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 capitalism’s 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.