|BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
PUTTING MARX BACK INTO CHRISTMAS
In America, the centerpiece of the month-long Christmas pageant is the "gift." Sold in a thousand shapes and textures, possessing a hundred different hues and prices, it can be eaten, worn, or played with. It breaks and tears easily, and is generally put away and forgotten once the "thank yous" are over. For the recipient, the symbol of these glory days is the tie that is never worn and game whose rules are too complicated for anyone to figure out. Yet, without the Christmas present, many American businesses would simply roll over and die. According to fun-industry sources, over 60 percent of all games are sold in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At Class Struggle, Inc., we had been dreaming of a red Christmas from the start. What could we do to help America's shoppers see that Class Struggle is the perfect Christmas gift? A catchy phrase, a slogan that would drive our message and product into every brain, is the way the market works.
Capitalism has long filched people's idealism and even socialist sentiments to sell its products: Ma Bell's "The system is the solution"; Buick's "Dedicated to the free spirit in just about everyone"; and General Electric's "Progress for the people." It was only fitting that we should return the favor and use the market to sell socialist ideas. Right now, for it to work, we needed a slogan that would put Class Struggle under every Christmas tree in the land.
"Merry Marxmas," Milt burst out. "Class Struggle wishes all America a Merry Marxmas."
"Great," Ed said, "but how do we get Santa Claus to bellow it out on TV?"
"No, too light," Howard shook his head. "We need something more in keeping with the seriousness of the occasion."
"Yeah," Izzy smiled, taking Howard at his word, "likePut Marx Back Into Christmas." Conversation, all movement stopped. I fixed my most appreciative stare at Izzy, and nodded my head. He couldn't believe we were taking his suggestion seriously. "Yeah," he went on, "and we'll get Jerry Falwell to bellow it out on TV." But it was too late: "Merry Marxmas" and "Put Marx Back Into Christmas" had just been baptized our season's greetings.
The New York Times balked at printing a "Merry Marxmas" ad for fear of "offending Christians," though they didn't seem to mind capitalism's repeated efforts to package Jesus as Santa Claus. Even without their help, we managed to spread our slogans to store windows and car bumpers throughout the country.
Though we needed more money immediately to survive, we needed expanded sales to justify anyone lending us more money. Neither effort could be neglected. I would just have to talk and eat faster, and sleep less. Some time had to be put aside, too, for the antidraft movement, which was then getting started, the Center for Marxist Studies at NYU, my "Visits with Marxist Thinkers" monthly radio talk show, out of town lecturesincluding a Yale Political Union debate with McCarthy sidekick, Roy Cohn, on the red menace in our schoolsand conferences with lawyers in preparation for my upcoming trial in Maryland. Through all this, I continued to meet my classes and keep my office hours, but students found that I had become very stingy with time, "very businesslike," as one student put it.
After teaching, my main commitment was to promoting Class Struggle. But after inventing slogans, placing ads, visiting shows and buyers, and giving innumerable interviews to the press, what else can one do to sell games? Hard sell, soft sell, funny sell. We tried them all. Attracting customers in whatever way you can, making the salethat's what business means. Of the businessmen of his day, Marx remarked, "No eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more despicable means to stimulate his dulled capacity for pleasure in order to sneak a favor for himself than does the industrial eunuchthe producerin order to sneak for himself a few pennies, in order to charm the golden bird out of the pocket of his Christianity-beloved neighbors. He puts himself at the service of the other's most depraved fancies, plays the pimp between him and his need, excites in him morbid appetites, lies in wait for each of his weaknessesall so that he can then demand the cash for his services of love." Who, me? SurelyI gulped when I reread this quoteour operation was different.
When consumer advocate Bess Meyerson, for example, starts peddling blurbs to all and sundry, she appears to be simply cashing in on her reputation. The product seems to be irrelevant. Likewise, capitalists are only interested in making a profit, not a product, or rather in making any product that will make a profit. Hence, we should not be surprised when the Pillsbury Company buys Weight Watchers, or General Mills (originally a flour company) buys Parkers Brothers (a game company), or when the oil companies buy everything in sight. For us, on the other hand, the product and its message was everything. But to sell Class Struggle, if we wished to maximize our sales, we had to adopt the same mechanisms and manners of the system we were criticizing.
Hoping to counteract the anonymity of the market, many buyers of books, paintings, and pottery like to get their purchase autographed by the creator. I guess it makes them feel important, as though they count for something more than the money they have just shelled out for the product. Along with computer dating and fan clubs, it is capitalism's way of breaching the gaps between the lonely souls who inhabit our competitive society. So, putting our critique of alienation off to one side, we set up a series of game-signing ceremonies. The first one was held at Abraham and Strauss Department Store, which caters to a black middle-class trade in the heart of Brooklyn. The signs posted on the outside doors read, "Dr. Bertell Ollman, inventor of the world-famous game Class Struggle, will be autographing his game inů" When I got to the game department, the crowds had not yet arrived, nor had they come yet four hours later when I decided to leave. In between, a half-dozen people came and bought games, though hundreds more peered at me rather suspiciously out of the corners of their eyes as they hurried down the corridor where I was stationed.
"Why did you put your face on the cover of the game?" one teenaged girl wanted to know, mistaking Marx's bearded countenance for my own. "Don't bother the man with foolish questions girls," interrupted her mother, yanking her away. "The man has a right to advertise his game the way he likes."
At a Macy's store in Brooklyn, the manager set up a small table just in front of the escalator and asked me to play Class Struggle with the assistant manager. After a half-hour, the assistant manager was replaced by one of the salespersons, and she by another salesperson a half-hour later, and so on until 6 P.M. Nothing kills like repetition. My arms got sore from throwing the dice, my back from bending over to move the markers, and my brain became numb from explaining the rules again and again. What probably saved my sanity was questioning the workers about conditions in the store and asking them if they saw any connections between what was going on the board and their lives. Once I realized that Macy's had invited me into the store to help unionize their workers, I felt considerably cheered. Just another way of wishing everybody a Merry Marxmas.
My busiest autograph-signing session took place in Macy's flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan just two weeks before Christmas. For this occasion only, we gave away "Class Struggle Is the Name of the Game" T-shirts. The day began on a note of struggle. A conservatively dressed, middle-class woman listened to my rap, while, off to the side, her 10-year-old daughter was reading some Chance Cards. When she noticed what her daughter was doing, Mom got semi-hysterical: "Stop! Don't read that," she screamed.
Just then, another woman came up and announced proudly that her young son knew all about politics. "He knows the names of all our senators and representatives."
"But does he know," I asked, "whom they really represent?" Smiling uncomfortably, she backed off.
Arthur Ashe's lovely young wife wanted to know what the game is about. When I told her, she shook her head and confessed that she is a capitalist, because she too, wants to make money.
"But everyone wants to make money," I replied. "In our society, we need it to live. Do you own factories or stores or big tracts of farmland? No? Well, then you're not a capitalist."
A young man who had been watching from a distance approached hesitantly. "A game called Class Struggle. Are you a socialist?" The voice was slow and heavily accented.
"Sure," I said. "Where are you from?"
"Russia. I immigrate two years ago from Russia."
Afraid to scare the fellow away, I quickly pointed out, "The socialism I favor is an extension of democracy into all walks of life. It has little to do with what's called 'socialism' in Russia."
"And what's wrong with socialism in Russia?" he shot back. "Is much better than this rat race." And he stalked off in anger.
Two South Africans bought games, which they said they would have to smuggle back into their country. A woman trade unionist bought two for friends who were union officials. "They need a little of this to top up their courage."
"It will also help clear up their acne," I added. All in all, I sold close to 30 games in three hours. But this time, I also had a lot of fun. The mood was jovial and accepting, almost like Christmas.
Seeking to solidify our identity in people's mind as a "real game," we also held a series of Class Struggle tournamentssimilar to those Parker Brothers holds for Monopolyin Washington, New Haven and Ann Arbor. The first and largest of these took place in Kramer's Bookstore in Washington in October 1978. About 50 people turned up including a sprinkling of Washington's progressive intelligentsia and several University of Maryland students wearing "HIRE OLLMAN" t-shirts. An Austrian TV crew recorded the event for posterity.
In Boston, the Real Paper arranged a celebrity match of Class Struggle between three media personalities, the GOP candidate for governor of Massachusetts, the Democratic secretary of state for education, and Mortimer Zuckerman, one of Boston's leading capitalists, who has since become publisher of Atlantic magazine. Played in the office of David Rockefeller, Jr. publisher of the Real Paper, the game took on eerie overtones when Zuckerman, who played the Capitalists, tried his best to blow up the world just as he was about to lose. "Of course, capitalists would rather be dead than give up their wealth," Zuckerman said with the air of someone who knew what he was talking about.
A lot of products are also sold through testimonials by famous people. Why not Class Struggle? Amy Carter was one possibility. I sent a game to Zbigniew Brzezynski, whom I knew from a year spent at Columbia University, suggesting that he give it to Amy. My hope was that some reporter would find her playing with it, and she would tell him how much she was learning about what her daddy really does. We also sent games to Jane Fonda, Woody Allen, Bill Walton, Bill Lee, and Herbert Marcuse, all progressive celebrities. A blurb from any of them might have had a big impact on our sales. Marcuse was the only one who replied. He said it was a very good idea to promote socialism in this way, but felt that for him to say so publicly was "unbecoming." As someone who has the greatest admiration for Marcuse's work and life, a life that gloried in unbecoming causes, I was deeply disappointed by his reticence. Here I was sticking my neck out professionally and financially, as well as politically, and I felt that comrades who liked what I was doing owed me more than backroom support. Why such reticence?
I also tried to get a favorable blurb on the game from Sid Sackson, who is a kind of Babe Ruth of the games world. Sid is the creator of Acquire and about 40 other games. Anyone who knows games knows Sid, at least by reputation. If he liked it, really liked it, news of it would get out to games people everywhere. My opportunity came when Sid, whom I had talked to a few times on the phone, invited me to inspect the vast collection of vintage board games he kept in his home. "And yes, there will be time to play Class Struggle."
Grasping the importance of the occasion, Paule agreed to come along. She was also curious to meet someone whom her husband kept referring to as a "a giant in the industry." Well giants today come in all sizes. Sid is a shortish, retiring man in his mid-50s who lives in a modest frame house in a suburban corner of the Bronx. After giving us a tour of board-game heaven Sid, his wife, Paule, and Ilike middle-aged couples all over Americasat down to play Class Struggle.
Sid examined the pieces of the game with the same meticulousness and serious concentration that a vulture shows before it prey. He was an expert on gaming mechanisms, but what did he think about political proofs or capitalism? It was a tense moment. I reacted by talking too long about the simple rules, never arriving at the complex ones, and Paule by laughing wildly at every Chance Card. Paule is the most honest person I know, but that evening she acted her heart out. The necessities of business had claimed still another victim. To no avail. Even the dice balked at setting up interesting confrontations. Occasionally, Sid would ask a question, or his wife would smile weakly. But for the most part, they sat impassively through the ordeal. When it was all over, Sid confessed that he really preferred mathematical games. "I don't much like role-playing games." Neither do Paule or I, especially when they carried over into real life. To this day, we cannot think of that evening without wincing in pain, not so much for the opportunity lost as for what it cost in personal integrity.
As a Marxist, I did not need to be instructed that truth is one of the first casualties of doing businessthat honesty is the best policy only when it pays, which is not that often. But I was still surprised to feel myself the immense pressures that drive businesspeople to lie. In the case of Class Struggle, Inc., we had the momentum, and it was important to go with it, to see how far it would carry us, and not be deterredor allow potential customers to be deterredby the few roadblocks that had been thrown across our path. So we took on the air of an unqualified success. The game, we claimed, was selling great all over the country (conveniently dismissing the thin strip of America between New York and Los Angles); the media, we usually said, were unanimous in their praise of the game (store buyers had to be convinced that the game was respectable); and we denied that the stores that sold Class Struggle had received any complaints (even the few we heard about would be enough to scare off many timid buyers). Businesses generally don't complain, because it is bad for business. Success sells. Failure and belly-aching generate sympathy cards.
As business falsehoods go, Class Struggle, Inc., got back much bigger than we gave, the most frequent lies being"I'll send you an order next week," "We'll call you back," "The boss stepped out for a moment," "We never received your bill," and of course, the corker, "The check is in the mail" (which mixes lying with stealing). One of the most puzzling paradoxes of our times is how businesspeople, for whom lying is standard operating procedure manage to retain the respect of a society based on a Judeo-Christian morality that condemns all lying as sinful. Would a society of vegetarians respect a ruling elite who practiced cannibalism? Only if the meat-eating rulers succeeded in mislabeling their actions as effectively as have our capitalists, who have gotten most of the public to view lying in business as "bluffing," "exaggeration," "sharp practice," "excerpting," "selective remembering," "neglecting to mention," and just plain "advertising," not forgetting "public relations" (where lying becomes a tax-deductible expense).
Capitalists have to condemn lying in general in order to get away with doing it in their particular sphere. Among themselves, however, capitalists and their spokespersons can be refreshingly honest about their dishonesty. At the Harvard Business School, for example, Professor Howard Raiffa teaches a course called "Competitive Decision Making" where students get credit for lying effectively. Most buying and selling involve negotiation, a give and take of one kind another, and those who lie better do better.
While my own experience in business confirmed me in these views, I also found myself developingmuch to my surpriseconsiderable sympathy for capitalists as human beings. For only the least sensitive of them/us can be comfortable with the knowledge that they are moral pariahs. Witness the increasing number of businesspeople who have joined Bible classes as a way of easing their bad consciences. When individual solutions to the problem of business immorality are as simple as choosing to go bust, the great majority will make the necessary compromises and bear the moral and emotional consequences.
For all the cushy extras they obtain just by being in business, in the last analysis, capitalists, too, are victims of the system that carries their name. Caught up in the short-term chase after profits, this is not something most businesspeople can see, let alone admit. I began to feel sorry for them, but in the same way that I feel sorry for the Hulk or Frankenstein. It's not really their fault, butI had to force myself to remembertheir pain doesn't make them any less dangerous to the rest of us.
My growing sympathy for capitalists as human beings was also a byproduct of my unsuccessful efforts to find money to pay Finn. Is this what the ancient Phoenician merchants, and my grandfather, who owned a corner grocery in Milwaukee, and all the small businesspeople I met at trade shows felt when they couldn't pay their bills? Recognizing our increasingly desperate situation, Nat Levine took me to see a factor with whom he had once done some business. Factors are legal Shylocks, hucksters operating halfway between banks and Mafia loan sharks, who lend businesses money and take their receivables as collateral. For small businesspeople who are owed a lot of money and who need a quick cash fix, it offers a short-term solutionat 24 percent interest (now close to 30 percent). Many factoring companies are owned by banks, who in this way circumvent the legal ceiling on interest rates allowed to banks. If we were lucky, Class Struggle, Inc., would now have the chance to joining many other small businesses "working for the factor."
The factor spent a day at the Class Struggle office reviewing our receivables to determine what kind of accounts they were, how long they owed us money, their credit ratings, and so on. His conclusion: There were too many small, oddball accounts"What kind of business is Revolution Now Bookstore?"and too many who owed us money for over three months. He would have to think it over. But if even the factor turned us down, what was left?
The Mafia was left. Loan sharking abounds in New York City, and I knew people who knew people who... Of course, the rate of interest goes through the ceiling and if you don't pay on time they break your legs. It would be easier all around, I thought, if they simple took my business. The idea of the Mafia owning Class Struggle, Inc., tickled my fancy. They already run a lot of businesses on the other side of the class struggle, so why not a socialist business? They could then go around to stores that had refused to order Class Struggle making them an offer they couldn't refuse. Is the mob too patriotic to sell a socialist game? Al Capone said he ran all his rackets "along American lines." Still, the lure of a fast buck might get even the Mafia to sacrifice some of their high ideals.
I mentioned the Mafia as a possible source of money at one of our board meetings. Milt and Ed smiled at my black humor. No one seemed to take the suggestion seriously. Maybe I didn't either. Or maybe I was testing their reaction to see how far I should go. All I knew was that the walls of our commercial empire had already fallen on three sides and that the fourth wall was starting to sway. My waking life had become a beggar's nightmare, more persistently painful than any of my colleagues on the Class Struggle board knew. And my sleeping life was interrupted by a constant flow of scheming. The nights left me as exhausted as a hard day's work. I had already thumbed my way through my address book, calling friends I hadn't seen in years with "the offer of a lifetime." Refusals were never as funny. Whatever humor there may have been in our situation had given way to a bitter aftertaste. The zest and conviction and fun had dissolved into sulfuric anxiety.