Marxism as Modernism

Marshall Berman
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity 
Simon& Schuster, New York

Reviewed Meanjin, 41 (4)
December 1982
pp. 493-8.

To compare contemporary thinkers about modernity with those of last century is to confront what Marshall Berman in his book All That is Solid Melts Into Air calls 'a radical flattening of perspective and shrinkage of imaginative range'; it is to meet 'rigid polarities and flat totalisations'. Nowhere is this complaint more accurate than when aimed at scholars who seek some single-factor definition to slot into their dictionary of received ideas. When Berman identifies his major theme through its inner conflicts, changes and counterpoints. His principal concern is with the 'dialectics of modernisation and Modernism'. Consider two variants of this theme: Stalin encouraged modernisation but opposed Modernism; the Futurists welcomed both.      A conservative would call these oppositions paradoxical; liberals label them ironic; a Marxist recognise the unity of opposites as dialectical.[1]

Berman sketches three broad phases of modernity: the first from about 1500 to 1800 when some people were just beginning to grope towards modernisation; the second from the 1790s to the 1890s when more and more people got some sense of two worlds in conflict; the third phase began in the 1890s by which time a modernised public existed, though one that was out of touch with the artists who expressed Modernism in fabulous but fractured ways.

For Berman the twentieth century is the most creative ever. He is particularly fond of the 1960s which he praises for its openness without being blind to their faults and he tries to find some way forward from the collapse of that decade's easy hopes: 'The argument of this book is that, in fact, the modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our modern roots, roots that go back two hundred years'. Like the admired American art critic, Harold Rosenberg, Berman wants to establish a tradition of the new. This tradition is established over five chapters which concentrate, in turn, on Faust, Marx, Baudelaire and Paris, St Petersburg and New York.

Goethe's Faust is subjected to a dazzling interpretation and, even if Berman were totally wrong, his chapter would be worth reading for its prose and its coruscation of ideas. He begins by noting that Faust is one of the first middle-aged heroes in modern fiction; Captain Ahab is the second. Perhaps, since the 1960s generationis now pushing forty, Berman is looking for a tradition of middle-aged heroes? According to Berman, the Easter chimes that call Faust back to life at the close of the drama's opening soliloquy do so by reviving his childhood memories through restoring a sense of a continuing present, that is, by Freudian means and not by Christianity as is often claimed. Berman contrasts the fate of Gretchen, destroyed by the prejudices of constricted rural life, with the destruction of the old rural couple by Faust as land developer. There is no nostalgia for the past and there is no slick Utopianism here. Faust's creativity is fulfilled by socialism, at first by the Utopians and then by Stalin and his heirs. Here is the double tragedy. Faust believed that his crime would produce happiness later on, just as Stalin's horrors have still not borne fruit in higher agricultural yields. Faust is presented as the controller of Fate who creates a canal.[2] Machiavelli began this modernising mentality when he compared Fortune with a river which could be controlled. Similarly, Faust builds a mountain while Chairman Mao had faith in a foolish old man who could move mountains. Third world countries play at Faustian sideshows with airlines and newly built capital cities. When Berman concludes his Faust chapter by asking what is the biggest idea in the world today, his answer is 'thinking small'. The imagination that is needed to escape from the big world of Faustian Stalins, he says, is at least as big as the world they have built.

Berman is puzzled by an omission in the discussion of Modernism in the arts. Marx's generation of Baudelaire Wagner and Flaubert is raked over for clues to Modernism's genesis but Marx himself has been ignored. For Berman, Marx is a modernist writer[3] and the Communist Manifesto the first Modernist work of art:

I have tried . . . to bring out the vividness and richness of his language the depth and complexity of his imagery … clothes and nakedness, veils, haloes, heat, cold -       and to show how brilliantly he develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, he ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them; the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed recombined; basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations.

The title of Berman's book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is from the Manifesto, which he sees as the greatest paean to capitalism ever penned, even though the modernising capitalist remains terrified by the Modernism his system requires.

Not until the Cubists and film-makers of the twentieth century did the Modernist temper finds complete expression in the arts; before then, claims Berman, someone like Baudelaire might recognize what was necessary but could not fulfill that need. Flaubert expressed this uncertainty by turning from The Temptation of Saint Antony to Madame Bovary (1856), then to Salammbo (1862) and back to the present with Sentimental Education (1867). Because Baudelaire saw life as ever-changing, hereby denying the Neo-Classicism which had dominated the arts in France, he wanted to embrace the daily lives of ordinary people. Yet two of his heroes were Delacroix and Wagner whose settings were respectively exotic and ancient or mythological. By expressing 'fluidity and vapourousness’ Wagner and Delacroix took up one element of the modern sensibility, but that daring made them cling to some aspect from the past. When Wagner confronted the terrors of modernisation he did so in costume; the settings for his art of the future came no closer to the present than medieval times. Berman's failure to discuss either of these artists helps to explain why he misjudges Baudelaire's interest in fashion and style, an interest which was radically modern. Berman seemingly mistakes Baudelaire's involvement with vie de boheme for Andy Warhol's fascination with the manufactured tastes in dress and painting of    the 1960s, and so misses the significance of Baudelaire's praise for the painter of modern life, Constantin Guys, whose identification by the initial G is a frighteningly urban mark anticipating Kafka's K by half a century. If Berman had discussed the Neo-Classical heritage he might have perceived the social and cultural rigidities which Baudelaire's concern with fashions was designed to overcome. Since Berman's explication depends on the writings of Walter Benjamin, it would have been more adventurous to build an interpretation of Flaubert out from those essays than to contest their commentary on Baudelaire. There is no profounder way of re-considering Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century than through Sentimental Education.

Instead of taking up any of these strategies, Berman's opening attack on Baudelaire avoids dialectics and resorts to ironies and paradoxes which explain nothing. He should rather have pursued his own point that no mid-nineteenth century artist was able to work out a Modernism with which to express fully the modernisation around him. If we accept the existence of that difficulty in the nineteenth century, we can re-approach Delacroix, Wagner, Baudelaire and Flaubert, as well as the struggle in the works of Dickens and Manet to find ways of depicting the modern world; through the smog of this ambiguity the spontaneous combustion of Bleak House appears quite natural, while the naked model in Dejeuner sur I'Herbe is draped in mythology.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a very political book, most significantly because it suggests strategies and is not just a chronology of ideas. Berman offers a history of crowds as seen from street level, especially in his fourth chapter built around the literature of St Petersburg. This chapter is too long because he gives us far too much of the plots of the fictions he is analysing (perhaps because he does not read Russian) and its theme is almost lost under the detail of retelling. Berman should have taken the opposite risk of losing readers by abridging outlines of the stories and racing us along the Nevsky Prospect. The central idea, however, is the most impressive in a very impressive book. It is this: who gives way to whom on the Nevsky Prospect? Thus, the chapter becomes a study in class transformation, beginning with Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman of 1833 and concluding with Osip Mandelstam’s Egyptian Stamp of 1928. Six other works are discussed: Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect; Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Poor Folk and The Double, Chernyshesky’s What is to be Done?, and Biely’s Petersburg. Berman places his literary analysis in a history of social awakening in which St Petersburg is modern and Moscow is backward-looking. The civil war of 1918-21 destroys St Petersburg: two thirds of the population die, leave, disappear. The Soviets shift their capital to Moscow, back to the heart of old Russia, retreating from the mind of modernity. The battle for control of the Nevsky concludes with a march back to 1833. What was lost? A Soviet dissident gave one answer after protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia: ‘For ten minutes I was a citizen’.

In an afterword on the Crystal Palace Dostoevsky is quoted as arguing that that building shows how modernity as an adventure may be transformed into Modernism as a dismal routine. St Petersburg was fascinated by the Crystal Palace and Berman observes how ‘in relatively back countries, where the process of modernisation has not yet come into its own, Modernism, where it develops, takes on a fantastic character because it is forced to nourish itself not on social reality but on fantasies, mirages, dreams’. Thus, some of the most advanced Modernism came from underdeveloped countries such as Italy, Russia and Ireland.

Berman recognises that Modernism is about the city while modernisation is a matter of urbanisation and one of his conflicts is between the city and urbanisation. The final chapter takes Berman home to New York, to Robert Moses the town planner, to Jones Beach State Park, to expressways through the city, the destruction of the Bronx, to the death of Modernism. Berman recognises that when Moses destroyed their world he seemed to be working in the name of values which the Bronx had instilled in its children. Yet when Moses destroyed the Bronx he lacked the personal power that he had possessed when he built Jones Beach: he became a figure of public hate only after had had lost his claim to rugged individualism. As an Organisation Man, Moses was a suitable case for treatment by Ayn Rand in a rewrite of her Fountainhead. By the time the highways had been stopped from destroying the rest of New York, the Bronx was at its end too and Berman had left, fulfilling its expectations and regretting its passing, all natural enough in a world of refugees.

A refugee from the Bronx and 60s consciousness, Berman concludes by trying to find ways of persisting with Modernism while still being part of a tradition. He observes that many of the protests of the 1960s were conducted by the spiritually disenchanted and psychically mobile in favour of all the physically homeless people in the world. Because the protestors had lost their own social grounding, the 1970s saw a search for origins, sometimes ethnic ones, with Maxine Hong Kingston is cited as an exemplary case.

In exploring these dialectics of change and continuity, Berman knows that conflict cannot go away and that any tradition must be based in oppositions. To think otherwise is to court totalitarianism. So he attacks all those 'modernists from Rousseau and Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence and Simone Weil' who moved 'in a twilight zone where the line between the richest and most complex modernism and the rankest bad faith anti-Modernism is very thin and elusive, if indeed there is a line at all'. The enforced retreat of European Empires further erased that elusive line when erstwhile imperialists reasserted their metropolitan cultures: the British Empire contracted and Enoch Powell emerged as an English nationalist.[4] After the American empire was wounded in Vietnam there followed a surge of inward-looking, exemplified in the singing of 'God Bless America' at the close of The Deerhunter which is America's Breaker Morant, as Albert Facey is Australia's Alex Haley. If Facey's A Fortunate Life offers principles for decent living, and its rural endurance  encourages us to deal with the terrible decade ahead, its quality of nostalgia, that bad faith anti-Modernism, can nonetheless through a world where all that is solid melts into air. A parallel point could be made about Rodney Hall's Just Relations whose fabulist fictions are aimed against Faustian modernisation.

None of my criticisms has reduced my enthusiasm or Berman's book, and my excitement is best conveyed by outlining two ideas about cities which Berman's writing has provoked in me.

The city as the site for Modernism runs through Berman's arguments. There cognition of Faust as a developer and Marx as a poet carries onto Walter Benjamin's account of Paris and Berman's own vision of New York as the capital of the twentieth century. Through this understanding he proceeds to a discussion of the street, the city and those forces trying to kill them both. He begins with Haussmann's boulevards before quoting Le Corbusier’s 'Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be avoided. We must kill the streets'. Le Corbusier's edict went one stage further than Haussmann's counter-revolutionary town-planning. Jane Jacobs is quoted approvingly since her Death and Life of Great American Cities described the streets as ballet, not chaos; yet since the streets were not a mechanical ballet their choreography was ignored by most architects. Jacobs is seen as the poet of pre-1960 New York and her prose is urban montage. From her streets came the stage ballet of Merce Cunningham, even though her New York had far fewer blacks than it does today.

I have always loved the laneways of Melbourne, and if Little Collins Street was a pre-1850 invention, the Paris-end of Collins Street was impure Haussmann so its recent death did not trouble me. But Melbourne's city square replaced a wen with a fake space. Thanks to Berman, I can see pedestrian malls as another enemy. Canberra's Civic Centre has strangled its inner city because NCDC planners have killed its streets which are no longer places of conflict, of competition between different forces. The redevelopment of Woolloomooloo brinks that destruction; hence, the aptness of the film title, The Killing of Angel Street. Of course, other streets are killed by traffic by becoming freeways, expressways and clearways. Traffic kills the street. No traffic kills the street.

The second idea is a question: where is Australia's Nevsky Prospect? Is it a beach, or perhaps the surf? The Sydney Dance Company has shown in Rumours what can be learnt in such places. But where on the streets, and where in our prose and poetry? Martin Boyd's Outbreak of Love has its confrontation outside the theatre when Mrs Montaubyn assaults Wolfie as a Hun. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by M. Barnard Eldershaw is so alert to the rhythms of Sydney that the battle that burns the city to the ground is entirely credible. Lawson's faces in the street are watched from a windowsill; Lesbia Harford walks alongside her subjects; Slessor's 'William Street' zooms and pans like a movie camera. These are stray instances from another book I would like to read if someone would write it, a book about life in the city streets of Australia.

[1] Dialectical is also used as a synonym for complicated or as a confession of bewilderment.

[2] From inside the Stalinist beast, Georg Luk6cs approved of Goethe's ‘passionate interest in every technical and economic achievement of capitalism and even expresses the desire to be able to live long enough to witness the construction of the Danube-Rhine canal and the Suez and Panama canals', Goethe and his Age (Merlin, London, 1968), p. 192.

[3] Connections between modernism and Marxism could be pursued beyond those made by Berman. Take the case of Dada, a nonsense phrase used by Marx in an 1860 pamphlet which Hugo Ball might have read in l9l5 (See Encounter, November 1981, p. 92). Tom Stoppard's Travesties is built on firmer ground than wordplay, since Lenin was working on his analysis of monopoly capitalism surrounded by other refugees from the very phenomenon that his Imperialism could explain. A few years later, Tristan Tzara joined the French Communist Party and remained a member until his death. Moving backwards in time, there is Engels as an early prose master of urban rhythms, one of the subjects explored by Steven Marcus in Engels, Manchester and the Working Class. Following Berman's trail, further attention could be paid to the well-known imagery and bravura of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, another link to Paris, Baudelaire and Haussmann. [see my ‘Unreadable Marx’ elsewhere on this site.]

[4] Tom Nairn, ‘Enoch Powell: the New Right', New Left Review, 6l, May-June 1970, pp. 3-27.