Thursday, 30 May 2019

Marximation





This January there was some strange news from China, the airing of a Karl Marx animated series usually called Karl Marx the anime, but actually titled The Leader. There was quite a bit of fuss on news sites and social media, but oddly once episodes started floating around the net it quickly disappeared. It doesn't seem to have gained much traction even in the circles that make image reactions and jokes.

I found a youtube channel that not only uploaded all seven episodes but had also fansubbed the Chinese dialogue into English and Russian. I watched the whole show, and I think I see why it didn't last. Using the channel statistics as a guide, episode one has 100,000+ views, episode 2 though plummeted to 15,000 and the drop continued with the last episode getting around 7,000. There's a lot to untangle so I'm going to break it down a bit.

Expectations

I wasn't expecting much going in, its a biopic of Karl Marx that's seven episodes long. Each episode is around 24 minutes long, but at least four of those minutes are dedicated to credit sequences and a preview of the next episode. I was expecting more of a brief timeline and introduction to his ideas and inspirations. This seems to be what they were aiming for and some episodes mostly live up to this but the rest fall quite short.

The Look


Bluntly the show is very incompetent, both in animation and story structure, it seems to have deliberately gone out of its way to show off how poorly made much of it is. There's no consistency, it switches between 3D and 2D animation styles arbitrarily, the models are extremely janky in movement and stick out from the backgrounds. They often look creepy especially when laughing.

The models are also recycled heavily, Marx doesn't appear to age or change his clothes much from age 17 until the 1850's when he starts to show the beginnings of a beard. His wife Jenny is usually seen wearing her wealthy noblewoman dress and her maid is wearing a sexy formal French maids outfit. The crowds are some of the laziest I've ever seen, a good chunk of multiple episodes are dedicated to Marx giving a speech, and we get reaction shots from the audience, but whats weird is that these audience usually stay motionless until the speech is finished, and then they applaud robotically. Most do not even emote during, and many not in the front row despite being clearly visible often do not have faces.

This is not the worst example of lifeless crowds, this is only the first example. From the first episode, about two minutes in

It looks cheap and its very jarring. Even the show opener highlights many of the worst features of the animation. But what's really strange is that the first episode is the cheapest looking one, every other episode while not perfect is an improvement. Now animations having spikes and drops in quality is nothing unusual, budgets of both time and money can effect production, but I've never known the opening episode to be the one that's the most cheap looking. I honestly had to pause the episode multiple times to process what I was looking at, its not just that it looks bad, it often actively confuses.

An obvious 3D Gatling gun model


One two second cut later, and its transformed


I think the last episode looks the best, and its much easier to follow, but that's mainly because aside from an epilogue it focusses mostly on Marx coming to terms with his age and ill health. The section with him and his wife Jenny was surprisingly quite emotional.

 The Education

I was expecting this to be a brief introduction friendly to people who knew nothing of Karl Marx, and I think that was the intent, but it often falls short. I personally think it might be better to skip episodes 1 and 2 and start with 3, not only do the production values increase but not much is lost. Though later episodes do still have some pretty serious issues. 

It presents the information in small chunks, but sometimes it does so in a way that only makes sense if you already familiar with the topic at hand. The bits on Hegel and Kant are pretty blatant examples. Episode 2 covers the deep impression Hegel made on Marx, particularly the "Dialectic" but it doesn't explain what that is, and both philosophers and many others that pop up in the show are reduced to some very quick summaries that rely on terms that aren't in common usage. 

Another time Marx is outlining his ides on Historical Materialism, and his brief explanation is overlaid random scenes on a street in Brussels, but the connection between what he's saying and the imagery is not made clear.

Episode 5 the highpoint for me, is the best at this, it takes its time explaining some of the passages from Capital, and its framing works in the episode. It also has an effective use of colourful imagery, the Vampire like capitalist relationship. Other than that its main problem is its brief run time, big and important ideas and lessons are briefly mentioned and then everything has moved on.

I picked out this comment to highlight how poor a job it seems to be doing in teaching people about Karl Marx, most of the other comments weren't much better

The Revisionism

This overlaps a lot with both education and looks, but I wanted to make this its own section for clarity sake. While focussed almost exclusively on Marx, -with one exception to be dealt with later- it does reference and introduce, often for less than a minute some of the other political radicals that Marx rubbed shoulders with. Including his criticism of them. with the exception of Ruge whose briefly mentioned before he appears everyone else Marx interacts with just turns up is introduced by a brief name plate, cross swords with Marx and either immediately leaves to be banished for ever, or like Engels sticks around to become his admirer.

Episode 4 takes this to the extreme. Wietling walks into the Marx home, is briefly introduced for his accomplishments, he then talks and moves incredibly smugly, talks about Christian communism for a bit and toasts himself before Marx speaks up. Every part of this scene, the dialogue, the character movements, the facial emotions etc. Is telling the audience to dislike him, but the argument between him and Marx is so quick and surface level its mostly just angry words. The only part of the disagreement that's clear between the two if you don't already know all about their ideas is that Wietling thinks workers allying with the bourgeoisie is a mistake because they are enemies, and Marx disagrees because of his views on history. 

Who was right? Well we're supposed to sympathise with Marx and Wietling literally storms out of his house never to be seen again so I guess that's a win for Marx*. The International Working Men's Association is depicted as being the soul fruit of the labour of Marx, and it largely accords with his views. The reality was that it was diverse body full of people he couldn't stand and didn't fall under his direct control until 1872, when it promptly haemorrhaged members and collapsed.

In episode 6 there is a Marx/Bakunin stand off at the Hague Congress, Marx ridicules Bakunin as a conspirator, Bakunin has no allies, and he and his group are expelled. In reality Bakunin was never at the Hague Congress, Marx's motion to expel Bakunin failed, he was later expelled for questioning the new General Council, and when he left the majority of the membership also left, either to join him or like the other non Marx non Bakunin aligned groups like Blanqui's supporters simply to get away from the direction Marx was driving. The narration and the final episode don't acknowledge this at all, they give the impression that Marx's decision to prevent a split of the international, by well splitting the international was roaring success. 

This episode (heh) demonstrates a key failing in The Leader. Its supposed to be biographical, but it won't tolerate even mild and universally accepted criticism of Marx as political advocate or as a human being. Marx is apparently faultless, when I saw they were including Helene Demuth the maid I wondered if they'd dare depict him getting her pregnant. They didn't, it'd probably get in the way of depicting his relationship with Jenny as a fairy tale romance. His well known binge drinking is also absent, at one point he even criticises other revolutionaries for drinking too much. His behaviour with his enemies real and imagined is always depicted as noble and correct, but it can't go into detail about their opposing views and criticisms even to set up their defeat, so it all comes across as extremely shallow, which also makes Marx the character seem shallow and clueless. Marx never really convinces by the power of his argument, he just registers his dislike and the reactions of the characters does the hard work of presenting this as a victory to the audience.

Self Sabotage

Again this is tied in with all the other examples. A bizarre fault with the show is that it kept undermining what it was trying to achieve. An early scene in episode one that seems based on that famous scene from Good Will Hunting with the Bully, is supposed to establish Karl Marx as a genius but it totally undermines itself. Marx does this by reciting a very simplified explanation of Kant's views on dogmatism and scepticism, which shouldn't be a problem, but this is shown to stump all the other students, and more importantly the scene immediately before that was Karl Marx in a class room listening to his teacher tell him this. So we're supposed to be impressed by his ability to remember basic information told to him three hours earlier.

Another example in episode 3 and 4 they address the poverty of the Marx family, but each time this done while the maid and his wife are onscreen in there expensive clothing, because they were too cheap to update their models. Shortly after criticising Wietling, Marx starts ripping into Kriege's ideas on universal love, specifically the absurd notion that capitalists and lenders can be reached by appeals to their better nature. He's saying all of this to his good friend and dependable comrade Friedrich Engels, whom the show has established is a factory manager, and was moved to become a Communist because witnessing the plight of the working poor appealed to his better nature.

Lest you feel I'm being a bit hard, I personally agree with the criticism of Kriege, its just that The Leader is just giving out mixed signals in its incompetence. 

Last but not least, there's the case of Pierre Proudhon. Engels gives Marx a copy of his Proudhon's new book Philosophy of Poverty. While Marx is holding the book unopened, two random people start throwing out snippets of Proudhon's beliefs. At which point Marx still holding the unopened book starts ranting about Proudhon's "Petits-bourgeois" socialism and declares he will write a criticism called Poverty of Philosophy. It was at this point that I wasn't sure whether some of the instances of self sabotage were deliberate or not, Marx did write Poverty of Philosophy as an attack on Proudhon, and for many years it was considered a masterpiece in Marxist criticism. 

Until people started reading Proudhons book, where it was discovered that many of Marx's criticisms were incredibly inaccurate if not made up.

Propaganda

AKA, the reason this was really made. The Leader isn't really supposed to be an educational text, its made to capitalise on Karl Marx and use his legacy to legitimise the Chinese Communist Party. The CPC fully supported the creation of The Leader, particularly the Propaganda Department of the Communist Youth League and the  Central Office for the Research and Construction of Marxist Theory were involved.

This is the final image of the end credits of every episode. The credits are a timeline of Karl Marx's life so the connections aren't subtle.


It was made and released just before the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's death, and the first speech Karl Marx gives on the show “Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession” was also chosen as an extract for Xi Jinping's speech commemorating the 200th anniversary. 

“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually be at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”
Even the titles for the episodes sound like they were taken from propaganda posters

  1. Different Youth
  2. Defending the Rights of the People
  3. New World View
  4. Scientific Socialism Shines Brightly
  5. Great Work Das Kapital
  6. First International
  7. Marx Forever
And of course the name of the series The Leader isn't exactly subtle. But in case you didn't get it the last part of the final episode really drives it home. The ending credits are a timeline of key events in Marx's life, except for episode seven. In that episode the timeline is replaced with a history of Marxism-Leninism, through to the present day in the People's Republic. Complete with a narrator praising Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping then the Three Represents and then finally Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping's new era of socialism with Chinese Characteristics together will bring the people forward into a new era for China 
The intention is of course is crystal clear, Karl Marx is the indisputable leader of Communism, and the CPC is the heir to Communism, and so it is the heir to Karl Marx.

Of course its not exactly a new claim, just a few more heads to squeeze on the banners.
There is some attempt to justify this posture though, in an early episode Marx is absolutely indignant at the oppression of peasantry by the landlord class, and the Paris Commune is criticised for not having a strong central leadership. Also Marx did briefly talk about the importance of theory adapting it to historical conditions and reality. Which the narrator echoes at the end by claiming that Maoism through to Xi is just the Sinification of Marxism.

I also think though this is speculation that the propaganda potential of the series is the explanation for its poor production values, especially in earlier episodes. The series premiered on the 28th of January, with an episode a week, meaning it ended roughly around the anniversary date. If the decision to make the series had come late, with the anniversary being the hard deadline it must reach, then that would explain why the earlier episodes are the worst with the most obvious time and cost cutting. The later episodes which look much better would have had more time available to work on. But even in the last episodes there are obvious signs of short cuts in some sequences.

Conclusion

I think The Leader is doomed to be a curiosity, unless the CPC believes it was successful at propagandising to the youth of China I can't see this experiment being repeated. Its a shame but I don't recommend it, its not without its charms, but the combination of animation issues, shallow information, and propaganda distortions -and there were many more examples I could have listed- leave this as something best avoided. 

Which is a shame, as I don't believe the idea of an animated series is without merit, the Manga adaptation of Capital was largely a success, the films Young Karl Marx and the West German film about Rosa Luxemburg were very informative and interesting to watch, and historical drama's are becoming increasingly common and more refined. If the CPC didn't cobble this together to meet its targets and it was allowed artistic freedom it could've been something great. For all its faults the final episode was quite good so the people doing the actual work of making the production seem to have been capable of doing good work.

* Incidentally this same episode covers the revolutions of 1848, during which time many of Europe's bourgeoisie eventually allied with their despotic aristocracy to destroy the more radical workers and student revolutionaries. So it seems like Wietling was largely correct on that point but this is never addressed. 

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