All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Marshall Berman. Simon & Schuster, 383 pages, $6.95.
June 21, 1983        

A specter is haunting the American left: the specter of antimodernism. Jackson Lears, a brilliant young social historian, writes No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture to prove that capitalism has assimilated or trivialized once radical ideals of individual freedom, and that only premodern values and loyalties?family, community, religion?can sustain radical protest. Whereupon Morris Dickstein author of Gates of Eden, the only serious history of the ‘60s, comes out swinging, accusing Lears of being “captured by a conservative and backward-looking vision . . . the bleak tradition of cultural pessimism.” In a series of essays, political theorist Jean Elshtain chides fellow feminists for their “obsession with ‘self’” and with “personal development” and for their neglect of traditional values and obligations. Whereupon Barbara Ehrenreich, co-author of the feminist classic For Her Own Good and vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, engages Elshtain in a bitter and not very comradely exchange. Looming over all, enigmatic and aloof, Christopher Lasch hurls thunderbolts of erudite disapproval whenever the contemporary “culture of narcissism” threatens to infiltrate the left.

A key text in this debate is Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, first published last year and recently issued in paperback Leading his jaded and disheartened late-20th-century readers through the history and literature of the last two centuries, Berman, a political-philosophy professor at CCNY, tries to impart his sense that it all adds up to more than sound and fury and cataclysmic violence. The colossal, often lethal, pains of the modern era have been growing pains, he argues. In any case, we can’t go home again, it’s too late to stop now, modernity is here to stay. We don’t really want to go home again, Berman suggests, not even at our most beleaguered. But since even the best sometimes lack all conviction, he amiably, generously offers to share some of his, to help us get our bearings and take heart before going down to the street to grapple with the modern flux.

What is modernity? “What is Enlightenment?” asked Kant at the end of the 18th century; he answered with the first and still perhaps the most famous definition of modernity: “Humankind’s emergence from its own minority. . . . And its new motto is sapere aude: dare to know.” This in essence is also Berman’s notion: modernity as maturation, emancipation, critical consciousness, childhood’s end. Like adulthood, modernity is inevitable but also precarious, vulnerable to the archaic terrors of a dependent childhood, continually tempted by “transcendent” loyalties rooted in those terrors and that dependence. After childhood, adolescence, with its promise and danger: our present state. Berman’s earnest, magnanimous book is an inquiry into how we might survive our culture’s troubled and possibly terminal adolescence.

The heart of All That Is Solid is a splendidly imaginative reading of Marx as a proto-modernist and of the Communist Manifesto as “the first great modernist work of art.” In the opening section Manifesto, Marx describes, with extreme intensity and compression, the rise of capitalism and its destruction of premodern forms and traditions. Competition, commodity production, the division of labor, technological innovation, centralization?all relentlessly erode the privacies and privileges of the old world. Economic “rationality” is as pitiless as scientific rationality; economic “superstitions,” like self-sufficiency, the intrinsic value of work, and the prestige of the “higher” professions, are no less doomed than theological ones. In Marx’s vertiginous prose:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the relations of society. . . . Wherever it has got the upper hand, it has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has torn asunder the ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other nexus between man and man than self-interest and cash payment. . . . In a word, for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
. . .All fixed, their fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.

Berman asks: what sort of culture, psychology, character structures have these changes produced? By way of answer, he adumbrates the modern ideal of individual development: activity, growth, autonomy, self-consciousness, adaptability to incessant change. A new, more mobile personality is needed to survive in a competitive market society. And to excel in such a society requires immense, sometimes over-weening energy, imagination, and ambition?qualities we now call “Faustian.”

Goethe’s Faust, according to Berman, is one of the exemplars of modern dynamism: a “consummate wrecker and creator,” the first developer. Faust was a visionary, determined to deliver his society, through forced economic development on an epic scale, from what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life.” That rural life had deep roots, and many ordinary lives were ruined as well as enriched by Faust’s schemes. But unlike other modern developer-heroes?Peter the Great, Baron Haussman, Robert Moses?Faust agonized over the costs of modernization to those who get into the way.

Like all other forms of coercion, forced modernization generates defenses, most notably the ironies and ambivalences Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, and other literary modernists. Berman finds in Baudelaire a new aesthetic of upheaval, anonymity, and spectatorship. In Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Mandelstam he traces a “modernism of underdevelopment,” a whimsical or self-lacerating response to the grotesque unevenness of half-modern (e.g., 19th-century Russian, 20th-century Latin American) societies. And to bring it all back home (at any rate, to those of us for whom the modern city is home), Berman discusses some varieties of modernism in the 20th century, especially in New York: the techno-pastoral fantasies of the Futurists and LeCorbusier, the “expressway world” envisioned by Robert Moses, and the urban-neighborhood-as-democratic-microcosm of Jane Jacobs.

Berman’s primary metaphor for the whole vast modern experience is “the tragedy of development.” This seems exactly right. A tragedy is not an ordinary misfortune; it a catastrophe that no one, not even its protagonist, could will to turn out differently, because its causation is ultimately bound up with those qualities or values that make the hero what he or she most deeply is. The dreadful dislocations of modernity, our confusion, insecurity, and homelessness, the forgetting or destruction of so many cherished pasts?this is the price we have paid for aspirations that most of us will not give up: mobility, abundance, novelty, and above all, freedom from traditional pieties and superstitions. Modernity simultaneously evokes and frustrates our yearnings for more plentiful life. The capitalist market conjures up prodigies, harbingers of infinite delight, but in the form of commodities, which soon blight and decay. Yet to return to the precapitalist past would be, as Marx wrote, “to decree everlasting mediocrity.”

Marx’s solution to the dilemmas of modernity is more and deeper
modernity?that is, socialism: “We know that to work well . . . these new-fangled forces of society want only to be mastered by new-fangled people?and such are the workers, as much the invention of modern times as machinery itself.” Or as Berman puts it, wistfully: “The way beyond the contradictions will have to lead through modernity, not out of it. . . . We must start where we are: psychically naked, stripped of all religious, aesthetic, moral haloes and sentimental veils, thrown back on our individual will and energy, forced to exploit each other and ourselves in order to survive; and yet, in spite of all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart, dimly aware of all we might be together, ready to stretch ourselves to grasp new human possibilities, to develop identities and mutual bonds that can help us hold together as the fierce modern air blows hot and cold through us all.”

The style of that passage is engaging, but the vision behind it has met with furious resistance from a new quarter?the anti-modernist left. To Berman’s radical critics, like Jackson Lears, talk of capitalism as “tragedy” is so much feckless sentimentality. Modernization, they retort, is not an impersonal, world-historical progress but a novel form of class domination. The antagonists in the drama of modernity are not the new and the old, but modernizing elites and subject populations. Modernist culture is largely reflexive, called forth and limited by the requirements of these modernizing elites. The ideal of personal “growth” is just such an ideological reflex, a rationalization of capitalism’s need for unrestrained economic growth. The continual transformation of work and family life wrought by the expansion of markets and the pressures of competition appears to Berman as a “dialectic” of “innovative self-destruction.” It appears to Lears as “the destructive power of capitalist ‘progress,’ which uproots people from kin and communal ties, transforming them into mobile, interchangeable units of ‘human capital.’” What Berman celebrates as “our” quest for “more abundant life” Lears describes very differently: “Professional and managerial elites have sanitized and popularized the ideal of self-development” into “an anxious, calculating hedonism, well suited to the daily rhythms of routine and release under corporate capitalism.” The result, according to Lears and Lasch, is not high tragedy and dialectical progress, but a culture of narcissism.

The antimodernists’ solution is not, of course, deeper and deeper modernity. That way, they warn, lies collective amnesia, one-dimensionality, endless accommodation to centralized authority and the vicissitudes of capital accumulation. The illusions of individualism?unlimited “fulfillment” and untrammeled “liberation” ?must be renounced. Only loyalty to something larger than the self?to family, community, religion, or craft?will make possible the limited but genuine autonomy of which humans are capable, will enable us to call on the past to judge the present. Tradition and transcendence are a might fortress, our bulwark against the encroachments of modern nihilism.

The utility of tradition is an old theme, though it’s rarely expounded with the sophistication of Lears or Lasch. The burden of their argument is not the nostalgia for a premodern past, but a useful reminder that the modern “adventure” is not predestined to a happy ending. Nihilism?whether as a total collapse or total control?is a real possibility, something the greatest modern minds have always acknowledged. “Socialism or barbarism,” thundered Marx. “A wave of generosity or a wave of death,” cried D.H. Lawrence.

Still, a warning is not a program. The antimodernists are right to dispute the facile notion that traditional forms and values are merely instrumental, merely ways of keeping people in their place. But it is equally facile to suppose that the destruction of traditions is merely instrumental, merely a way of establishing new and more efficient forms of domination. Religious, kin, and communal loyalties do embody ineradicable human longings; but so, too, do modern impulses toward criticism, rebellion, autonomy, and pleasure, however grievously these impulses have been exploited or perverted. And as transcendence?where is it? Modernity may be “no place of grace,” but what if there is no place of grace? The antimodernists’ coyness on this point is inexcusable. It’s all very well for Lears to invoke Nietzsche’s contempt for the “evasive banality” and “weightlessness” of modern culture, or William James’s scorn for “the complacent bourgeois cult of material progress.” But in the history of thought there are not two more wholly secular thinkers, more uncompromising and disenchanted refusers of he Sacred, than James and Nietzsche. Modernity may be a misfortune: who would not prefer enchantment to disenchantment? We would all, as Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, much prefer having something worth obeying to the prospect of sinning with impunity. But though our society and culture may crumble for lack of them, belief and loyalty cannot be willed.

Berman, for his part, never fully faces up to the possibility of nihilism. This failing may explain the relative absence of Nietzsche from All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. In Beyond Good and Evil everything solid really does melt into air: politics, moralist, common sense, all evaporate before our bewildered gaze, in an atmosphere so rarefied that most of us can hardly breath. And that, according to Nietzsche, is the key to the modern predicament: only a few, aristocrats by nature, can live without illusion, can endure the depths of modern irony. That irony exposes even scientific rationalism as a metaphysical prejudice, and secular humanism as an ethical prejudice. Finally, if one looks long enough into the abyss, writes Nietzsche, the abyss looks back. It sounds like an unnerving experience.

Berman is not unnerved. He is earnest, and a democrat. He writes: “To unmask phony claims of transcendence is to demand and fight for real transcendence. . . . We need to strive for that precarious, dynamic balance.” This statement contains two generous assumptions: that there is a “real transcendence,” and that it is available to all of “us.” Nietzsche puts both these assumptions in question. Those of us who are not heroes or Übermenschen can only hope that Berman’s assumptions are true. Still, it is an uncomfortable thought that the person who saw most deeply into the meaning of modernity was neither an optimist nor a democrat. Berman meant to bring us comfort, and he has. But it, too, soon melts into the air.