are writing the articles mentioned earlier that later made up the pamphlet “Class Struggles in France” - in which they were fully immersed - and when the perspective of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is enunciated for the first time and de facto counter-posed to the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” aka capitalist democracy. Poetic license? I don’t think so.

Anything is considered good for a laugh. But what exactly is so funny about a political refugee hounded by the secret police, arrested, briefly imprisoned, and deported from first this country, then that, then another, as he strove to be centrally involved in the revolutionary upheavals of that period – much to the consternation of the powers that be? As they fled arrest to London, most of his and Jenny’s belongings had to be abandoned (they were given 24 hours to leave France), and, funnily enough, when they arrived they had no money or steady source of income. For many years, they lived on the breadline, given some financial support by friends (especially Engels) but having to avoid creditors and landlords when unable to pay their rent and other debts (ring a bell?). They couldn’t even pay the medical fees to try to save their dying son. Even Marx’s ill health is a subject of mirth. He suffered especially painful boils which often prevented him from sitting down whilst willy nilly continuing his voluminous research. Boils? What a joke. Is it appropriate to poke fun at all this? Is it all just good humour to present refugees as “scroungers”? Where have we heard that one before? And whilst we are at it, what exactly is so hilarious about being a rail worker?

For some unfathomable reason, 1850 is chosen as the year of the “young” Marx. This is a bit of a mystery as he was already 32 years old and by this time had basically settled accounts with the utopian socialists and had more or less put together the basic planks of his overall theory. In another statement of fact, the authors claimed that Marx was demoralised by the outcome of the defeats of the 1848-49 European revolutions, and moreover was suffering from a ‘writers block’. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact Marx (and Engels) were, incorrectly, expecting a new uprising. As to a writers block, at the start of 1850, he and Engels prepared a long report to the Communist League drawing the lessons of these revolutions. This was elaborated in a series of articles by Marx published during the course of 1850 in the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-ökonomische Revue”. These articles needed time-consuming research, involving extensive interviews with activists in the revolutions, also based in London. As Engels testified ‘after the spring of 1850 Marx once again found leisure for economic studies, and first of all took up the economic history of the last ten years.’ Further, intensive discussion must also have taken place between Marx and Engels during this period, because by the time the fourth and last article was published as a double issue in the Autumn of 1850, co-authored with Engels, they had revised their views as to whether a new outbreak of revolution was imminent. In fact, they now thought that objective conditions did not exist for a victorious revolution in Europe (economic crisis) and, crucially, what the course and character of these revolutions showed was that the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie had been exhausted.

This said, however, there is a second good joke: the suggestion in the Q&A session that John McDonell, shadow Labour Chancellor (Finance minster), and even Jeremy Corbyn, are Marxists. Hence the play’s purported relevance. One is reminded of Marx’s remark in relation to the proclivities of some self proclaimed Marxists: if their politics are Marxist, he said “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”). It is in relation to the on goings in the Labour Party that the star speaker was a one Tristram Hunt, previously a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband. He resigned as MP shortly after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election and became director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (salary and perks circa £250,000). His other qualification was being the author of a biography of Engels. The play was clearly inspired by this work, in particular, its central theme that the personal and the political must be combined in order to judge the worth of any theory – as the title of his biography makes clear (“The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels”). Tell that to Albert Einstein.

Despite some generally good acting, unless you’re into Xmas pantomimes don’t waste your time and money. Wait instead for a serious treatment of the “young Marx” in a film of that name directed by Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker who won critical acclaim earlier this year for his James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”. Whilst already released in most of the world, the film has yet to find a UK distributor. But one lives in hope. Find a review of the film here:

(In Review)

‘Young Karl Marx’ portrays birth of

communist movement

The Young Karl Marx, 2017 film, directed by Raoul Peck.


Acclaimed Haitian director Raoul Peck’s new film, “The Young Karl Marx,” is an inspiring and historically accurate portrayal of the 1847 formation of the first international revolutionary working-class party — the Communist League. Peck has also directed the films “Lumumba” and “I Am Not Your Negro.”

The League`s goal was to win workers to its program, the Communist Manifesto, drafted by two young fighters, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and published the following year. The two revolutionaries were 29 and 27 years old at the time.

The film — based on correspondence between Marx and Engels, with free-flowing English, French and German dialogue and distributed with subtitles in 20 languages — vividly transports viewers back to this turning point in history. The 1848 bourgeois revolutions in Europe would break out shortly, with the rising industrial bourgeoisie struggling for political supremacy against the declining feudal landowners and their monarchies, but at the same time more and more fearful of the growing industrial working class.

These momentous changes in social and economic relations were reflected in radical challenges to traditional philosophical and political thought in the halls of academia in Germany and elsewhere, and among a vanguard layer of revolutionary factory workers and artisans in cities like Paris; London; Manchester, England; and Cologne, Germany.

Harassed by the Prussian police for writing newspaper articles criticizing the rulers’ treatment of workers and peasants and challenging the philosophical justifications for the established order, Marx and his aristocratically born but highly political wife Jenny Marx and their children are forced to flee to Paris.

Here, the film shows how Marx met Engels in 1844. Engels was born into wealth, unlike Marx who lives in poverty. His father is a German industrial capitalist and co-owner of a cotton spinning mill in Manchester. Engels works there as a skilled clerk in the office with a bird’s-eye view of the class struggle on the factory floor, realistically presented by Peck. Mary Burns, a militant mill worker in the plant, becomes Engels’ wife and introduces him to the conditions faced by Irish workers in England.

Marx and Engels find they’re on the same political wavelength. The meeting is the beginning of a lifelong political collaboration between the two.

We are with them as they begin to wage a struggle against their political opponents and clarify their own ideas in the debate. They explain the capitalists are class enemies and that the working class is destined to lead a revolutionary movement to abolish the capitalist system. Polemics they wrote that helped shape revolutionary Marxism come to life as we see them take on Pierre Proudhon, known as the founder of anarchism, and others.

Over the course of the film, as they did in life, Marx and Engels are increasingly attracted to a group of workers organized in the League of the Just as they seek to convince them of their materialist and scientific views. This culminates in a dramatic scene where Marx and Engels are accepted into the organization by the group’s leaders in London, who ask them to help draft a new program and organizational structure to present to the next congress of the League.

Communist League founded

In a rousing scene at the congress, Engels makes a speech explaining that all men are in fact not brothers. Capitalist factory owners are enemies of the working class. Finally a programmatic document prepared by Marx and Engels is adopted by majority vote with much cheering and shouting. The old League slogan “All men are brothers” is transformed into “Workingmen of all countries unite!” The name of the organization becomes the Communist League, a public organization proudly proclaiming its revolutionary program.

The film concludes with Marx and Engels drafting the Communist Manifesto, reading aloud as they write.

Just before the credits roll Peck presents a striking photomontage of world events today. It is effective in getting across the idea, which Peck expressed in a question and answer session I participated in following the screening of the film in Montreal, that the Communist Manifesto is as relevant today as it was when it was published by the League 169 years ago.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Peck’s minor conflations in the story — like his decision, for time reasons, to present the League’s first two congresses with Marx and Engels participating as one — don’t weaken the credibility or impact of the film.

Those looking for a way out of the deepening, economic, social, political, and moral crisis of the capitalist system should see this film. It shows the birth of the movement that the Socialist Workers Party and Communist Leagues in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. trace their continuity to.

I recommend you contact these parties to learn what you can do today to advance the fight to overthrow capitalist rule and open the door to the construction of a socialist world. 


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