COMRADE MARX A review by Ernst Schoen-René

Sid Norinsky’s “Comrade Marx,” which played a few weeks ago as part of Kingston’s ASK Play-Reading series, is a terrific work, the best full-length drama I have witnessed there for at least four years.

It has to do with a little-remembered 1871 meeting of various left-wing groups at an equally little-remembered London pub called Jack Straw’s Castle.  The subject might seem inauspicious, but what happened there (and at other occasions drawn into the play), had world-shaking results.  It also has surprisingly compelling messages for our own time.

Jack Straws Castle

Norinsky focuses equally well on two aspects of the events taking place—first, the local color and characters of those present, and, second, the essential battle taking place between two significant political systems—Anarchism, as represented by the Russian Anarchist Michael Bakunin, and Communism, as represented by the Prussian-born Karl Marx—both of whom are present.

The resolution of this larger conflict, as well as the local color and the engaging characters draw one in.

Jack Straw Castle’s publican (bartender) and his wife, Tommy and Maggie Atkins, are likable British working-class types.  She sings left-wing songs as she bustles about, while he converses with all comers, including a deliveryman for a local brewer, an American reporter (Robert Landor, of the New York World), and a young 20-year-old, who comes from the telephone company and asks if it would be possible to place a telephone pole on the pub’s property.  This latter, it turns out, is none other than a youthful George Bernard Shaw.

Others include Bakunin, Marx, Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, who is an aspiring actress and who will have a stormy affair with Shaw in years to come, George Odger, a British labor leader, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, a survivor of the bloody put-down of the Paris Communes in 1871, and Sergei Nechaev, a young anarchist terrorist—with an itchy trigger finger, and a price on his head.

The tensions among such characters drive the action, and the Battle between Marx and Bukanin slowly takes center stage and plays out in action that is at once tense and politically informative.

There is a distinct difference between Anarchism and Communism as political systems.  Anarchism’s primary thrust is for the breaking down of individual entities—farms, governments, factories—and the re-creating of smaller communes that carry on in respectful harmony with one another.

Marxist Communism, on the other hand, deals with society on a grander basis—arguing for a so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” that—of necessity—calls for a “leader” who will govern until a utopian society is created.  Bakunin understood what this meant all too well:

“They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.  While both social anarchists and Marxists share the same final goal, the creation of a free, egalitarian society without social classes and government, they strongly disagree on how to achieve this goal.

Anarchists believe that the classless, stateless society should be established by the direct action of the masses, culminating in social revolution and refusing any intermediate stage—such as the dictatorship of the proletariat

on the basis that such a dictatorship will become a self-perpetuating fundament.”

For Bakunin, the fundamental difference between the two is that, for the Anarchists, “anarchism or freedom is the aim,” while, for the Communists, “temporary” dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses, they have first to be enslaved.

Me, I would side with the Anarchists on this one.  Nonetheless, it is Marx who connives—by means of several slippery tricks–to win the battle and get Bakunin thrown out of the major labor organization of the time, the International.  And this is what we see take place in Norinsky’s play.

One is left wondering how Communism won the battle and came to be the leading leftist force of the Twentieth Century.  Personally, I feel Communism’s later success derives from human laziness.  While Anarchism calls for individuals to undertake their own individual struggle for freedom—in shops, in local governments, in smaller collectives—Marxist Communism promises to save the individual all that trouble by turning the movement for change over to a dictatorship.

History and millions of deaths have shown us how well the latter works.  And history has also shown us how easily human laziness combined with simplistic political idealism can lead to enslavement and disaster.  Does that fact not have a good deal to say about our political situation today?

As Montaigne observed, roughly 400 years before our time: “Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known.”  Look about you and see the ignorant believers that surround you.  Or, find a home for Norinsky’s excellent study of the subject.

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