A Capital Idea
When the Soviet Union fell on Christmas Day 1991, politicians and pundits in the West began insisting that Marxism was dead, that history had proved the theory was bankrupt and led inexorably to misery and oppression. From now on, they said, our world would be shaped by unfettered capitalism, and humankind would be the better for it. But historian Howard Zinn's play Marx in Soho -- now showing at the Mercury Cafe, the heart of Denver's progressive community -- argues otherwise.
Embodied by actor Christopher Kendall, this Marx is passionate, compassionate, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes ranting and sometimes chuckling avuncularly. He has returned from the dead at the urging of Buddha, Socrates, Gandhi and Mother Jones to defend his beliefs, and has mistakenly landed in Denver (or wherever the play is produced) rather than London's Soho. Marx and his wife, Jenny, lived in Soho for years in abject poverty -- several of their children died of deprivation and disease -- and that fact adds poignance to the character's comments on the misery and homelessness he saw in Denver's streets on the way to the Mercury.
Zinn weaves together political ideas and biographical elements, providing humorous interludes as well as moments of bitter regret or sorrow and segments that verge on agitprop. Some of the most interesting and illuminating passages include Marx's arguments with other theorists, particularly the anarchist Bakunin; teasing disagreements between Marx and Jenny, who wanted him to make Das Kapital easier to understand; and memories of his brilliant, fiercely independent daughter, Eleanor, whom he called Tussy.
He is not a Marxist, this Marx insists, going on to condemn the power-mad thugs who terrorized Russia and China in his name. He describes his belief system as essentially humanistic, a blueprint for a classless society in which everyone is free of want and able to develop fully as human beings.
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I haven't waded through Das Kapital, and I don't pretend to fully understand Marxism, though I am profoundly drawn to the idea of a government that serves the needs of the poor rather than the desires of the rich. But systems tend to crack along their own, very specific fault lines. Every Communist government thus far has become repressive because of the centralization of power that seems inherent in Marx's concept of the early stages of revolution. I think the world's most successful societies are capitalist countries in which workers and ordinary people have significant power and government regulation mitigates the excesses of capitalism -- liberal democracies in which profit and the well-being of the public aren't regarded as mutually exclusive. Marx surely addressed all this somewhere in his voluminous writing, but Zinn does not, and this seems a weakness in the play.
On the other hand, the critique of capitalism is spot-on, since capitalism, too, carries within itself the seeds of its own corruption. "I predicted that capitalism would increase the wealth of society, but this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands," Marx says, describing the America we know with absolute precision. When he talks about the manipulation of patriotism to make people "forget their misery" and thunders against capitalism's tendency to commodify everything, including art and human individuality, it's hard not to stand up and cheer.
Although they would certainly help Marx make his case, the play doesn't bring up recent developments in Latin America, where leftist leaders have been elected in several countries devastated by decades of military-corporate control. Now that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is selling cheap oil to poor people in the Bronx, I imagine that Castro will be sending his excellent doctors to tend uninsured Americans any day.
Marx in Soho is a little static and talky, but it's still provocative and absorbing. Kendall, who's clearly immersed in the role, plays Marx with conviction and ironic humor, managing to hold his own against the chat and accordion music seeping from the Mercury's curtained-off restaurant section. Although Marxism contended with capitalism for dominance and legitimacy over much of the twentieth century, few Americans know anything but a cartoon version of it; Marx in Soho is an excellent antidote to this ignorance. And the Mercury -- spangled with lights, its waiters serving healthy, organic dishes to people of varying ages and professions -- is the perfect venue. Marx would have liked finding himself here.
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