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Marx in Soho: A Play on History Paperback – April 1, 1999


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The conceit of this one-man play by historian Howard Zinn is that Karl Marx has been brought back to life--but, through a bureaucratic mix-up, winds up not in the Soho district of London where he lived and worked in the 19th century, but the modern-day SoHo district of New York City. Mostly, Marx takes the opportunity to point out to the audience how the predictions of his economic theory have come to pass: "Did I not say, a hundred and fifty years ago, that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society, but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?" But Zinn also sheds some light on the relationships between Marx and his wife, Jenny, and daughter, Eleanor. Slim and curious, but with an entertaining touch.

From Publishers Weekly

Taking his inspiration from Karl Marx's stay in London's Soho district after his exile from the Continent, Zinn's (A People's History of the United States) one-man play reads like a first-person memoir narrated by a distinctive voice. Laid out on the page as seamless monologue, it envisions Marx in the Soho district of New York in the present, where his mind reels at the same capitalist injustices that boggled him 150 years ago. The wizened and ailing Marx discourses on the economic state of the modern-day U.S., heatedly decrying the vast disparity between rich and poor and the corrupt, systematic funneling of the wealth that workers earn into the hands of capitalists. Through cascading recollections, we learn of Marx's devoted marriage, his love for his children and his stormy debates with Mikhail Bakunin, a fellow radical whose concept of a revolution of the spleen rather than the intellect makes Marx seem cold by comparison. These nuggets of personal information yield warmth and mettle where the dialectical prose gets heavy-handed. Often, the doctrines espoused threaten to overwhelm Zinn's expressed mission to expose Marx's human side. Zinn is, after all, reissuing Marx's socialist critique to apply to modern America and, along the way, revising Marxist doctrine by imagining the theorist himself rethinking some of his more off-the-mark notions. Most often it is Marx's critical wife, Jenny, and brilliant daughter Eleanor who take him to task when he fumbles. With Zinn's hefty prologue and scholarly but pointed reading list, the text is a cleverly imagined call to reconsider socialist theory as a valid philosophy in these times. Zinn's point is well made; his passion for history melds with his political vigor to make this a memorable effort and a lucid primer for readers desiring a succinct, dramatized review of Marxism. (Mar.) FYI: Actor Matt Damon is coproducing a TV adaptation of A People's History. Zinn recently won a Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 88 pages
  • Publisher: South End Press; annotated edition edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0896085937
  • ISBN-13: 978-0896085930
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.3 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #703,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was a historian, playwright, and activist. He wrote the classic A People's History of the United States, "a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those ... whose plight has been largely omitted from most histories" (Library Journal). The book, which has sold more than two million copies, has been featured on The Sopranos and Simpsons, and in the film Good Will Hunting. In 2009, History aired The People Speak, an acclaimed documentary co-directed by Zinn, based on A People's History and a companion volume, Voices of a People's History of the United States.

Zinn grew up in Brooklyn in a working-class, immigrant household. At 18 he became a shipyard worker and then flew bomber missions during World War II. These experiences helped shape his opposition to war and passion for history. After attending college under the GI Bill and earning a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, he taught at Spelman, where he became active in the civil rights movement. After being fired by Spelman for his support for student protesters, Zinn became a professor of Political Science at Boston University, were he taught until his retirement in 1988.

Zinn was the author of many books, including an autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the play Marx in Soho, and Passionate Declarations. He received the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Nonfiction and the Eugene V. Debs award for his writing and political activism.

Photographer Photo Credit Name: Robert Birnbaum.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By SG on November 22, 1999
Format: Paperback
I attended the first performance of "Marx in Soho" and was thrilled to find it brilliant, funny, and dead-on politically. Zinn gives Marx an opportunity to defend himself against modern-day critics who claim that his theories led to the atrocities of state capitalist regimes. Those familiar with Marx will be particularly entertained; those new to socialist ideas may find themselves moved to action. Catch the next performance - Dec. 9-11, Chopin Theater, Chicago.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rania Masri on May 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
AH! In typical Zinn fashion, "Marx in Soho" is a joy to read, especially for those of us who are already familiar with Marx. I would not recommend this book as "the first book on Marx" - but rather as a definite book to be included in any collection on Marx or on socialism, and, especially, in any collection of Zinn's brilliant and empowering works.
The one-man play is also a true pleasure to watch!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on July 20, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the bankruptcy of communism and the superiority of capitalism have become received pieces of wisdom. Who could possibly be more irrelevant, more yesterday's news, than Karl Marx?

One of the great virtues of Howard Zinn's play "Marx in Soho" is that he pays that question the compliment of taking it seriously. He recognizes that there's a time and a place for serious discussion of a thinker's value, but that you have to get folks actually interested before that can take place. "Marx in Soho" is an attempt to do just that by (1) trying to show Marx the man beneath Marx the myth by exploring relations between him and his wife and children, and (2) trying to show that Marx's analyses of capitalism in fact are still incredibly--frighteningly--relevant. The future shock, hypergrowth of technology, globalization, international free trade agreements, the consumer society, the increasing disparity between haves and have-nots, both within first world nations and between first and third world nations: it was all predicted in the Manifesto and Das Kapital.

Zinn displays real skill in writing the soliloquy that his character Marx gives. Wit, humor, pathos, and nondidactic social analysis are woven together into a seamless and riveting presentation. And it all carries typical Zinnian (is that a word?) characteristics: it's nondogmatic, well-informed, inspirational. At the end of the play, Zinn has Marx say two things worth taking to the bank (no capitalist pun intended). The first (p. 47) is this: "Let's not speak anymore about capitalism, socialism. Let's just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings...Don't ask who deserves it. Every human deserves it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By drosenga@emerald.tufts.edu on August 25, 1999
Format: Paperback
In his grand tradition of delivering a distinctive approach to the consideration of historical eras and personalities, Zinn has once more provided a marvelously innovative interpretation of a figure few would otherwise consider comical. In this play, Zinn portrayed a fairly disgruntled Marx and gave the character a sharp wit that allowed the reader to become comfortable with the figure, impressed by his perceptive sense of reality and thoroughly engaged by his musings regarding the way in which his century-and-a-half old design managed to maifest itself in modern American society. Anyone that enjoyed this or any other of Zinn's works may especially appreciate The Future of History, in which he candidly discussed his perspectives on various issues ranging from the Death Penalty to Noam Chomsky along with some consideration of a few of his other works. Both are great books, as one might expect from this author.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By stephen Ornelas on May 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
ZInn is an extrordinary researcher/writer. One cannot merely breeze thru his work, along the way past the prologue, he/she gets absorbed - becomes part of the history.
in marx in soho - zinn takes a somewhat fictional attempt at bringing out Marx in a contemporary society. The monologue is short enough to breeze thru on an hour bus ride - that's how i read it.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By UofM on November 29, 1999
Format: Paperback
Zinn does a terriffic job of capturing the true essence of what Marx is all about. He tells the story of Marx's life and thoughts without boring you. He even makes it seem fun with his always present sense of humor. A must for any lefties out there.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful By C. Burkhalter on September 18, 2002
Format: Paperback
In the introduction to "Marx in Soho," Howard Zinn says that he "wrote the play at a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an almost universal exultation in the mainstream press and among political leaders: not only was Marxism gone, but the ideas of Marxism were discredited." So Zinn wrote this play in which he sets out to show that "Marx's critique of capitalism remains fundamentally true in our time." In order to do this, Zinn invents a scenario in which Karl Marx is inexplicably returned to the land of the living (and to contemporary New York, no less) to defend his theories, reflect on his life, tell a few stories, and occasionally just talk. If this sounds like a weird way to defend Marxism, it is. But it does allow a passionate and excited (though fictional) Marx to talk to us directly in a more conversational and less academic or inflammatory manner. And while Zinn was bending the rules of time and history, he decided he'd go ahead and submit Marx's idea to an anarchist critique as well, and wrote in an account of a fictional night of drinking with Bakunin. This allows for what Zinn calls "a dialectic of opposing viewpoints," but interestingly so in a one-man play. The play humanizes Marx a little by spending time on Marx's family relationships.
Stylistically speaking, this play clearly has its weaknesses. A lack of interaction (there's only one character!) makes the dialogue the only show in town, so to speak, and thus puts a lot of weight on not-too-strong shoulders (Zinn's dialogue writing didn't wow me). And there are some really awkward stabs at humor. Those things said, I only read the play, and maybe I'd be surprised at how well this comes off in the hands of the right director.
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