Marx and Gandhi in the Spooky Forest
by Benjamin Studebaker
Once upon a time, Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi were driving a car through a spooky forest. It was spooky, in the sense that it was dark and mysterious and full of who knows what. Marx was behind the wheel, and Gandhi was in the passenger’s seat. Gandhi was looking nervous.
“I don’t like this forest,” he said. “I think we should go back.”
“Nonsense!” replied Marx. “We must go through the forest. It is the only way to come out the other side.”
Gandhi was unconvinced. “There is no other side. We are going to get lost in here. We might be lost already. Please, turn this infernal machine around, while we still can.”
“I am taking us to a beautiful place and you are terrified of pretend men in the dark,” Marx huffed.
“I am fearless of men, I fear only god. There is no god in these woods.”
“Religion is the opiate of the people.”
“I will fast until we turn around.”
Their bickering was interrupted by the sight of a spooky bridge. It was spooky, in the sense that it looked like it had been there for ages, and there was so much fog on the bridge that it was impossible to see where–or if–it ends. Yet despite its age it was clearly made out of nothing but concrete, and unadorned. There was a small gate in front of it. Nothing substantial, just a plastic bar, the kind you might see in a parking garage. Marx pulled to a halt and rolled down his window.
“Is anyone there? We need to cross this bridge.”
From beneath the bridge there crept a dishevelled, misshapen troll, covered in wrinkles and liver spots. It looked a bit like Ronald Reagan. The troll spoke with a thick accent, as if he came from some lost part of European history no one bothers to remember.
“If ye would cross me great grey bridge, answer me these questions three.”
“Alright,” said Marx, “I’ll play along. What’s your first riddle, sir?”
“Arr, these be questions, not riddles. The first question is…do you have five dollars?”
“Yes, I have five dollars.” Marx pulled out the money to show the troll, and immediately the troll snatched it from his fingers. The troll began rubbing the money all over its face, covering the money in troll oil and discolouring it in the process.
“Ooo five dollars, oh yes! Mine, mine, mine!” squealed the troll.
“What’s the second question?” Marx asked.
“Ah yes, the second question…the second question is…do you have five more dollars?”
Reluctantly, and with a wince of discomfort, Marx pulled out another five dollar bill and held it gingerly, as if he were feeding an alligator.
Once again, the troll snatched it. Marx began pontificating. “I don’t know why you think you are entitled to our money. You clearly did not build this bridge, and it ought to be owned by the people and free at the point of use.”
The troll did not care. The whole time, the troll rubbed the money all over its disgusting body while screaming with delight.
“Yes! Yes! It is now time for the third question…the third question is…do you have five more dollars?”
Marx rolled his eyes and checked his pockets, only to find that he was all out of money.
“Gandhi,” Marx asked, “do you have five dollars?”
“I have a great deal more than five dollars but I will not give one penny to you so that you can satisfy this vulgar troll and force us to continue on this satanic journey.”
“I don’t know why I brought you. I could have brought Engels. He always has money and he always helps.”
“Your friend Engels is a sycophant, he knows not how to rule himself.”
“And you are judgemental and reactionary–you are a relic, a useless nostalgic.”
“You may say whatever you wish, you are not getting my money.”
The troll began to wail. “I need more money! You think you can cross my bridge without payment? You wish to steal from me!”
Out of his nether regions, the troll pulled out a smart phone. “Yes, spooky forest police department? There are some humans who are not paying the toll. Yes, I will wait.” He put the phone back where it came from…wherever that was. “See, now you just wait! She is coming! She will make you pay!”
“Who is she?” asked Marx.
“You will see soon enough!” hissed the troll.
It only took a moment. A black horse, thin from underfeeding and covered in welts, emerged from the forest. It was unclear what foul magic kept that horse alive. It was bearing a rider. Kamala Harris descended.
“I understand you are delinquent on your troll toll payments?” she asked.
“Listen,” said Marx, “this troll has no right to charge people a toll to use his bridge. He didn’t build it, and he clearly does nothing to maintain it. He is a parasite on the people of this forest. The notion that we should give him fifteen dollars to cross a bridge is absurd.”
“Look sir, I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them. This bridge was privatised three years ago and this troll was lawfully awarded it by auction.”
“Yesssss it’s my bridge! Mine! Mine! Give me five dollars!”
“Why was the bridge privatised?” Marx asked.
“It was decided that if the bridge were privatised, the new owner would probably take better care of it than the spooky forest government,” Harris answered.
“Look at this bridge! It looks like no one has touched it in years! The concrete is cracked–I’m not even sure it can hold the weight of this car. This troll doesn’t do anything at all to maintain it.”
“Be that as it may, legally this is the troll’s property now and his right to it is unconditional. Including his right to extract a toll for crossing it.”
Marx looked incredulous. “So if he prefers to rub himself with the money instead of using it to improve the bridge, you will help him do that?”
“If that is what the law requires of me, yes.” Harris gave Marx a very serious look.
“I don’t have the money to pay anyway,” Marx said.
Gandhi had been silent for a while, but now he spoke. “I have the money, but I will not give it to you. Look, here it is.”
Gandhi pulled out five dollars. The troll tried to snatch it away, but Gandhi’s hand was quicker. He put the money right back into his wallet.
“Thieves!” moaned the troll. “Beat them! Break them! Make them suffer!”
“Step out of the car, sir.” Harris requested.
“No,” said Gandhi.
“Sir, step out of the car. Now.” Harris demanded.
“Sir, if you do not step out of the car, I will have to use force.”
“You do not have to do any such thing. You are master of nothing, not me, not this forest, not yourself. I do not recognise you. Good day.”
Harris opened the car door, pulled Gandhi out, and clubbed him over the shoulder with a cosh.
“Yessss! Make the bad man pay!” gloated the troll.
Bleeding, Gandhi rose to his feet. “I repeat, I do not recognise you.”
She struck Gandhi again, this time across the hip. He sprawled to the floor.
Laughing, the troll pulled out some kind of sludgy troll snack from his mysterious nether regions. “What a weak man! He does nothing!”
Slowly, Gandhi staggered back to his feet.
Harris prepared to strike Gandhi again. But while the troll and Harris were transfixed by Gandhi, Marx had gotten out of the car. When Harris raised her cosh, there was a loud thud. She collapsed to the ground, felled by a blow to the head. And behind her, there Marx was, the corner of his copy of Capital covered in blood.
“At least this isn’t a first edition,” he said, as he pulled Gandhi to his feet and helped him get back in the car.
“What are you doing?” asked Gandhi, in horror. “I was prepared to die.”
“I know. You fail to appreciate what I’m here to show you, but that does not mean you deserve to be beaten to death by Kamala Harris.”
“But in saving my body with violence, you have condemned our souls! We shall suffer a moral death far greater and more terrible because you saw fit to meet hate with hate. I knew this forest was no good.”
“KAMALA!” shouted the troll. “What have you done to my Kamala? Murderers! Thieves! You will not pass over my bridge, you will stay here and answer for your crimes!”
He stood in front of the car.
Gandhi made his position clear: “We must wait for them to send another police officer, and this time we must go quietly. The troll is right, we must answer for this foul deed of yours.”
“Absolutely not! We have places to go, and our journey has been fettered long enough by this disgusting troll and his handmaiden.”
“The only journey we need to make is a spiritual journey, and that is a journey that can be made even from a cell.”
“No, we need to get the hell out of this infernal forest.”
“We could have, if you’d turned back. Now it is too late.”
“Yes, it is too late.”
Marx stepped on the gas. He ran over the troll. The bridge seemed to go on for miles. There was no one else on it. Marx started to wonder if perhaps this was the end of the forest. Perhaps, on the other end of the bridge, they’d find the place Marx knew they must surely, eventually find.
Alas, on the other side of the bridge there was more forest. They heard a rumbling behind them. Gandhi was dismayed.
“Parts of the bridge have fallen in behind us. We cannot go back the way we came now. We would have to find a whole new way back. You have made our situation hopeless.”
“I knew that troll was not properly maintaining that bridge,” said Marx, “But no matter. We have to go forward anyway. You think it was so great before we came to the forest, but life before the forest was sewage compared to what lies ahead.”
“Paradise is not in this world, it is within and beyond.”
“Paradise certainly isn’t to be found in the villages we started in. Everyone sickens and dies, and women are treated as less than fully human. It was a place run on slaves and serfs and castes.”
“Even the lowest man can have the highest spirit.”
“You would leave him in chains, I would see him freed.”
“There is no freedom in the things of this world.”
“This world is all there is–if there is to be freedom in it, we must make it.”
At this point, they came upon a lake. It was dark, but there were little lights scattered across the lake’s surface.
“If we must go on,” said Gandhi, “can we at least stop for a moment and appreciate the lights?”
“I really think we should move through the forest as fast as possible. After the troll bridge, I agree with you that it’s spooky. Are you sure you wish to stop?”
“I need a moment to catch my breath anyway,” said Gandhi. “The encounter with the cosh took much out of this old body.”
With some trepidation, Marx stopped the car. They got out. Gandhi limped to the water’s edge, looking out at the glistening lights. Marx hung back. Suddenly, they heard a voice coming from across the lake.
“They call this forest spooky, but it isn’t, you know. They say we need to fix it, to make it great again. But this forest is already great. Look at all these lights? Who could hate this? Only someone with no appreciation for the world they find themselves in. That’s not practical. We have to work, bit by bit, to make the forest better. We have to work with the forest creatures, even the unpleasant ones, like that nasty troll, and find reasonable compromises. It can’t be free unicorns for everybody…”
“Hegel’s whiskers!” warned Marx, “we need to leave here at once.”
“We cannot go back, and there is no where to go. Why not hear her out?” asked Gandhi.
“After what they did to you! You would listen to that voice?”
“It sounds reasonable. And it’s never beaten a woman to death with a book.”
“Yes,” said the voice, “Marx beat a strong woman of colour to death…the people who hate this forest, they are in what I call the basket of deplorables…the racists, the sexists…he cannot join us. But you, Gandhi, you are a moral person, a person of peace…come to me, we can find a place for you.”
“How can I reach you? How can I cross the water?” Gandhi inquired.
“Reach out to the leading lights, they will brighten the way,” the voice exhorted.
Marx felt betrayed. “If you must know, Gandhi beat his wife for years! He denied her lifesaving medicine, which he then took himself. And he spent years in South Africa claiming that the Indians living there were racially superior to the Africans. You call me deplorable, but you would take him? He’s the greatest hypocrite in all the world!”
“Silence! We do not grant you a platform, we are entitled to withhold what is ours from one such as you.”
Gandhi reached out to grasp one of the lights. His fingers curled around an iPhone. One of them inadvertently pushed the power button. In an instant, all the lights went off. Then an arm reached up and grabbed Gandhi. Before he could blink, he was under the water.
“The fool!” said Marx, shaking his head. “He’s the one who was so afraid of this place, and now he is one with it.”
Marx rushed to his car and stomped on the gas. He drove all night until he ran out of gas. Then, exhausted, he drifted off to sleep. He had horrible dreams in which Hillary Clinton danced with Narendra Modi, surrounded by a thousand lights of the phones of billionaire capitalists.
At last he was shaken awake by an old man with a thick Brooklyn accent. “Mistah Mahx! Mistah Mahx! Are you ahlright?”
“I have had a very bad night.”
“You are trying to get out of the fahrest, ahren’t you Mistah Mahx?”
“Yes. Do you know the way?”
“I do! But I must wahn you! Ahead, the climaht changes, and the fahrest turns to deseht.”
“Whatever it takes to get out, I will do it.”
And so Marx and the old man set out to wander the spooky desert. Some say they found a place where science and machines had overcome the challenges of the desert, a place where no one worked and no one needed to. Others say the old man died midway through the journey, leaving Marx to meander until he died of thirst. But that is the tale of the spooky desert. This story, about the spooky forest, has come to an end.
I tried a little narrative today to play with an idea I’ve been messing with in supervisions with first year students–the idea that in the 21st century, we can discard the left/right, libertarian/authoritarian political compass that has become so popular online in favour of a new political sorter which better reflects the particular challenges of our time. It contains four positions, each of which comprises a different attitude to capitalism/modernity/the spooky forest:
The Red View: we need to push this through to its conclusion so that we can develop the science and technology necessary to escape capitalism and build a radically better new society. In the story, this is Marx’s view.
The Green View: we need to go back to a more traditional mode of life, either to deal with climate change or to avoid moral and spiritual death. In the story, this is Gandhi’s view.
The Blue View: capitalism and modernity aren’t scary, and we can stick with them and everything will be just dandy. In the story, this is Hillary Clinton’s view.
The Black View: we won’t get the technology to do the red view and we won’t get the political will to do the green view, and capitalism and modernity are going to utterly devastate us. In the story, Marx and Gandhi both worry at varying points that the black view is true.
Oh, and if it’s not obvious, the old man with the Brooklyn accent is Bernie Sanders.