History or Ghost Story? Marshall Berman

by guest contributor Max Ridge

“One of the most important things for radical critics to point to,” Marshall Berman writes in his first book, “is all the powerful feeling which the system tries to repress—in particular, every man’s sense of his own unique, irreducible self” (xiii). In his life and work, Berman demonstrated the importance of the personal side of politics. Though an earnest student of Marx, he thought little of theoretical systems that ignored individualism, authenticity, and identity. He won his widest audience with All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), a blend of historical and literary analysis culminating in a unified study of cultural modernism and industrial modernization. As opposed to the Frankfurt School’s “culture industry” or C. Wright Mills’ “cultural apparatus,” Berman’s mature worldview sometimes reveled in the entanglement of capitalist interest and artistic creation, and declined to ascribe an overarching order to dynamics in consumer culture. Thirty years later, the text remains globally influential in urban studies, literary studies, and architectural scholarship. His other works, however, enjoy considerably less scrutiny.

Today it appears that Berman’s legacy as a person (or personality) has defined his legacy as a political thinker. His death in 2013 marked the loss not only of a New York intellectual, but also of a figure in the mythos of the Upper West Side. He was, in later life, hard to miss as he patrolled Broadway, wearing a bushy head of hair and an even bushier beard. His wardrobe featured an assortment of t-shirts with slogans like “Make Poverty History.” Berman was a lifelong professor at CUNY, member of the editorial board of Dissent, and author of many influential books. Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and other stars in New York’s intellectual constellation sounded off heartbreakingly personal obituaries and reflections shortly after his death three years ago.

The years since have seen a renewed interest in Berman’s work, as historians and critics both memorialize him and attempt to situate his legacy within American intellectual history. Adventures in Modernism, a volume of reflections from Berman’s later friends and interlocutors, appeared in November 2016. Verso will also publish a collection of his essays in May 2017. At the launch event for Adventures in Modernism, acquaintances and students of Berman’s shared stories of what it was like to read All That Is Solid for the first time, or attend one of his impressive lectures on rap music or the South Bronx. It was riveting and intimate—even mournful—yet did little to advance Berman’s image past that of the “happy warrior.” While uniqueness and historical significance definitely do not undo each other in the abstract, most of the new work on Berman seems to capture his singular nature without contextualizing him in terms of any specific tradition.

Lacking a significant base of existing secondary scholarship, my own work on Berman seeks to uncover his main interests and priorities at the very beginning of his career. Through his archived graduate and undergraduate scholarship, I investigate which traditions (especially so-called “Cold War liberalism”) informed his emerging Marxist humanism, interrogate his work alongside parallel trends in political thought like the New Left, and track the origins of his theoretical syncretism. Though “revisionist” in his emphasis on theories of alienation and dismissal of Stalinism, Berman deviates from more prominent Marxist humanists like Leszek Kolakowski and the Praxis School, who criticized the political realities of the Cold War (and their intellectual antecedents) on the basis of humanistic principles. Berman displayed a lifelong tendency to work within established liberal and Enlightenment contexts in an exceedingly academic register, rallying “canonical” authors in a perceived common struggle against the alienating forces of modernity. He once described Marxist humanism as “a synthesis of the culture of the Fifties with that of the Sixties” (160).

In All That Is Solid, Berman’s revisionism, though stark, is never fully explicated. To Berman, Marx may have appreciated capitalism’s achievements while also apprehending its spiritual deficiencies. “Radical fusion,” Berman argues, “has given way to fission; both Marxism and modernism have congealed into orthodoxies and gone their separate and mutually distrustful ways.” In place of orthodox Marxist social analysis and the “haloed” purism of modernist art criticism, Berman aspired to a framework that would “reveal modernism as the realism of our time” (All That Is Solid 121-122). The book initially struck me as radical, though cross-pollinated with the languages of liberal political thought, romanticism, and psychoanalysis. Berman’s earliest novel contribution to political thought, perhaps, was therefore an optimistic, non-dogmatic Marxist idiom that was intelligible to thinkers who would have otherwise assailed Marxism due to the failures of Soviet communism.

Though a political radical and student in the 1960s, Berman channeled his energy into his studies rather than activism or confrontation. At this remove, Berman’s work nonetheless embodied many principles of the radically democratic New Left. Undergraduate experiences at Columbia University between 1957 and 1961 solidified Berman’s interests in the humanities. Early interests in psychoanalysis and the 1844 Manuscripts, whose English translation coincided with Berman’s undergraduate explorations, further helped establish his animating political fixations: alienation in modernity, personal autonomy, and the struggle for authentic political community.

Berman earned advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford in predominately liberal settings. At Oxford he wrote a B.Litt. thesis under Isaiah Berlin’s supervision, a final or near-final draft of which, entitled “Marx on Individuality and Freedom,” sits in Berman’s archives in New York. It contains remarkable echoes of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”—suggesting, perhaps, a student’s attempts to synchronize Marx with the liberal sensibilities of his supervisor. As in All That Is Solid, Berman suggests that orthodox Marxism, manifest in the state doctrine of the Soviet Union and dogmatic revolutionary readings of Capital, cannot alone account for the complex effects of modern life on the self. Yet unlike All That Is Solid, the thesis shows Berman’s revisionism in real time.

Berman’s thesis attempts to demonstrate that Marx “clearly sees that there is more to men than economic characters allow.” He articulates Marx’s conception of history as a constant effort on the part of humanity to overcome “illusory communities” and, one by one, assert their individuality in spite of “deterministic myths.” Though unique in their content, Berman’s revisions are familiar in their terminology: “To understand what freedom means… is to recognize that other men are free agents themselves. To affirm myself and recognize another as free… is to realize that orientations other than my own, and no less ‘true,’ are possible.” Berman therefore constructs a novel and humanist Marxism that can facilitate, rather than dismiss, pluralism, liberal democracy, and seemingly “bourgeois” notions of rationality and personal autonomy.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Berman’s graduate revisions are convincing on their own, his B.Litt. thesis casts his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), in a new light. An expansion of his doctoral dissertation, this book analyses Rousseau and Montesquieu in order to develop an account of the notion of authenticity. “Being oneself,” in Berman’s view, poses one of the greatest difficulties and sources of emancipation for modern people. “Why,” he asks, “should the ideal of authenticity, which had co-existed for so long with real repression in society and the state, now suddenly,” in the modern age, “help to generate a revolutionary upheaval against it?” (xiii). The language of authenticity becomes a way of squaring the circle, so to speak, that is the tension between group and individual identity.

As Allan Bloom pointed out in a review, The Politics of Authenticity is a product of the New Left “in having as twin goals freedom, understood to mean being and doing whatever one wants to be or do, and community.” This is unsurprising, as Berman’s work up until 1970 signaled a desire to reconcile the developments of individual autonomy and the communal self. Bloom wrote Berman off as sectarian when, in actuality, Berman’s book is anything but divisive. It explicitly argues that authenticity may be a useful concept for the New Left and Right alike. The common ground stretches back further: “In the nineteenth century the desire for authenticity became a point of departure for both liberal and socialist thought,” Berman writes, as thinkers like J.S. Mill stressed the importance of free expression, diversity of “modes of life,” and the assertion of individual “character” over tradition. “The same values,” Berman claims, “underlay Marx’s radical indictment of liberalism,” as the proletariat lived in a contradiction between individuality and the condition of their labor (xxv).

Looking backwards, it seems plausible that The Politics of Authenticity, like All That Is Solid, is an oddity in intellectual history—an example of a young academic’s attempt to transmogrify the radically democratic energy of the sixties into political science. The former book proved less popular than the latter, but neither is all style. Rather, we would be wise to take a second look at Berman’s impulses as a young scholar. Was he a unique personality to be celebrated, or might we take a critical look at his tendency to revise—without consideration of barriers of tradition or discipline—the ideas of past thinkers according to the demands of the present? If it could be done in the ideological crucible of the Cold War, could it not also appear today?

Max Ridge is an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in history.

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