The Constrictions of Capitalism;
A Review of Bertell Ollman’s BallBuster?
In his Narrative of
the Life of Frederick Douglass, the former slave recalls the
effects the “peculiar institution” of slavery had not only on enslaved
beings but also upon their masters. When Douglass is sold to a new
Long before Amilcar
Cabral explored the notion of “class suicide,” Marx
and Engels wrote about “the decisive hour”
small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the
revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”
the other hand, are we to call the seemingly timeless phenomenon of the
proletariat inculcating bourgeois values and aspiring to join this
class? In the
In 1978, Ollman
started a business that produced and marketed the
world’s first (only?) explicitly socialist game, Class Struggle.
when he first wrote Ballbuster?
its then title, Class Struggle is the Name of the Game; this
reviews Soft Skull Press’ 2002 re-release of the book), Ollman
and his backers at Class Struggle, Inc. having sold 230,000
parted ways with their creation but still shouldered $15,000 in debt.
this possible? From Marxist professor at
Yet it is. Ollman knew what he was getting into from the beginning. Just as Faust — Ollman’s own comparison — thought he could benefit from his pact with Mephistopheles and weasel his way out of his end of the deal, Ollman firmly believed “there was no chance that I would really lose myself in my new capitalist role, for, as a Marxist, I knew all about the effect of function on character. No, I might have to go along with what the part required, but I could extract myself from it at any moment.” Easier said than done. Over time, stressed out from his wheeling and dealing with manufacturers and distributors, facing constant personal bankruptcy if that next bank loan didn’t come through or if his distributors — including many radical bookstores — didn’t ante up and pay for the books they’d purchased, Ollman started to change. There were the common side effects of stress: teeth grinding, worrying and depression, stomach cramps, weight gain. But Ollman, as a Marxist, was in a unique position to illuminate the cost capitalism takes on the human psyche.
Two examples stand out. Ollman finds that no holds are barred in business. When one of their game manufacturers threatens to sue for money owed, Class Struggle Inc. finds an escape when it turns out that the latest batch of manufactured games did not meet the specifications of the stated contract. In this way Ollman is able to turn the tables on the manufacturer, Finn. What had started out as an amiable business arrangement soon gave way to the naked cash-nexus lurking beneath all transactions in the commodified sphere of capitalist relations:
On leaving his office, something in me rebelled against the strictures of my new role. Finn wasn’t a bad sort. We had shared some hopes and laughs together about his business as well as mine…. Wasn’t I just being a good businessman? … Finn, too, was just trying to be a good businessman. I mustn’t let any human feelings interfere with what business required. Unless those human feelings clear the way for more and better business…
When a handful of
employees at a Brentano’s bookstore on
Bertell Ollman represents all that is good in the Marxist tradition. Eschewing ossified dogma, Ollman embraces a Marxist humanism dedicated to a democratic communism aiming at a better life for all people. Throughout the book Ollman finds himself “developing … considerable sympathy for capitalists as human beings.” Capitalism, which is based on the private means of production, is necessarily immoral: some will own and exploit in order to survive, others will have no choice but to work and be exploited. Ollman, in his dealings with Finn, the Brentano strikers and his own workers, finds himself torn between his socialist ideals and the reality of capitalism. He “blushed at having … capitalist thoughts, but they came with the situation…. As a businessman, I didn’t so much originate these thoughts, as receive them and pass them along.” Inevitably, Ollman found himself “being drawn in and becoming part of the mechanism that I was trying to expose and explode.” Like slavery’s effect on Frederick Douglass’ mistress, capitalism worms its way into the core of humanity, warping the individual and rewarding anti-humanist impulses. As much as Mrs. Hughes was a victim of the slavery system, Ollman comes to realize that “capitalists, too, are victims of the system that carries their name.”
chronicles the academic freedom battle (replete with
lawsuits) Ollman was embroiled in with the
BallBuster? is an entertaining, fast and illuminating read. Ollman has a wonderful sense of humor that is apparent on nearly every page. The Class Struggle game itself, which, although no longer produced by Ollman can still be found here and there on Ebay or at radical bookstores, is lots of fun and a great way to introduce students and workers to Marxism, socialism, and the better tomorrow that guides us.