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Marshall Berman’s Freestyle Marxism

His writings taught the left to embrace the culture of the moment.

A popular image of resistance during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2012 showed a ballerina poised atop the Charging Bull statue in New York City’s financial district. The aggressive capitalist system that had failed so many in the 2008 financial crisis needed, the image suggested, to bend to fundamental human values like grace, dignity, and compassion. Yet the socialist and Marxist thought that many of the protesters favored did not do a great job finding beauty in resistance either. The mathematics of Marxism—with its factionalism and its arcane language, strictly policed for misuse—did not form a strong foundation for a movement. The Marxist left was good at political economy, but lacked poetry.

For the most part, the intellectual works that have galvanized today’s growing left are studies in economic and political theory—Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, or the writings of Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister. Although the rhetoric of equality and liberation conveys in the best of these books its own beauty, and its impassioned adoption by a new generation holds its own romance, such works stop short of evoking the human costs of capitalism.

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There is one recent thinker, however, who embodied the marriage of Marxist thought with a kind of protest poetry. Born in the South Bronx in 1940, Marshall Berman spent his childhood in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood before enrolling at Columbia, and then Oxford and Harvard. At these schools, he discovered both the thinking of Marx and the transcendental power of modernist literature. Unlike many of his generation, he never chose one over the other. He wrote about philosophy, politics, and urbanism with the same intense yearning for literary elegance that he hoped to bring to progressive politics; his best-known work, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, combined the analytical rigor of dialectical materialism with the lyrical spryness of Leaves of Grass.

A study of the often destructive effects of capitalism and modernization on the life of cities, All That Is Solid put Berman on the map as an urbanist, but his body of work addresses a much larger project. He often called himself a Marxist humanist, a sensibility that runs through a new collection of his essays titled Modernism in the Streets. In many of these pieces, his thoughts on freedom, alienation, and community are filtered through an exuberant appreciation of culture, from William Blake to Cyndi Lauper. To make a lasting impact, he believed, the left had to combine the wisdom of Das Kapital with an all-out attempt to recapture American culture through music, art, and poetry.

Much like today’s activists, Berman, who died in 2013, was the product of a time and place in which left politics were being reinvented. He found midcentury Marxist thought overly dogmatic and too tied to the Soviet Union; American communists had elevated Marxism high above the plane of day-to-day existence. For the ideology of a mass movement, its meaning was curiously guarded by an enlightened few, Berman noted in his essay “Radical Times”:

Classical communist education was Talmudic, based on a study of commentaries, with an underlying suspicion of sacred primary texts. Among Orthodox Jews, the Bible is a sort of adult movie—a yeshiva-bucher is exposed to it only after years of Talmudic training, to insure that he will respond in orthodox ways. Similarly, a trainee at a party school would begin with Stalin, until 1956; then the great indoctrinator Lenin; then, with some hesitation, Engels. Marx came in only at the very end, and then only for those with security clearance.

By the mid-1950s, younger intellectuals and radicals had soured on the Trotsky-inspired, materially focused Marxism of the 1930s; they yearned for writing that dealt with gender, sexuality, race, and youth culture. Berman remembers his family watching the news of Soviet forces rolling into Budapest in 1956 and thinking that there had to be a new kind of Marxism formulated quickly. The American left’s definitive break with Soviet-centric thought came in 1968, as the Soviet crackdown in Prague outraged the world and the student-worker revolt in Paris inspired a generation. The New Left ascended not just because of its distance from the USSR, but because it seized the bottled-up cultural energies that were then erupting into music and literature.

Berman pioneered a form of social criticism that responded to this charged moment. His dissertation, The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society, published in 1970, merges Rousseau and Montesquieu with Marx in a distinctly New Left style (the introduction is titled “The Personal is Political”). Throughout the 1970s, he wrote for magazines such as Dissent, The Nation, and Partisan Review, while drawing on his own autobiography. As a college student, Berman recalled, he would ride the subway back uptown to watch the obliteration of the Bronx of his childhood. In the name of modernization, Robert Moses, New York’s infamous urban czar from the 1930s through the 1960s, took a “meat ax” to the borough with glee. Berman’s parents knew that the Cross Bronx Expressway would cut their neighborhood into pieces, placing once-vibrant blocks next to a roaring freeway, but they were helpless to stop it.

Berman in London in 1991: The life of the street was central to his work.
Courtesy Shellie Sclan

This early experience was central to All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Berman himself had lived with the fallout from capitalism’s drive for “creative destruction.” Capitalism destroyed previous systems of production in order to open new avenues for profit: Manufacturers were constantly inventing new looms to revolutionize (and destroy) the artisanal labor of weavers, while real estate developers tore down old buildings every few decades to erect taller, more lucrative structures. He saw this experience registered, too, in literature down the centuries: Baudelaire had described it in his treks around nineteenth-century Paris, which was being reassembled into grand avenues by Baron Haussmann; a century earlier, in St. Petersburg, the czar demolished classic Slavic wood structures and built new ones from stone in the name of “Europeanization.” Finally, Berman circled back to examine the trauma that the Cross Bronx Expressway caused in his own times. The book is more acid jazz than symphony.

Although All That Is Solid laments the excesses of modernization, it embraces the cultures people formed amid their newly modern environments. Like Marx, Berman felt that nostalgia is a trap, since even indignation over a dispossession or loss, he recognized, can be more productive. Berman understood intimately the plight of many New York neighborhoods in the 1970s, when landlords burned their buildings to claim the insurance money. At the same time, he cared for the life that flourished in the wake of this destruction. “The South Bronx, at its moment of greatest misery and anguish, and in some sense because of its misery and anguish, created the mass culture called Hip-Hop,” he wrote. “Hip-Hop today envelops the whole world.” Berman was early to understand that distinctly urban art forms like graffiti and street corner free-style rap were ways for communities stripped of their comfort and autonomy to retake city space, even as their poverty deepened.

“To be modern,” Berman wrote, “is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, and to find one’s world in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.” Modernization was a process that tilted the world off-axis, forcing people to hold on, but also giving them a new perspective. In the 1971 essay “Notes Toward a New Society,” Berman described the social dislocation that the consumer society had produced and how Students for a Democratic Society used the upheaval of the late 1960s to publicize a more egalitarian politics. Even as modernization set people adrift, modernism promised “to give modern men and women the power to change the world that is changing them.” Freedom could arise from alienation; as David Marcus writes in his introduction to Modernism in the Streets, “from modernity’s ruins came new life.”

Not everyone on the left was taken with Berman’s exuberant use of literature and culture to illustrate Marxian concepts. The eminent New Left historian Perry Anderson gave a speech criticizing All That Is Solid for its analytical messiness. Berman was too loose with the term modernism, Anderson argued; not just any development between the French Revolution and the urban renewal of the 1960s could represent what was actually a distinct historical moment. Nor did he think it proper to celebrate the cultures spawned by modernity. The point of revolution, he insisted, was “neither to prolong nor to fulfill modernity, but to abolish it.”

Berman’s response, published in the New Left Review, is included in Modernism in the Streets. With a characteristic mix of potent irony and street wisdom, Berman contrasts himself with Anderson and other traditionalists on the academic left, who only have “eyes for world-historical Revolutions in politics and world-class Masterpieces in culture.” Intellectuals like Anderson stake their claims “on heights of metaphysical perfection, and won’t deign to notice anything less. This would be all right, I guess, except that he’s so clearly miserable over the lack of company up there.”

Berman had very different ideas about what kind of culture mattered. Culture was something people could use, that blossomed from their vernacular and could make them at home in their lives. Berman was fond of extensively quoting rap lyrics during speeches and liked to mix high and low in his essays. He used Bruce Springsteen’s music, for instance, to clarify the themes of Isaac Babel’s bildungsroman Red Cavalry: Both men wrote about heroic journeys of self-discovery in which the protagonist must define who he is by rejecting an “anti-self.” As Springsteen sings in “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “They left their homes and family / Their father said, ‘My sons, one thing you will learn / For everything the north gives, it exacts a price in return.’” In an essay on public space and American individualism, Berman discusses Cyndi Lauper’s song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at length. “Girls are not only transforming their lives,” he noted, “but transforming the life of the street itself.” Lauper’s music video opens with scenes from a cautious, sedate family life: Mother is cooking, father scolding his daughter to stay away from the phone. But their daughter is dancing through the streets.

Berman was a philosophy professor in the image of Allen Ginsberg rather than Lionel Trilling. He reveled in Cyndi Lauper at a time when most people in his circle were decrying the depoliticization of mainstream music. For Berman, pop animated debates over values for a large audience, even if the artists were not expressly political. He argued that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” allowed people to play with the boundaries of the public and private:

The heroine returns, along with her newly constructed popular front to the tenement and the family that tried in vain to fence her in. She brings the street into the house.... Her parents find it horrifying, yet alluring: They are tempted to join their child, go public, and change their own drab lives.

In this essay, and many others, Berman seems to be leveling a charge at his own precinct of New York intellectuals who would rather die than jam along to a bubblegum hit, and who certainly would not view that form of music as a potential source of radical solidarity.

Berman fervently believed in the value of humanistic learning, even when it came off as a bit grand and dust-covered. But he also felt that elite institutions must throw off their high-minded demeanor and become more inclusive in tangible ways. For this reason, he took pride in working within the City University of New York, a public system, and hanging out at the school’s hip-hop open mics. His inclination to throw out the old educational orthodoxies and overly formal rituals was not just part of his intellectual and political awakening during the 1960s, but also of his commitment to embracing change no matter how destabilizing.

The financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated the economic system’s creative destruction at its most incomprehensible, and it refocused criticism of capitalism for a new generation. They saw the federal government rush to save financial institutions, while ignoring the ordinary people the banks had harmed. While anti-capitalist experiments such as Occupy, the Spanish indignados movement, and Greece’s Syriza government gained momentum for brief periods, a more enduring legacy of the crisis has been the rise of a xenophobic nationalism that blends anti-globalization sentiments with racism. In both the United States and Europe, the left had finally succeeded in reaching a mass audience on economic fairness and the perils of finance capitalism, only to see the ugliest forms of nationalism respond to the same issues with an even louder message.

Is there still a way to tell the story of late-twentieth-century capitalism, globalization, and financialization that conveys their full human costs, and that prioritizes collective action rather than a retreat into national and ethnic divisions? Modernism in the Streets captures both the violent dislocation wrought by political changes and the artistic outputs born out of suffering. Berman’s essays make the reader experience historical change as he did—as something urgent, frightening, but also wondrous. With that feeling comes a faint but undeniable hint of possibility.