Uh, Oh: Grandpa’s Back

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The militant poet Gil-Scott Heron famously said that “the revolution will not be televised.” But apparently it does have a soundtrack. Marx has now come back from the dead to explain why communism is more essential than ever, and he was accompanied by the sound of Billy Joel.

That was the music used to warm up the crowd for Howard Zinn’s one-man play UMarx in Soho,” which I saw last summer. The play consists largely of the German philosopher talking about why the years since his death have done nothing to repudiate the validity of Marxism. As Bob Weick, the actor who plays the role of Marx, confided in a Washington Post preview of the show, uIt’s not that communism failed. It’s that it hasn’t really been tried.”

How many times have we heard that one before? Neverthless, Weick’s theater group has picked up the old chestnut and, determined to convince others that communism has gotten an unfair rap, is touring major American colleges, arthouses, and high schools with Zinn’s drama. (I saw it as part of Washington’s Capital Fringe Festival.) The goal is to convince audiences that everything they’ve been taught about communism is wrong.

For some people, it seems to work. “The meaning of the play actually moved me and made me want to become more radical,” glows one college student’s testimonial.

“Marx in Soho” has been kicking around since 1999, although earnest people have updated it continually to fit in references to such contemporary events as the War on Terror and the Enron scandal. Unfortunately, both the subject and the audience have seen better days. The choice of Billy Joel for some of the ancillary music was fitting for a show that is political bathos for boomers. My fellow audience members were not exactly what one would expect to find at a show advertised as a “rousing defense” of a revolutionary ideology. Instead of dreadlocks and Che Guevara T-shirts, I saw receding hairlines and tees from vacations on Sanibel Island.

Billy Joel isn’t as hip as Gil-Scott Heron, or the crowd as exciting as a rally of young bohemians or a strike of raucous dockworkers, but the age distribution is true to the type of people who have time to worry about Marxism these days. Affluent, bored retirees of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but the price of your ticket.

Zinn himself has made a good career as a mainstream rad- ical. His ”A People’s History of the United States” was lauded by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” and featured in dramatic readings by James Earl Jones and Marisa Tomei. It has recently been adapted into a version aimed at 10- to 14-year- olds (and people thought it couldn’t be dumbed down!).

So, one can hardly be surprised that the Marx of “Marx in Soho” is one highly fitted for upper-middle class popular consumption. This Marx isn’t a commissar; he’s a kindly grandfather spinning yarns by the fire. He opines lovingly about his wife Jenny in a manner reminiscent of Forrest Gump. He’s anything but the nasty selfish, vengeful, parasitic old coot that his contemporaries dreaded; or the intransigent radical who was worshipped by Lenin, Castro, Pol Pot, and other unsavories. He’s a Marx that you might want to have a drink with, especially if you’re a trendy resident of the Soho quarter of London, where he lived from 1849 until his death.

Why did this Marx decide to return and chat with us? The idea is that the odd association between Marxism and oppressive, impoverishing dictatorship has so unfairly maligned communism that its author is inspired to resurrect himself and set the story straight. This plot device – Marx’s return from the dead – is a metaphor for what Zinn wants the audience to believe. Marx didn’t see most of the horrors and failures of his disciples. But now, Austin Powers-like, he rises to proclaim that the past century has taught us nothing about his ideas, and that we should have another go at them.

Real communism, he now discovers, is based on freedom and democracy, not totalitarianism and murder. He speaks lovingly of the Paris Commune (1871), a paradise where proletarians came together and cooperated to provide education, medical services, and equal rights for all. It’s true, the Commune lasted for only a few weeks; but still … That was cooperation!

It’s when the people refuse to cooperate that Marx gets angry. (Strangely, so did the Communards.) And when he gets angry, he, like the historical Marx, also gets mean. At one point in the play, he growls that “we should praise the capitalist system for its amazing means of production – and then TAKE IT OVER.” As Lenin found, it’s really hard to be patient and wait for the revolution to happen spontaneously, as according to Marx’s predictions, when it’s so easy to prod it along with the barrel of a gun.

Zinn doesn’t make Marx out to be flawless. But the problem for Zinn isn’t that Marx overlooked the inability of centralized planning to organize economic activity effectively. It isn’t that Marx exaggerated the poverty of the proletariat. The problem isn’t what any of the people who have paid attention to global events since, well, Marx’s time have discovered. It’s that Marx “didn’t anticipate the drugs that would keep capitalism alive.”

Drugs? What is Zinn smoking? What he seems to mean is that Marx did not foresee the ways in which capitalists would find ways to stave off the inevitable workers’ rebellion. At one point in the pIa)’, Marx sheepishly admits that his “timing was a bit off” about the end of capitalism, an understatement that would surely provoke laughter from any audience other than one that chooses to dedicate its Friday afternoon to a one-man show about a discredited political philosopher.

Yes, the timing was a little off but, according to “Marx in Soho,” we’re still on that irrevocable path toward revolution. Capitalism continues to degrade the working class, which will inevitably rise against it. Zinn’s Marx cites Enron and corporate layoffs as evidence that capitalism hasn’t got- ten any more humane. But a look at Soho today would tell quite a different story about the effects of capitalism. When Marx lived there, the place was a filthy slum and a red light district. Today, despite the ravages of global capitalism, it is a center of fashion boutiques, tourist hotels, media companies, and other well-paying enterprises ministering to the wants of a society rich beyond the dreams of even Marxist avarice.

Zinn is right in one sense. Marx’s vision of communism hasn’t really been tried, if you mean that nobody ever succeeded in following Marx’s ideas to the letter. Of course, if nobody succeeded, it wasn’t for lack of interest. But one can admit that none of the so-called “communist” states – the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or any of the other expensive experiments – was an example of true communism. Nothing ever could be.

Marx predicted that communism would arrive only after the proletariat gained control of all means of production. Once the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had finished off free enterprise, man would stop living the egoistic life that capitalism had forced upon him and would, as Marx said in his essay “On the Jewish Question,” start living up to his “species-being.” People would no longer separate their individual needs from the needs of mankind as a whole. Egoism was the product of a political order that recognizes and protects private property; once that order was thrown away, the state would dissolve and true communism would arrive. Like the Marx who is summoned from the grave by Howard Zinn, mankind would be resurrected by politics.

But resurrected from what? Marxist man had never existed. He’d been absent through recorded human history. Everything we know about humans suggests that it is unrealistic (not to mention arrogant and silly) to expect them to subordinate their wants and desires to the community. The only way to believe in Marx’s system is to want to believe in it.

That’s why it’s pointless to argue with the Marx of “Marx in Soho.” It’s pointless to observe that capitalism hasn’t further and further degraded the life of the poor, that it has, in fact, lifted more people out of poverty than anyone living in Soho in the late 1800s thought possible. That’s the real economic resurrection, isn’t it? But none of this matters to Zinno He has his faith.

This version of the play, and certainly others, will tour the country, spreading Marx’s message, together with the image of Marx himself as a kind old man. You may not be convinced by Zinn’s arguments, but you may be impressed by his stubbornness.

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