Red Herring

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

Days after Karl Marx died, in 1883, San Francisco’s Daily Alta California remarked, “His life was not a success, and at the time of his death he had witnessed the failure of every extensive project on which his hopes had been set and for which he labored with such ability.” If this tart, Left Coast eulogy failed to raise the dearly departed at the time, then the more recent obituaries for history, revolution and, of course, Marxism have apparently done the trick — at least according to Howard Zinn’s one-person play, Marx in Soho. In it, Marx, tired of spinning in his Highgate grave from such punditry, returns from a kind of celebrity heaven — to set the record straight.

Zinn, the author of the popular A People’s History of the United States, is a veteran left-wing critic of capitalism, and edits his material accordingly. He has a much tougher sell than other writers of historical solo shows, of course, because Karl Marx is not Will Rogers, let alone Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson. Marx, let’s face it, is a long-dead foreigner whose name is followed by a freight train of historical baggage.

At the Complex, actor Brian Jones appears onstage not as the familiar prophet of sepia-toned photographs — that Old Testament frown framed by a penumbra of white hair and Jovian beard — but a much younger Marx, a sleeker, cheekier, pre-Manifesto Marx from the days of, say, The German Ideology or the philosophical notebooks. He’s also traded his frock coat for a three-piece, chalk-stripe suit and arrives lugging a book bag and a beer. “So good of you to come!” he says, with a mild yiddishe inflection, then proceeds to attempt “to clear my name.”

This jaunty opening nevertheless sets a subtly defensive tone of self-vindication that never really evaporates. Still, Jones gamely goes on the attack, caustically observing how much the world has improved since Victorian times, quite obviously implying that it really hasn’t. What Zinn does, very craftily, is weave a lot of Marx’s personal life into Zinn’s view that, overall, Marx’s analysis about predatory capital and the destiny of the working class to change history is still sound.

Marx’s home life in Soho was one of Dickensian poverty relieved by the rewards of fatherhood and marriage to his university sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen. Here, it’s also a beery, smoky, bohemian existence filled with drunken visits from erratic radicals, sycophants and would-be suitors of Marx’s three daughters.

Marx in Soho is a refreshing reminder that the author of Das Kapital was a human being with foibles and boils, who emerged out of the stew of Byronic romanticism and café revolutionaries to produce his century’s most sober and insightful critique of Western political economy. Here was a jaundiced critic of the family and religious piety who worried about not having a Christmas tree ready for his children (four of whom died before he did). Here also was a learned scholar of classic antiquity and Shakespeare who could sometimes write in a style that seemed to combine Aeschylus, yellow journalism and, in his more popular works, the Brothers Grimm, only to have Jenny beg him to put more narrative excitement into the arthritically dense Das Kapital.

The viewer should also be equally interested in what Zinn leaves out, however. While, for example, “the Moor” (as the dark-skinned Marx was nicknamed) admits that Jenny became jealous over housekeeper Helena Demuth’s presence, the subject is pretty much dropped in midair, leaving the impression that Marx’s wife was unreasonably suspicious of her husband’s relationship with “Lenchen.” In fact, today it is widely believed that Marx impregnated Demuth with a son whom he would neither acknowledge nor support. Likewise, while Zinn’s Marx seems very caught up on what happened in world affairs after his death, he makes no mention that his two surviving daughters committed suicide.

Curiously, his benefactor and ideological comrade, Friedrich Engels, also gets short shrift: Marx calls Engels a “saint” but never comes clean about his own prudish misgivings about Engels’ free-love lifestyle up in Manchester or some of the rows he had with The Communist Manifesto’s co-author, much less Marx’s pleas for more money so that he could move his family to more bourgeois surroundings.

Perhaps Zinn plays loosest when his character fleetingly touches on Marx’s anti-Semitism — splitting hairs, as do many believers, by distinguishing his antipathy toward capitalists who happen to be Jews from hating Jews because they are Jews. The former case has been made by many on Marx’s behalf, along with the indisputable fact that we are all men and women of our time, imprisoned to some degree by its attitudes and language. But Marx’s comments about both his fellow Jews and race in general went far beyond a few tipsy after-dinner gibes —
“Jewish nigger” was a term he applied liberally to people he disliked, and it was just as pejorative then as it is today.

Perhaps it’s beyond the scope of a brief, one-man performance to come to terms with such a vexing figure’s complex and contradictory behavior; it certainly is not Zinn’s responsibility to explain 40 years of a man’s theoretical writings to us. But Zinn’s notable omissions might not be necessary — or at least necessary to explain — if Jones’ performance were more robustly engaging. As it is, the actor never settles on a recurrent tone (challenging? confidential? vituperative?) with which to converse and so never establishes a bond with his audience.

Jones’ Marx comes most alive when discussing the Paris Commune of 1871, the closest thing the Europe of his day would ever see of a socialist revolution, an upheaval that would inspire him to write what many consider his finest work of propagandist journalism and historical mythmaking, The Civil War in France. For a few moments, Jones channels all the reckless hope and poisonous rage Marx felt about the commune and its bloody death, but then the show sort of trails off until Marx is recalled to heaven.

In a phrase, this Marx needs to be more of what he already is. If Jones were more garrulous, more thunderous, Marx would also be more sympathetic when he blames the future distortions of his theories and the murderous excesses committed in his name by what he calls “dogmatists.” It might even make more compelling the idea that Marx may yet be proved right. As it is, Marxists today always sound like characters from a Frankenstein movie — our creature would have been so beautiful if only he hadn’t been given a criminal’s brain! And so the need to blame Marxism’s failures on Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot.

The conceit of Marx’s appearance, by the way, is that through some celestial travel snafu, he’s ended up not in his old London neighborhood of Soho, but in New York’s SoHo. This allows Zinn’s Marx to compare the abject poverty of Victorian London to the homelessness and drug use he says he sees in New York’s SoHo. He apparently hasn’t had time, during his brief stay, to price loft space around West Broadway, or to stand in line at the Spring Street Starbucks. In that case, he would no doubt feel a bit embarrassed for contrasting New York’s gallery-combed SoHo to the neighborhood where he lost a son to a cholera epidemic that claimed 6,000 lives. The road to utopia may be paved with good intentions, but it shouldn’t be potholed with such disingenuous analogies.

The conditions of economic despair necessary to spawn Marx’s revolution might never exist in our world of cars, TV and video games, but there will always be rebels to challenge and harass capitalism and its complacent pornographers. To paraphrase Marx’s famous letter to Arnold Ruge, Marxism will always exist, although not necessarily in Marxist form.

MARX IN SOHO | Written by HOWARD ZINN Performed by BRIAN JONES | At THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through July 22


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