Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden: The Man versus the State

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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. 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.” 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 shout “Via, via!” and other indiscernible phrases and then begin throwing things at the poor fellow as they move forward in a menacing fashion. When Martin Eden follows after him to express his agreement with the speech, the man concludes dejectedly: “They only fight to have new bosses, you see?”

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Martin Eden’s speech critiquing socialism’s disregard of the individual is, ironically, what makes him the intended target at the elitist dinner that (in the film) occurs the following evening. A reporter present at the rally had published a picture of Martin on stage with the headline: “Il socialismo ha un nuovo leader: Martin Eden.” The rift between historical reality and the media’s refashioning of events to manufacture the illusion they want to project could not be more pertinent today. During the dinner, hosted by the parents of Martin’s fiancée, Elena Orsini, a judge refers to the newspaper photograph and labels him a socialist. When Martin corrects the judge by saying “I’d never declare myself a socialist. I’m not one,” the latter replies derisively: “Good! The patient is already on his way to recovery. Time is the best medicine for these maladies of youth.” In response, Martin turns the tables, stating: “I see that you are scrupulous doctors, but also listen to the patient. You suffer from the illness that you diagnose in me.” Before proceeding, he asks, “You’re a liberal, or am I wrong?,” not making the same mistake of assuming to know another’s political orientation.

He then proceeds:

You are convinced that the best economic system is the free market, and you see yourselves as supporters of meritocracy and competition. Yet you are in favor of laws that weaken their vitality. You have regulated commerce, you have placed limits on mergers between industrial groups. You have allowed the state to support and financially favor national industry.

The judge smugly insults Martin in his reply: “I don’t know where you studied political economy. I guess in a ship’s cargo hold. But these laws are against monopolies, necessary to increase employment.” Martin, however, stands his ground:

My point is that it is not me but you who are suffering from socialism. It’s you who pass socialist measures; socialism is in your ideas, not in mine. I haven’t been infected. I’m against socialism and against the farce of democracy that you claim to represent.

As Martin goes on to criticize the “liberals” in government as “socialists afraid of socialism,” the abuse he receives in return is not physical this time but verbal. His fiancée’s mother remarks with an air of superiority: “It’s those books by Spencer. He has a strange effect on the youngest ones.” Provoked by such disparaging attempts to belittle him rather than debate ideas, Martin bluntly tells the judge: “You’re unable to discuss Spencer with me. You disgust me!” If speaking his mind at the socialist rally could only cost him bruises, in this refined setting it will cost him his engagement to his fiancée.

This dinner, in turn, is foreshadowed by Martin’s first meal with the Orsini family, presided over by Elena’s mother. Although a similar scene takes place in the novel, only the film draws attention to the family’s expectation that the state should intervene widely in society. After asserting that “the government should spend more on education,” Mrs. Orsini pointedly solicits assent from her guest: “Don’t you agree, Mr. Eden?” Although Martin has not yet read the books that will provide him with a coherent political philosophy, his response even at this early point is to keep the government out of the equation: “I believe that if this [referring to the piece of bread in his hand] is education, and the sauce is poverty, if you use education, poverty disappears.” He then turns his metaphor into concrete action as he scoops up the sauce with his bread and takes a bite.

Both the socialist rallies and the Orsini family dinners are contrasted with other settings, most prominently the rural home of Martin’s landlady, Maria. A conversation at the dinner table between Martin and Maria, absent from the novel, centers on a friendly exchange of ideas about economics. As surely as if they had read Walter Block’s chapter on “The Moneylender” in Defending the Undefendable (121–27), Martin and Maria raise their glasses in a toast to “the moneylenders” for the service they perform. When, however, Maria remarks that “if there weren’t any moneylenders, the world wouldn’t move forward,” Martin reminds her that it is productive activity (like her own needlework) that creates prosperity: “It would be worse if it weren’t for the hands that make the wealth. Like yours, Maria.” He goes on to encourage her to open her own shop so as to have “no bosses, no masters.” Yet not everyone has an entrepreneurial spirit, and Maria replies that she finds her own happiness in life’s simple pleasures, such as the stars in the sky, children, and a plate of maccheroni. As the dialogue ranges from economic theory to personal fulfillment, Martin and Maria show mutual respect for each other’s views while sharing the underlying assumption of the necessity of individual responsibility and freedom of choice.

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Given the spotlight on Martin’s individualism, we might distinguish the concept’s different shades of meaning in the course of the film. The individualism referred to at the socialist rally is methodological. As stated perhaps most succinctly by Ludwig von Mises: “All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.” A second meaning that comes through is that of self-reliance. Martin is quintessentially a self-made man in that he works tirelessly and with great determination to achieve his goal of educating himself and becoming a successful writer. The education system fails him when the evaluators at a high school entrance exam would have relegated him to primary school because he could not remember dates, even though his ideas were clearly articulated. As it turns out, this institutional rejection was to his advantage, since as an autodidact he was not subject to the indoctrination of public schooling and could follow his interests to explore a range of ideas, including those of Herbert Spencer. This brings us to a third, albeit related, connotation of individualism, that of thinking independently. Martin’s first published story in the journal L’eroica is appropriately titled “L’apostata,” suggesting his interest in delineating a character who has turned away from received dogma. Martin shows his awareness of embodying this rare intellectual independence when he tells the judge that “there are probably five or six individualists in this city and one of them is Martin Eden.” The viewer has no doubt that he is right—even if his assertion ruffles the feathers of those around the table. A fourth sense of individualism conveyed is the notion that every single life is unique. Walking through his neighborhood, Martin greets his acquaintances by name and his neighbors likewise call out his name when they exchange greetings. More generally, Marcello’s directing style suggests the distinctiveness of each human being by focusing on anonymous people in the crowds, of all shapes, sizes, skin tones, and ages. These close-ups show the faces of individuals from all walks of life, including sailors on a ship, passengers on a train, women on balconies drying clothes, and buyers and sellers at outdoor markets. Some of the shots are of faces looking directly into the camera, at times smiling and other times serious, compelling us through their gaze to acknowledge their respective personhoods.

Individualism is continuously framed as a contrast to various forms of collectivism. As noted above, the antistatist and antisocialist Martin is inspired by the writings of Herbert Spencer. The reviews that mention Spencer go out of their way to paint him in the most negative light possible, referring to Martin’s “troubling fixation on the writings of the English philosopher and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer” and “incredibly tin-eared Spencer obsession.” One reviewer writes that Martin “parrots the batshit-crazy, incoherent theories of Herbert Spencer.” Although beyond the scope of this essay, the “besmirching and virtual destruction of the reputation of Herbert Spencer” by collectivists has its own fascinating history. Yet had the film critics making such derogatory pronouncements ever read Spencer? Apparently not, or they would have found in The Man versus the State a brilliant chapter titled “The New Toryism” in which Spencer demonstrates that although the Liberals had initially “stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion,” by the 1880s “liberalism, getting more and more into power, [had] grown more and more coercive in its legislation.” The film’s dialogue at the Orsini dinner table fits Spencer’s historical and political analysis of the Liberals much more closely than it follows the novel’s dinner conversation, which focuses instead on US party politics.

Whereas the film reviews I perused not only reductively labelled Spencer as a proponent of social Darwinism but also mischaracterized individualism as selfishness, Martin Eden as an individualist is ever ready to help those in distress and to stand up against injustices. Indeed, the entire plot is set into motion when he comes to the rescue of a youth being manhandled on the docks. When the boy’s attacker responds to Martin’s verbal admonition to desist by telling him to mind his own business, Martin takes matters into his own hands—literally—by physically intervening. Later, while working in a foundry he befriends a coworker, prevents the fellow from accosting the boss when he has a breakdown, and then makes sure their exact wages are extracted when the boss fires them both and then refuses to pay them for the work completed.

A common misconception running through the film reviews is that Martin’s individualism brings about his downfall. This is simply not the case. There are various external factors that lead to his transformation in the latter part of the movie, related largely to his estrangement from Elena, the death of Briss, and even his own meteoric rise to success. Martin also makes mistakes along the way, primarily that of wanting to be like the well-to-do Orsini family while being blind to their shortcomings. Early on he exclaims to Elena: “I decided that I want to be like you. Speak like you, think like you.” In hindsight, he bitterly reflects, “I wished I was like your kind, spoke like your kind, thought like your kind. A dog by your side! A nice dog you can walk around!” But regretting his previous desire to fit into Elena’s world and realizing he had loved a woman unworthy of his devotion are not at all the same as faulting his individualism. On the contrary, individualism is the fuel that feeds his fervent, vibrant, soulful self as he wholeheartedly works to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer. During this period of intense striving, moreover, he considers himself happy. At one point his fiancée, who derives too much of her sense of self from others, tells Martin that her mother “doesn’t think we can be happy together” before going on to ask him for his assurance to the contrary: “But we will be, won’t we Martin?” His reply underscores the fact that his well-being is not tied to any success achieved in the future but to his deliberate activity in the present: “We already are.”

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And it is not his disillusioned, world-weary self who rejects his prior, striving individualist self, but the other way around. In a gut-wrenching scene near the end of the film, the one thing that causes the latter Martin to move forward with the kind of intense determination he showed in the first part of the film is actually a vision of his former self walking down the street in the brisk fashion that had always characterized his gait. Jolted by the sight, Martin races to catch up with the figure who begins to deliberately rush away from him. By including shots of the former Martin from the point of view of his later self, Marcello pulls the spectator emotionally into this desperate attempt to regain wholeness and meaning by reaching back into the past.

Martin’s transformed character may in some respects be unrecognizable, yet he nonetheless retains vestiges of his former self. Even though he can barely muster the energy to get off the couch as his publisher urges him to undertake a book tour in America, Martin buys a house for his former landlord, Maria, and funds an eye operation for her son that restores sight to his blind eye. He also offers financial support to his sister despite her husband’s previous ill treatment of him, and he donates money to the antiwar efforts carried out by the socialists. In the latter case, although Martin specifies that he is only acting in honor of his friend (“I’m only doing this because Brissenden would have done the same”), his gesture moves beyond the personal to the political when it is underscored that the money is not intended to support socialism per se but to help prevent the next war. As the recipient states: “We’re against this war: it will bring this country to its knees. It will only be in the interests of the bosses.” Here Martin and the socialists share the understanding that “war is the health of the state,” as the antiwar socialist Randolph Bourne so cogently argued in his manuscript “The State,” left unfinished with his death in 1918.

The fact that we are not told exactly which war is looming avoids pinpointing one historical moment (a hallmark of the film as a whole) and suggests instead an eternal present in which the state’s war industry runs roughshod over the lives of the people as it drums up one conflict after another (what Spencer referred to as “chronic warfare”). References to an impending war add to the antistatist perspective of the film, as they move the focus beyond Martin’s personal story. In the final scene, an old man runs along the beach shouting “The war has started!” As Martin looks around, we see the whitewashing of antiwar grafitti on a wall that says “No to the massacre of the people. We don’t want war.” This effective erasure of the words before our eyes, a visual rendering of the silencing of dissident voices by political power, is supplemented by archival footage of volumes going up in flames in the streets during a Nazi book burning. Tellingly, it is not any personal drama that immediately precedes Martin Eden’s final drastic action in the film, but rather the general announcement of war having broken out.

Regardless of Martin Eden’s particular trajectory, what he says in the course of the film cannot be unsaid—even when those facing him hurl verbal and physical abuse upon him. It may be that his immediate interlocutors refused to listen, but one never knows where a seed may take root. Although the final part of the film adheres to the darker tones present in the novel, Marcello adds a scene that suggests Martin has also made a difference for the better through his example. When Maria explains that thanks to Martin’s donation her son has regained his eyesight, as noted above, she does not simply underscore the benevolence that Martin has shown by using his money for the well-being of others. By adding that “now he reads books all the time,” Maria also points to the model that Martin offered the boy through his own perseverance in educating himself. Although the boy’s own path is beyond the scope of the film, this added scene leaves us with a reminder that our actions have consequences and that our lives can serve as inspiration for others even without our knowledge or intention. Indeed, the world is less bleak if we believe that one person’s life can influence any number of other lives for the better in ways unimagined at the time. That is individualism at its core.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with the words spoken by Martin Eden into a tape recorder as the film opens (borrowed from the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman):

So the world is stronger than me. Against its power I have nothing but myself, which, in any case, is quite something. For as long as I don’t let myself get overwhelmed, I am also a force. And my force is fearsome as long as I have the power of my words to counter that of the world. Those who build prisons don’t express themselves as well as those who build freedom.

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