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Was Groucho a Marxist?

By Johnny Reb

Groucho Marxism

As they were by Bill Murray in The Cradle Will Rock, Marxists are often depicted as overly serious and morose. It’s not that they don’t enjoy a good joke, especially if it’s at the expense of conservatives. Even Karl Marx himself tried to write comedy in his efforts to produce a novel. But I suppose humor can be a challenge to someone who is seriously concerned about and committed to social justice and equality of opportunity for all. This must be particularly true of anyone living in the United States or Canada where we have now reached the state of wealth disparity where it’s been estimated that somewhere between 1- 5% of the population now control 95% of the wealth and where 20 workers are murdered and 18,000 assaulted each week at their jobs. If you know anything about the history of labor, workers have not only been the real producers of wealth (primarily for their bosses), but have been the risk takers as well. Ask any coal miner or faller. Like Apu, the East Indian convenience store owner in The Simpsons who informs Homer (who is seeking employment), “I won’t lie to you. On this job you will be shot at.”

When people ask me about my political sentiments I rarely admit to them that I now consider myself an Anarchist, a position I didn’t arrive at easily. That’s because there has been so much misinformation and outright lies about Anarchism disseminated by the ruling conservative establishment, it would take hours to even begin to explain what it entails. Most people, when I admit to this, probably think I’m about to throw a bomb or assassinate someone. That’s the standard glib response when anarchism is mentioned to someone who has not ventured beyond the facile narrow bias of cultural indoctrination and who has not read any of the great anarchist philosophers. Please visit the section on Anarchism on my web site at www.skeptic.ca if you are interested in understanding what it’s really all about.

All anarchists endorse the adage that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and are skeptical of all power and hierarchical systems including Church, State, Corporations, the Military and your boss at work. To anarchists all power sources require legitimacy and coercion can only be justified if someone does harm to others or infringes on their freedom.

“No Gods, No Masters”, attributed to the great American anarchist Emma Goldman, is one of their favorite slogans.

Instead of admitting my sympathies toward what I call philosophical anarchism, I often tell people I’m a Marxist-Leninist, following the life stances of Groucho Marx and John Lennon. It’s the sort of response the Great Groucho, who died in 1977 and who was very likely an Anarcho-Socialist, might have said if he were still alive today; although despite the fact he was an avid reader, it’s unlikely that he read Karl Marx or any anarchist philosophers such as Michel Bakunin. However, when in public Groucho persistently sported his trademark beret, which by the way was also a trademark of many of Barcelona anarchists who fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. 

Groucho was a fan of both James Thurber and the vitriolic social critic H. L. Mencken who clearly influenced his views and opened up his mind, allowing him to venture beyond the hermetically sealed box of cultural norms and biases. In the period of 1920-1940 H. L. Mencken wrote brilliantly with sarcastic wit, all the things that were wrong with American politics and society. In his prolific writings he attacked the profligate greed of the collusion and corruption of Wall Street and Washington that led to the 1929 crash, referring to the ruling conservative plutocracy and wealthy investor class as the “boobocracy”. He wrote that the ruling elites and phony politicians that were so revered in the country were pathological liars whereas those they despised the most were the people who, like Mencken himself, dared to tell the truth. Not much has changed has it? Where are the people like Mencken today who can gain any foothold and platform in our monopolistic corporate controlled conservative media?

The Depression and lingering memories of needless waste and carnage of World War I, a war so horrific it was called “the war to end all wars”, and growing skepticism of capitalism and its failure to provide any semblance of social justice made cultural satire of elites and war mongers, pacifism and leftist views very popular at the time. The anti-war comedy Duck Soup (1933) is arguably the best Marx Brothers movie and early drafts of it that were left out for political reasons were far more scathingly critical than what was eventually released to the public.

Groucho Marx was born into a working class German immigrant family, experiencing poverty and depravation first-hand and the glaring inequities that existed within the rigid class system in America. In an interview Groucho talked about the casino atmosphere of self-indulgence and voracity in the 1920’s that brought down the global economy, not unlike what we are experiencing right now. Here he refers to the Florida real estate speculative bubble, all too prophetic of recent events:

“That was a real crazy time in America. People got suckered into buying lots on land that was only fit for alligators. This was before the Wall Street Crash and everybody believed in something for nothing. I had some good lines in that, if I can remember. "Do you know that property values have increased 1924 since 1,000 percent?" "Do you know that this is the greatest development since Sophie Tucker?" ... and so on. But who remembers Sophie Tucker nowadays. She was a great lady, but they tore her down and built a department store where she stood. That was a joke we used on Maggie Dumont. She was in that show, every night, taking our gags. I don't know how she survived.”

Despite his ironic and at times cavalier comedy, Groucho always held strong political views, supporting left-wing causes during the 1930s. They were the Depression years, the years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), harsh economic conditions and the rapid growth of labor, left wing, socialist and communist causes coterminous with the growth of extreme right wing fascism in Spain, Germany and Italy that were all too common in the United States as well, especially among right wing politicians and the business community who feared the growth of working class movements and the new Deal of FDR. Oddly, despite the fact that the FBI held a huge dossier on Groucho Marx, he somehow escaped the hysterical paranoia and clutches of the “red witch hunts” of McCarthyism. He was never called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as were so many of his contemporaries in Hollywood and throughout the American artistic community. Even if you supported labor unions, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War against fascism or were suspected of belonging to leftist causes like Pete Seeger, Dalton Trumbo and so many others, you were often called to testify and if you refused were often incarcerated and subsequently blacklisted, thereafter unable to secure employment. Ronald Reagan was one of the obsequious reactionary flag waving rat finks who testified before HUAC, fingering many of his friends and colleagues as “Anti-American” (i.e, left wing). The oppression of the McCarthyism era was not a unique phenomenon in the ultra-conservative deeply religious United States. It was a period not unlike the Red Scares of the early 1920s, another period of American jingoism and subsequent state suspension of basic civil liberties and intrusions into the private lives of citizens that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, a time when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in reaction to it. During this period the KKK experienced a huge increase in its membership, including many prominent politicians in conjunction with a growing fear by Big Business, conservative oligarchies and wealthy elites that these working class movements might spread to Western capitalist countries. Groucho brilliantly and cynically summed up our culture of hypocrisy, greed, narcissism, hyper-competitiveness and individualism in his famous quip “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

But for Groucho there were no sacred cows (In fact it may have been Groucho who said “sacred cows make the best hamburger”) and his primary targets were the pretensions of the well-to-do, royalty, the military, Religion, Big Business, social climbers and politicians and other bastions of power and privilege.

As the above quotation reveals, Groucho Marx was an extraordinary master of irony, word play and paradox.

Some classic Groucho Quotes:

I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

A man's only as old as the woman he feels.

Women should be obscene and not heard.

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.

I never forget a face, but with yours I’ll make an exception.

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.

I read in the newspapers they are going to have 30 minutes of intellectual stuff on television every Monday from 7:30 to 8. to educate America. They couldn't educate America if they started at 6:30.

Either he's dead or my watch has stopped.

I intend to live forever, or die trying.

No man goes before his time - unless the boss leaves early.

There's one way to find out if a man is honest - ask him. If he says, "Yes," you know he is a crook.

Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.

Getting older is no problem. You just have to live long enough.

Before I speak, I have something important to say.

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife.

I didn't like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions - the curtain was up.

I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.

I wish to be cremated. One tenth of my ashes shall be given to my agent, as written in our contract.

I'm not feeling very well - I need a doctor immediately. Ring the nearest golf course.

If I held you any closer I would be on the other side of you.

If you've heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again.

In Hollywood, brides keep the bouquets and throw away the groom.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

Room service? Send up a larger room.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

Why should I care about posterity? What's posterity ever done for me?

Why, I'd horse-whip you if I had a horse.


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