Enthusiasm is a strange and wonderful thing. In the 1920s, Whittaker Chambers came across an essay by Lenin in a bookstore near Columbia University, and left the shop in a state of incandescent commitment to the world revolution. At about the time, some three decades later, that Chambers was turning on his former comrades, Marshall Berman entered a bookstore, picked up a copy of Karl Marx’s Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844… “and suddenly I was in a sweat, melting, shedding clothes and tears, flashing hot and cold. I rushed to the front. ‘I’ve got to have this book!’ ”
Nor was this the only time that he was visited by the thunderbolt. Ten years later, he sounds like a torrential John Leonard review as he describes falling “in love” with the Marxist art critic Meyer Schapiro: “Inside five minutes I was knocked out. He talked about Gauguin and Van Gogh-and Zola and Shakespeare and Augustine and Engels and William James and Tolstoy and Picasso and non-Euclidean geometry. . . . It was like sex, or music, or a few other peak experiences.” And this at a time when Berman was “already in love with Columbia’s other larger-than-life figure, Lionel Trilling.” Nor is it only books and men that move him. On a bus from the Bronx to Manhattan he sees a girl with a seriously cute ass, “stunning in the skin-tight pink pants she has just bought.” He overhears this girl tell her mother that she and her friends are “modern. We know how to take care of ourselves.” And right away he perks up: “Life is rough in the South Bronx, but the people aren’t giving up: modernity is alive and well.” On another occasion, this time on Upper Broadway, he runs into “an apparition… a girl in a red T-shirt that displayed, on and around her breasts, a group of Karl Marxes, four or five of them, in a semi-circle, arms linked, smiling broadly, kicking their legs high in a rousing dance.” Backtracking a block and catching up with the girl, Berman discovers that she is wearing the logo for the Union of Radical Political Economists. Who knew? For him, intellectual life is like-in the best sense of the term-Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
Like Berman-though I have less luck with girls on buses and on the street-I have more than once put down a volume of Marx and had to pace about the room, or ring someone up. (The opening of the Eighteenth Brumaire; the closing staves of The Civil War in France.) And it could very well be, against what we are told are the odds, that young readers are having this experience as I write. Berman discovered the “young Marx” of 1844 at just the point, after the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, when official Communism was in moral and intellectual disrepute. He was astonished to discover how open-minded and anti-authoritarian Marx was. Now, with official Communism not just discredited but dustbinned, it may be possible to take an unprejudiced look, as if for the first time, at the work of the old dialectician. (He and
Engels, throughout the latter part of the 19th century, looked on America as the country of liberty and revolution, and on Russia as the source of despotism and darkness. This must count as a genuine irony of history.) A fine new biography of Marx by Francis Wheen has just astonished the critics in Britain, where a BBC poll on “man of the millennium” put the founder of historical materialism in a comfortable first place.
In a collection of essays on people-
Edmund Wilson, Walter Benjamin, and others-and on themes like alienation and exploitation, Berman demonstrates both his own range and that of Marxism. His bias is toward the humanistic and the aesthetic-the ways in which people are free and unfree, and conscious or otherwise of the fact. For example, who does not know that Marx termed religion “the opiate of the masses”? Actually, he uttered no such vulgarity. The words occur in a long critique of Hegel, in which Marx showed a real appreciation for the complexity and appeal of religious belief, further cited by Berman as follows: “The basis of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man.”
Man also, it might be argued, makes religion and God in his own image. And the other things he makes-like economic relations-can turn into fetishes, and become instruments of oppression and mystification. In the market, we are told, the consumer is sovereign by virtue of choice. But can you “choose” to travel by train, or “choose” to have health coverage? Not in any meaningful sense of the term. Well then, how many choices do you have about how, or for whom, and on what conditions, you will work? You must first answer Willy Loman’s question from Death of a Salesman: What have you got to sell? Now more than ever, this is true of the supposedly intellectual professions like law or medicine or the academy. Poor people can’t get lawyers in a country that is glutted with them; the HMOs have abolished the autonomy of physicians; college professors are often glorified fundraisers. In a fine essay on the continuing relevance of the Communist Manifesto, Berman handles these questions with great deftness. He stresses Marx’s seemingly improbable emphasis on the freedom of the individual, and the number of principles that he had in common with that other great Victorian John Stuart Mill.
Marx was of course a non-Jewish Jew, and Berman hails from the garment district of radical tradition. He shows a keen awareness of the displaced messianism that lurks in Marx’s work-and which isn’t the best part of it-but
also of its specific appeal to secular Jews in the 20th century. A particularly lucid essay examines the work of the murdered novelist Isaac Babel, who was an early victim of Stalinism. And his chapter on the life and work of the
Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs-model for the Jewish-Jesuit-Communist Leo Naptha in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain-is the best treatment of the subject I have ever read. Berman’s writing is scholarly but jargon-free, anchored in modern references but with a strong sense of history, and animated by a generous sympathy. He represents what’s best in the Marxist tradition, which still has a chance of surviving the century of its catastrophic victories. Every time you read some facile article on “globalization” and reflect that capitalism has-well anticipated by Marx-
created an economy but by no means a world society, you may want to reflect on your kinship with other sellers of labor power, in Timor and Bolivia, and consider what interests you have in common. You may have fewer chains to lose than they, but you may also be reminded of the famous slogan of 1848.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.