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A Dialectical Humanism | The Nation

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A Dialectical Humanism

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To my distress and perhaps to my delight, I order things in accordance with my passions.... I put in my pictures everything I like. So much the worse for the things--they have to get along with one another.
   --Pablo Picasso

About the Author

Andy Merrifield
Andy Merrifield, a Marx scholar, writes frequently about urbanism and politics. His last book, The Urbanization of...

Also by the Author

At a quarter to 3 in the afternoon on March 14, 1883, one of the world's brainiest men, Karl Marx, ceased to think. He passed away peacefully in his favorite armchair.

In September 1940, with a weak heart and even frailer nerves, Walter Benjamin carried on an old smugglers' path in the French Pyrenean foothills a big black briefcase stuffed with a manuscript th

Might one sometimes judge a book by its cover? A most telling image adorns the front jacket of Marshall Berman's new book, Adventures in Marxism, produced with panache by the radical publisher Verso: a dancing Marx. Despite his aging years and huge gray mane, the old prophet still knows a few slick dance moves. He might be grooving to sixties rock and roll, a streetfighting man demanding the world and wanting it now, but his gleaming blue zoot suit suggests a jazzier Marx, a fifties retread, mellow and free, perhaps improvising and syncopating to a bebop alto sax. Berman has his millennial sage straddle both decades and affirms a Marxism that is melodic and ironic, yet somehow loud and rough and sexual, too. Here Berman's Marx isn't merely a "poet of commodities" (as Edmund Wilson once put it); his whole body is animated by commodities, contorting and twisting, matching their inexorable flow, trailing them as they exchange and circulate and shape the world in their own image.

And yet, for all this exuberance, once we open the book we hear a strangely hesitant Berman: He had, we're told, "doubts" about a book of this nature--a collection of previously published essays, mainly book reviews, most of them beautifully written, spanning a period of more than thirty years in publications ranging from the New York Times and the Village Voice to Dissent, New Left Review and the pages of this very magazine. At first, Berman says, "it looked like a pile of fragments that just didn't add up." Neither, apparently, did these fragments come from the "depths of an author's soul": They weren't like his masterpiece, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Nothing here seemed to come from those inner depths; nothing seemed to have the organic magic or psychic immediacy of a "book." Nothing solid seemed to stick as the years after 1982 melted away.

Still, Berman never stopped writing or teaching political theory and urbanism at the City University of New York. Meanwhile, and largely unbeknown to the author, his own "adventure" with Marx and Marxism was unfolding, a romantic voyage that occurred in books and real life. And it used and developed Marxism as a "special kind of human experience," a structure of feeling that is "different from ordinary life, joyful, liberating, thrilling, but problematic, scary, dangerous." Soon Berman spotted continuity, a larger order to his disparate jottings. In fact, the essays did add up, to an open-ended whole--a rather complex cubist canvas where each piece blurs and elucidates, complements and even undermines each other piece. They now have to try to get along with one another.

Berman's adventure really revolves around three of Marx's great texts: The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Volume One of Capital (1867). But the trip also meant engaging with a diverse array of Marxist and Marxisant thinkers. Orthodox and obvious figures like Georg Lukacs, fleeting fellow travelers like Edmund Wilson, as well as heterodox, ambiguous and tormented free spirits--men perhaps nearer to Berman's heart and who hold the key to his impulses and yearnings: Walter Benjamin and Isaac Babel. En route, too, working-class heroes with somewhat loose Marxist credentials crop up and give new existential depth and breadth to the Marxist concept of world history and art: Studs Terkel, Meyer Schapiro and Arthur Miller. The first, in his sequence of oral histories of "ordinary people," has, says Berman typically, "dramatized brilliantly our workers' capacity to overcome misery by telling stories that give their misery meaning." Much like Miller's Death of a Salesman, Terkel has "told a story that puts all their miseries and all their meanings together, and enables us to imagine a greater meaning."

Imagining greater meaning was something both Benjamin and Babel tried to do in the first forty years of the twentieth century. Each succeeded admirably yet perished for his insights. Benjamin, the messianic Marxist whom Berman calls an "angel in the city," held a peculiar Marxist stance--full of Brechtian vulgarity and urbane sophistication, thriving on "the contradiction between the doom in his soul and his joy on the streets." These tensions were never quite worked through: Benjamin took his own life in 1940, stranded at a Spanish border crossing, fleeing the Gestapo, his heart giving out, unable to go on. It's said he died clutching his unfinished epic, the Arcades Project manuscript, a tome apparently more valuable to him than his life.

Alas, Benjamin wasn't the only Marxist "not allowed to finish." We hear these tragic last words uttered by Isaac Babel, one dark night in 1939, as Stalin's NKVD came to take him away. Nobody knows when exactly, but it seems that Babel got a bullet in the head in a labor camp during 1940, the same year that Benjamin OD'd on morphine. For years, Babel's whereabouts were mooted. Was he alive? Which camp was he in? Could he still write? Babel's second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, did not give up hope until sometime in the late fifties, when she guessed the awful truth. Her poignant memoir, At His Side, vividly portrays their undying love in a time of cholera. (Berman pictures what might have been. He imagines a lovely scene where Babel and Benjamin, alive and safe, are now old men in New York City, enriching the city's Jewish intellectual culture, strolling down Central Park West with I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud. We can almost see them in a sequel to Shadows on the Hudson.)

Berman has Babel come on like a sort of Nietzschean Marxist, with vague Trotskyist sympathies. Here Babel strikes one as a true Soviet believer who gladly built his house under the postrevolutionary volcano; a lonely intellectual from Odessa who lived dangerously, a Jew in the notoriously anti-Semitic Red Cavalry. Babel is mocked by his Bolshevik comrades for having glasses--"four eyes"--and because his aim is to "live without enemies." Under Gorky's tutelage, for a while Babel gained favor and fame with his "Red Cavalry" and Odessa stories, exquisitely crafted tales of post-1917 idealist hope and realist barbarity. Berman obviously sees Babel as someone who can teach Marxists a thing or two about monsters down the abyss, and who knew something about "daring and dread" but who nonetheless was "fully alive."

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