Book Review from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Marx in Soho – A Play on History” Howard Zinn. South End Press $12
Witty, imaginative, to the point, with the ability to stir the emotions from frustration and anger to amusement, hilarity even, this was originally conceived as a traditional play which Zinn later reworked into this monologue. Zinn read Das Kapital (Volume I at least) before the age of twenty and was excited to recognize ‘certain core truths’ about the value of labour, surplus value and the division of the classes, i.e. labour was the source of all value; labour produced a value beyond its meagre wages; surplus value went into the pockets of the capitalist class.
The play was written at the time when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought on much gloating from the media and politicians because ‘ot only was “the enemy” gone, but the ideas of Marxism were discredited.’ Zinn wanted to show ‘that Marx’s critique of capitalism remains fundamentally true in our time.’ The opening of the play has Marx, having been granted an hour to return to Earth to defend his stance of a century and a half earlier, arriving in the wrong Soho – New York, not London – to point out the relevancy of his writing to today’s working population (the audience). Zinn states that the major events are historically accurate but that there is some literary licence regarding his meetings with Bakunin and the relationships within his own family (especially with Jenny and Eleanor) and although most of the dialogue is invented he uses Marx’s own words liberally.
This is a refreshingly different approach to bringing the fundamental ideas of Marx home, stressing, by using humour, just how relevant the principles of Das Kapital still are. ‘Did I not say 150 years ago that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?—(reads from newspaper)—“Giant merger of Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank. 12,000 workers will lose jobs—Stocks rise.” And they say my ideas are dead.’
Commonly held confusions about communism and socialism are laid bare here with Marx becoming angrier as he looks back at Stalin’s legacy. He barks out ‘Socialism is not supposed to reproduce the stupidities of capitalism.’ Industry, war, national borders, prisons, the Paris Commune, education, all subjects are covered with relevant jibes at the situation since his time.
Marx’s anger builds as he remonstrates at the slowness of succeeding generations to accept and act on what he foretold but, realizing that he only has limited time to get his message across at this, his second coming, he mellows somewhat, reiterates the basic premises and leaves us with hope for the future – if we get off our arses!
This book is fun and will serve both to rekindle and enliven the tired socialist spirit and to encourage and further motivate active participation by armchair socialists.