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.
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.”
Indeed, Babel was as intimately acquainted with sadistic Cossack officers as he was with Jewish mystic visionaries, figures like Gedali, solemn old men with little gray beards. If we look close enough, we find Babel’s and Berman’s Marxist adventures damned to both worlds, frantically oscillating back and forth, never quite belonging in either. “You do not know what you love, Gedali,” says one Cossack. “I will shoot at you, and then you will find out, I cannot do otherwise than shoot, because I am the revolution.” But Gedali remains “the founder of an unrealizable International,” a “revolution of good deeds and good men.” Perplexed, Gedali asks the army commander, “Where is the joy-giving revolution?”
Plainly, Berman still believes Marx to be the messenger of this joy-giving revolution. As ever with Berman, the conviction is up-close and personal. His adventure in Marxism goes back decades, to Death of a Salesman, which opened on Broadway in 1949: “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,” cries Willy Loman’s neighbor Charlie. Berman works through this proclamation, first via his father–who had a tiny garment business in the Bronx but who died of a heart attack in 1955 after his partner ran off with the firm’s earnings–then via Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
The young Marx’s enigmatic essays struck the similarly precocious Berman as some kind of cosmic epiphany, showing him the best way to avenge familial violation, laying bare the real perpetrator: the systemic nature of class oppression and injustice and what money does to one’s soul. Hereafter the fledgling radical became a converted Marxist humanist. “The thing I found so striking in Marx’s 1844 essays,” Berman says, “and which I did not expect to find at all, was his feeling for the individual.” “Those early essays articulate the conflict between Bildung and alienated labor…[Bildung] embraces a family of ideas like ‘subjectivity,’ ‘finding yourself,’ ‘growing up,’ ‘identity,’ ‘self-development,’ and ‘becoming who you are.’ Marx situates this ideal in modern history and gives it a social theory.”
In the Manuscripts, Marx affirms the primacy of “free-conscious activity” in the “species-character” of human beings. Marx tells us, just in case we forgot, how capitalism restricts the parameters of free individual development and how private-property relations “makes us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital.” Money, too, overturns all individuality, and makes what is yours “for sale”: “the extent to the power of money is,” says Marx, “the extent of my power.” Money is the yardstick for all personal worth, and it overwhelms true human subjectivity and authenticity; it separates people from other people and people from themselves. It is indeed the universal measure of value.
In another extract from the 1844 essays, called “Alienated Labor,” Marx goes on to illustrate how workers are “alienated” or “estranged” from their activity and product and from their fellow workers. A worker, Berman notes, quoting Marx, “mortifies his body and ruins his mind”; he “feels himself only outside his work, and in his work…feels outside himself”; he is “at home only when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home. His labor therefore is not free, but coerced; it is forced labor.” As Berman makes apparent, “Marx is unique in his grasp of what the rack is made up of…in the Communist Manifesto and Capital, you have to look for it. In the 1844 Manuscripts, it’s in your face.”
And yet, the continuity between this existential Marx and the mature, political-economic Marx is unbroken growth. Berman has no truck with any Althusserian “rupture”; he sees no separation between an “ideological” and “scientific” Marx. Marx’s trek from “alienation” in 1844 to “fetishism” in 1867 is a perspectival shift, not an epistemological one. And Berman emphasizes as much in a chapter called “Freedom and Fetishism”–one of the least satisfying offerings of his book. Originally penned when he was a graduate student in 1963, under Isaiah Berlin’s guidance, it reveals a writer struggling to find his voice. That rich, textured style and lyricism he’d later make his own isn’t quite there yet. Nevertheless, here Berman suggests that “Marx is constantly making the point that everything in [capitalism] is under ‘illusions of the epoch,’ is dominated by ‘fetishism,’ and hence is unfree.” Worker and capitalist alike are condemned to the grind of necessity, to the monomania of accumulation for accumulation’s sake, of production for production’s sake. Both are fooled by an illusion of freedom.
The illusion–the fetishism–is materially real enough. Yet Marx insists that workers keep abreast of the bigger perspective: His section on the “fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof,” in Volume One of Capital, suggests that bits of the puzzle are missed when reality is viewed merely perceptually, at the level of appearances. Indeed, for Marx, there’s also an imperceptible realm at play, a world of processes and social relations, operative at different spatial and temporal scales, which become, in bourgeois society, the “mist-enveloped region” of relations between things. Thus market and exchange relations throw a veil over human relationships, cut off free conscious activity, objectify, thingify, reify and alienate ties and activities between actual people.
The fetishism, Marx and Berman concur, requires puncturing: “Only a ‘world-historical class,’ one whose interests and ideals are fused,” Berman says, “is capable of decisively enlarging the scope of freedom for all. Marx saw the proletariat as the only group in his society that had any chance of becoming ‘world-historical.'” While the working class’s role is obviously paramount here, so too is the effort made by intellectuals, made by the poet, the thinker, the person of science, who can make a “special contribution” toward this world-historical project. Leftist intellectuals, especially, need to ally with the working class. But we can do this only if we learn to read the signs of Capital together with the “signs in the street.” The journey isn’t just To the Finland Station; it’s to Grand Central Station as well.
Berman’s perspective is fundamentally a people perspective. His is a quintessentially human odyssey: Like Bruce Springsteen, he insists upon the “human touch.” Berman points out that Marx was on intimate terms with “real” people, too. There are plenty of different characters with lively voices in Capital, and Marx chronicled them with verve and skill, taking us back, in Berman’s words, to the “glory days of the nineteenth-century novel.” Some of Marx’s vivid working-class characters we might recognize from Dickens and Balzac, his favorite scribes. Others we know today; we hear their voices resound in our daily newspapers. Their presence makes Marx’s vision a vision we should care to remember and learn from.
Take one such character, Mary Anne Walkley, not explicitly mentioned by Berman, but whose lot we know. She was a 20-year-old garment worker who, back in 1863, toiled on average sixteen-and-a-half hours a day without a break, often as much as thirty hours straight. The “flow of her failing ‘labor-power,'” Marx quips, “is maintained by occasional supplies of sherry, port and coffee.” One time, Mary Anne was busy “conjuring up magnificent dresses for the noble ladies invited to the ball in honor of the newly imported Princess of Wales.” After twenty-six-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted toil, carried out in a small, stifling sweatshop, with thirty other girls, Mary Anne fell ill on a Friday and was dead by Sunday, “without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having finished off the bit of finery she was working on.” “Death from simple overwork,” was the verdict in the following day’s newspaper.
On March 8, 1997–on International Women’s Day–Carmelita Alonzo suffered a similarly gruesome fate, working fourteen hours a day at a Philippines factory, stitching garments for the Gap. Meanwhile, that same day, over at a “House of Terror” in Tae Kwang Vina in Vietnam, which makes shoes for Nike, a dozen young women machinists, each earning about $40 per month, were somewhat luckier, only collapsing from heat exhaustion. And in Tangerang, a grim factory town near Jakarta, Yunianti, a 24-year-old woman, was pocketing $24 a month making outsoles for Nike sneakers in a small, badly ventilated room, with no toilet or drinking facilities. She was regularly abused by supervisors and suffering chronic respiratory problems. Closer to home but part of the same capitalist universe, nineteenth-century sweatshop conditions persist in cities like Los Angeles and New York; child labor, too, is on the up in the First and Third World; exploitation rates intensify everywhere; and postmodern capitalism, forever “primitively accumulating,” takes us rapidly back to the future.
These flagrant breaches of human rights are slowly prompting organized responses. Workers of the world are beginning to fight back: realigning at the core, bristling on the margins, striving to join hands. Just like the old guy said. The emancipatory potential of Marxism, with “its capacity to configure the world beyond the daily grind of selling one’s labor to stay alive, needs,” accordingly, “to be renewed.” In an odd sense, globalization both closes down and opens up possibilities for labor, creating an expanded and more concentrated proletariat, as well as a whole new geopolitical terrain for collective action and cooperative power. Thus as a fitting finale to Adventures in Marxism, Berman propels the Manifesto into the next century. He returns to Marx’s prophetic text 150 years after it first burst onto the scene. A lot that was then politically solid has since melted into Third Way air. But Marx’s “melody,” Berman believes, remains “unchained.” And its refrain can still make people stand up and sing.
Berman sings three cheers for the demise of Marx’s iconic status. Since 1989, he says, we’ve been presented with a new, ironic Marx, a mortal Marx, somebody who now stands at ground level, with real people, like you and me. This ironic voice takes on renewed vigor and rigor, helping us to see how the bad things and the good things in the world spring from the same place; it shows how radical thought can escape doldrums and dualisms and gather visions and energy for better times that may lie ahead. It can even help us make these better times for ourselves. As blue- and white-collar workers continue to get downsized, as intellectuals go on losing their reverent “halos” and join the ranks of the “modern working class,” and as the spread-sheet guys and efficiency experts try to take over the world, more and more people must sell themselves piecemeal, as commodities, and feel the vicissitudes of competition and all the fluctuations of the market for their labor power. Berman laments “the need to carve up your personality,” to look in the mirror and think, “What have I got that I can sell?”
Berman suggests that Marx had long-range faith in the working class because “lots of people in this class don’t know it.” Many “identify happily with the owners of capital,” yet “have no idea how contingent and fleeting their benefits are.” Other workers, “lacking diplomas, not dressed so nicely, working in cubicles, not offices, may not get the fact that many of the people who boss them around are really in their class, and share their vulnerability.” The big question, then, remains: “How can this reality be put across to people who don’t get it, or can’t bear it?” This, Berman admits, “is what organizing and organizers are for,” to get to the point “where Raskolnikovs won’t rot on Avenue D, and where Svidrigailovs won’t possess thousands of bodies and souls.” And should we ever get to that point and then “come to see that our inner bad guys will never go away,” at least “our steady work will have given us experience, and taught us how to cooperate for our mutual self-defense.”
Adventures in Marxism is a fine collection, a lovely addition to anybody’s bookshelf. Marshall Berman is one of our liveliest and most generous interpreters of Marx. Vagabond and eclectic, to be sure, but always honest and brimming with ideas and romance. He can help us learn to create ourselves while we try to change the world.