Lovers of toilet humour and references to the philosopher Hegel will adore Young Marx. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there is little that’s either edifying or funny about this odd choice of a maiden production for the new Bridge Theatre.
The play lampoons the life of the Marx family as they take exile in Victorian London, following Karl’s role in the 1848 revolutions in Germany.
Marx had been a central figure in the revolution in Cologne, where he organised demonstrations and campaigns around the paper he edited, die Neue Rheinische Zeitung.
When this struggle against the petty feudal lords—who ruled the patchwork of tiny principalities that made up mid-century Germany—failed, Marx was forced to flee.
Ultimately, he settled in London, where he developed his mature works on political economy, such as Capital.
But Young Marx doesn’t explore Marx as a revolutionary organiser or as one of the greatest theoreticians of the modern period. Instead it focuses on his career as a petty criminal, drunkard and philanderer.
The result is a farcical dramatisation of the most lurid details of Marx’s personal life, largely poached from Francis Wheen’s biography of him.
He is depicted as a morally and financially bankrupt rogue—albeit a loveably witty one.
The occasional joke referencing Marx’s political theory appear merely as intellectual window-dressing for a set of sexual innuendos.
Where revolution does enter into the production, it’s hopelessly misunderstood by the writers.
For instance, much of the action centres around the debate between August Willich and Marx.
But their disagreements are largely explained as a result of their competition for the heart of Marx’s long-suffering wife, Jenny von Westphalen.
Willich was a follower of Louis Blanqui, who envisioned revolution as the act of a small elite of socialists who would act on behalf of the working class.
But Marx argued that arming working class people with a theoretical understanding of capitalism—and revolutionary socialist organisation—would be needed to end capitalism.
Unfortunately, the writers ventriloquise Marx to put forward exactly the opposite position.
In their hands, Marx makes a speech about the inevitability of a final economic crisis. Capitalism will collapse of its own accord and the working class will be liberated from wage slavery.
The reduction of Marx’s theory of how the masses can make history to a utopian economic fatalism sits comfortably alongside his characterisation as a charming but feckless miscreant.
Marx is a towering figure of the modern period. His insight into the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism casts a long shadow over a world that is characterised by economic collapse and political polarisation.
But Young Marx is a safe Marx. The writers imagine they have neutralised Marx’s thought by exposing it as the grand but idle fantasy of an impoverished loafer.
Instead they expose capitalist culture as still incapable of really facing up to the significance of what Marx had to say.