X Marx The Spot; Or, How I Won Class Struggle But Still Had To Be At Work On Monday
Every so often your favorite archivists need respite from preserving the historical record. To break out of the summer doldrums we gathered together to play a board game, and because this is Tamiment Library we played…Monopoly. Just kidding. We played Class Struggle, an artifact from our collections that has long fascinated many staff members and student workers. While we did not remake the fabric of society or solve the inherent tension that arises from competing socioeconomic interests between people of different classes, we did have quite an entertaining afternoon. On to the game!
Class Struggle is a roll-and-move board game from 1978 created by Bertell Ollman, an NYU Professor of Politics. Tamiment holds three copies of the game, one from the newly arrived David Silver Papers (TAM 621) and two in our artifact collections. Players advance around the board with the ultimate object of the game being winning the revolution. Not surprisingly, you do not buy property in this game. Individual players or teams represent the different social classes, making and breaking alliances along the way and accumulating currency (of sorts) to determine the outcome of class confrontations, such as strikes and elections. Special cards analogous to Monopoly’s Chance and Community Chest cards provide additional opportunities for players to make alliances, advance around the game board, receive additional turns, or accumulate the game’s form of currency. One such card directed toward the Capitalists and any class they may be affiliated with states, “Paperback edition of Marx/Engels Collected Writings (100 volumes) sweeps the country. Your days are numbered – 2 debits.” Because we had so many players – such is the popularity of coming into work on a Saturday – both of the major classes (Workers and Capitalists) and all of the minor classes (Farmers, Professionals, Shopkeepers, and Students) were represented. The rules of the game stipulate that only the workers or capitalists can win the game; the minor classes participate by forming alliances with the other classes. The matter of alliances revealed who amongst us was fickle and opportunistic, loyal and steadfast, or, in the case of this writer’s team, who showed poor judgment as to which way the game’s momentum was turning.
The game’s Byzantine rules favor educational impact over entertainment for its own sake. In fact, the rules booklet even features a list of recommended readings, something you don’t often find in other board games. To say that we were not entertained, however, would be patently untrue. The way Ollman translates Marxism into the standard language one expects to find in traditional board games is delightfully clever. For example, instead of choosing the game piece you like best, the class you end up representing is determined by a roll of the dice, reflecting the randomness with which individuals are born into families from different socioeconomic classes. Such twists on convention make the game an especially effective educational tool by introducing or explaining the basic concepts of Marxism in a new way. The full instructions also include suggestions for incorporating the game into classroom use, emphasizing building in time for questions and discussion both during and after the game. While playing, we found that taking on the mantle of our particular classes made the prospect of forming or dissolving alliances much more engaging than if we had remained detached. When the students were faced with a late in the game choice to ally with either the workers or the capitalists, both major classes made their cases. The workers stated that many of the students would eventually join the proletariat, while the capitalists reminded the students of their looming loan repayment interest rates. The rules, design, and game operations all actively present capitalism at its most negative and the working classes at their most noble; however, players of any political and economic ideology will find much to engage with while playing.
When we played, we managed to avoid nuclear war and the workers triumphed over the capitalists in a successful proletarian revolution. I can’t wait until the next game night when we play Hungry Hungry Historical Materialism.*
*Not a real game.