Vale Marshall Berman

The sudden death of Marshall Berman last week at the age of 73 sees the passing of an important and much-loved Marxist writer and thinker. A native New Yorker, Berman grew up in the Bronx where his parents worked in the garment industry. Shortly after the trauma of the death of his father, Berman went on, through what he described as ‘scholarships and good luck’, to study at Columbia, and thereafter at Oxford and Harvard. He worked for many years at the City College of New York, teaching political theory and urban studies. One can imagine he was at home in an institution so closely associated with the life of the city he loved, no doubt ignoring opportunities to teach at a more prestigious university.

This background lead him from the late 1950s and early 1960s to identify strongly with a humanist and New Left Marxism. He has written of how part of his political awakening involved discovering Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts at the local Four Continents bookstore. Amazed to find they were selling for only 50 cents, he bought 20 copies and gave them to all his friends and family explaining: ‘It’ll show you how our whole life’s wrong, but it’ll make you happy, too.’ He took from these early writings of Marx an important attention to the tension between self-creation and development (Bildung) and alienated labour. The idea of modern subjects creating the world, and through that creating themselves, was a steady presence from his first work The Politics of Authenticity through to all his subsequent writing.

Berman’s important and major work is All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Published over 30 years ago, this book was a landmark study in how modernism was conceived and understood. He later observed how in this work the drama of self-development gets an address, in no less than the contradictions and creative destruction unleashed by capitalist modernisation. For Berman:

These world-historical processes have nourished an amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their century, these visions and values have come to be loosely grouped under the name of ‘modernism’.

Berman broadened our idea of modernism, making connections hitherto unseen, showing how the artistic visions of writers as diverse as Goethe, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky were inspired by, and helped give shape to, the large transformations their societies were undergoing. A focus on the dialectic of modernism and modernisation and how this formed an integral part of the historical experience of modernity would be a continuing concern.

All that is solidThe title of the book, of course, is from an important line in The Communist Manifesto. In Berman’s typically dialectical mode, he sought not just to add to a Marxist understanding of modernism, but show also how Marx’s own creative vision was itself modernist. Describing how the Manifesto renders the drama and power of capitalism, he says:

Marx’s prose becomes luminous, incandescent; brilliant images succeed and blend into one another; we are hurtled along with a reckless momentum, a breathless intensity. Marx is not only describing but evoking and enacting the desperate pace and frantic rhythm that capitalism imparts on every facet of modern life. He makes us feel we are part of the action, drawn into the stream, hurtled along, out of control, at once dazzled and menaced by the onward rush.

Writing in the introduction to a recent penguin edition to the Manifesto, he refers to Marx’s style as an ‘expressionist lyricism’. Marx as a kindred spirit of Yeats or Kafka is challenging and original, but makes sense in a book that was so compelling for the way it concerned itself with both the subjective and objective aspects of modern experience.

One of the distinguishing aspects of Berman’s writing is his openness and generosity; he too is one of those writers inviting you along for the ride. This is evident in the title of his subsequent collection of essays and reviews, Adventures in Marxism. This book contains pieces from three decades of writing, including a few more articles on Marx, a review of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, something on Studs Terkel and review-essays on Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin. ‘Georg Lukács ‘s Cosmic Chutzpah’, on the master theoretician and advocate of social realism, presents the entirely counterintuitive but convincing argument for him as part of Berman’s expanded vision of modernism. The review-essay on Benjamin, ‘Angel in the City’, does something similar, but also seeks to counterbalance the melancholy of the writer with recognition of his joy for the streets.

Berman was part of an engagement between Marxism and modernism, which included writers like David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Franco Moretti and others. Perry Anderson signalled the importance of Berman’s work early on, in a critical essay, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, which became an influential theorisation of modernism in is own right. Anderson took Berman to task for failing to adequately periodise modernism, or recognise that modernism was over. Berman’s response, collected in Adventures in Marxism, was enlightening, not for establishing who had the better take, but for revealing the cross purposes with which they spoke to each other. Pointing to the way human creativity grows out of disappointment, Berman insisted on the continuing ‘heroism of modern life’, citing vignettes from his daily life, including Bob Seger songs, the hopes of his working-class students, the work of artists he saw on his walks through the streets.

Whatever you think of this debate, Berman’s distance from Anderson’s high theoreticism revealed his commitment to an important modernist impulse that Baudelaire called the ‘loss of the halo’. He recognised we are naked and exposed to the forces of modern life (without haloes), but also how this continues to liberate and save us and our most important aesthetic works. The street, the ordinary struggles of everyday life, the great revolutions in places like Paris or St Petersburg are primary symbols of modern life for Berman and compel us to understand modernism beyond the narrow specialisms of the academy. Berman’s later book On the Town: One Hundred years of Spectacle in Times Square identified Times Square as New York’s site of these ordinary modern dramas conducted within public spaces.

While clearly alive to the contradictions and alienations of modern society, Berman was thoroughly metropolitan in his worldview and perspective. He really did take his cues from the Manifesto and conceived of modernism as a form of radical enlightenment entailing a struggle for meaning and coherence in the face of modern fragmentation. I’ve sometimes felt that Berman was less attune to the determining influence of rural or colonial experience in the emergence of modernity, less focused on the tension between the old and the new, and somewhat too universal in his approach to the modern world. But nonetheless, what I liked about All that is Solid Melts into Air is Berman’s open invitation to others to keep writing this work, to apply its lessons to other histories and geographies – this he must have known would involve refiguring some of its premise and approach.

I spoke to Berman only once, very briefly. It was in the weeks leading up to the S11 protests against World Economic Forum in 2000 and Berman was in town to speak on postmodernism (as you did in those days) at the Melbourne Writers Festival. After standing at the end of the queue, I spoke to him on the Malthouse mezzanine about the lead-up to the protests and my use of his work in my graduate studies on Irish modernism. He was encouraging and engaging about both these topics – and then he signed my copy of his book. I open now the much-read Penguin paperback, whose cover I have had to sticky tape back onto the spine, and read the script written with a flourish in thick purple felt pen:

For Gary –
Still in the Air!
Marshall B Melb, 2000.

Gary Pearce

Gary Pearce lives and works in Melbourne.

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  1. The debate between Anderson and Berman about modernism is fascinating. When I was younger, I was strongly in the Anderson camp (even though I loved Berman’s book). I was, I guess, much more of a structuralist. Then, more recently, as I’ve put more weight onto the role of human agency, individual responsibility and the like, I find myself sympathising more with Berman and trying to hold some kind of middle-position – if there can be one.

  2. Yes, great piece thanks Gary. Love his note in your book and how battered your copy is. Impossible not to be swept up in Berman’s energy and enthusiasm, especially his reading of Marx’s prose which you quote above and also his take on Goethe.

  3. “The title of the book, of course, is from an important line in The Communist Manifesto. In Berman’s typically dialectical mode, he sought not just to add to a Marxist understanding of modernism, but show also how Marx’s own creative vision was itself modernist. Describing how the Manifesto renders the drama and power of capitalism”

    Never knew so much thought when into writing a books title.. 🙂

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