BOSTON — Somewhere out in the nether regions Karl Marx has been reading our newspapers and is just fit to be tied about how he’s being portrayed, so he begs “the authorities” for a chance to come down for one hour to defend his ideas. Benevolently, they grant his wish and he gets drunk while going off on his detractors in front of small, friendly audiences.
Such is the conceit of A People’s History of the United States author Howard Zinn’s play Marx in Soho, which I happened to catch at a theater just outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week. (Zinn, a professor emeritus at Boston University, was on hand for the show.) Apparently destined for the London section of Soho where he once lived and worked, we are told, a bureaucratic mix-up sends Marx to Boston instead. “You may wonder how I got here,” Marx announces as he steps into view. “Public transportation!” Apparently the authorities have a sense of humor — they sent Marx back to us on a Red Line train.
“It is the second coming!” Marx shouted to loud cheers. “Christ couldn’t make it so Marx came!”
Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but Marx in Soho doesn’t feel like a rejection of the drug. Derisive as both Marx and the catcalling audience may be (and not entirely without warrant) with regard to those with an overzealous need to see a marriage of church and state, everyone involved seemed oblivious to the fact that the entire play was but a recitation of another catechism with a different vocabulary and several socialist articles of faith sprinkled with modern day references. (Although the meek shall inherit the earth/camels will go through needle eyes before Bill Gates gets to heaven rhetoric is basically the same.)
Thus, lines such as, “Ah yes, the wonders of the free market, men being reduced to commodities,” were followed by whoops and hollers, as was the proclamation, “Your nation” — yeah, he’s talking to you America — “has not only robbed its own people, but sucked the wealth out of the rest of the world!” Ditto a line about America’s “gross national product…Yes, gross.” When Marx intones, “Yes, capitalism has triumphed, but over whom?” a collective knowing sigh emanates back towards him.
ZINN DOES A GOOD JOB of bringing Marx’s family, friends, and fellow revolutionaries to life, especially in the context of a one-man play, and the details of his life in London while writing Das Kapital is fascinating, if overly melodramatic. For a historian to succeed on that level is impressive. To his credit, actor Bob Weik comes across as authentically Marxian enough, which unfortunately only makes the scenes where he rails on Fleet Bank or exaggerates U.S. unemployment statistics all the more awkward.
Nevertheless, Marx in Soho is advertised as a defense of the economist’s ideas, which is something the play never gets around to actually doing. By the beginning of the third act, Marx is writhing, tearing apart American newspapers in a rage and running into the audience screaming swaths of The Communist Manifesto.
So it’s clear Marx doesn’t appreciate free-market values. (Shocking, I know.) But can we not reasonably ask of Marx what his solution would be? What of the millions upon millions who have died under those totalitarian dictatorships espousing Marxist rhetoric and claiming to be emulating the spirit of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”? After a short rant about Stalin’s “new priesthood” and dogmatists mucking up his philosophy, modern day Marx dismisses the bloody history of communism-in-practice with a declaration that “Socialism was not supposed to reproduce the stupidity of capitalism!” When communism fails to deliver it’s all chalked up to a perversion of its true nature, but whatever good or ill may come of capitalism it remains illegitimate.
Both Marx during the play and Zinn afterwards spoke of a gradual socialist revolution wherein the useful machinery of capitalism would eventually be handed over to the workers and used for just means. “Let’s just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings,” Marx explained. “Give people what they need: food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, some hours of work, more hours of leisure.”
What is never addressed is how a new order more-leisure-than-work society is possibly going to be able to — excuse the terminology — exploit the machinery of capitalism to its fullest, or more accurately, ongoing potential. Zinn’s play suggests there is a point when we can call the civil and technological advances brought about by a competitive free market system as finished. Someone should ask Marx or Zinn exactly where we’d be today if we threw over work for leisure when Marx first suggested it in 1848. Perhaps we could still be leisurely plowing our fields with oxen!
INSTEAD OF A MODERN explanation, Zinn/Marx offers up the Paris Commune of 1871, when socialists briefly seized control of the French capital during the chaotic aftermath of Napoleon III’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians, as proof that a communist society can thrive. This is familiar material: Mao, Lenin, and Trotsky also referenced it.
One imagines the chic liberals attending this sort of event are the type who guffaw at trailer park dwellers who see the Virgin Mary in their grilled cheese sandwiches, yet not one seems to question the wisdom of junking free-market capitalism (of which they are definitely beneficiaries if how they are dressed is any indication) on the basis of a two-month example from 130 years ago.
Zinn himself was a warm, witty speaker, who gave his time generously to admirers both in the Q&A session and in the lobby during the intermission. He told the audience that it is “evident” that “capitalism is failing” and, while he would not put forward a timeline, said he believed one day soon people would embrace Marxism.
One young Swedish woman who was studying at an American university asked Zinn if the capitalistic welfare state as known in several European countries was “Marxist enough.”
“Nothing is Marxist enough,” Zinn replied, before going into a longer explanation that showed he was clearly joking. But some of the true believers didn’t laugh, nodding their heads instead.