Book Review from the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Marx in Soho. By Howard Zinn. South End Press, distributed by Pluto Press.
Granted his request to return to earth for just one hour, to clear his name and refute the rumour that his ideas are dead, a bureaucratic mix-up finds Karl Marx in Soho, New York, instead of Soho, London where he once lived.
This short, one-man play sees Marx alone on stage, with only a table, a chair, books, newspapers and a glass of beer as props, reminiscing about his family life, enthusing about the Paris Commune and reliving an imaginary confrontation with the “shaggy anarchist” Bakunin.
Zinn's Marx can be humorous one page, and deadly serious the next in vitriolic condemnation of a system he spent his life trying to overthrow. One moment Marx is recounting his countless journeys home from the British Museum, past open sewers telling how it was “only fitting that the author of Das Kapital should slog through shit while writing the condemnation of the capitalist system”. The next he is grappling on the floor with a drunken Bakunin. Then, just as suddenly, we can hear the bearded man launch a vehement attack upon the notion that the Soviet Union was socialist: “Do they think that a system run by a thug who murdered his fellow revolutionaries is communism? Scheisskopfen . . . can that be the communism I gave my life for? . . . Angry. . . Socialism is not supposed to reproduce the stupidities of capitalism!”
For anyone coming into contact with Marx's ideas for the first time, dreading the thought of long, studious hours in front of volumes of insipid texts on political economy, having only ever heard second-hand, distorted accounts of Marx's theories, fear not; this is a welcome first point of reference in which Zinn makes his ideas accessible and the man himself, less the spectre that haunted Europe, than some 19th century alternative comedian who just happens to know what capitalism is really all about.
The Labour Theory of Value, the Materialist Conception of History and the Class Struggle are all Marxian ideas that get aired in this short work, as well as concepts such as nationalism and alienation.
And one thing is certain; Marx in Soho is not just Marx speaking. Zinn is very much in agreement with Marx. When Marx, despairing at the consumer culture that has evolved says; “Doesn't anyone read history? . . . what kind of shit do they teach in the schools these days?” this is the real Zinn speaking, the Zinn whose books such as A People's History of the Unites States, are proscribed in US schools.
His hour up, Marx is about to leave the stage but stops and turns. “Do you resent my coming back and irritating you?” he asks. “Look at it this way. Christ couldn't make it, so Marx came.”
It's been an hour well spent. Marx is vindicated. His theories are still relevant. Socialism is not dead—it was never tried. The philosophers are still interpreting the world, whilst the point is still to change it.