Marx in Calicut

What if Karl Marx, who died in 1883, came back from the dead? What would he have to say about today’s world in which capitalism reigns supreme? What would he have to tell us about his life, his family, and the struggles he underwent? Questions such as these prompted Howard Zinn, the American left thinker, to write the play ‘Marx in Soho.’

“I wanted to show Marx as few people knew him, as a family man, struggling to support his wife and children,” Zinn says in his Preface to the play. He 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 that he wanted to make it clear, in the wake of the alleged demise of Marxism, that Marx’s critique of capitalism “remains fundamentally true in our time.” In the play, given one last chance by the authorities of the afterlife to clear his name, Marx finds himself in the Soho district of New York, instead of London Soho, as a result of an other-worldly clerical mistake. Having arrived there, his mind reels at the same capitalist injustices that he opposed 150 years ago: the vast disparity between the rich and the poor, the ever-growing impoverishment of the majority of the people, and the systematic channeling of the wealth that workers earn into the hands of the capitalists.

Written in the form of a single-act monologue, interspersed with personal reminiscences and anecdotes laced with a subtle strain of humour, the play takes a hard look at the harsh realities of the contemporary globalized world, and suggests in no uncertain terms that Marxism is as relevant today as it ever has been. Marx’s question, “Don’t you wonder: why is it necessary to declare me dead again and again?” gives the lie to the oft-repeated fiction of the death of Marxism.marx-drama-2

V.C. Harris’s production of the play in Malayalam, in which he himself appears as Marx, staged at Calicut on the occasion of the release of the book ‘Marx Vayanakal’ (edited by T. V. Madhu and published by Raspberry Books) was a vibrant and engaging solo performance. Carefully edited to suit the occasion and the audience, the primary focus of the production was on the political Marx, rather than the personal. Sporting a remarkable physical resemblance to the real Marx, with his copious white hair and beard, Harris’s Marx came across as a ruminative and rather sickly old man, still forceful at moments and brimming with passion, but ready to laugh at himself and the world. What got conveyed unequivocally in the frequent shifts between Marx’s personal reminiscences and his take on contemporary life as he saw it in New York and the American newspapers was the continuing relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism, and the inhumanity of a social order that incessantly increases its wealth, but far from diminishing the misery of the majority of its members only multiplies it. At the same time, probably ringing an echo of recognition in the minds of the audience, the play was also unsparing with those ‘Marxists’ who institutionalized a political philosophy of liberation into organizational structures that brook little critique or dissent. Marx, in that sense, was certainly not a Marxist.

Carrying a play through the verbal text alone, that too with just one actor, is an onerous task because there is no space for diversion or relaxation for either the actor or the audience. However, to Harris’s credit, he carried it off with composure and style, cleverly structuring the monologue with well interspersed moments of emotional intensity, and regular swings between wit and seriousness. Interestingly, the conversational and everyday Malayalam of the monologue not only made the play most accessible, but also cut a figure of Marx as one who is as much Malayali as he is German or European. In a sense, the final departing words said it all, “Do you resent my coming back and irritating you? Look at it this way. It is the second coming. Christ couldn’t make it, so Marx came.”