Michael Slate Interview with Filmmaker Raoul Peck on The Young Karl Marx:

"You need to know who is your enemy and how do you fight that enemy"

March 6, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is excerpted from an interview with film director Raoul Peck, aired on March 2, 2018, on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. The entire interview is available at themichaelslateshow.com.

The Michael Slate Show airs every Friday at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles. The show can be streamed live here and people can listen to or download archived shows here.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theatre, music and literature, science, sport, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.

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 to 1848 and tells the story of the 26-year-old Karl Marx along with Frederick 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 The Young Karl Marx and learn about the earliest days of, and battles to establish, the science of revolution. Shortly before the film opened, I sat down and talked with Raoul Peck....

Raoul Peck, welcome to the show. This is a remarkable film that I think everyone should see, so let’s jump into this. Here is something that is very interesting to me—why this period of Marx’s life? You really zero in on 1843 to 1848.

Raoul Peck: 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 woodworkers—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’ writing and specifically 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 [Volume 1 of Capital was published in 1867]. But the evolution of the ideas, the beginnings and also the energy of the youth were 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.

Michael Slate: Let’s talk about 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.

Raoul Peck: 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, 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 wood on the soil, on the bottom of the forest and the forest belongs to a rich class—and even that, they were not allowed by law to use. And 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 when 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.

Michael Slate: 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.

Raoul Peck: Well, that was the idea. How do I provide tools to young people of today to understand what’s going on? Because in the 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 France and Belgium, in Germany. I can see how motivated young people were in the discussions, 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 group? We love our collective, and there cannot be real change without collectives, without collective minds and ambition for change. The film is just how to give the people the capacity to think again.

Michael Slate: Let’s talk about 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.

Raoul Peck: 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 Weitling. So that was the perfect character to show what exactly Marx and Engels are all going for....

Michael Slate: There is the point made continuously throughout the film about laws that are not laws of nature but laws of man, laws of manmade relations of production—and how things don’t have to be this way. There is a certain way that society is organized, but people need to step up and change that.

Raoul Peck: 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 [now], 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 has shown it. Nothing that we have today in terms of democracy, in terms of process, was the result of somebody handing it to us. It was always the result of fighting, of people dying, of people organizing. Whether it is 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.

Michael Slate: And that’s one of the things towards the end of the film that I thought was really important—the argument, the struggle to actually produce the Communist Manifesto that would unleash the world in a way that had never been seen before, that could unleash people of the world in a way that had never been seen before.

Raoul Peck: 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 happens with capitalism today. It’s totally present and current, what it says about the capitalists without brakes invading the planets, 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.

Michael Slate: And the summons to all people to stand up and stop this.

Raoul Peck: 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 [populist socialist] Weitling, 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 have.


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