Issue 85 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1999 Copyright © International Socialism

All power to the imagination

A review of Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism (Verso, 1999), £17


At the end of the 1990s it seems that few of us can escape the grip of Noel Coward's '20th Century Blues'. So much of our society seems fragmented, distorted and confused. War, economic crisis and revolution have all knocked the self confidence out of early 20th century predictions of progress. For many commentators this chaos can never be fully explained, and any attempt to change it by conscious human action is naive folly. It appears that, as Francis Fukyama said, 'the 20th century has made all of us into deep historical pessimists'.1

Marshall Berman, however, has never been a pessimist, as this collection of essays shows. Whether he is writing about Marx, describing 'Georg Lukács' Cosmic Chutzpah', or simply sketching a pen portrait of one of his students, Berman always tries to get beneath the surface to understand the deeper forces which shape our lives. For him, seeking some meaning from the maelstrom of modern life has never been a futile exercise. Using Marx's ideas, he attempts to trace the currents guiding the torrent of new ideas, social structures, political organisations, economic forms and artistic innovations thrown up by capitalist society. From the moment he first picked up a copy of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts2 in the Soviet Four Continents bookstore in New York, to the present day, he has lost nothing of his sense of exhilaration at finding the intellectual tools to help him do this:

Berman's writing is infused with a sense of deep personal involvement with the ideas and people he meets during his 'adventures in Marxism'. His urgent need to communicate his passion for Marx's writing characterises each of the essays in this collection. Just as urgent is his desire to rescue Marx from those who want to lock his ideas away behind dogma, academic mystification and hostile polemic. He gave away the copies of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts indiscriminately to bewildered relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Faced with two sterile versions of Marxism--one the stuff of Stalinist dogma, the other drawn from Cold War caricatures--he seized on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as the starting point for a new kind of Marxism, one which celebrated Marx's individualism, his passion and his rebellion, against the monoliths of the 1950s:

A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and eight years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is hard to imagine the sense of challenge that the phrase 'Marxist humanism'encapsulated in the 1950s. In Europe and the US a growing number of people were becoming disenchanted with the monolithic Stalinist Communist parties. In France, Britain and the US small groups of intellectuals began to form around a common rejection of Stalinism. They were only loosely organised through discussion circles and critical journals, but the sense of a movement crystallised around the ideas of 'Marxist humanism' and the name the 'New Left'.

For the New Left, Stalinism turned Marx's ideas into rigid dogma, as oblivious to human action as the laws of physics. As one of the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Iron in the Soul tries patiently to explain to a doubter:

The critical event which propelled a whole generation of left wing intellectuals away from the dead embrace of the Communist parties was the Hungarian Revolution. As Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush a workers' uprising, figures such as Edward and Dorothy Thompson, John Saville and Christopher Hill left the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest. Thompson and Saville made an explicit attempt to link Marxism and humanism in the first editorial of their new discussion journal, The New Reasoner, in July 1956:

Against the might of Soviet Marxology, with its institute in Moscow and its ranks of experts, the intellectual rebels of the New Left took up the writings of 'the young Marx'. Berman argues that the publication of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts was not only a defining moment in the development of Marxism, but an event which played a crucial role in the re-emergence of class struggle in the late 1960s:

The central idea of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts was Marx's concept of alienation. In the essays Marx develops the idea that capitalism turns activities which ought to give meaning to our lives--the work we do to transform our environment, the relationships we build with other people--into things that seem alien to us, outside of our control.8 Ironically, capitalism which champions individual freedom stands between us and the 'free development of [our] physical and spiritual energies'.9

For the left wing intellectuals of the 1950s, cut off from the organised working class and living through the greatest boom in the history of capitalism, the concept of alienation was crucial to a defence of Marxism. As Berman argues, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 'provided a searing indictment of capitalism even at its most triumphant.' It also laid the ground for the moral indictment of Stalinism, which Berman identifies with Marx's description of a 'crude, mindless communism'.10

The publication of the 1844 Manuscripts also recreated the sense of Marx's writings as 'work in progress' which had been hidden by decades of Stalinism. For Berman, even the unfinished form of Marx's work testifies to the flexibility and resilience of his thought.

How can Capital end while capital lives on? To stop simply and abruptly, rather than create an ending, preserves far more of the truth that Capital has to tell: circling, spiralling, plunging one way and another, turning in upon himself, seeking endlessly for new axes to turn on, Marx kept his thought and his work as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself.11

These trends are visible throughout Adventures in Marxism. For instance, Berman makes the point that Marx does not ever simply deal with the workings of impersonal social and economic forces. He never forgets that the contradictions of capitalism are worked out in real time, through real men and women.

There are two sets of voices in Berman's essays: firstly, the figures from the crowd scenes of history whom he brings to life--from the pages of Capital, among his students, or from the streets of New York. Secondly, there are the exceptional individuals whom he takes down from their pedestals, 'to confront [them] at ground level, the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand'.12 Marx himself is of course the chief of these, but there are others, like the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, the Soviet author Isaac Babel, and the German writer Walter Benjamin. In his essays these writers emerge as complex individuals, capable of reaching new heights of understanding, but also falling to great depths through personal anguish and suffering. Berman's Marx is an authentic bourgeois hero, grappling with new ideas in a lonely struggle to transcend suffering. In 'Marx: the Dancer and the Dance' Berman describes 'the isolation and the anguish that were interfused with Marx's most radical creativity'.13 He is 'one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century--alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzche, Van Gogh--who drive us crazy as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we all still live'.14

Likewise Lukács is 'one of the real tragic heroes of the 20th century', a man whose life was marked out with both personal and political tragedy--the suicide of his fiancee and the slow death of his Marxism in the stultifying atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. Yet after years of 'repudiating his thoughts and burying his feelings', Lukács finally redeems himself in rebellion against the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. On his deathbed:

Berman's essay on Walter Benjamin is similarly shot through with intermingled personal and political tragedy. Benjamin hangs on to the last as the storm clouds gather across Europe, only fleeing as Hitler's armies close in on France. A friend persuades the US government to grant Benjamin a visa, but he is trapped in France, eventually committing suicide when his band of refugees is arrested on the border with Spain.

Adventures in Marxism is a collection of essays, written at different times for different audiences, rather than a polished work of theory or biography. However, the essays do encapsulate much of what excites Berman about Marx. Yet for all this, he also misses something vital. His heroic, epic Marx lacks any sense of organic connection to the only force which can turn his dreams of communism into reality: the working class. Berman's vision of the lonely thinker, struggling to lay bare the structures of capitalist society, is only one side of the picture. Marx did not simply demonstrate the role of the working class in overthrowing capitalism in the abstract--he spent a large part of his adult life testing out this idea through practical application. In his twenties Marx was active in the nascent Communist organisations of Europe. Despite the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 and his long periods of political inactivity, at the first signs of revival in the working class movement Marx threw himself back into the struggle with enthusiasm: organising, polemicising, writing pamphlets, speaking.

This aspect of Marx's life is not merely historical detail. Missing it out has profound implications for Marxist theory as a whole. Without this organic connection to the working class, Marxism has no living link to the forces within capitalist society which can ultimately overthrow it. It becomes a theory looking at society from the outside. This living connection allows Marxists to distil the experience of the most advanced sections of the working class, and to apply that experience to the theory itself. For instance, as John Molyneux argues, the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat 'was discovered neither by Marx nor any other Marxist theorist, but by revolutionary workers themselves' through the experience of the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution16. Lenin, in his polemics with the Left Communists after the First World War, underlines the point:

This is the missing heart of Berman's unfinished dialectic, the mechanism by which all the heat and light from the clash of titanic ideas turns into something concrete, something which is capable of overturning the social order.

Berman describes in the essay 'All that is Solid Melts Into Air' how for Marx the dynamism at the heart of capitalism pushes the system into unsustainable contradictions. Capitalism makes possible some of the greatest advances that humankind has ever known. Yet this is the same destructive system which wrecks and warps the lives of millions, which produces wars, crisis and famine in the midst of plenty. Berman argues that human beings do not just pay a material price for the contradictions within capitalism. For him, the bourgeoisie:

Berman sees the bourgeoisie cast in the role of the sorcerer's apprentice, who unleashes forces in the human personality which he cannot control: 'The more furiously bourgeois society agitates its members to grow or die, the more likely they will be to outgrow itself, the more furiously they will eventually turn on it as a drag on their growth'.19 Berman's analysis here is revealing, as it again brings the contradictions of the system down to the level of the individual personality. The gap between what capitalism promises to individuals (personal freedom, choice and so on) and the restricted reality that most of us face does drive people to revolt. However, it is the system's failure to supply humanity's material needs that actually pushes the mass of workers to fight back. Marx always took the material conditions of capitalist society as the starting point for his arguments. As he famously stated, 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves'.20 We do not choose the terrain we fight on, yet we fight in the knowledge that what we do shapes the struggle for future generations.

Reducing this struggle to subjective factors does not explain anything. Thus it is not simply the case, as Berman argues, that, 'by picturing themselves as unfree, men make themselves unfree: their prophecy of powerlessness is self fulfilling'.21

The contradictions within people's heads are reflections of contradictions in material reality. Workers under capitalism, because of their material position in society--their lack of control of the process of wealth creation--really are unfree. Their chains are not simply in their heads. Marx argued that it was vital for workers to recognise their subjection in order to overthrow it, but the working class cannot simply develop class consciousness and become free of the constraints of capitalism. There are echoes here of Edward Thompson's argument in his masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class, where he effectively argues that class and class consciousness are the same thing.22

It is easy to understand how the idea of pure intellectual revolt against the system became attractive to the New Left, faced as it was with a dormant workers' movement dominated by Stalinism and triumphant capitalism. Perry Anderson argues that the whole tradition of Western Marxism was shaped by the defeat of revolution in Europe after the First World War:

The political tradition of this journal is based on the idea that what was wrong with Stalinist Marxism was that it was not Marxism at all, and that, likewise, what was wrong with Soviet Communism was that it was in fact a form of capitalism, state capitalism.24 For the New Left, however, what was missing in Stalinist Marxism was a sense of humanity, or as Berman himself puts it, 'a sensual warmth and spiritual depth'.25 Thus a large part of the New Left's criticism of the Communist parties depended on a moral rejection of Stalinism. Alaisdair MacIntyre, writing in the 1950s, argued that this stance led the rebels of the New Left 'to accept the role of isolated moral hero, who utters in the name of no one but himself'.26 This could be an epitaph on Berman's vision of Marx--a tragic towering figure who rages against injustice and inhumanity but who ends up impotent and alone.

This isolation reflects the problems which the theoreticians of the New Left encountered when they tried to find a mechanism to resolve Marx's dialectic and break out of capitalist society altogether. Rejection of the Stalinist dominated workers' movements of the 1950s and 1960s often translated into rejection of the idea that workers can change society at all. For some of the key figures on the New Left this became the kind of pessimism personified by Herbert Marcuse. In his influential essays 'One Dimensional Man' and 'An Essay on Liberation' he argued that the modern working class had no longer any material interest in bringing down the system. Alaisdair MacIntyre argues that for Marcuse:

There are echoes of this position in Berman's writing. For instance he argues, 'The workers may sustain each other today on the assembly line or on the picket line, only to find themselves scattered tomorrow among different collectivities, with different conditions, different processes and products, different needs and interests'.28 Here Berman misses what is crucial about Marx's definition of class. What binds these workers together is not geographical location, nor the fact that they work for the same company, nor even that they do the same kind of job. For Marx, their position as workers is defined by their relationship to the means of production. This means that even if the factory closes and the former assembly line workers find themselves stacking shelves in a supermarket, they will remain workers, and retain fundamentally the same class interests and conditions.

Ironically, despite his celebration of change and dynamism in Marxism, Berman is left with a curiously static view of the working class. He misses the fundamental material forces which bind workers together, and which keep them in permanent antagonism to the bosses. He argues that Marx's claim that the working class is the force which can sweep away capitalism 'raises questions about [his] own romantic image of the working class. If being a paid wage labourer is the antithesis of having a halo, how can Marx speak of the proletariat as a class of new men, uniquely equipped to transcend the contradictions of modern life?'29

It is easy to look at the pressure of exploitation and oppression--and see the twisted wreckage it makes of all our lives--and despair of ever making the world anew. Building a communist society with the working class as it is, with all the baggage of reactionary ideas--racism, sexism, homophobia--and the contradictions that people carry around in their heads would be impossible. Socialists long before Marx recognised this problem. So their practical attempts to build a new society were based on a moral appeal to all classes to reject the horrors of capitalism. They tried to create an embryo of a co-operative, equal society by withdrawing from the world into communes, private utopias for the chosen few. Marx, however, starts from a different basis. As Alex Callinicos explains, 'The pressure of capitalist exploitation forces workers to organise and act collectively. Only thus can they tap the source of their real power, which springs from their position within capitalist relations of production...which gives [them] the power to abolish classes'.30

The working class does not stake its claim to restructure the future of humanity simply on grounds of moral superiority, but because its material position gives it the power to overthrow the entire social order. Marx's vision of the working class is not based on romanticism, but is grounded in reality. It is not a static vision of workers as they are, but one which contains the seeds of contradiction, change and struggle. Fighting side by side, workers begin to overcome the divisions which capitalist society forces onto them. They begin to realise the possibilities for change in a way which is almost impossible in everyday life. Workers occupying their factory in Chile during the revolution of 1972-1973 expressed the process like this: 'The bosses aren't going to tell us what to do... So we opened the stores, took out the raw materials, and just kept on producing--production didn't stop here for a single moment. And we won't stop now or ever. I think we've realised in these last few days that what we're defending is something more than just a plate of beans'.31 Or as Marx put it, 'In the struggle...this mass [of workers] becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests'.32

For all that he leaves out of Marx, Berman does a better job of capturing much of his spirit than many of his more orthodox defenders. John Rees's analysis of the New Left is also a useful comment on Berman's work: 'The New Left marked a renaissance in genuine Marxism, at last creating a tradition of analysis and debate beyond the sterility of Stalinism'.33 Berman has kept alive his passion and enthusiasm for Marx for over 40 years. While many others on what he jokingly calls the 'Used Left' have given into academic despair, he has come through the hopes of the 1960s and defeats of the 1980s without losing the sense of exhilaration that he felt in the Four Continents bookstore. Like Marx, Berman never loses faith in the courage, determination and resilience of ordinary people, even when he cannot quite grasp how to turn those gut instincts into a force which can change society. His writing will inspire you, even when his conclusions are exasperating. Most of all he will make you want to go back to read and savour Marx, not as some literary curiosity, but as a living handbook for our confusing modern times:


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