Baldwin and Marx – Same Struggle?

Or a few impolite thoughts on The Young Karl Marx, by the director of that film and I Am Not Your Negro.

Any education is fundamentally compromised, if it doesn’t lead to the capacity to think for oneself.

James Baldwin and Karl Marx – the subjects of my two most recent films – were my two primary teachers; each in his own way taught me how to think, how to be, how to engage. They empowered me – then and now, here and elsewhere – to always find the necessary critical distance to analyze the seemingly perplexing issues one confronts daily. Whether it’s political, social, philosophical or even personal. They enabled me to understand the society we live in; what power means; what greed induces; what politics implies and/or why the insatiable pursuit of money cannot be the ultimate goal in life.

On a more “universal” level, they allowed me to understand and confront the reality of our present society and challenge some of its central afflictions, the more obvious ones being:
– the supposedly unstoppable race towards the cliff of economic disaster
– ecological cataclysm
– an increasing calcification and trivialization of gross inequalities
– eternal wars against terrorists and immigrants (viciously presented as interchangeable)

The entire Western world, the United States included, seems to be adapting credulously to this situation.

Coming back to Marx and his concepts is to look at the national and current hysteria from an analytical distance. And returning to the fundamental ideas of any philosophy is always enlightening.

So, how do we begin a conversation about class, profit, race and capitalism in a country where former President Obama is considered an aggressive socialist?

In 2000, I made a documentary film about capitalism entitled, Profit & Nothing But! Or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle. At the time, it was almost considered a taboo, a heresy to talk about “profit” and “class struggle” in a public forum, even in liberal Europe. After the 2008 crisis, the film became less antagonistic. Even the free-market enthusiast magazine The Economist put Karl Marx in many of its headlines.

For my latest film, The Young Karl Marx, my challenge was: How can one expose, through the medium of a commercial film destined to a wider audience, the insights of the most important thinker of the past 200 years, a man who (together with Friedrich Engels) was pivotal to his century and all others after that?

How do I explain, in a very simple and concise way:
– the course of history (a bloody one, written by the momentary victors)
– the core elements of society (strained by profound inequalities)
– the characteristics of its design (exploitation)
– what drives it (profit)?

Or, put another way, how do I explain:
– why a multinational corporation decides, without any defendable argument, to shut down a plant supporting 5,000 people, while its profits are in the billions of dollars?
– the repetitive babble of economists (described by the late Bernard Maris, killed at the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as “all charlatans!”) about a “market,” which supposedly regulates the economy, when in fact the state saves the day, crisis after crisis (the bank bailout, they called it last time)?
– why many workers put their faith in Donald Trump as their savior when he is in fact the finest caricature of a speculative deadbeat capitalist?
– why it is so arduous for any democratically elected government to resist the billion dollar-charged pressure of special interests and lobbyists standing in the way of even the slightest changes toward more efficient regulation?

In all, how do I escape massive deficiency and ignorance?

You will find answers to all these questions in Marx’s theories. He was a genius about whom the noted thinker Raymond Aron (not a Marxist!) wrote: “A quality of Marx’s work is that it can be explained in five minutes, five hours, five years or half a century. It lends itself, in effect, to the sort of half-hour summary that might ultimately permit someone who knows nothing of the history of Marxism to lend an ironic ear to someone who has dedicated his life to its study.”

Marx is the person who explained how the dominant ideas in a given society are the ideas of the privileged exploiting class and that the ideas of this privileged class determine the thinking of the whole society. So obvious when you watch any television debate today.

Marx’s ideas have been the subject of the biggest ideological kidnapping of modern history! From the Soviet Union to China, to Cambodia, to the Berlin wall. “Protect me from the Marxist,” warned Marx himself. This is why my co-writer Pascal Bonitzer and I chose to avoid the eminent Marxian “theologists” and interpreters and went straight to the source. Our screenplay is based primarily and almost exclusively on the correspondence between Karl, his wife Jenny and Friedrich Engels. The real human beings behind the myth in their own words, wit, liveliness, humor, humanity and revolt.

The Young Karl Marx, like most of my films, is about recapturing a more solid narrative. A progressive one, if possible. It’s not about fiction. It is about reality. And as such, its intent is to impact the present reality (and possibly society as a whole).

I’m surprised that I Am Not Your Negro didn’t spark more anger and backlash after the success of its wide U.S. theatrical release. For, in this film, Baldwin does not mince his words:

“I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem.’”

The problem of “alienation” in a nutshell, a subject Marx extensively worked on too.

Baldwin wrote elsewhere that “there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.”

Another way to explain “class struggle” and its consequences: “The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life. Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics, and to watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality.”

Baldwin puts in very vivid words the ideas Marx first developed (see also Gramsci, McLuhan and Chomsky, for starters!) about the role of the ideological metastructure in capitalism and what it does to the dominant thinking and to allow the permanent reproduction of capitalism itself in ever changing new clothes: “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free; it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.”

Marx worked on how our perception of reality is linked to our role in the capitalist production structure and how this perception can produce exactly the contrary of its reality. “I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white,” Baldwin wrote. “White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

This is the most efficient and simple description of capitalism I ever read. Marxian analysis at its best. Baldwin, Marx – same struggle.

John Erskine wrote in 1915 that people had “the moral obligation to be intelligent.” This is my modest attempt at intelligence. I am not interested nor do I believe in any prosaic indoctrination. Just an incitement to read a few books, to challenge our bias and, above all, to know your history.

America, the American working class in particular, has had an extremely dynamic, rich, progressive revolutionary tradition starting with the War of Independence, through the Civil War, the rise of organized trade unions, the anti-Vietnam movement in the sixties, the civil rights movement, all the way up to today’s Black Lives Matter and the new women’s movements. Great and respected progressive thinkers in this country, including parts of the Christian church, have moved the nation forward in its quest for equality, justice and a better life for all.

The good news, finally, is that young people are once again interested in learning their history, recapturing their narrative and confronting ignorance.

The Young Karl Marx is my contribution to this discussion.

“The emancipation of each is the condition of the emancipation of all.” (Karl Marx)

Raoul Peck’s complex body of work includes feature narrative films like The Man by the Shore, Lumumba, Sometimes in April, Moloch Tropical and Murder in Pacot, and documentaries such as Lumumba, Death of a Prophet, Desounen, Fatal Assistance and I Am Not Your Negro. He is presently chairman of the board of the National French film school La Fémis, and has been the subject of numerous retrospectives worldwide. His latest feature film, The Young Karl Marx, is released in select theaters by The Orchard on February 23.