Theatre: Marx in Soho

Giving socialism a bad name.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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One-man show at the Calder Bookshop and Theatre, The Cut, London (19 September-13 October 2013).

The actor Daniel Kelly gave a tour de force performance, and the play was well directed by Sergio Amigo, the Argentine artistic director at the Calder. But while the full house at the tiny fringe theatre clearly enjoyed the show, the play itself was a disappointment.

It should not have been, but the playwright (and historian), the American Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was known for his belief that the Soviet Union gave “socialism a bad name. However, the title of the play, Marx in Soho, did rather suggest that it was going to look at Marx’s early life in London, rather than go off into a diatribe about how, like a reverse Superman, Stalin singlehandedly ruined the world.

Granted the riff against the Soviet Union only took up five minutes in a 80-minute production, but it was a long five minutes and the play had few other redeeming features by way of compensation. It was never actually boring – the good acting saw to that – it was just so wrong in its presentation of Marx’s political analysis and also in so many of its biographical details.

In politics, Zinn presents Marx as a bad-tempered liberal, rightfully furious at the condition of the world, but with no more idea than the permanently hand-wringing Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn as to what to do about it. And while lamenting the glories of the Commune of Paris, Zinn also reinvents Marx as being opposed to its revolutionary violence, when anyone who has read Marx’s wonderful Civil War in France knows that he thought the communards were generally too magnanimous and underestimated the need for ferocity against the armies of that “mysterious abortion” Adolphe Thiers.

[T]hat monstrous gnome … A master in small-state roguery, a virtuoso in perjury and treason, a craftsman in all the petty stratagems, cunning devices, and base perfidies of parliamentary warfare; never scrupling, when out of office, to fan a revolution, and to stifle it in blood when at the helm of the state; with class prejudices standing him in the place of ideas, and vanity in the place of a heart; his private life as infamous as his public life is odious …” [1]

Since most of the communards were confused (and confusing) bourgeois radicals, rather than Marxists, it is hardly surprising that they were defeated – though, to be fair, the odds against them were overwhelming, as Marx had understood from the start, though he enthusiastically supported them anyway.

[W]hat historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin … they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. [2] History has no like example of a like greatness …the present rising in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our party since the June (1848) insurrection in Paris … these Parisians, storming heaven …” [3]

As to the erroneous biographical material in the play, when Marx came to London with his wife Jenny in 1849, he had three children (Jenny, Laura and Edgar), not two. He was closest emotionally to his eldest daughter Jenny, not his youngest daughter Eleanor.

Rather more importantly, Marx did not address the inaugural meeting of the International Working Men’s Association on 28 September 1864, but sat silent on the platform throughout; [4] and Eleanor’s interest in Judaism was a product of her later friendship with Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) and she was not always challenging her father on the jewish question.

Some of these errors in detail are the result of imperfect research, and, being accidental, are forgivable if irritating, but some errors are intentional distortions. Zinn was jewish, and while he had a good track record as an anti-Vietnam-war activist, he was clearly incensed by Marx’s The Jewish Question, so as a polemical device Zinn just invented an angry young Eleanor so he could accuse Marx of the old canard of being a self-hating jew – an insult that could also be thrown at Jesus Christ, (so the religious might think Marx was in good company).

There is an odd mixed-up touch of religion in the central conceit of the play. It begins with Marx telling the audience he is dead and has been in Heaven, where for some reason that he does not explain he has been hanging out with Gandhi and Mother Jones rather than with Engels or his own family. That peculiarity aside, and to cut a tedious story short, Marx has been allowed out of Paradise to come down to Earth to tell us that while he might be dead, Marxism is not.

But by accident he has been out in SoHo, New York, rather than Soho, London. Using his articles in the New York Tribune, he then draws a few parallels about his own time on Earth as a living human being and today. Nothing much has changed, we are told and “The Risen Marx” exhorts us “do something about it” (‘it’ being capitalism and imperialism). But while Daniel Kelly as Marx gets very passionate, all the Marx character suggests is Protest and yet more Protest. And, rather than resembling anything that Marx might have said, the speech sounds very much like Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn if they ever got really angry and put on a German accent.

What is best about the play is its trenchant critique of capitalism. What is worst is its equally trenchant denigration of the dictatorship of the proletariat – the only viable means of defeating the capitalist class and suppressing its frenzied attempts to use every despicable means to regain its lost paradise.

In the end, the real message of the play is the old petty-bourgeois exhortation: capitalism may be very bad indeed, but socialism is far worse!


1. K Marx, The Civil War in France,1871.

2. Paris was surrounded by the German armies and was effectively defeated by Thiers in alliance with Bismarck.

3. Letter from K Marx toKugelmann, 12 April 1871.

4. Letter from K Marx to F Engels, 4 November 1864.