This week it’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, a much honoured, much-reviled giant of history. As someone deeply influenced by his legacy I’ve been messing about with writing something about the extent to which Marx has influenced youth work thinking and practice over the last 50 years. I hope to post something of interest on my blog in the next few weeks. In the interim, I think it’s appropriate to draw your attention to a number of contemporary interventions, which seek to weigh up more generally whether Marx has anything fruitful to say about the present crisis of meaning in society, the present uncertainty about the future, at the centre of which are young people.
K is for Karl – Series of 5 Films by Paul Mason about the meaning of Marx today
“Why does Marx matter today?” is the question posed by British journalist and filmmaker Paul Mason in five short films produced by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung to commemorate Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. Through Marx, Mason explores the topics of “Alienation”, “Communism”, “Revolution”, “Exploitation” and “The Future of Machines” in order to demonstrate how Marx, who Mason describes as the most influential thinker of the modern world, remains deeply relevant to understanding our contemporary world.
In the first of a series of five short films, British journalist and filmmaker Paul Mason searches for the roots of Marx’s thinking in Berlin, where he began his university studies in 1836. “For Marx, alienation doesn’t just mean we get depressed, we hate our jobs, or that we feel bad about the world. It means we’re constantly using our creative powers in the wrong way. We make things, but the things we make – machines, states, religions, rules – end up controlling us.”
Paul Mason again, after all, he hails from the same Lancashire town, Leigh, as me and we stood together on picket lines during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. Friendship aside, disagreements aside, he’s always challenging.
On the bicentenary of his birth, Marx continues to be a key thinker thanks to his surprising faith in the individual.
If I could speak across time to the people frozen in the above photograph [the blurry snapshot catches Leon Trotsky in mid-sentence, in Frida Kahlo’s house sometime in 1937. To the left of the frame is Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife. To the right is Kahlo and, half hidden behind her, a young woman listening intently: Trotsky’s secretary Raya Dunayevskaya], I would say, after congratulating them for their magnificent lives of resistance and suffering: “That inner desire you are suppressing, for Marxism to be humanistic? That impulse towards individual liberation? It’s already there in Marx, just waiting to be discovered. So paint what you want, love whom you want. Fuck the vanguard party. The revolutionary subject is the self.”
Yanis Varoufakis has composed a new introduction to the Communist Manifesto of 1848.
For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves, and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.
No manifesto has better succeeded in doing all this than the one published in February 1848 at 46 Liverpool Street, London. Commissioned by English revolutionaries, The Communist Manifesto (or the Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was first published) was authored by two young Germans – Karl Marx, a 29-year-old philosopher with a taste for epicurean hedonism and Hegelian rationality, and Friedrich Engels, a 28-year-old heir to a Manchester mill.
As a work of political literature, the manifesto remains unsurpassed. Its most infamous lines, including the opening one (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”), have a Shakespearean quality. Like Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?”