Marx in Soho

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Howard Zinn is second only to Noam Chomsky as an icon of the American Left.

Howard Zinn

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Tuesday, April 25 2000, 12:26 PM


Howard Zinn is second only to Noam Chomsky as an icon of the American Left. His People's History of the United States is still the most popular alternative to the deceptions of high-school textbook history. And he's a great fundraiser for all manner of leftist causes. Put up enough flyers and you can get hundreds or even thousands of guilt-ridden Volvo drivers to fork over $15 in support of political prisoners, strike funds, songbird habitat -- you name it.

Part of Zinn's appeal lies in the fact that he's one of the elder statesmen of radical politics. No piercings, no fashion-conscious posturings, no polymorphous perversity -- Howard's an all-American lefty, as wholesome as apple pie. So when I came across his creative writing, I was not sure what to expect. I mean, it's not like I'm in mourning for the postmodern poetry that Noam Chomsky hasn't had a chance to write. Anyway, our topic here is Marx in Soho. It's a one-actor play that forms a companion piece to Zinn's earlier play Emma, about the anarchist Emma Goldman. In this one, Marx returns from the dead to address a crowd in New York's Soho. Zinn explains his motivations for writing Marx in Soho in the illuminating foreword. "I wanted to show Marx as few people knew him, as a family man, struggling to support his wife and children." Zinn goes on to explain that he wished to show Marx's involvement in revolutionary politics, not just as a thinker but as a doer. And he wanted to make it clear, in the wake of Communism's fall, that Marx's critique of capitalism "remains fundamentally true in our time."

Pulling this off in a play as short as Marx in Soho is a difficult task. It makes it necessary to shift back and forth between Marx's personal reminscences -- about living in a London slum, his favorite daughter Eleanor, the boils on his butt -- and a recapitulation of his public words. When I started reading Marx in Soho, I found myself wincing at those moments when Zinn would have Marx explain his theories, like this one:

"Did I not say, a hundred and fifty years ago, that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society, but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?"

Something about the length and formality of this question make it seem forced, as if Zinn's Marx were merely a convenient device for explaining the basic points of his work.

As I read on, however, I started getting into the flow of the play a bit more. Sure, it's awkward and stiff. But Marx wasn't exactly famous for the sportin' life. And, besides, Zinn isn't exactly a hipster himself. I have to admit that the play does a remarkably good job of making Marx accessible to people who would only use Das Kapital to prop open a window. There's even a little unspoken drama when Marx is discussing his wife Jenny's resentment towards Lenchen, the maid supplied by his bourgeois in-laws:

"The love was still there. But, at a certain point, things changed. I don't know. Jenny said it was because she was no longer the great beauty I had wooed. That made me angry. She said it was because of Lenchen. That made me even more angry. She said I was angry because it was true. That made me furious!"

You get a real sense here of the contradictions in the Marx household. Notice that Marx doesn't really deny the accusation. Rather, he just sort of slides out of it like a former-day Bill Clinton.

I suppose the real virtue of Marx in Soho is that by presenting Marx as a real person, boils and all, Zinn actually humanizes his work. People have been denouncing Marx for 150 years on the basis of his personal life. "He wouldn't even support his own family" is a familiar anti-communist cry. Unlike the image-makers in the Soviet propaganda machine, Zinn confronts these criticisms head on. He lets us see Marx, not as a saint or a screw-up, but as somebody who refused the easy life for himself and his family for the sake of workers everywhere. If that last sentence sounds a little too sentimental, you can blame Marx in Soho.

Marx in Soho is available from South End Press 

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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