Interview with Filmmaker Raoul Peck, on "The Young Karl Marx"

Michael Slate Interview with Filmmaker Raoul Peck,

March 2, 2018

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Michael Slate: Raoul Peck is the director of the new film, “The Young Karl Marx.” This is a film that will give you a whole new and completely refreshing and inspiring understanding of the birth and the development of Communist Revolution. It focuses on five years, from 1843-1848, and tells the story of the 26-year old Karl Marx along with Friedrich Engels, Jenny Marx and Mary Burns, and their fight to bring a scientific understanding to the revolutionary movement of the times. In doing so, Marx developed the science of revolution. And today this science has been given new life by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party -- the Marx of our times and the architect of a whole new framework of human emancipation, the new synthesis of communism, popularly referred to as the “new communism.”
With that as background, it was with great pleasure that I was able to see Raoul Peck's new film, "The Young Karl Marx," and learn about the earliest days of, and battles to establish, the science of revolution. Shortly before "The Young Karl Marx" opened I sat down and talked with Raoul Peck. 

Raoul Peck, this is a remarkable film that I think everyone should see, so let's jump into this. Why this film and why now?

Raoul Peck: Well you know I would try to answer the same way I answer with my previous film on James Baldwin, that is, Baldwin, as well as Marx, were my fundamentals. Both of them I started reading when I was 18, 20, 21. Basically I learned from them; they structure my way of thinking, my way of analyzing my reality.

MS: Here is something that is very interesting to me: why that period in particular? You're talking 1843 -1848. You really zero in on that time. Why?

RP: Yeah it was a very difficult choice to be frank with you. Throughout the different drafts of the screenplay we basically started from Marx as a 12-year-old student in his gymnasium school, to his time in exile in London when he was 32-33. But little by little we focused on the period starting in France, or a little bit before in Germany when he was expelled, because it's the most interesting and intriguing moment. That's where the ideas are developing, and that's where the first step of taking up organizing the working class, the nonexistent working class until that moment. Most of the heads of the movement, especially the utopian socialists,  those were the hand workers. They were tailors, they were wood workers -- they were not workers working in factories. 

Marx and Engels come into that juncture and change everything and give it the structure, give it the tailoring and even a more educational approach. Because for Marx ignorance never helped anybody. You need to know who is your enemy and how do you fight that enemy? So, it became almost natural to tackle that moment that is not really well-known, because people always try to go to whatever monument of Marx's writing and specifically the Capital. Capital is, I would say, the model work where he tried to put everything that he has accumulated over the years because his approach was to be a scientific one. So he needed a book like this, and that's why it took so much time write. But the evolution of the ideas, the beginnings and also the energy of the youth was important to us. He said philosophers have spent time analyzing the world when what it needs to be now, to do now, is to change it. This is a phenomenal decision at that moment.

MS: One of the things related to that is the opening scene to the film which really does set the tone for much of the rest of the film – the ruthless oppression and the struggle to change it. Let's talk about the opening scene.

RP: It was necessary to show from the beginning the type of violence we are talking about --blind violence that doesn't make sense. It's at the core of the, I would say the reaction of the young Marx, because he is somebody who could not accept inequality and injustice and repression. As a journalist, because at the time that was what he was basically -- and I love that scene as well because first it shows you the violence of the time, these people in the woods trying to survive by taking the wood on the ground, on the floor of the forest -- and the forest belongs to a rich class. And even that they were not allowed by law to use. This was a total contradiction and Marx writes that if the people don't understand the justice of the law and the absurdity of this, they cannot obey those same laws and they are bound to revolt. In a philosophical and political aspect this was the best beginning I could  have. You can see from that moment the evolution of Marx and then Engels together.

And visually of course that was important because I knew that the rest of the film we would not have very much space and room for any action situation because it was an intellectual fight most of the time until 1848, where they wrote The Communist Manifesto. It was important to date the moment and to show visually –- and even in the bodies of the people -- what kind of violence we are talking about in that moment in the Western world. And it was very symbolic.

MS: I have to say there's a lot of parallels to the world today and still many of the same questions and issues are posed, especially when you think about the immigrants coming to this country to  work and what's happening to people. 

RP: Well, that was the idea. How do I provide tools to young people of today to understand what's going on? Because those last 40 years we have had so much incredible changes, changes that did not bring us much more clarity.  On the contrary, it blurred everything. We don't even know what real news is and fake news is. I feel we end up in a place of ignorance that is very hard to react to. What do you do as an artist, as the writer, as a filmmaker to counter that? Because it's not something you can deal with in a matter of one project, one film, one book or one year. It's really how will we face the next 30-40 years? That is what is at stake. 
Again to come back to my film, my modest attempt to at least deliver some sort of theoretical tool, some instrument to understand what’s going on. I can say yes, I had tremendous insight and discussion in many of the countries where the film came out in, in France and Belgium, in Germany. I can see how motivated young people were in the discussion and I hope it will be the same here, too.  But it's about how do we regain our capacity of analysis? How do we reverse this permanent growing ignorance about things, the individualization of any groups. We love our collective and there cannot be real change without collective, without collective minds and ambition for change. The film is just how to give the people the capacity to think again.

MS: What you bring out in relation to Marx and Engels and the whole movement that developed at that time is that there's actually a whole lot going on that needs people, particularly when you look at the role of youth, the role of women, the importance of the revolution of thought -- challenging everything about the accepted norms and then daring to forge a new understanding and a new path. 

RP: Exactly, that's the minimum. We got engaged in this acceleration of everything where people and young people are being bombarded with all sorts of information, found images and ignorance as well. A lot of thoughts are circulating that have no single atom of reality. How do you counter that? One thing we know, we cannot fight if we don't have the right information. Otherwise we are bound to do another mistake. We are like blind people fighting in the dark.

MS: Let’s talk about [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon. He was a respected radical philosopher who spoke out against the oppression under early capitalism. The way you handled the relationship between Marx and Proudhon showed the broadness of mind that Marx and Engels had in terms of reaching out to people like Proudhon with whom they had differences. But they also thought people like this could make important contributions. At the same time Marx was not liberal with anyone. There is a point where Proudhon walks up to Marx and offers him his latest book. Marx looks at the title – The Philosophy of Poverty – and he knows that he is going to have to speak against the arguments advanced by Proudhon in order to develop the kind of revolutionary movement needed, which he and Engels did in their reply, The Poverty of Philosophy

RP: You know it's the real story, and between the two they have been playing cat and mouse for a long time. Of course Marx, at the beginning, he did respect Proudhon. Marx was a very peculiar character. He was very impatient when he felt like you were not progressing like you should do, and in particular with great thinkers. So he did recognize the importance of Proudhon and he did respect him quite a lot, but at some point he felt like Proudhon was being lazy and was not going further than the space he already had. Because Proudhon was already very famous at the time in the movement.

Marx understood that the younger son, at some point, has to kill his father in order to emerge. Somehow this is what happened. That's one aspect in the film where I had to find a way to even explain what Marx’s position was as somebody who wanted to install a more scientific socialism. And the two great movements were, on one side the more utopian socialists like Proudhon, and the more populist socialist like [Wilhelm] Weitling.  So that was the perfect character to show what exactly Marx and Engels are all going for.

Of course I play with the comic situation of it because, again, I am making a film. I'm not writing a dissertation. The hardest part for us, Pascal Bonitzer and myself, when we were writing is how do you tell a very powerful and interesting story and keep the attention of the audience but without inventing things that did not exist and keeping a very faithful line to really what happened and to the character. We didn't invent one single character who did not exist. We, of course, set aside certain persons like Moses Hess, who was a very important historical figure. We had him in the first scene in the newspaper in Cologne and then he disappeared in the film. But Moses was a very important figure and by the way, he was one of the fathers of Zionism later on in his life. So we have a lot of characters like this that we did not exploit. But we made sure that every character in the film did exist. We researched and we knew exactly who they were and what they represented and where they were in the story at the time.

MS: One question here now is this is something that was really important to me, the point that was made continuously throughout the film is that these are not laws of nature but laws of man, laws of man-made relations of production. Things don't have to be this way. There is a certain way that society is organized so that they are this way. But people need to step up and change that.

RP: Starting with Hegel and Feuerbach that's the fundamental issue - man makes history and that means if man makes history they can change history. That is the fundamental importance of that. In particular in the time like this, you would really hear a lot of people who are totally discouraged. They are discouraged against politicians, they are all corrupt and they are discouraged against even the democratic process of voting. They don't go to vote because it's all rigged and it doesn't make sense, etc . So it's really important to make understood that whatever the situation is, only we can change it. Only the addition of our strength and our resistance and our engagement can change anything.

The history of the workers have shown it. Nothing that we have today in terms of democracy, in terms of process was the result of somebody handed it to us. It was always the result of fighting, of people dying, of people organizing. Whether it was the independence of America, whether it was the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves, whether it was the Civil Rights Movement, whether it's the Feminist Movement, the right to vote for women, the right of work and protection in the workplace -- everything is the result of fighting and people understanding their situation, coming together, fighting together and imposing the changes. This is what we are losing right now.

MS: And that's one of the things towards the end of the film - the argument, the struggle to actually produce The Communist Manifesto that would unleash the people of the world in a way that had never been seen before which I thought was a really important part of it.

RP: Exactly. And if you remember, by the way, today is the 170th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto. If you read it today, if you read the first chapter at least, it's exactly the description of what happened in capitalism today. It's totally present and current, what it says about the capitalists without brakes invading the planet, that there is no limit and that it will go crisis after crisis and destroy a lot of institutions, etc. etc. So it is exactly what is happening today.

MS: And including in that the summons to all people to stand up and  stop this, which I think is really, really important.

RP: Of course, because there will be no magic. And even worse, if you rely only on your anger or on any revolt that's the best way to do even more damage. That's one thing you have in the scene with Weitling and Marx, where Weitling is almost saying well, if everybody is angry enough and we can even use people -- criminals from prison and put them in the street and change the system. And Marx said, no, you can't do that, you need to educate the people. They need to know why they are fighting.

So organization is as  important as the knowledge of the situation or the anger that you can have. Let's take the Trump voters. Yes they are pissed, yes, but what is the reaction? They are voting for a man that is totally on the other side and who has even damaged them more. That's totally blind. You also need to organize and have discussion and really refine your strategy. Changing the world means work, as well. That's another point that I want to make with the film. You see those young guys, Marx and Engels. They are in their 20s but they spend a lot of time also reading, writing, thinking, arguing, discussing with others. That's not enough. Like the Civil Rights Movement: people risked their lives. They put their strengths together. They had to discuss. They trained themselves and that is what is needed today again, unfortunately.

MS: All right Raoul Peck thank you very much for a great film and thanks for the interview, man.

RP: Okay thank you.

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