The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marxist Theory   ~   Dialectics   ~   Alienation   ~   Class Consciousness
Ideology   ~   Class Struggle   ~   Communism   ~   Political Science (sic)
Socialist Pedagogy   ~   Radical Humor
Home Books Articles Interviews Letters
to the Editor
Class Struggle
Board Game

Printable version of this page

Search articles and book chapters

Latest book
Latest book -
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method

Reviews of Ollman's Books

Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives

Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech

Video: Marxism and Progress

Marxism (the cartoon version)

From Theory to Practice

Radical Jokes


Recommended Web Sites

NYU Course Bibliographies


ETF Site


Not To Dare
Butcher Shop




Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations

BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
Chapter 3


Class struggle is a more serious topic than death, which, for all its somber allusions, continues to serve as a rich mine of comedy. Nobody laughs at class struggle. Few mention its name, certainly not in polite company. For the most part, class struggle is disguised, denied, disemboweled. Worse than dangerous, it is in bad taste, and the very terms needed to think about it have been erased from the vocabulary. Hence, the shock at meeting it in a game. "A game called Class Struggle?

Since biblical times, Western civilization has known the power of the word to break through logjams in the mind, to permit people to see the ordinary in extraordinary ways, to turn around notions of "right" and "wrong" and reorder thinking along a new axis. "Jahweh," the unpronounceable name of God, was one such work. In our era, "class struggle" is another. It is a question and an answer, an analysis, a threat and a vision, all wrapped into one. And even people who don't know what it means sense that this is so. Becoming aware of 'class struggle" administers a jolt from which one's thinking never wholly recovers. The entire social map is rearranged, and one can never look at bosses or workers in quite the same way. No other idea in Marxism packs such a wallop. From the beginning, I never doubted that my socialist game would be called Class Struggle.

It was Plato, not Marx, who first said, "A city is always composed of a least two parts, which are at war with one another—the rich and the poor." In this war, the poor have numbers while the rich have money, money to buy instruments of force but also means to influence the thinking of the poor. For the longest time, this was the popular wisdom. Even today, people who study slave societies have no difficulty grasping the decisive role played by the division between slaves and slave owners. Feudalism, too, is generally interpreted along lines of the cleavage between serfs and feudal lords. In both cases, it is the conflict (actual and potential) between those who produce food, clothing, etc., and those who control the means by which production occurs that conditions major political and cultural developments in these societies.

Then, in capitalism, something happens, not to society, but to the ability and/or willingness of most people to view society in the above manner. Capitalism, too, has people—now called "workers"—who produce the goods we all use; and there is another, much smaller group who own and control the means, now chiefly machines, factories, and offices, that are used in the production of these goods. These are the capitalists. The clash of these two classes over jobs, wages, conditions of work, etc.—and the institutionalized power to decide on such matters (see Reagan's budget, for example)—is at the core of what is meant by "class struggle."

The main advantage of organizing thinking around the notion of "class struggle" is that it avoids the oversimplification of identifying history with its consequences (and victors), enabling us to grasp capitalism (and slavery and feudalism before it) as a society pregnant with different possible outcomes. In the case of the workers, "class struggle" also helps them link up what they are suffering from with who is responsible for it, what groups have an interest in change, and how these groups can be brought together. The capitalists' entire power and all their privileges depend on keeping the more numerous workers from making these connections, which is why the media and schools controlled by the wealthy have put a virtual embargo on the notion of "class struggle" and which accounts for the outlaw status of this idea in our culture.

Could I reproduce the main elements of this struggle in a game and at the same time create a game that would be fun to play? I refused to sacrifice either amusement or education for the other, but how to combine them? Marx said, one must "force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody." Yes, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make capitalism dance by teaching people its secret melody, the class struggle. Singing and dancing are fun. For capitalism, they would now become dangerous.

I began by listing the main strengths and weaknesses of each class on board squares drawn up for this purpose, so that the Workers, for example, improve their positions when trade unions or a Workers' political party are formed and lose strength when their unions are taken over by bureaucrats or when there is an increase of unemployment. The Capitalists, on the other hand, benefit from the spread of the market overseas and their control over Congress and the courts, but suffer setbacks from such events as a stock-market crash and the Watergate scandal. A currency made up of "Assets" and "Debits," representing strengths and weaknesses, made it possible to weight each square in function of its importance in the overall class struggle. In the game, players throw the dice and move around the board gathering their forces from periodic confrontations labeled "Election," "General Strike," and "Revolution."

To deal with the problem of strategy, I hit on the idea of class alliances. Players could enter into alliances with one another and these alliances would help determine the outcome of the different confrontations. But what classes other than Workers and Capitalists should I include? What should their relationship be to the two major classes whose struggle clearly predominates in our society? Why should any class want to join an alliance? And, above all, how complex could I afford to be—what was the age group for which I was preparing this game?

The search for answers to these and related questions began in 1971, very much as a part-time activity. Friends, to whom I mentioned what I was doing, found the idea amusing, but didn't take it very seriously. "Nice if it could work, but..." And I doubt if anyone thought that I would ever finish. As the years turned over, even Paule and Raoul began to think of my hobby as something extra to be carted around during vacations and as such evidence of my growing eccentricity. Yet the elements of a socialist game were slowly coming together like the pieces of a giant puzzle whose picture I was also painting and constantly retouching. In May 1975, Class Struggle was ready to be tested.

I worked hard all day finishing enough Chance Cards. The bulky cardboard playing surface was lined and ready. Monopoly money and player pieces and an ordinary pair of dice filled out the essentials. I had kept Sol informed of my progress, and tonight Class Struggle would be played for the first time at his home. The players were Sol, Adriane (his wife), Suzanna (their 10-year-old daughter), Paule and I. Sol and Adriane were surprised that I had carried out old discussions to such "ridiculous extremes." But I had, and nothing remained now but to try it.

We threw dice to see who would play which class. Rather than allowing players to choose a class, I decided to leave this up to chance, since this is the way it happens in the real world, where one's class is largely determined by the family into which one is born. "But blacks and women have less chance to become capitalists. Is there some way to work this into the game?" Sol asked. Yes, the point could be made by having blacks and women throw the dice last when it comes to deciding who plays the Capitalists. "And if both are present?" Then let the players themselves decide which of these groups is less likely to spawn capitalists.

Sol became the Capitalists and Suzanna the Workers. Adriane, Paule, and I were left with the Farmers, Professionals and Small Businessmen. (I later added Students—who do not actually constitute a class—as a sixth class, another compromise with the requirements of gaming.) Through a series of adroit moves, Sol gathered most of the minor classes as allies, carefully avoided the nuclear-war square that would have blown us all to kingdom come, and stood poised on the edge of a smashing victory.

"We Farmers are paying too high a price for fertilizer," insisted Adriane as she pondered whether to switch alliances from the Workers to the Small Businessmen.

"Don't blame us," responded Paule, who was representing the Small Business. "It's the Workers with their demands for higher wages who are at fault."

"What?" screamed Suzanna. "Unfair." She was even more incensed by the actions of the Capitalists. "Why didn't you put better safety equipment in the mines? And, Daddy, stop trying to smash my unions."

Sol tried to explain that he was very sad that workers died in mine accidents, but it was their responsibility to be more careful. He, too, was only doing his job. Given how our society works, this is what capitalists have to do in order to succeed. "Or else I'd lose all my money and be forced to become a Worker."

The amount of role-playing in the game exceeded anything I had expected. As I've since learned, neither Landlords (Monopoly) nor Wizards (Dungeons and Dragons) nor Heads of State (Diplomacy) provide such meaty parts for ham actors as do the Capitalists and the Workers in Class Struggle. The politics that evening at Sol's were light, funny, and apparently effective.

"The Workers want revenge," hollered Suzanna, bringing her little fist down on the Revolution square that had just been secured by the forces of Capitalist reaction.

"Yes, the struggle goes on," agreed Adriane, "but so does bedtime."

"Revolution now," insisted Suzanna, as her proud father and I exchanged subversive looks. What had I done?

"Good night, Suzanna. Power to the people," I called out.

"Night. Power to the children," came the reply. And had I really done it?