You can tell when you’ve encountered something rare. It feels dangerously impermanent. It’s as though it is about to crumble and slip through your fingers. It may well be lost at any instance. It’s fair to say the first Marxist board game, Class Struggle, falls into this category. Its box features a picture of two men arm wrestling. One of them is Karl Marx; the other is Nelson Rockefeller. Naturally Marx is winning against the liberal Republican.
Not long ago, I sat down with some leftie friends to see where the roll of the dice would lead us. It was my first time playing Class Struggle. The game itself was created by Bertell Ollman, one of America’s embattled socialists, in characteristic good humour. Class Struggle offers Marxism in one board game. The players are not individuals in competition, but classes pursuing opposing ends. There are both major and minor classes to choose from. The most decisive classes being the capitalists and the workers. The two contending classes can forge alliances with the lesser groups: students and professionals, small businessmen and farmers.
In my first game, I actually won – not a common occurrence – as the capitalist class having secured alliances with the professionals, small businessmen and farmers. The workers and the students could muster little resistance against this bulwark. So the revolutionary tide was rolled back and, on the upside, the prospect of nuclear war was avoided. It turned out the dice were rigged. Still capitalism would live on, perhaps to die under the weight of its own contradictions. It could have been a lot worse. But it was not a proud moment for an unabashed Marxist.
In many respects the chance card was the highlight of the game. This is where Professor Ollman’s humour was on full display. One set of cards for each decisive class. If you’re the capitalist class you might be told your daughter has fallen in love with the gardener. But if you’re the workers you might make the mistake of trusting Senator Kennewater. God forbid. Clearly the man, who once officiated at progressive humour conferences, had put a lot into this game. But it was not the first left-wing board game.
It’s not common knowledge that Monopoly was originally a leftist game. When it was first made it was called the Landlord Game. It was created by Lizzy Magie, a left feminist, who wanted to convey the inexorable logic of the property system. At the start everyone begins with the same chances, only the order of the dice roll divides them, but just one will emerge with the most money. The game put equality of opportunity in the firing line. And the same logic remains in the seemingly pro-capitalist version.
Although, Class Struggle would not ascend to the heights of Monopoly the Ollman game would be available in stores for 16 years. Not that the game ever churned out profits. Actually it left Professor Ollman shackled by debt. The stress exacted its own price on Ollman. His teeth endured lasting damage by nocturnal grinding. This was not down to a lack of business savvy. The retailers were hoarding profits from the producers. It sold around 230,000 editions. Some people made money from the game, but not the people behind it.
So the game became widely available even as it became unprofitable. It would be translated into German, Italian, French and Spanish. In its own way Class Struggle represents a time where class was a mainstream issue, albeit often simplified, unacknowledged and submerged. It was produced back in 1978. At this time the American Left was only just entering the period of defeat it has now endured for four decades. In the end, due to the financial burden, Bertell Ollman had to sell the game.
Unsurprisingly, Class Struggle was discontinued in 1994. The Soviet Union was dead and liberal capitalism had entered its most triumphalist phase. The gloves were off. Fukuyama announced the end of history. A world without existing alternatives to capitalism had no need for the game. Not only would people continue to play Monopoly. It would now be available in a plethora of versions. Everything from the Star Wars saga to the Simpsons has a version of Monopoly to go with it. But the real game isn’t over yet.