Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden: The Man versus the State
Imagine, if you will, someone taking the stage at a heated socialist gathering during a union strike and telling the packed room that their ideology is flawed because it leaves the individual out of the equation and thus could only succeed in substituting one set of masters for another.
Now picture that same person at a private dinner telling an elitist judge across the table that the latter is more socialist in his thinking than those who call themselves so because of his support for governmental regulations and other interventions in the economy that enable a collusion between the state and the industrial sector and thus weaken the vitality of the free market.
The juxtaposition of these two scenarios is not startling if we know that the said person is a follower of Herbert Spencer, a political philosopher and activist who opposed coercive power in all its forms. What might be unexpected—or at least, what pleasantly surprised me—is to encounter such a figure as the protagonist of a new art film that is garnishing critical recognition in both Europe and the United States (including several nominations and awards at major film festivals, the David di Donatello for the Best Adapted Screenplay, and a listing in the top ten movies of 2020 by the New York Times).
The film in question is Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, a 2019 adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel by the same name.1 Amazed by the film (and not only for the anticollectivist, antiwar, proliberty stance of its hero), I browsed online for other reactions to its October 2020 release in the US. Disappointingly, the reviews that I found (regardless of their assessment of the film’s artistic merits) were from a leftist political perspective that ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented the film’s uncompromising stance against collectivism. Instead, most considered the film to be “a cautionary tale about the perils of individualism and the ease with which it can swallow even the most idealistic artists” and “a critique on the eventual downfall of the staunch individualist, whose passion on the subject, at least so doggedly, can only end in self-annihilation.” As one reviewer writes: “Martin Eden is both a cutting attack on individualism and a perfectly-timed parable for today’s failing isolationist system, wherein the myth of meritocracy and belief in inherent superiority lures susceptible young men.” The character Martin Eden is treated according to the same bias: for example, he “made a Faustian bargain with capitalism itself” and is “oblivious to his own toxic masculinity.” Nor are we spared outright vehement attacks on Martin’s ideas: “Marcello slowly traps us in the character’s increasingly repellent beliefs” and we witness “the character’s growingly monstrous delusions” as “our hero essentially buys into his own bullshit.” Any mention of libertarianism is uttered with disdain: “The more he publicly embraces his badly thought-out brand of libertarian politics, the more his life spins out of control.” A few critics even associate Martin’s libertarianism with fascism: “From such by-the-bootstraps libertarianism, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to out-and-out fascism”; indeed, he “becomes a proto-fascist.” Given the disconnect between the film I watched and the reviews I read online, I decided to offer a brief analysis of Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden from my own libertarian perspective.
Perhaps part of the reason film critics may have felt particularly justified in employing a leftist ideology to review Martin Eden is that the novel upon which it is based was penned by a socialist author. Nonetheless, even the original work was sufficiently ambiguous in nature to lead many readers to admire rather than critique the eponymous hero. As Andrew Sinclair has noted, “Although London might protest that the novel was an attack on individualism, not socialism, he had made it so autobiographical that his radical readers could not distinguish him from his leading character.”2 Regardless of the ideology of the novel, the Italian film director Pietro Marcello brings us a film that visibly moves the needle toward individualism and against collectivism in all its various manifestations.
Let’s first look more closely at the socialist gathering at which Martin Eden speaks his mind. His friend Russ Brissenden (Briss), a sympathizer of the socialists although not one himself (in the film), takes him to a meeting about an ongoing union strike. The sight of several men being forcibly expelled just as the two friends arrive already suggests that dissident voices will not be tolerated. When Briss encourages Martin to “tell them why you don’t want socialism,” Martin replies that “all hell will break loose.” It turns out he was right. Martin asks the crowd what role individuals will have in the new society envisioned by the socialists, warning them that “you can’t pay attention only to the collective.” He goes on to explain:
As soon as a society of slaves starts to organize itself without any respect for the individuals that compose it, so its decline begins. The strongest among them will be their new masters. But this time they’ll do it in secret, through cunning, scheming, flattery, coaxing, and lies and worse than what your bosses do to you today.
The men are so unwilling to engage in debate that they not only angrily shout “Shut up! Go home!” to silence him, but they also physically assault him as he walks from the stage to the rear of the room. This belligerent reaction to an alternative point of view, which diverges from London’s more indulgent depiction of the socialists in his version of the scene, is all too familiar to anyone following the increased incidents of protesters violently thwarting speeches on college campuses in recent years. The socialist leader who reappropriates the microphone leaves aside any antagonism toward “the bosses” and professes instead that “individualism” is “our main enemy,” a chilling statement that lays bare his implacable collectivist mindset.
This scene is foreshadowed by a previous one—completely absent from the novel—in which an elderly man steps up to address the crowd at an outdoor public gathering despite his wife’s concern about his safety:
Today the union has called a strike. I agree with the strike, but I’m against the union. If you workers want to work, you have to pay a tax to the government and another fee to the union. This is absurd! The right to work is not the right of the individual, but a right of the union, a right that the union sells and the worker has to buy. You socialists dream of a revolution that will make the State your own so that this gives equal rights to all. But who are these “all”? The workers’ organizations through their unions, not single workers. Where’s the individual in your politics? What do you make of him?
Rather than engage in a discussion of ideas, those present s
Article from Mises Wire