Marxism With Soul

Marxism With Soul

The radical life and times of Marshall Berman.


Marshall Berman was born in the Bronx in 1940. Over the next three decades, he watched his lower-middle-class neighborhood turn to ruin. Between 1948 and 1972, Robert Moses built the Cross Bronx Expressway. It ravaged nearly all of the South Bronx, cutting it up into bits and pieces and bombing out other areas in total sum, including Berman’s own neighborhood of Tremont. In the 1970s, the less systematic destruction began. New York City was broke, and its outer boroughs were in a state of neglect and disrepair. “The Bronx finally made it into the media,” Berman recalled in an essay. The headline: “The Bronx Is Burning!”

The self-destructive tendencies of New York, and more generally of modern urban life, were to become central preoccupations in almost all of Berman’s work. His first book, The Politics of Authenticity, examined the intellectual life of 18th-century Paris—in particular, its two most brilliant thinkers, Montesquieu and Rousseau—in order to better understand the city’s revolutionary upheaval and violence at the end of the century. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which came 12 years later and after much personal and political disappointment, was something less and something more. It marked the end of a promising though contained career as an academic political theorist and the blossoming of a startling and radical new voice in social criticism. Tracing an arc of violence and destruction from Goethe’s Faust to New York City’s Moses, Berman argued that the modern life, when coupled with the rapaciousness of industrial capitalism, wreaked havoc on man’s spiritual life as well as his social and economic conditions.

But Berman’s book also had another argument embedded within it. Modern city life may have been a fount for much of what was destructive in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it was also a site for human creativity and rebirth. A figure like Moses may have eschewed the humanist impulses of modernism and city life, but there were also many others—Marx, Lukacs, Basquiat, Grandmaster Flash—who offered an alternative path, a way to find solace and solidarity in the midst of modern experience’s chaos and devastation. From capitalism’s alienation could come freedom, and from our era’s upheavals new forms of experience and community. “All that is solid melts into air” was Marx and Engels’s lament about what had happened to modern life under the thumb of capital; for Berman, the famous line was also a credo for how to rebel against it.

The introductory chapter of The Politics of Authenticity is titled “The Personal Is Political.” I’ve long wondered about this title. Borrowed from the student radicalism and feminism of the late 1960s, the phrase sounded a bit anachronistic when rehearsed in a work on 18th-century political thought. But I think Berman meant something a bit heterodox by his use of it: It was not just that personal life was political but also that political thinking and activity should be personal. Instead of focusing only on capitalisms structural contradictions, the left needed to also direct its attention to our everyday lives; the politics of equality needed, first, to start from the bottom up—with individuals, harmed, broken-down, and often empowered by their specific worlds.

This commitment to ground the left’s ideals and commitments in our more immediate worlds perhaps reached its fullest expression in All That Is Solid, in which Berman moved from the Paris of Rousseau and Montesquieu to his own New York City, where he found in the midst of so much ruin communities in open rebellion against modernity’s darker tendencies. But this commitment can also be found in nearly all of Berman’s essays—from his early writings in Dissent and Partisan Review to his later, more popular criticism on literature, architecture, hip-hop, art, and film in The Nation and The Village Voice. The “complaint against democratic capitalism was not that it was too individualistic,” Berman insisted, “but rather that it wasn’t individualistic enough.”

This desire to humanize and ground the left—to bring its visions of emancipation and equality back into the worlds we live in—was why Berman drew from a far wider variety of cultural sources than his fellow political theorists and social critics. It was also how he helped to bridge the socialism and high modernism of his Old Left heroes like Irving Howe and Edmund Wilson with the egalitarianism and modernism that he found in the streets.  

“Popular culture is worth paying attention to because of its power to dramatize collective dreams,” Berman wrote in an essay that ranged from Michael Walzer to Cyndi Lauper to Franz Kafka to Fanny Brice. “The dream that gets acted out in ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is a dream of bringing together our private and public lives, of uniting the rights of man and the rights of a citizen…. Karl Marx would have recognized this utopian vision: He placed it at the visionary climax of the Communist Manifesto, a society in which ‘the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all.’”

One does not always practice what one preaches. But it was precisely this sensitivity to human life and feeling that made Berman such a lovely person. He cared, and his generosity came casually. He lent me Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture, one of the reasons why I ultimately went to graduate school. He read a fellow editor’s undergraduate thesis in an afternoon and then offered detailed notes and corrections. He even tried—unsuccessfully—to get Michael Walzer to listen to Bob Dylan. A common refrain at Dissent meetings is “So what do we think about this?” Berman often phrased it, “So how do we feel about this?” When I’d bump into him on the street—and I always seemed to bump into him on the street—he would ask how things were going. I would usually invoke a depressing piece of news I’d read, to which he responded: “Yes, yes, but how are things with you?”

Berman was perhaps at his most animated when pairing the personal with the political, human feeling and everyday life with political ideas, the philosophical abstractions of Rousseau and Walter Benjamin with the countercultural experiments of the 1960s and ’70s. This wasn’t only a style of address; it was also something of a politics, a way of anchoring his egalitarian commitments to specific communities and forms of human expression. “A lot of the creativity that New York has always had,” Berman explained in an interview from the late 1990s, “has come from the cellars, from the ruins…. An important part of sharing space and living city life is being able to live through the ways in which the city itself is torn down…. If you can do that you can become more human and more alive than you’ve been before.” This creativity from the cellars was Berman’s cri de coeur. We could only make from what we have, and this is so often so little, yet it almost always was just enough. “We come from ruins,” Berman observed of himself and his fellow Bronx natives, “but we’re not ruined.”

This vision of a worldlier left was perhaps best captured in a debate he had with Perry Anderson shortly after All That Is Solid came out. Anderson argued that Berman’s Marxism and radicalism often confused visions of individual liberation with revolutionary ones of social and political emancipation. “For all its exuberance,” Anderson explained, “Berman’s version of Marx, in its virtually exclusive emphasis on the release of the self, comes uncomfortably close—radical and decent though its accents are—to the assumptions of the culture of narcissism.”

For Berman, this must have particularly stung, because one of the underlying arguments of All That Is Solid, and of so much of his later work, was that what made city life and countercultural art such powerful forces in our lives was how they helped bring us together. But Berman’s response to Anderson was not, as his responses to critics almost never were, defensive; instead, he used it as an opportunity to expand on his vision of a more personalized and humanistic vision of the left.

I am grateful to Perry Anderson for remembering The Politics of Authenticity, and for pointing out the continuities between that work and what I’m doing now. Then as now…I…believe that it’s possible for modern men and women who share the desire to “be themselves” to come together, first to fight against the forms of class, sexual and racial oppression that force everyone’s identity into rigid molds and keep anyone’s self from unfolding; and next, to create Marx’s “association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Nevertheless, All That Is Solid, and what I’ve written here, have a much thicker density and a richer atmosphere than my earlier work. This is because I’ve tried increasingly to situate my exploration of the modern self within the social contexts in which all modern selves come to be. I’m writing more about the environments and public spaces that are available to modern people, and the ones that they create, and the ways they act and interact in these spaces in the attempt to make themselves at home….

Another reason that I’ve written so much about ordinary people and everyday life in the street, in the context of this controversy, is that Anderson’s vision is so remote from them. He only has eyes for world-historical Revolutions in politics and world-class Masterpieces in culture; he stakes out his claim on heights of metaphysical perfection, and won’t deign to notice anything less…. [But] it might be more fruitful if, instead of demanding whether modernity can still produce masterpieces and revolutions, we were to ask whether it can generate sources and spaces of meaning, of freedom, dignity, beauty, joy, solidarity. Then we would have to confront the messy actuality in which modern men and women and children live. The air might be less pure, but the atmosphere would be a lot more nourishing…. Who knows—it’s impossible to know in advance—we might even find some masterpieces or revolutions in the making.

If the left were to once again regain its sense of hope and possibility, it would have to “reach out further, to look and listen more closely.” It was not enough to dream of world-historical revolutions and literary masterpieces; egalitarians had to also address everyday lives, paying attention to socialism and modernism happening on the ground. “Reading Capital,” Berman insisted, “won’t help us if we don’t also know how to read the signs in the street.” What the left needed was a new way to think about—and to liberate people from—the constraining worlds in which they lived. As Berman put it in The Politics of Authenticity, what’s needed is a “Marxism with soul.”

Marxism with soul,” I think, always had a double meaning. It meant a Marxism that moved beyond some of the tradition’s scientism and its tendency to focus only on total revolutions. But it also meant that Marxism needed to address the soul. It had to be modern, carrying with it the messy energy and rhythms of our age. For Berman, this meant engaging with modern culture, wherever it emerged—whether in novels or hip-hop, in museums or the streets, from revered social theorists or from neighbors. It also meant writing social criticism in a different way, thinking as much about the way capitalist society structured human emotions as it did the economy. ” As Berman argued in an essay on the social movements and countercultural experiments of the New Left, “If we want our souls to expand…we must make room for ourselves at the center.”

Social criticism as psychic complaint has a long history, going back as far as Emerson, and finding its 20th-century expression in figures as various as Randolph Bourne, Paul Goodman, James Baldwin, and Susan Sontag. But Berman was our practitioner, a democratic-socialist master who helped give renewed meaning to a tradition that many had wanted to long let go. It was not only the radicalism of socialism and modernism to which he was committed, but to those masterpieces and revolutions that seemed to erupt out of our lives. He was a skilled critic of modern life’s ruins, but he also insisted that politics and culture find a way to address the world as it was. It must seek out that Leibnizian imperative: the best of all possible worlds.

Berman’s radical optimism, his faith in political possibility even in the worst of times, seemed to sustain him in his later years. No matter the ruins, he believed we were never ruined. After a Dissent meeting in SoHo shortly before he died, Berman and I walked to the 1 train together. As we trod down Wooster Street’s cobblestones, Berman kept pointing at various buildings and remarking on the artists who once lived there. Everything, he said, changed in 1980s. Art became expensive—to make, to buy, to view. The art community was replaced by a financial one. On cue, a group of clubgoers passed, loud and drunk. Embarrassed for my generation, I said, “It’s a shame that it’s all gone.” “No,” said Berman, “it’s coming back. Look at all the young people!”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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