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BALLBUSTER? - Chapter 11 - VOX POPULI < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
Chapter 11


The public's reaction to Class Struggle, as expressed in hundreds of letters, was more varied and interesting that the almost unanimous praise the game received in the press. On the whole, it was also better written. One student wrote me, "I bought the game for a friend who is a strong believer in the capitalist system, and he loved it at first sight because he thought it would be a joke. After playing the part of the Workers, he admitted the game was anything but a joke, and for the first time was able to see there could be life after capitalism." Another satisfied customer wrote, "Playing Class Struggle was the most fun I have had in my entire learning experience."

Not everyone shared this judgment: "Class Struggle is the most boring game I have ever played... Your socialist conscience should be bothered by your rip-off price... Bertell, how can you sleep?" A professor at the Harvard School of Business declaimed, "Accountants of he world unite. You have nothing to lose but your net balance," and delivered a technical lecture on the meaning of "assets" and "debits." Some found fault with the underlying social analysis: "Giving the workers a 50 percent chance to win doesn't, unfortunately, represent the real historical situation in the U.S."

Most of the critical letters, however, were addressed more to my Marxist views than to the game itself: "After reading over the instruction which accompany your game, Class Struggle, I had visions of school-age children marching through Wall Street singing songs about 'barbaric parasites' and carrying banners with your face and long pledges dedicating themselves to be firm believers in Ollmanism... No, Mr. Ollman, I won't buy your game, and if I ever see it again, I'll probably burn it." Equally perceptive was the letter that began, "I am on disability, which means I get a little over $300 per month. I do not feel alienated. Since you are a Marxist, are you going to shoot me for saying that?" I couldn't help but reflect on how well the capitalist media and educational system have done their job, when even such a wretched soul perceives me as the enemy.

One correspondent claimed to know the source of the game's humor: "How can anyone be surprised to find that a Marxist can be funny? It is to laugh. Why else would the capitalists pay your salary at NYU?" Another came right to the point: "Asshole." That was it, except for a signature and return address. This was the only really hostile letter for which the writer took full responsibility. Was he hoping to begin a serious exchange of ideas? For a few who couldn't bother to write down their abuse, there was always the telephone. Obscene calls started coming in, sometimes as many as three or four a day.

Typical of the many religious letters I received is this one: "Please, my friend, humble yourself and come to Jesus before it is too late. Time is fast running out. Check out what you have placed your faith in. Marxism will pass away, but the Lord is forever. Marx never healed anyone, raised anyone from the dead, or raised himself from the dead—Jesus did... Jesus is the day of salvation—not Marxism." Such letters often contained helpful religious tracts, and in one case a comic book on hell for nonbelievers.

Criticisms from the Left were not lacking. Objecting to the Chance Card, "Stealing is no answer to poverty," an anarchist writer argued, "Better to steal than to make no response at all to oppression and exploitation. I steal whenever I can."

Especially gratifying were the reactions of teachers who had used the game in their high school and college classes, in subjects ranging from politics to nursing: "With some other teachers at Glasgow University, we have had a tournament of Class Struggle with our students... I was very impressed with the game as a way of getting across new ideas." A high school teacher from Boston wrote, "We played Class Struggle in class today. There was much excitement. Once the students got the hang of alliances, they took off with it... I had a number of students rooting for the Workers all the way, and they felt let down when they had to ally with the Capitalists." An Australian high school teacher even gave an exam on the explanations found in the game and sent me his students' papers to correct.

The large majority of the letters I have received on Class Struggle have been friendly and positive; while just the opposite is true of the letters that poured in during the same period in response to my academic freedom controversy with the University of Maryland. Criticisms tended to be angrier, often with a bite that was meant to draw blood. One correspondent wrote, "I'm terribly sorry to hear that Dr. Toll of the University of Maryland rejected you for the chair, but you know the death penalty has been eliminated by the rest of the Marxist scum in this country even though most commie cuntries still keep it, since they know how to deal with their traitorous slime. It shows how far the U.S. has degenerated when they even consider a miserable sonofabitch like you for a university job of any kind. Happy coronary infarction and drop dead." Someone with a more poetical turn of mind asked, "Who wants to go to bed with a prickly porcupine? Even on a cold night, he makes a dubious bedmate."

Another, for whom socialism and Russian Communism were synonymous, wanted to know, "Do you think you would be hired as head of the Department of Political Philosophy at the University of Moscow if you were an avowed espouser of the capitalist philosophy?" It's odd how often people who oppose the Soviet Union fall into using what they do there (or are perceived as doing) as a model for what we should do here in the U.S. I was also reminded of a recent experience on the Larry King radio talk show, where a good three quarters of the people who called in asked hostile questions about Russia. Here I was talking about the need to give people more power over the decisions which affected their daily lives, here in America, and the next caller would spew hate at me and rant once again about Russia. As far as America's rulers are concerned, if Russia didn't exist, it would have to be invented. Maybe it was.

The one letter that went to my heart more than any other read, "Hey, Berty. Love your game. Just stole it from a friend's pad. Good luck. Professors that invent games are the greatest teachers in the playground of America. Your student—Abbie Hoffman." I had met Abbie briefly about 10 years a ago, but so had a million other people. We don't really know each other, but yet on the deepest human level I feel I know him very well. As someone who has given new life to the tired anarchist notion of propaganda by the deed, and has uncovered new ways of using the system against the system, Abbie may just be the most creative socialist teacher of us all. He is our own Evel Knievel, the shadow who walks out in front of us to test the dangerous waters, a whole army including a drum and bugle corps, and an intelligence service, all by himself. Abbie's role in inspiring the creation of Class Struggle and our media strategy was considerable. To receive word from the Underground that he knew and understood was one of the high points of my Class Struggle career.

A couple of months later, Abbie sent me outlines of two games he was working on, inspired—it seems—by my example. One was called the Down Game, which he described as "A game of chance—Loser takes all—The bottom of the bummers—Death wins (for all ages: 65-75)." Players start out with a house, a job, good health, a family, etc., and move around the board losing them one after another. The first player who arrives at the last square, which is called "Death," having lost all that makes life worth living, wins. That is a downer. Always the visionary, Abbie had produced the first primer on Reaganomics.

The other game was called Fugitive. It was meant to show all the problems Abbie had in being a fugitive and the ways he overcame them. Since, at that time, he was still overcoming them, there were tricks that could not be revealed. So the game was full of gaps. Now that Abbie had surfaced, maybe he can finish this game. With more chances to develop strategies, I think it has a lot more promise than the Down Game.

Abbie was not alone in sending me ideas for games. The word had gotten out that Class Struggle had made it, and with it, our company. I must have received close to 50 letters and calls from game inventors asking me to produce their game or for advice on how to get it produced. Some inventors had been inspired by Class Struggle, but others had been working on their games for some time. Because of the character of Class Struggle, many of the inquiries were about progressive games. One professor offered us a game called Utopia, in which players learn about the advantages of life in a society without private property. Another professor sent me rules for a card game on revolution that could be played with existing decks. We ourselves had given some thought to producing a card-game version of Class Struggle, so this idea triggered a lot of interest.

A reporter from a business magazine sent me two socialist games: Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism and Rent Strike. The first was an exercise in explaining "what," while the second offered lessons in "how to." He also had an interesting idea for a Bureaucracy Game, which needed no special equipment and allowed any number to play. "It's simple," he said. "The players sit facing one another, and the first one to move loses." A winner, but how do you package it? A game arrived called Unemployment-How to Survive It, which was full of practical solutions, but left out the most practical solution of all, which is to do away with the economic order that produces unemployment. It is the only solution, after all, that is guaranteed to work for everyone over the long term. This is, of course, what Class Struggle is all about.

One caller obviously got the wrong number. His game, "Public Assistance," was meant "to show how the poor were ripping off the system." "Public Assistance," he said, "was a natural to piggyback off the success of Class Struggle." Could it be that he didn't notice that my chief concern was with how the system was ripping off the poor? This game appeared on the marker about a year later, and was pegged by some reporters as the conservative response to Class Struggle.

As interesting as some of these ideas were, we were in no position to produce another game. Not yet. Not until Class Struggle really took off and made some money. We were still pumping ever-greater sums into our own game. Those who asked for the names of companies that make dice or game boards got them. But our experience with Class Struggle, particularly as regards the media blitz, was so unusual that I didn't see much that others could learn from us. Without a lot of start-up money and connections with distributors, it is practically impossible for a small entrepreneur to succeed. Even with them, the odds are heavily against you. My advice? Go with the established game companies—if you can. If you can't, lock your game up in a drawer and throw away the key.

My newfound notoriety as inventor of a successful socialist game also brought me news of other games that share some of my values. I discovered two small family businesses, Animal Farm Games (P.O. Box 2002, Santa Barbara, CA 03102), and Family Pastime Games (R.R. 4, Perth, Ontario, Canada, K7H, 3C6), that produce a variety of children's games, like Save the Whale, which emphasize cooperation—everyone wins or loses together. The same principle guides the French Canadian game Co-op, which is sold by the Canadian Cooperative Movement as a means of teaching the principles of cooperative owning and living.

Games that promote group consciousness and urge struggle with other groups apparently have been on the market for some time. Starpower is one and Simsoc, which tries to simulate the origins of society, is another. I had not been aware, though, of any game that treats class as the most important to the groups to which we belong and the conflict between the working class an the capitalist class as the decisive social conflict in our society. Strike and Workers United, two games for young children invented by teachers at the Che Lumumba Grade School attached to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, do just this. In Strike, players move through setting up picket lines, police repression, and strike breakers, to a conclusion that is labeled New Contract. Workers Unite offers a lesson on the great moments of workers' struggles—1848, 1917, and 1949, with imperialism and counterrevolution as occasions for retreat.

Puerto Rico has a game about life in a socialist society called Socio-Polio. Here, players compete to see who can serve the people best. The player who becomes a National Hero of Labor first wins. The takeover by workers of the Lip watch factory in France a few years ago gave rise to Chomageopoly, in which players repeat the steps by which workers occupied the plant and protected themselves from the police. And Germany has an anarchist game called Provopoli, which pits a red group using barricades and bombs against a blue group for control of a city. Though banned in some German states, it has become and under-the-counter best seller.

Most intriguing of all, I discovered an earlier American game that was called Class Struggle. It is listed in a pre-World War I catalogue of the Charles Kerr Publishing Company, then America's premier publisher of socialist books. There is no date on the form. At the bottom of a long list of books and pamphlets, we simply read, "Class Struggle game—25 cents." Obviously, prices have changed even more than the class struggle in the last 70 years. No one at the Kerr Company today knows anything about the game, and I have been unable to turn up any copies or anyone who has played it.

The idea that someone may have traveled on this path before me sends shivers of excitement up and down my socialist spine. I don't know which is greater, my curiosity about all that I don't know, or my sympathy for all that I can divine. To the reader who can enlighten me about this early 25 cent version of Class Struggle goes my warmest, comradely appreciation and thanks.