Response to Marshall Berman

Response to Marshall Berman

Who wants to criticize a commentator as well-meaning and warm-hearted as Marshall Berman? He is a bard of urban life with an infectious enthusiasm for New York. For many years he has been singing of the joys of city streets and corners, where he often finds evidence of a cultural renewal and transformation. When Berman goes shopping and encounters an Asian woman with a black child eating a bagel, he excitedly announces a revolution is in progress. But even Berman is now a little down in the mouth, wondering what happened to the “critical culture” of the past. The throbbing city streets do not seem to be undermining capitalism.

We probably all share Berman’s worry over the disappearance of a critical culture, but the way he formulates the issue reveals how lost he—and let me add, I and everyone else—has become. He writes we need three things to revitalize a subversive culture: (1) powerful and provocative ideas (2) smart and imaginative people and (3) vital neighborhoods. Unfortunately he has not gone very far. Take some clever people with good ideas and put them in very nice quarters. What could be bad? Nothing, but is this a theory or even a notion of cultural transformation? Berman sounds less like a jaytalker than a yenta or perhaps a developer with an idea for an urban coffeeklatch with buzz.

At best one might say that Berman is offering the Upper West Side/old Greenwich Village theory of cultural change. It hasn’t worked in the last thirty years; ergo, it may work soon. Why? He doesn’t tell us. Have the ideas gotten better? No. The people smarter? No. The streets livelier? No. He indicates one important advance from his beloved sixties, when an ossified labor movement spurned leftists. Now a revitalized labor movement welcomes radicals and intellectuals. According to Berman, “a new generation” of “brilliant” AFL-CIO organizers is now “winning big strikes.” Putting aside the truth of this, Berman may not realize his observation can be turned against his argument. If I may be heretical in what is still a socialist magazine, why does Berman think that successful AFL-CIO organizers have anything to do with building a subversive culture? Berman may want to reread his Lenin. Perhaps a fossilized labor movement, paradoxically, was essential for sixties activism; it drove talented and energetic souls, who would have been swallowed up by the union bureaucracy, into other and more radical endeavors.

Berman has longings for a future critical culture, but, alas, not even an inkling of what he wants. He tells us radical ideas are everywhere; we just have to “learn to inhale.” For instance, what? He pulls the old leftist trick, substituting group thought for thought. He doesn’t know what ideas, but he knows the groups that will engender them: feminists, environmentalists, black people or other minorities. But what will these groups offer? Berman cannot say.

His single effort to get specific is...

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