Marshall Berman sees in the incoherence of a punk culture the same potential that Marx once thought he saw in the rising consciousness of a proletarian movement: the coming “negation” of the capitalist order. But neither the street youths of today nor the factory workers of yesterday, neither the guitar nor the hammer, have ever posed such a challenge.
The Dissent circle, as learned as it is dogged, persists with the illusions of democratic socialism, as though an egalitarian moral economy of community and mutuality can be willed into existence. In the past the American left could sustain such illusions because it looked elsewhere: Russia, China, Cuba, catastrophes all, but regimes that misled the left into believing that if only democracy displaces totalitarianism, socialism will rise to glory as surely as the sun rises out of the morning’s dew. Today the left must face America, a free, liberal society of political rights and property protections. The sustained intensity with which the left has attacked liberalism only dramatizes the historical fact that socialism has never been able to be spawned from it.
The left’s worthiest aim has always been not to realize the best but to oppose the worst. Berman says nothing about the achievements made in civil rights, feminism, the environment, and the equalization of higher education. Perhaps such causes defy the socialist scenario of collective solidarity and validate the viability of liberal institutions. The causes are neither transformative nor transgressive, but noble causes they remain.
Berman wonders what happened to the “critical culture” that animated the sixties. “Critical”? The heady promises of pot and sexual freedom, the assaults on authority and the “bourgeois” family, the fetish of “participatory democracy,” and other misplaced wishes could scarcely withstand the scrutiny of self-criticism. Berman pines away for the older culture of innovative theatres, jazz and coffee houses, and shaggy youths coming to life on the streets. Marx once advised that we must draw our “poetry” from the future; Berman’s nostalgia for the past sounds more and more like Willa Cather lamenting the loss of village life, not in New York but in Nebraska.
Berman is far more optimistic about the materials of intellectual history than may be warranted. We need to understand, he advises, that “with Marx and Freud, we are living on top of radical gold mines” and that Miller’s Death of the Salesman remains “one of the permanently great radical plays.” Marx saw socialism as the stage that supplants liberalism; today the sequence is reversed. Former communist countries aspire to liberalism, assuming they can return to a stage of history they have never experienced in its full flowering. Freud would, I believe, like to be told that we “are living on top” of his corpus, but would he not be a little amused to see the Freudian left trace...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.