On Your Marx

the young karl marx, directed by raoul peck, 2017; marx in soho: a play on history, written by howard zinn, presented by jack simel @ multi-use community cultural center, rochester, ny, 19 october 2022.

There is a specter haunting our contemporary culture, the specter of Marxism. Is it still relevant a decade after its revival in response to the 2008 housing crisis and economic recession in the United States? How does Marx play these days?

Howard Zinn is most famous for his bestselling book A People’s History of the United States, but he also wrote plays, including a curious one recently revived by Jack Simel at the MuCCC in Rochester, New York that features a back-from-the-dead Marx mistakenly delivered from heaven to Soho in New York City instead of Soho, London. Marx is back, newspaper clippings and beer in hard, in order to take stock of the modern world. Written in 1999, Zinn’s play is, at times, a bit ponderous and plodding, but it also has its clever moments. It requires, as any one-person play does, enormous focus on the part of the performer, and at times Simel struggled to maintain flow and energy—but then again, so has Marxism itself.

By mixing together Marx’s reminiscences about his personal life with explanations of his theories, Zinn’s play manages to bring across the enormous power of Marxism as an explanation of capitalism’s ills. It also tries to imagine how Marx himself would have imagined communism itself at the end of the twentieth century. Would he reckon with the monstrous sins committed in its name—not to mention its dissolution, by and large, by century’s end? Yes, Zinn seems to think, Marx would do so. Nonetheless, he would also cling to his analysis of capitalism, and retain hope for the possibilities of socialist revolution, with its capacity, potentially, to fundamentally link individual freedom to the full collective emancipation of all humans and their world.

How to dramatize these rather heady, philosophical, academic matters? Zinn’s solution is to portray a comical, breaking-the-fourth-wall awareness of the preposterous idea that Marx himself could return to earth. There are Brechtian aspirations here, and repeated references to fellow residents of heaven from Gandhi to Jesus. Whenever Marx trods too close to a loaded topic, the lights in the theater flash on and off, a censorious message from his celestial keepers. Zinn also spends much time on Marx’s personal life, particularly his memories of intellectual fisticuffs with rivals such as the anarchists Proudhon and Bakunin as well as his sad air of failure concerning the disconnections he experienced between himself and his wife Jenny.

Overall, the play reminds us that even as Marx ages, his core question remains relevant: why does capitalism fail to deliver fully on its promise; why did communist revolutions of the twentieth-century go so Stalinistically wrong; how does the dream of connecting individual freedom to collective emancipation live on even as Marx heads back to heaven? What are the afterlives of Marx himself and the theories he so potently proposed?

Seeing Marx in Soho reminded me of Raoul Peck’s very different approach in the 2017 film The Young Karl Marx. Peck chose to shift from the afterlife of Marxism to the prelife of it, offering up nothing less than a bromance film between Marx and his loyal partner Friedrich Engels. At times, the film is as cheesy as it is surprising, but the bromantic fun works: we are pulled in not to postpartum analysis but rather the rush of history. The surprising closing montage of the film really quickens the pace, telescoping from Marx’s youth to contemporary times in an exhilarating sequence that rumbles like a rolling stone across time, presenting in accelerating speed all of the obscene traumas and the continued hopes for humanity after Marx’s youth, which are as much a part of the Marxist story as his own life and thinking.

Stefan Konarske and August Diehl as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx.

Young Marx or old, bromantic or back from the dead, the man, his life, and his theories continue to provide not just backstory, but also beliefs and ideas we must reckon with to this day. We should continue to think about him, not with romantic naiveté but rather with dramatic attention. The story of his stages of history are not over. Seeming to simmer nostalgically, safely in the past, if not getting outright buried in the cold, hard ground, Marx in fact boils on, raging into the future.

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