Spring 2012

Class Struggle, Inc.: An Interview with Bertell Ollman

The rise and fall of a Marxist board game

Bertell Ollman and Sina Najafi

In 1978, Bertell Ollman, a professor of politics at New York University, decided to form a small company to produce and sell Class Struggle, the only socialist game ever mass-produced in the US. Class Struggle was received with tremendous fanfare by the press, both conservative and radical; almost 100,000 copies of the game were sold in the US alone, and Italian, German, French, and Spanish editions of the game quickly followed. Despite the healthy sales figures, the company struggled to make ends meet, and after a few years, the game was sold to Avalon Hill, which continued to produce it until 1993. Class Struggle, Inc.—which Ollman had set up with several friends—was dissolved in 1983.

Author of numerous books on Marxism, Ollman has also written Ballbuster?: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman, which provides an account of his time running a company whose sole product sold almost quarter a million copies worldwide but managed to lose $15,000. Sina Najafi met with Ollman to talk to him about the game and its history.

Cabinet: Your game was released in 1978, but I know you had been thinking about it for years before that. Can you talk a little about your own formation, and how you came to think about inventing a game like this?

Bertell Ollman: Ever since I became a socialist—which happened in my undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s—I have been interested in two things. One was trying to understand more about how society really works and how it could be changed in a way that, as a socialist, I thought would be better. But I was also always looking for ways to help others understand what I was coming to understand. Teaching and pedagogy were important to me and how I lived my life, and I thought of Class Struggle as a way to teach my views to people who don’t want to sit in my lectures but don’t mind playing games.

The German, Italian, and American editions of Class Struggle.

Were you a fan of board games?

I certainly played board games and my share of Monopoly, but I played sports more. When I came to New York in 1967, one of my good friends was Sol Yurick, the novelist. Sol and I spent time talking about what kinds of games were out there, and what kinds of lessons people, particularly younger people, learn from these games. I didn’t know yet how few games became successful compared to the number that appear on the market. But the ones we knew anything about were all business-oriented games, Monopoly being the best known though by no means the worst in terms of the lessons being taught. At least Monopoly never openly extolled the negative human qualities that it fostered. It was around that time, however, that a game called Lie, Cheat, and Steal came out. That was actually the name of a game! And there was a game called Counterstrike that boasted on its cover that “it brings out the worst instincts in you, from avarice to downright treachery.”

It seemed like businesses were simply supplying what could sell on the market, but was the market really that lopsided in terms of what it was calling for? I came to doubt that, especially when I learned about the history of games, because business-oriented board games were not at the center of the industry until some time after World War II. Board games are very old—they first made their appearance in ancient Sumer over 4,000 years ago—but by the late eighteenth century, a host of new board games became available that were unabashedly didactic. The games taught history, math, and so on, and, quite soon, also moral behavior. America’s entry into the board-game derby came toward the middle of the nineteenth century with Mansions of Happiness, where you try to land on squares called “Justice” and “Piety,” and avoid squares called “Immodesty,” “Cruelty,” “Ingratitude,” etc. And there were other games like this, like the Game of Christian Endeavor, where players are rewarded for niceties like “Taking flowers to the sick” and “Stopping man from beating horse.” It wasn’t until the Depression, and especially with the appearance of Monopoly, that business values began to replace Christian values as the core message of the industry.

As socialists, Sol and I were interested in finding the socialist alternatives. There just had to be games that used the inequalities of our society to criticize greed rather than exacerbate it. There were socialist books; there must be socialist games! I found one game that was mildly critical of the status quo and that was Anti-Monopoly from 1973. In this game, true to the world we live in, monopolies exist at the start, and—less true or possible, I’m afraid—players representing antitrust attorneys move around the board and break them up. It is a liberal game, focusing on the size of power concentrations rather than on the question of who holds power.

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