'It's supposed to be fun': Ed Miliband helps exhibition secure socialist board game

Ex-Labour leader fondly recalls playing Class Struggle, featuring at British Museum, as a child

Life for the young Ed Miliband was not always like that of other children. As the sons of the Marxist historian Ralph, the former Labour leader and his older brother David grew up in a household where socialist principles extended even to the games they played.

One game in particular has been described by Miliband as “fun for all the socialist family”, an anti-capitalist alternative to Monopoly called Class Struggle, which describes itself as a battle between “Socialism (workers win) [and] barbarism (capitalists win)”.

More than three decades after the board game was first released in the US, and its creator, the politics professor Bertell Ollman, sent a copy to his friend Ralph Miliband for his young sons to enjoy, a copy of Class Struggle has gone on display at the British Museum, thanks to the intervention of the younger Miliband brother.

Class Struggle board game.
Class Struggle board game. Photograph: British Museum

A new British Museum exhibition, Playing with Money, aims to tell the story of the history of toy money, from the early 20th-century board games which first featured banknotes to more recent examples, including Game of Thrones coins, and tiny Euro notes designed for Lego figurines.

Included in the exhibits are several dozen versions of Monopoly, which was originally developed as the Landlord’s Game in 1903 as an intended critique of US land tax, but which has since spawned more than a thousand different versions.

The museum’s curators were having trouble tracking down a copy of Class Struggle, however, until someone heard Ed Miliband’s podcast Reasons to be Cheerful, in which he mentioned that he had played the game as a child, prompting a listener to loan him a copy of the game. The curators contacted the MP and his parliamentary team, who helped secure the loan of the game to the exhibition.

Miliband told the Guardian: “It’s time to challenge the monopoly of Monopoly – every family should play Class Struggle at least once.” The board had 75 squares, he said, “and you roll at the beginning to work out whether you get to be the worker, the capitalist, the small businessperson, the shopkeeper or the student. You are then supposed to form alliances between the different classes and somebody is supposed to win the game eventually”.

Though he confessed he did not actually play the game with David much as a child, he said: “I think it’s supposed to be fun. It does bear this resemblance to Monopoly: it takes a very long time, but then the class struggle does take a long time.”

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Tom Hockenhull, the curator of modern money at the museum, said it was a new kind of exhibition for his department. “Toy money is an integral part of the discourse of growing up. It’s about how we learn to operate and understand the world through our experiences in playing with money, playing with board games.”

Many games, he said, had originally been produced with an educational or satirical agenda. Nineteenth-century board games were often designed with a moral and educational purpose: “you land on a square and are read out some moral lesson, such as don’t be idle.” The 20th century had seen “a clear shift, almost a revolution in games design, where games start to feature money. So that, actually, acquisition or preservation of wealth becomes the main function and purpose”.

Other exhibits in the free display include the stockmarket game Stock Ticker, the horse racing game Totopoly, and the relatively recent Black Friday, of which Hockenhull said: “The goal is to predict when the stock market will crash … which is easier in the game than in real life.”

  • Playing with Money: currency and games, is at the British Museum until 29 September.

Contributor

Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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