The Writings of Bertell Ollman
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BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
Chapter 8


"Have you seen today's New York Post?" Jo Ann asked excitedly.

"Were they at yesterday's press conference?" Her call caught me in the middle of a meeting with a student.

"No, but I talked briefly to a woman there on the phone a couple of days ago, and I sent her a copy of the game. Listen to this—it's under the heading, 'Rocky Grapples with Marxist.' 'Nelson Rockefeller locked in an arm-wrestle with Karl Marx? Well, that's the delectable combination gracing the cover of a clever new board game called Class Struggle, which proves (if nothing else) that even Marxists have a sense of humor. Even a Marxist socialist like NYU professor Bertell Ollman, author of such sober works as Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, and the fellow whose appointment to head the University of Maryland government department has that state's governor hopping mad. Ollman, it turns out, is the theorist behind Class Struggle, wherein you must cooperate with other classes to win—but if a Capitalist lands on a square called "Nuclear War," the game is over. And, of course, you can't pick which of the game's six classes you'll be: That's handled by a toss of the "Genetic Die." This nifty game will go on sale at a capitalist's dream price of $9.95.'"

"Hey, that's really good," I responded, still a little dazed and depressed from yesterday's gossip page. Everyone reads it."

"Good? It's terrific," Jo Ann shot back. "It's on page six, the gossip page. Everybody reads it."

That afternoon, I received my first call from a radio station, WNEW in New York. Would I be willing to talk to them for a few minutes about my new game? Roger Simon, who writes a syndicated column for the Chicago Sun-Times, called the next day. Under the headline, "A Real Class Game If You Dig Struggle," he summarized the game and quoted extensively from the Chance Cards. His main message was—socialist yes, but above all very funny.

Other calls from papers and radio stations followed, one or two a day at first. Richard Weiss called from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In a long piece on games, he spoke of me as someone who ignored all the rules on how to produce a successful game, and stressed that Class Struggle was unique in its rejection of the core capitalist values of greed and competition. In New York, The Village Voice and The Villager both ran favorable articles on the game that first week. Alex Cockburn of the Voice found the game "good sport" and "very instructional," if also a "shade prim" for calling alcohol and marijuana opium's of the people.

Meanwhile, Jo Ann and I were kept very busy sending out more press releases to media around the country. No, we didn't announce that our press conference had been attended by the world's press ranging from the New York High School for Printing to TASS, but we did try to include blurbs on the game from stories as they appeared.

How would the media relate to the events still building in Maryland? The danger was that my academic-freedom struggle might make the game appear too political, too dangerous; while the game, if treated too lightly, might make me appear frivolous and undermine my reputation as a serious scholar. The first reaction of the Washington and Baltimore press registered surprise and genuine amusement that someone who was being depicted by his enemies as a sinister influence on the young could have a sense of humor. The Washington Post called Class Struggle "Marxism for fun and profit," and said "all the proletariat may soon be playing it." The Baltimore Sun said it had both good news and bad news for those who worried about the appointment of a Marxist to a chairmanship at Maryland. The "good news is that Ollman is a capitalist. The bad news is that what he's selling is a game called Class Struggle."

The New York Times chose this moment to write a welcome editorial supporting my cause at Maryland. Entitled "The Marketing of a Marxist," it skillfully interwove the two themes that were coming to dominate my existence. Perhaps Ollman's opponents, the Times said, "will be less fearful once they play his new board game, Class Struggle ... He expects to do well with it—a clear sign that he is, for practical purposes, safely devoted to the system that Mr. Hoover, Governor Lee, and the vigilantes in the legislature are so anxious to protect." Some socialist friends considered the editorial an underhanded attack on my politics. They had missed the point. At that moment, it was not my socialist credentials that needed the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval as much as my candidacy at Maryland and my Marxist board game.

Then, on May 17, The New York Times ran a half-page article with a big picture of me and the game board on the front page of its Metropolitan Section under the heading, "NYU Professor, Marxist Game Inventor, Finds Art Imitates Life." (To provide, I suppose, political balance, the other half of the page was given over to the mass murderer Son of Sam.) And with this, the dam broke. After noting the resemblance between the game and events in Maryland, the Times reporter quoted a few Chance Cards and concluded that "good humor keeps the game from turning into pure propaganda."

After this article, which was reprinted in over a dozen major papers around the country, I was inundated with calls and visits by media from around the world. My home phone began ringing at 8 A.M., and calls would come in as late as midnight. One Australian and three Canadian radio stations called in that first week. At my NYU office, I would be on the phone with two, three, and even four reporters at the same time. People who passed by my office saw a juggler at work.

I was invited on the Today show, where Tom Brokaw mixed funny questions about Maryland with serious ones on Class Struggle. The Tomorrow show, with Tom Snyder, where I shared the stage with Ralph Anspach and a lady who makes chocolate Monopoly sets for $600, followed a month later. No, I didn't think a chocolate Class Struggle set would make Marxism sweeter to the American palate.

Some interviews broke out of the traditional format. On WBAI, New York's progressive radio station, six people played Class Struggle for two hours while a reporter talked to me about the game and related issues. It was the first time, I was told, that a board game was ever played on the radio.

Wires occasionally got crossed: "Is that 'Marks' with a 'k'? And you say you're the president of what Marxist country?" asked an assistant producer (!) of a radio talk show in Los Angeles. A lady vice-president at the Finance Corporation of America called to say that Business Week, which had just published a piece on the game, gave me as the source for another story they did on the imminent bankruptcy of several major companies. The financial community, she said, was very worried by the story, and wanted to know how I had come by my information. When I denied knowing anything about it, she became very persistent, promised to protect my sources, even appealed to my patriotism. I have the feeling that, if I had played my cards right, I could have brought the whole of Wall Street crashing down that same afternoon.

Not everyone liked what I said during interviews about the game. The host of a Denver radio talk show got very upset by my comment that capitalism is undemocratic because a small group of bosses make all important economic decisions. "Where in the world is it better?" he wanted to know.

"James Thurber tells a story," I said, "about a friend who asked him, 'How is your wife?' Thurber replied, 'Compared to what?'" When the man from Denver started to laugh, I added, "Yet many people make just this mistake when reacting to criticisms of American capitalism ... The history and conditions in each country are different. Instead of asking 'Where in the world is it better?' and setting up irrelevant comparisons, we should be asking 'Can we make things better here in America, on the basis of advantages that we alone have got?'"

"I've had enough of this," my interviewer shot back, and hung up. Just like that. In the middle of a live broadcast.

There were also slips between the cup and the lip. Fortune magazine sent over for a copy of the game, saying that their editors wanted to play it. Their photographer spent an hour taking pictures in my office, but the article on Class Struggle never appeared. (Did the editors learn something on playing the game?) Neither did the promised article in Newsweek, nor, a little later—and most vexing—the article in Time. Here, the piece was not only written but in print when Pope Paul VI died and the whole issue was redone, leaving out such inessentials as Class Struggle to make more room for His Holiness, who had succeeded in carrying his struggle against Marxism into the hereafter.

Still, with few exceptions, the overwhelming response of the media was, "Here is an amusing game about, of all things, class struggle." Or, alternatively, "Here is a Marxist who is funny." What a surprise! Not that anyone missed the serious political message in the game—how could they? Socialist tracts were nothing new; a socialist tract in the form of a game was. And just because it was amusing, the socialist arguments were somehow less threatening, perhaps even less objectionable. In light of this, the square on the Class Struggle board that speaks of the capitalists' control of the media and its use to present the capitalist point of view requires at least this small qualification.

The almost total absence of political criticism took me by surprise. I had hoped for a positive response, and feared teeth-gnashing hostility. The degree of acceptance, indeed, of enthusiastic support, threw me slightly off-balance. What was at work here? Why were the capitalist media so enthusiastic about my anticapitalist game? Why are people pleased to learn that socialists (or capitalists) have a sense of humor? Why don't people want others with whom they disagree to take themselves too seriously? Is having a sense of humor incompatible with taking onself seriously? These questions started me thinking about the role of humor in politics, and particularly about the function of radical political humor. I seemed to have accomplished something good, possibly important, that I didn't completely understand.

The literature on humor gives three main reasons for why people laugh: because they feel superior, as a relief from tension or an indirect expression of forbidden urges, and as a results of the juxtaposition of two incongruous ideas. Class Struggle is constructed out of incongruities, juxtaposing as it does Marx and Rockefeller, struggle and play, politics and games, growth in trade unions and losing a turn at the dice. The amusement most people get out of playing and sometimes just on hearing about Class Struggle comes mainly from experiencing these incongruities.

Everyone likes to laugh, and we all appreciate and generally like the people who make us laugh. Liking them, we tend to react more favorably to whatever is identified with them—a country, a race, an ideology—or at least to be less hostile. With Class Struggle, I began to benefit, only half-knowingly at first, from this psychological predisposition. It is not easy for socialists to be funny. We are known to the general public as dour, often angry, superserious people—and with good reason. Life isn't funny. It is hard to be light-hearted in a world full of human tragedies, especially if one believes that most of them are the result of faulty social organization. Weighted down by this knowledge and its accompanying responsibility, most socialist humor takes the form of bitter irony, whether directed against capitalists or against oneself for being so ineffective. In either case, the potential inherent in a humor that nonsocialists can laugh at for "winning friends and influencing people" is lost.

Another lesson I gleaned from Class Struggle's ready acceptance by the media is that people are more ready to listen to "disagreeable" ideas if they are presented in a humorous manner: "Smile when you say that." It removes some of the discomfort and anxiety associated with dissonance of all sorts. People construct ideological, emotional, and even physical defenses to protect themselves against such discomfort, but these same defenses also make it difficult to understand and sometimes even to hear contrary opinions. Humor gets people to lower their defenses not only because laughing is a relaxing activity, but also because humor is associated in our minds with what is nonserious and nonthreatening. In this way, a little space is opened up for genuine communication.

Then—and this is something I still don't understand well—leaving aside outright nonsense, people are more likely to believe the truth of whatever makes them laugh. For example, if you tell people that statistics distort reality, you'll get qualified agreement at best. But if you substitute, "When your head is in the freezer and your feet are on the stove, statistics is what tells you that the temperature in your stomach is just right," agreement is likely to be general. (Remember this joke the next time an economist says something about the average income.) Political speakers of all persuasions have made use of this bias in favor of the humorous version, but to my knowledge no one has adequately explained it. Is it too much to hope that Class Struggle, not despite but because of its clowning, actually taught some members of the Fourth Estate a thing or two about class struggle?

We soon learned that getting publicity in the press and selling the game were two different things. To be sure, the one prompted the other, but there was no simple cause and effect relationship. If the games were not available in local stores, interest could not translate easily into sales. Some stores contacted us for orders as soon as the avalanche of stories hit. They were getting many requests for the game. They didn't care what it was about, whether it was good or bad—customers were asking for it. Nothing else counted. About a hundred of the requests received by Bloomingdale's, Macy's and F.A.O. Scharz, those from the most disappointed customers, came from members of the board of Class Struggle, Inc. Sometimes public opinion needs a little goosing.

Many individuals also called us up asking for games. The day after the story in The Washington Post, we got a call from Sargent Shriver's office ordering seven gift copies that Shriver wanted to take with him on a trip to Moscow. Did Brezhnev get one? Did he learn something? I hoped so.

Board meetings during this period were celebrations of our successes. I would begin each meeting by passing around the latest stories from the press. Business Week, Money, and The London Financial Times had just done favorable stories. Fortune, Playboy, and Gallery had just interviewed me. The business and skin magazines made an unbeatable combination, American to the core. It seemed now we couldn't miss.

Howard would shake his head disbelievingly. "Look at this. How did we do it?" Iz announced that his friend Irwin, from whom we had sought some PR advice, was dumbfounded by our achievement.

Then Jo Ann would announce what stores had ordered games that week, and whom we had appointments to talk to the following week. Brentano's chain of book and game stores, Bloomingdale's, which had the chutzpah to ask for an "exclusive," and the Eigth Street Bookstore in Greenwich Village were among our first and best customers. All the members of the board took part in the selling.

Right from the start, we accumulated as many bookstore customers as game and department stores. Most of these bookstores sold no other games. It just became clear to their owners, as it had to us, that Class Struggle was the kind of game that had a special appeal to book buyers. In contacts with bookstore people, we stressed that Class Struggle is really "a book in a box, a humorous book about capitalism that one reads by picking up Chance Cards rather than turning pages."

A special problem arose over what sales terms to use in the book trade. Bookstores follow a policy of returning books that don't sell to their publishers, whereas game and department stores pay for all the games ordered, whether they sell or not. We opted for a compromise: first orders were returnable; subsequent orders were not. This satisfied the bookstores, and gave added appeal to our product in game and department stores.

The American Booksellers Association's annual fair was held in Atlanta in late May. Howard went and set up a display of Class Struggle. We had no idea what to expect. Judging from the press explosion and our quick successes in New York, we thought Howard might sell thousands of games. In fact, he sold only a couple hundred, but he reported that a lot of bookstore owners showed a keen interest. They preferred to watch and wait for a while to see how well Class Struggle sold in the stores. Their caution should have made us more cautious, but things were going too well in New York and in the media. Howard's most exciting news was that he had been approached by a representative of Mondadori, Italy's largest publisher, about an Italian edition. They promised to contact us shortly.

Just back from a combination lecture tour and Class Struggle promotion trip to California, the first week of June found me in Washington, D.C., selling games and trying to learn what was happening at Maryland (the decision, I was told, would be coming any day now, since President Elkins was scheduled to retire at the end of June). It was there that I met Rodney Sokol. When he is not being a gentlemanly painter, Rodney is a top-flight literary agent whose stable of clients includes Erich Fromm, Gar Alperowitz, and several other important radical and liberal thinkers. The world of business is full of people who talk as if they know it all. They've seen it, lived it all before, many times. They know all the angles, have all the connections. They say it in words, in their tone of voice, in how they smile and lay their hands on you. Sokol—thirtyish, pudgy and baby-faced—was a master at this game.

Rodney was immensely impressed by the media attention given to Class Struggle. And when I told him that Mondadori had expressed interest in doing an Italian edition, he said that what we needed was an experienced agent to negotiate the best possible deal with Mondadori and then to duplicate this deal in other countries. Though he had never handled a game before, Rodney said he would make an exception for Class Struggle.

That very Sunday, Rodney came to a meeting of our board of directors. The talk was all about the million games we could sell if we did it right, thought big, and went with the pros, like him. He went over his track record, his special relationship with Dick Snyder, president of Simon and Schuster—there was the possibility of a co-production deal here—and again, the numbers game. "Hundreds of thousands," "millions." Of course, the picture of Marx and Rocky on the cover would have to go. We could do much better, he said, with cartoon figures.

Only Jo Ann and Paul refused to be impressed. They didn't like Rodney's style and they didn't appreciate the condescension he showed toward us "boychicks," us "poor amateurs." Still, we made Rodney our agent, giving him 10 percent off the top of any foreign licensing deal he would arrange. Rodney wanted to buy into the business itself in order to have a major voice in our future development and also to make what he considered a sure financial killing. On this, we stalled. Yes, we needed money to finance another, bigger edition of games, but we had to give existing investors a first crack at buying more shares. Howard, in particular, insisted that having invested so much money in Class Struggle when it was an extremely risky venture, he should have the option to buy as many shares as he wanted now that we had a "sure thing" going.

How much more money was needed would depend on how many more games we decided to produce. In May alone, we had sold over 3,000 games, and all indications were that this was just the beginning. We needed at least 10,000 more games, but decided 25,000 was even better, if we could afford it. Whether we could would depend, in large part, on how much we had to pay for each game and on terms of payment. Very little money had come in, and we were beginning to understand that there was a big difference between selling games and getting paid for them, though how great this difference was we had still to learn.

This left the question of who would produce the next edition. We felt no commitment to continue with Juvenile Packaging. Hadn't Gouldner raised the price on us in the middle of the run? We all felt badly burned by this incident. If we got a better offer from another manufacturer, then, as businessmen, we would have to take it.

Through a friend in publishing, Izzy heard of the Finn Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, which publishes mainly religious books and tracts, but also produces a number of games, Scrabble among them. Howard and I visited Bill Finn, the small, elf-life sexagenarian owner of the company. There was a marked contrast between the respectful reception he gave us and the odd looks with which toy-industry people had greeted us a few months before. We were told that no game in the history of the industry—and that includes Monopoly—had ever received the kind of press coverage we were getting. Finn offered to produce 25,000 Class Struggles at $3.09 a game. Covered in this price were a number of improvements, the most important of which was a cardboard tray to hold the money and the player pieces. All this, including the price, would be stated in writing. He also promised us that if business continued to improve and we wanted an additional 25,000, they would cost us only $3 a game (this was not in writing).

Finn said he could not store and ship the finished games for more than two months. Going with Finn, then, meant assuming the responsibility for storage, shipping, and billing, which Juvenile Packaging had been doing for us for an additional fee. Because of the numerous delays and foul-ups we were experiencing, this was something we were about to do in any case.

I told Gouldner that we were taking a bid from another company to produce an additional 25,000 games. From the way he reacted, it was clear that he thought this was simply a ploy to get him to lower his price. He had taken the measure of these socialist professors; he knew what we could and couldn't do. Besides, he had taught us most of what we knew about the games industry, and had become our friend. In all this, Gouldner was not far off the mark. All my business relations with board members, employees, and even buyers were still primarily personal relations. I responded to them in ways that they evoked from me as people, being who they were, with all their individual foibles and needs. Warming to his pleasant personality, I had begun to treat Gouldner as a good friend. What could possibly change this?

A week later, Gouldner came to my NYU office to deliver his "lowest possible" bid and to take away—he was certain—an order for 25,000 more games. His bid was $3.07 per unit on the identical game he had produced before (no improvements). Everything would be in writing this time (what happened to the machines that might break down?), but there was no assurance on the price of the next order. This last, in particular, weighed heavily on my mind.

"Well, Sam," I told him, "if that's the best you can do, I'm afraid we'll have to accept the offer of the Finn Company." My heart was pounding fast as I strained for calm.

"What?" His usually jovial expression froze on a note of genuine shock. "Don't you owe it to me? After all I did..."

"Sam, they've made us the better offer. What else is there to say?"

Collecting himself, he looked at me with as much sadness as controlled anger. "Bertell," he almost whispered, "you've really become a businessman." I accompanied him to the elevator. We didn't exchange another word. He got on the elevator, looked at me, and slowly shook his head.

The accusation in his words did not bother me, but the compliment did.