Saturday, July 21, 2007

Adventures in Marxism

From the From Despair To Where blog:

A couple of years ago, I picked up Marshall Berman's Adventures in Marxism. I couldn't get on with it and chucked it aside. But recently I stumbled across it again, dipped in at random, and have been hooked ever since. It's the first 'unputdownable' book I've read in ages.

For the first time in years, it's made me want to go back to Marx. Berman's genius is to make Marxism seem relevant. When most Marxists try to do that, they just give us a dull lecture on how capitalism has or hasn't changed, the relevance or not of Marx's analysis of capitalism, how he got it right or not about globalisation, and so on. Berman, on the other hand, likes to focus instead on the individual lives of individual workers, what they think about their lives and work, what they think about prospects for the future, their hopes and dreams, whether realised or frustrated. He shows that they are rarely stupid, often intelligent and thoughtful, never as trapped by fetishism and false consciousness as many Marxists would have it. They may be stuck in pointless jobs, but they are also able to construct something meaningful and creative out of their lives. And however trapped ordinary workers may or may not be in their jobs, Berman shows that they're rarely as trapped as Marxist intellectuals are in their own thought. In a brilliant piece on Perry Anderson, Berman says:
"Another reason that I've written so much about ordinary people and everyday life in the street, in the context of this controversy, is that Anderson's vision is so remote from them. He only has eyes for world-historical Revolutions in politics and world-class Masterpieces in culture; he stakes out his claim on heights of metaphysical perfection, and won't deign to notice anything else. This would be all right, I guess, except that he's so clearly miserable over the lack of company up there. It might be more fruitful if, instead of demanding whether modernity can still produce masterpieces and revolutions, we were to ask whether it can generate sources and spaces of meaning, of freedom, dignity, beauty, joy, solidarity. Then we would have to confront the messy actuality in which modern men and women live. The airmight be less pure, but the atmosphere would be a lot more nourishing; we would find, in Gertrude Stein's phrase, a lot morethere there. Who knows – it's impossible to know in advance - we might even find some masterpieces or revolutions in the making."

I think that passage might sum up why I hated the book the first time round, and love it now. First time around, I identified more with the Andersons of this world. But Berman's right: it's lonely and miserable up there. We can't wait for revolution before doing everything we can to fill our lives with joy and freedom.

In another piece in the book, Berman even makes me want to go back to Marx's Capital. And given how much pain and anguish it caused me the first time round, that's no mean feat. Berman's review of it focuses onthe people that talk to us from the pages, the "shopkeepers and sharecroppers, the miners and millowners, poets and publicists, doctors and divines, philosophers and politicians, the world-famous and the anonymous". Marx takes us, argues Berman, "back to the glorious days of the 19th century novel", where some of the "most vivid characters appear for only a moment; [and] others stay with us for long stretches and engage Marx in long and passionate argument; others disappear for hundreds of pages, only to return transformed". But it also looks forward to the modernist masterpieces of Eliot and Joyce, with its "voices from mythology and poetry, sorcery andtheology, from every country and culture under the sun".

Berman again:
"Marx's point in presenting this immense and bizarre chorus is to show capitalism as a maelstrom that sweeps the whole world into its flood, past and present, reality and mythology, East and West: everything and everyone is caught up and whirled in the world market, nothing and no one has the power to hold back. We the readers – along, of course, with the writer – are part of it; we respond, our voices are incorporated into the chorus; the audience finds itself onstage. This may be one reason why, like many great modernist works, Capital never really comes toan end: it reaches out to us in the audience, and challenges us to give the work an ending, by bringing an end to capitalism itself […]

"[Marx's] feeling for contradictions infuses the wholeof Capital with vitality and adventure. An adventureis not an idyll: much of its excitement springs from its risks, from the chance that it could end horribly; but we go on, because we are moving in an ambience of life and hope. The ambience could be a great gift to us today. It is right there, in Capital: the book lies open and open-ended, waiting only for us to give ourselves."

Wonderful stuff. But, says a critic, didn't Marx get it wrong? Berman has the best answer to this we haveyet come across, and I'll finish with just one more quote from him:
"Even when Marx is studied in universities… his thought gets chopped up into various theories to be verified or refuted, and methods to be followed or discarded; what gets left out is what is most alive and exciting, Marx's vision of the world as a whole. A writer's vision of life is less tangible than his politics, economics, religion, ideology; but it goes deeper, and it is what makes his work last long after his causes have won or lost or faded away. Literate people understand this in general: they know that the truth and power in Plato doesn't depend on the validity of his theory of ideas, that Dante can change our lives even if Thomism doesn't, that Dostoevsky's hold on our souls doesn't stand or fall with his claims for the power of the Russian soul. But so many ordinarily sophisticated people become crude when they come to Marx: they observe acidly that workers are often nasty and brutish, or that capitalism hasn't collapsed, or that, in places where it has collapsed, the state hasn't withered away; they note these things, rather impatiently, then slam the book closed and walk away fast without looking back. They forget, or repress, something that they normally know: that it's possible for a writer to be wrong about all sorts of things, and yet to tell the truth about life."
Stuart W.