Hurling the Little Streets Against the Great: Marshall Berman’s Perennial Modernism

Marshall Berman, c. 1970s


Marshall Berman was an inspired visionary, indeed a prophet of modernism, which he understood as the deep story of the last century and a half—not only its uprisings and its arts but the experiences and problems of everyday life. He thought there was plenty of life in the beast: that through indirections and detours, theses and antitheses, modernism might yet take us into new territories even as it was haunted by ghosts of the past. Again and again, Marshall posed the question of how to find hope in a ruthless, berserk world. Ever attuned to the potential for responding to grotesque power, he rightly understood resistance as integral to the modern zeitgeist.

Modernity, he understood, was twisted into a Möbius strip of creative destruction and destructive creation. Creative destruction had been celebrated by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 as the essential dynamic of capitalism: capital was always, necessarily, a wrecking ball. If you didn’t like it, too bad; history would wreck you too. Marshall saw the whole edifice that capitalism had built, and was still building, as a destructive creation. A civilization that had figured out how to power the engine of growth by burning the remnants of dead life—using so-called fossil fuels—could only be inherently self-destructive. It could generate unimaginable wealth, while simultaneously making the world as we know it unlivable. Yet the ability to look around the corner and see, deep inside modernity, the insurgent spirit at work was precisely Marshall’s gift.

Marshall was quintessentially a citizen of unfinished New York, a world city of immigrants (36 percent today, about the same as before the First World War). New York City shaped his intricate encounter between modernism and Marxism, both of which aspired to finesse modernity into a society worthy of the best in humanity.

Marshall was a New Yorker rooted in the uprootedness of his Jewish immigrant grandparents and the ideals of the socialist left, a condition he shared with many born just before or during the Second World War. While his surroundings at first appeared auspicious for such an upbringing, this changed. New Deal liberalism and the expansion of the welfare state were rebuffed when national health care was defeated in 1948; Marshall was then eight years old. Then came McCarthy. Marshall came of age after the resounding defeat (and self-defeat) of the Marxist dream of a unified proletarian movement. The latter had shriveled into sectarian irrelevance at best and Soviet apologia at worst; sometimes, both. A good deal of the working-class-in-itself was integrated into an American celebration, as C. Wright Mills called it, and the putative class-for-itself did not exist. There were uprisings to celebrate—the civil rights movement chief among them—but there was no crescendo of history.

An intellectual of the left with an original cast of mind, an energetic student of the indeterminacies of history, allergic to determinism, passionate but unafraid of irony, would logically be a dangling intellectual. Dangling was the only place left for an independent soul. This was not only a tactical decision but a case of elective affinities, for Marshall was a free spirit with definite Luftmensch tendencies. He was an omnivore. He devoured books, movies, music, theatre—everything that fed the life of the free-floating mind at loose in a dynamic world that, however poisoned, however warped, however frozen, was never devoid of promise.

Modernity, Berman understood, was twisted into a Möbius strip of creative destruction and destructive creation.

But Marshall had another brilliant move in his repertory. If the class that theory had designated the universal class of the future was quiescent, if perverted Marxism in power was a monstrosity, Marshall would look to the streets. If utopia betrayed itself in power, modernism would have to take to the streets, which would not simply serve as a proscenium for power but become power itself—the power of collective self-creation.

For Marshall, modernism was fired up and ready to leap to the rescue of the modern, radically displaced individual, because it celebrated energy and incompleteness, disruption and overcoming. But modernism would celebrate these breakthrough aspirations without the illusion of click-of-the-lid closings. Marshall was partial to his teacher Lionel Trilling’s remark that the upheavals of the 1960s amounted to “modernism in the streets.” While it’s uncertain if Trilling ever celebrated this eruption of what he came to call “adversary culture,” it is clear that Marshall, along with millions of his generation, did. The streets were where modernism needed to be for its own development.

Marshall didn’t say so, but the truth was that museums, libraries, universities, and publishers, among others, had let modernism down. They were cultural repositories but they were also sarcophagi. Modernism was—as perhaps was appropriate—homeless. The street was where it belonged.

So when modernism took to the streets in a vast web of ’60s performances—New Left rallies, guerrilla theater manifestations, countercultural collectives and every other manifestation of freedom and insouciance—Marshall was seized with the idea that this was more than a style; it was an identity and a crucible for creation. Moreover, it did not come out of the blue; it had a lineage. Modernism, the opening up of the present, was unfolding in human time. In the interest of modernity’s capacity for “perpetual self-critique and self-renewal” he mustered a ragtag army of moderns. He defied the left-wing critique of cold war modernization theory as a disguise for imperial conquest. For Marshall, modernization was the irrepressible drama of history. It was no longer a choice, it was an ecology. And modernism was adaptation. He defined modernism as “any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it.”



I want to take a closer look at his definition.

First, become subjects as well as objects. Modernity was no longer a choice, it was a condition. The question was, who was to master it? The ideal was invoked and in some ways embodied in his heroes, Rousseau and Nietzsche. With them, Marshall was accompanied down the divergent paths—sometimes simultaneously—that moderns had offered to accomplish this apparently self-contradictory project. He found promise in wildly different forms inside Marx’s revolutionizing relations of production, but also inside the conflicted, agonistic human soul as conceived by Freud and his fertile precursor, Nietzsche. Nietzsche staked out epigrams like “we ourselves are a kind of chaos” and also wrote: “We moderns, we half-barbarians. We are in the midst of our bliss only when we are most in danger.”

But let’s stay with Marx for a moment. For Marshall, Marx was the master among masters. What was at play was both more and less than a class struggle. It was less so because unities were desperately hard to assemble. (Most of the rebellions of 1848 were crushed.) But it was more so because, largely after Marx’s death, struggles for democracy around the world became the lodestone. Perhaps now, at last, these struggles could hook up toward resolution. Marxism, after all, promised a resolution—or did it? In the revolutionary year 1848, it certainly looked that way. There seemed to be a Hegelian tendency at work, a teleology on its way to the realization of “species being.” Marx and Engels launched their manifesto with proto-Wagnerian fanfare:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large—

And then came that funny little phrase: “—or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx didn’t dwell on the prospect of common ruin, and just as well, for it undermined the Enlightenment Whiggery (in Hegelian guise) that he inherited and embraced. But it was a moment when Marx acknowledged, if briefly, that history was not only a dialectic but also a tragedy—as Part II of Faust embodied what, in All That Is Solid, Marshall called the “tragedy of development.”

In other words, while moderns were trying to take command of the often hellish forces of growth and transformation, Marx asked: What is the promise of modernity without teleology?

There were uprisings to celebrate—the civil rights movement chief among them—but there was no crescendo of history.

Second in Marshall’s trinity of modern tasks, get a grip meant two things: First, it referred to the relationship between the arts and the world. We had to approach the arts not as weapons (Marshall did not welcome agitprop), but as implements by which we could get a grip on our cultural moment, however elusive it may seem. In fact, the dynamos of modernization were ungraspable and this was terrifying. History seemed to offer a choice of waking nightmares: too tight a grip gave us Darkness at Noon, and no grip at all gave us doomed Weimar.

But also, getting a grip required intellectual work, not least of which was creating concepts. In Marshall’s view, the twentieth century had witnessed a decline from the big modernism of the nineteenth. There had been “a flattening of perspective and shrinkage of imaginative range.” The twentieth century successors had “lurched…toward rigid polarities and flat totalizations. Modernity is either embraced with a blind and uncritical enthusiasm, or else condemned with a neo-Olympian remoteness and contempt…Open visions of modern life have been supplanted by closed ones. Both/And by Either/Or.”

His modernism centered on Both/And, on lives and works moved by “a will to change…and a terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart.” The place where this happened was the modern city, which was always at once under construction and under destruction. Modernity was not only a condition but a movement—in fact, many movements and many maelstroms—jostling against each other in the city. Modernity was made of “agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experimental possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul.”

This meant more problems. For one thing, it seemed that the modern arts had broken away from modern lives, and we now failed to recognize ourselves as “participants and protagonists” in it. This problem opened into another one: How do you make a home in chaos? And if bliss entails danger, even the danger of absolute destruction, who will sign up? But on the other hand, what was the alternative?



Third, what Marshall meant by make themselves at home was the most tantalizing and perhaps most problematic feature of his work. The outstanding question was: How do you make yourself at home in a maelstrom? However you try to do it, it has to be in public. You have to hurl the little streets against the great. You devise May Day and you celebrate it in a thousand renewals. But you also march into the great streets. You assemble there, you Occupy there, you assert public disorder amid the deadly order of the great and the grand. And you assert that disorder not only by what you write on your placards but by what you wear and who you sleep with and what you do with your hair and what drugs you ingest. For Marshall, the liberation of the sixties erased the differences between radical individualism and collective protest. It was no secret that he felt nostalgic for that decade of marvels and horrors. What he missed was the spirit of boundaries dissolving, limits being tested, connections being made. “When a critical culture breaks down or wears out or fades away,” he wrote in 1999, “sources of joy dry up.”

But through the 1970s, as he was writing the essays about Faust and Marx and Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Biely and Robert Moses that he gathered into All That Is Solid Melts into Air, he came to feel that the modernist renewal would not only take place in street demonstrations, in protests against gentrification and the abuses by police and plutocrats, but in graffiti and hip-hop, in ‘zines and flash mobs, anywhere and almost everywhere. He would come to think that the street as such was the resistance. He would celebrate the city itself against the forces that were tearing it apart and committing what he called “urbicide.”

The outstanding question was: How do you make yourself at home in a maelstrom?

The farther we passed from the grand carnivals of the sixties and its dynamic social movements, the more Marshall came to think of the street as the core of modernism. The street was not just the site where modernism was enacted; it was modernism incarnate. When the uprisings subsided, the City became the place to watch. He insisted that the greatest entertainment to be found in New York City was the life of the street itself, its profusion of types and tongues, its up-from-below spectacles, its neighborhoods where legions of intensity “transformed old and often sleepy streets into vibrant public spaces that never seemed to sleep at all.” The street was the assembly where the future would be staked out. It was where he hoped to find “traces, fragments, intimations of a new critical culture just around the corner.”

At the same time, Marshall was heading back to the pole where his thinking had begun, with “the politics of authenticity” and the celebration of radical individualism. But then there was also a new problem: How do you subvert a culture which itself consists of one subversion after another, a thousand cable channels of subversion, a million websites each sequestered into self-sufficient clubs? Does it, in fact, any longer make sense to consider the subversion of culture a political project at all? By the turn of the twenty-first century, American culture had fragmented to such a degree that diversity was the new norm. The culture of radical individualism was a welter of resistance—but to what?

Detached from the political dynamo of the 1960s, culture could not itself be politics. The faith that there existed a bridge connecting the articulation of desires en masse to institutions of governance was hard to come by. We learned this in the Occupy movement, whose faith was that assemblies in public spaces on behalf of the 99 percent would not only change the dominant discourse, but forge a new society. The exuberance of Occupy was unmistakable; so was its lineage.

What modernism promises, then, is not an end to tragedy, but an adventure, where love and decency are both constantly renewed and yet always at risk. Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho said it best:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still. All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Todd Gitlin is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. He is working on a radio broadcast/podcast series called Listen In, to be available soon.

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