The Stage and Screen’s Other Marx

Truth is never simple, so here are some truths: 1) Marxism is a discredited pseudo-science; 2) Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a philosophical genius; 3) Communist Totalitarianism inspired by Marx’s writings was (and is) an ocean of world historic atrocity; 4) Technically, Communist Totalitarianism as it was practiced was not Marxist, claims to the contrary notwithstanding; 4) Almost nothing called “Communist” or “Marxist” by the American Right ever actually is; 5) Labor deserves dignity and workers deserve rights; 6) Karl Marx was hardly the first or only person to say so. And on and on and on.

I have found myself reluctant to post on this topic, because one wants so badly to be understood, and in this nation of non-readers and non-thinkers, nothing is more misunderstood than this complicated topic. In America, large numbers of people don’t seem to know that A) talking about an idea does not imply endorsing it; B) socialism and communism are not synonymous; C) talking about a desired goal does not imply endorsement of means that have historically been taken to get there; D) Christianity and capitalism are intrinsically antithetical; E) biographies are not by definition hagiographies, and again, on and on and on.

But, much like that other discredited figure, Freud, one cannot talk about the 20th century without talking about Marx. His impact was that great. And I’m not even talking about just his historical/ economic/ political/ philosophical impact — I am also talking about his aesthetic impact. In fact that is the chief way he is interesting to me, and how I know about him. There is no way to call yourself educated and to be involved in theatre and film, and NOT be exposed to major artists and critics who were deeply influenced by Marx, reflected that influence, and propagated his belief system. I admire many of them deeply. Yes, Know-Nothings! It is quite possible to do so without signing off on a program of Communist Totalitarianism! (Oh, the hate mail I have gotten on my Will Geer post. Not just the homophobia, but the commie-phobia. It is a bugaboo scarcely to believed. I’d bet the entire farm that none of them know what a communist is, other than they hate it. But see? I just told you that I would bet a farm, implying that I would own one. I told you with my words that I believe in private ownership. A communist does not.)

When I was a young I somehow got hold of paperbacks of the influential writings of Sergei Eisenstein, which I read and re-read many times and am overdue to post on here, though I did mention him in No Applause. Eisenstein was the earliest to attempt an aesthetic way of expressing Marx’s theory of dialectic materialism (adapted from the Hegelian Dialectic), in which he consciously systemized how he juxtaposed shots in the editing process. It is completely artificial of course, and sort of baseless in terms of real-world audience impact as theorized, but I sort of love it. You need some kind of discipline when you’re an artist, with the whole world before you to interpret. It doesn’t matter what basis you use to make your choices; you just have to make them. Eisenstein happened to be a brilliant artist on top of his theory. The one might have existed without the other, but the Marxist theory acted as a catalyst.

I also became obsessed with the Soviet theatre artist Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose system of bio-mechanics sought to bring industrial method to stage movement seemed related to Taylorism. He started out at the Moscow Art Theatre, but seemed sort of the philosophic opposite of the MAT’s big lion Stanislavski, whose writings I also read, naturally. The Meyerhold method was far more attractive to me, and more consonant with my own philosophy of theatre. Ultimately, though, Stanislavki came to hold greater sway with the lefties in the American acting community, while Meyerhold’s techniques tended to be explored only by an experimental fringe. At any rate, Meyerhold was eventually executed by the Soviet leadership for his refusal to knuckle under and toe the party line. A logical position for someone who admires an artist like Meyerhold would be to despise an authoritarian government that would do that to him. Unfortunately, plenty of American lefties continued to be Soviet dupes for decades after that happened.

Bertolt Brecht is perhaps the best known theatre artist (in the west, anyway) to try to find theatrical expression for Marx’s theories on the stage. He succeeded capitally (ha!), as with Eisenstein and Meyerhold, due less to his theorizing than his genius. His chief contribution was his so called Alientation Effect, which was designed to short-circuit the pleasure one gets from entertainment, which, so Brecht thought, inhibited clear thought. And for him it was very important that his audience contemplate what was being said in order to develop their social conscience. Brecht’s theories continue to generate as much influence as his actual plays do.

An important apple off of Brecht’s tree is French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, whose method of editing (jump cuts, etc) was intended, again, to alienate. At NYU, I was steeped in his films and others of the French New Wave as well as the writings of French critical theorists, nearly all of whom had at least a foot in Marxist theory: Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Bataille, and Lacan. At the time I was reading all this stuff, in the 1990s I was ironically in the least receptive frame of mind with respect to Marxism I would ever be in my life, being at the time a born again convert to Smith, Hayek, Friedman and Von Mises. Yet, the difficulty of the reading was energizing, it was literally analogous to a workout, to intense physical exercise. All philosophy is. That’s the point of it is. It is less true, than, provisionally, “true”. One makes one’s effort to explore and describe the world. When it comes to changing it and improving reality however, that’s where it gets more tricky. Nature is impervious to total description. At best we can only ever aspire to partial truth, and the damage that human beings do to one another as a result of that is frequently, constantly, tragic. It’s worthwhile to try to get it right, however.

Did you know that Karl Marx wrote a play when he was around 20 years old? It’s called Oulanem and he wrote it in the late 1830s, long before he worked out his famous theories. You can read it here.

Jack London was also inspired by Karl Marx. Among his works that show that influence is his 1907 novel The Iron Heel. As it happens, I was in a stage adaptation of that play, and we recently made an audio adaptation of it. You can exprerience that here. And in that context I also wrote about Marx and other philosophers in this essay here.

Also, obviously I call Karl “the other Marx” because I am better known for my association with these guys. And of course Abbie Hoffman was the rare conflation of both kinds of Marx.