The subject of our session this evening has been a focus of intellectual debate and political passion for at least six or seven decades now.footnote* It already has a long history, in other words. It so happens, however, that within the last year there has appeared a book which reopens that debate, with such renewed passion, and such undeniable power, that no contemporary reflection on these two ideas, ‘modernity’ and ‘revolution’, could avoid trying to come to terms with it. The book to which I refer is Marshall Berman’s All that is Solid Melts into Air. My remarks tonight will try—very briefly—to look at the structure of Berman’s argument, and consider how far it provides us with a persuasive theory capable of conjoining the notions of modernity and revolution. I will start by reconstructing, in compressed form, the main lines of his book; and then proceed to some comments on their validity. Any such reconstruction as this must sacrifice the imaginative sweep, the breadth of cultural sympathy, the force of textual intelligence, that give its splendour to All that is Solid Melts into Air. These qualities will surely over time make it a classic in its
Modernism, Modernity, Modernization
Berman’s essential argument, then, starts as follows: ‘There is a mode of vital experience—experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils—that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience “modernity”. To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air”’.footnote1
What generates this maelstrom? For Berman, it is a host of social processes—he lists scientific discoveries, industrial upheavals, demographic transformations, urban expansions, national states, mass movements—all propelled, in the last instance, by the ‘ever-expanding, drastically fluctuating’ capitalist world market. These processes he calls, for convenient short-hand, socio-economic modernization. Out of the experience born of modernization, in turn has emerged what he describes as the ‘amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own’—‘visions and values that have come to be loosely grouped together under the name of “modernism” ’. The ambition of his own book, then, is to reveal the ‘dialectics of modernization and modernism’.footnote2
Between these two lies, as we have seen, the key middle term of modernity itself—neither economic process nor cultural vision but the historical experience mediating the one to the other. What constitutes the nature of the linkage between them? Essentially, for Berman, it is development. This is really the central concept of his book, and the source of most of its paradoxes—some of them lucidly and convincingly explored in its pages, others less seen by them. In All that is Solid Melts into Air, development means two things simultaneously.
That sensibility dates, in its initial manifestations, from the advent of the world market itself—1500 or thereabouts. But in its first phase, which for Berman runs to about 1790, it still lacks any common vocabulary. A second phase then extends across the 19th century, and it is here that the experience of modernity is translated into the various classical visions of modernism, which he defines essentially by their firm ability to grasp both sides of the contradictions of capitalist development—at once celebrating and denouncing its unprecedented transformations of the material and spiritual world, without ever converting these attitudes into static or immutable antitheses. Goethe is prototypical of the new vision in his Faust, which Berman in a magnificent chapter analyses as a tragedy of the developer in this dual sense—unbinding the self in binding back the sea. Marx in the Manifesto and Baudelaire in his prose poems on Paris are shown as cousins in the same discovery of modernity—one prolonged, in the peculiar conditions of forced modernization from above in a backward society,
Such is the general thrust of All that is Solid Melts into Air. The book contains, however, a very important sub-text, which needs to be noted.
The Need for Periodization
Berman’s argument, as I have said, is an original and arresting one. It is presented with great literary skill and verve. It unites a generous political stance with a warm intellectual enthusiasm for its subject: the notions of both the modern and the revolutionary, it might be said, emerge morally redeemed in his pages. Indeed modernism is profoundly revolutionary, by definition, for Berman. As the jacket of the book proclaims: ‘Contrary to conventional belief, the modernist revolution is not over.’ Written from the left, it deserves the widest discussion and scrutiny on the Left. Such discussion must start by looking at Berman’s key terms ‘modernization’ and ‘modernism’, and then at the linkage between them through the two-headed notion of
But Marx’s own conception of the historical time of the capitalist mode of production as a whole was quite distinct from this: it was of a complex and differential temporality, in which episodes or eras were discontinuous from each other, and heterogeneous within themselves. The most obvious way in which this differential temporality enters into the very construction of Marx’s model of capitalism is, of course, at the level of the class order generated by it. By and large, it can be said that classes as such scarcely figure in Berman’s account at all. The one significant exception is a fine discussion of the extent to which the bourgeoisie has always failed to conform to the free-trade absolutism postulated by Marx in the Manifesto but this has few repercussions in the architecture of his book as a whole, in which there is very little between economy on the hand and psychology on the other, save for the culture of modernism that links the two. Society as such is effectively missing. But if we look at Marx’s account of that society, what we find is something very different from any process of planar development. Rather, the trajectory of the bourgeois order is curvilinear. It traces, not a straight line ploughing endlessly forward, or a circle expanding infinitely outwards, but a marked parabola. Bourgeois society knows an ascent, a stabilization and a descent. In the very passages of the Grundrisse which contain the most lyrical and unconditional affirmations of the unity of economic development and individual development that provides the pivot of Berman’s argument, when Marx writes of ‘the point of flowering’ of the basis of the capitalist mode of production, as ‘the point at which it can be united with the highest development of productive forces, and thus also of the richest
The Multiplicity of Modernisms
Let us now revert to Berman’s complementary term ‘modernism’. Although this post-dates modernization, in the sense that it signals the arrival of a coherent vocabulary for an experience of modernity that preceded it, once in place modernism too knows no internal principle of variation. It simply keeps on reproducing itself. It is very significant that Berman has to claim that the art of modernism has flourished, is flourishing, as never before in the 20th century—even while protesting at the trends of thought which prevent us adequately incorporating this art into our lives. There are a number of obvious difficulties with such a position. The first is that modernism, as a specific set of aesthetic forms, is generally dated precisely from the 20th century, is indeed typically construed by way of contrast with realist and other classical forms of the 19th, 18th or earlier centuries. Virtually all of the actual literary texts analysed so well by Berman—whether by Goethe or Baudelaire, Pushkin or Dostoevsky—precede modernism proper, in this usual sense of the word: the only exceptions are fictions by Bely and Mandelstam, which precisely are 20th-century artefacts. In other words, by more conventional criteria, modernism too needs to be framed within some more differential conception of historical time. A second, and related, point is that once it is treated in this way, it is striking how uneven its distribution actually is, geographically. Even within the European or Western world generally, there are major areas that scarcely generated any modernist momentum at all. My own country England, the pioneer of capitalist industrialization and master of the world market for a century, is a major case in point: beachhead for Eliot or Pound, offshore to Joyce, it produced no virtually significant native movement of a modernist type in the first decades of this century—unlike Germany or Italy, France or Russia, Holland or America. It is no accident that it should be the great absentee from Berman’s conspectus in All that is Solid Melts into Air itself. The space of modernism too is thus differential.
A third objection to Berman’s reading of modernism as a whole is that it establishes no distinctions either between very contrasted aesthetic tendencies, or within the range of aesthetic practices that comprise the arts themselves. But in fact it is the protean variety of relations to capitalist modernity that is most striking in the broad grouping of movements typically assembled under the common rubric of modernism.
The Socio-Political Conjuncture
An alternative way to understand the origins and adventures of modernism is to look more closely at the differential historical temporality in which it was inscribed. There is one famous way of doing this, within the Marxist tradition. That is the route taken by Lukács, who read off a direct equation between the change of political posture of European capital after the revolutions of 1848, and the fate of the cultural forms produced by or within the ambit of the bourgeoisie as a social class. After the mid-19th century, for Lukács, the bourgeoisie becomes purely reactionary—abandoning its conflict against the nobility, on a continental scale, for all-out struggle against the proletariat. Therewith it enters into a phase of ideological decadence, whose initial aesthetic expression is predominantly naturalist, but then eventually issues into early 20th-century modernism. This schema is widely decried on the left today. In fact, in Lukács’s work, it often yielded rather acute local analyses in the field of philosophy proper: The Destruction of Reason is a far from negligible book, however marred by its postscript. On the other hand, in the field of literature—Lukács’s other main area of application of it—the schema proved relatively sterile. It is striking that there is no Lukácsian exploration of any modernist work of art comparable in detail or depth to his treatment of the structure of ideas in Schelling or Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche; by contrast Joyce or Kafka—to take two of his literary bêtes noires—are scarcely more than invoked: never studied in their own right. The basic error of Lukács’s optic here is its evolutionism: time, that is, differs from one epoch to another, but within each epoch all sectors of social reality move in synchrony with each other, such that decline at one level must be reflected in descent at every other.
But if neither Berman’s perennialism nor Lukács’s evolutionism provide satisfactory accounts of modernism, what is the alternative? The hypothesis I will briefly suggest here is that we should look rather for a conjunctural explanation of the set of aesthetic practices and doctrines subsequently grouped together as ‘modernist’. Such an explanation would involve the intersection of different historical temporalities, to compose a typically overdetermined configuration. What were these temporalities? In my view, ‘modernism’ can best be understood as a cultural field of force triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first of these is something Berman perhaps hints at in one passage, but situates too far back in time, failing to capture it with sufficient precision. This was the codification of a highly formalized academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalized within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes: classes in one sense economically ‘superseded’, no doubt, but in others still setting the political and cultural tone in country after country of pre-First World War Europe. The connexions between these two phenomena are graphically sketched out in Arno Mayer’s recent and fundamental work The Persistence of the Old Regime, footnote11 whose central theme is the extent to which European society down to 1914 was still dominated by agrarian or aristocratic (the two were not necessarily identical, as the case of France makes clear) ruling classes, in economies in which modern heavy industry still constituted a surprisingly small sector of the labour force or pattern of output. The second coordinate is then a logical complement of the first: that is, the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on. Mass consumption industries based on the new technologies had not yet been implanted anywhere in Europe, where clothing, food and furniture remained overwhelmingly the largest final-goods sectors in employment and turnover down to 1914.
The third coordinate of the modernist conjuncture, I would argue, was the imaginative proximity of social revolution. The extent of hope or apprehension that the prospect of such revolution aroused varied widely: but over most of Europe, it was ‘in the air’ during the Belle Epoque itself. The reason, again, is straightforward enough: forms of dynastic ancien régime, as Mayer calls them, did persist—imperial monarchies in Russia, Germany and Austria, a precarious royal order in Italy; even in Britain, the United Kingdom was threatened with regional disintegration and civil war in the years before the First World War. In no European state was bourgeois democracy completed as a form, or the labour movement integrated or coopted as a force. The possible revolutionary outcomes of a downfall of the old order were
What was the contribution of each of these coordinates to the emergence of the field of force defining modernism? Briefly, I think, the following: the persistence of the ‘anciens régimes’, and the academicism concomitant with them, provided a critical range of cultural values against which insurgent forms of art could measure themselves, but also in terms of which they could partly articulate themselves. Without the common adversary of official academicism, the wide span of new aesthetic practices have little or no unity: their tension with the established or consecrated canons in front of them is constitutive of their definition as such. At the same time, however, the old order, precisely in its still partially aristocratic colouration, afforded a set of available codes and resources from which the ravages of the market as an organizing principle of culture and society—uniformly detested by every species of modernism—could also be resisted. The classical stocks of high culture still preserved—even if deformed and deadened—in late 19th-century academicism, could be redeemed and released against it, as also against the commercial spirit of the age as many of these movements saw it. The relationship of imagists like Pound to Edwardian conventions or Roman lyric poetry alike, of the later Eliot to Dante or the metaphysicals, is typical of one side of this situation: the ironic proximity of Proust or Musil to the French or Austrian aristocracies of the other.
At the same time, for a different kind of ‘modernist’ sensibility, the energies and attractions of a new machine age were a powerful imaginative stimulus: one reflected, patently enough, in Parisian cubism, Italian futurism or Russian constructivism. The condition of this interest, however, was the abstraction of techniques and artefacts from the social relations of production that were generating them. In no case was capitalism as such ever exalted by any brand of ‘modernism’. But such extrapolation was precisely rendered possible by the sheer incipience of the still unforeseeable socio-economic pattern that was later to consolidate so inexorably around them. It was not obvious where the new devices and inventions were going to lead. Hence the—so to speak—ambidextrous celebration of them from Right and Left alike—Marinetti or Mayakovsky. Finally, the haze of social revolution drifting across the horizon of this epoch gave it much of its apocalyptic light for those currents of modernism most unremittingly and violently radical in their rejection of the social order as a whole, of which the most significant was certainly German expressionism. European modernism in the first years of this century thus flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present, and a still unpredictable political future. Or, put another way, it arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialized capitalist economy, and a semi-emergent, or -insurgent, labour movement.
The West’s Season Ends
It was the Second World War—not the First—which destroyed all three of the historical coordinates I have discussed, and therewith cut off the vitality of modernism. After 1945, the old semi-aristocratic or agrarian order and its appurtenances was finished, in every country. Bourgeois democracy was finally universalized. With that, certain critical links with a pre-capitalist past were snapped. At the same time, Fordism arrived in force. Mass production and consumption transformed the West European economies along North American lines. There could no longer be the smallest doubt as to what kind of society this technology would consolidate: an oppressively stable, monolithically industrial, capitalist civilization was now in place. In a wonderful passage of his book Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson
Finally, the image or hope of revolution faded away in the West. The onset of the Cold War, and the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, cancelled any realistic prospect of a socialist overthrow of advanced capitalism, for a whole historical period. The ambiguity of aristocracy, the absurdity of academicism, the gaiety of the first cars or movies, the palpability of a socialist alternative, were all now gone. In their place, there now reigned a routinized, bureaucratized economy of universal commodity production, in which mass consumption and mass culture had become virtually interchangeable terms. The post-war avant-gardes were to be essentially defined against this quite new backdrop. It is not necessary to judge them from a Lukácsian tribunal to note the obvious: little of the literature, painting, music or architecture of this period can stand comparison with that of the antecedent epoch. Reflecting on what he calls ‘the extraordinary concentration of literary masterpieces around the First World War’, Franco Moretti in
It was now, however, when all that had created the classical art of the early 20th century was dead, that the ideology and cult of modernism was born. The conception itself is scarcely older than the 1950s, as a widespread currency. What it betokened was the pervasive collapse of the tension between the institutions and mechanisms of advanced capitalism, and the practices and programmes of advanced art, as the one annexed the other as its occasional decoration or diversion, or philanthropic point d’honneur. The few exceptions of the period suggest the power of the rule. The cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, in the 60s, is perhaps the most salient case in point. As the Fourth Republic belatedly passed into the Fifth, and rural and provincial France was suddenly transformed by a Gaullist industrialization appropriating the newest international technologies, something like a brief after-glow of the earlier conjuncture that had produced the classical innovatory art of the century flared into life again. Godard’s cinema was marked in its own way by all three of the coordinates described earlier. Suffused with quotation and allusion to a high cultural past, Eliot-style; equivocal celebrant of the automobile and the airport, the camera and the carbine, Léger-style; expectant of revolutionary tempests from the East, Nizan-style. The upheaval of May–June 1968 in France was the validating historical terminus of this art-form. Régis Debray was to describe the experience of that year sarcastically, after the event, as a voyage to China which—like that of Columbus—discovered only America: more especially, landing in California.footnote16 That is, a social and cultural turbulence which mistook itself for a French version of the
This is not true, manifestly, of the Third World. It is significant that so many of Berman’s examples of what he reckons to be the great modernist achievements of our time should be taken from Latin American literature. For in the Third World generally, a kind of shadow configuration of what once prevailed in the First World does exist today. Pre-capitalist oligarchies of various kinds, mostly of a landowning character, abound; capitalist development is typically far more rapid and dynamic, where it does occur, in these regions than in the metropolitan zones, but on the other hand is infinitely less stabilized or consolidated; socialist revolution haunts these societies as a permanent possibility, one indeed already realized in countries close to home—Cuba or Nicaragua, Angola or Vietnam. These are the conditions that have produced the genuine masterpieces of recent years that conform to Berman’s categories: novels like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, from Colombia or India, or films like Yilmiz Güney’s Yol from Turkey. Works such as these, however, are not timeless expressions of an ever-expanding process of modernization, but emerge in quite delimited constellations, in societies still at definite historical cross-roads. The Third World furnishes no fountain of eternal youth to modernism.
The Limits of Self-development
So far, we have looked at two of Berman’s organizing concepts—modernization and modernism. Let us now consider the mediating term that links them, modernity itself. That, it will be remembered, is defined as the experience undergone within modernization that gives rise to modernism. What is this experience? For Berman, it is essentially a subjective process of unlimited self-development, as traditional barriers of custom or role disintegrate—an experience necessarily lived at once as emancipation and ordeal, elation and despair, frightening and exhilarating. It is the momentum of this ceaselessly ongoing rush towards the uncharted frontiers of the psyche that assures the world-historical continuity of modernism: but it is also this momentum which appears to undermine in advance any prospect of moral or institutional stabilization under communism, indeed perhaps to disallow the cultural cohesion necessary for communism to exist at all, rendering it something like a contradiction in terms. What should we make of this argument?
If we look back, however, at Marx’s actual texts themselves, we find a very different conception of human reality at work in them. For Marx, the self is not prior to, but is constituted by its relations with others, from the outset: women and men are social individuals, whose sociality is not subsequent to but contemporaneous with their individuality. Marx wrote, after all, that ‘only in community with others has
Another way of saying this is that Berman has failed—with many others, of course—to see that Marx possesses a conception of human nature which rules out the kind of infinite ontological plasticity he assumes himself. That may seem a scandalous statement, given the reactionary caste of so many standard ideas of what human nature is. But it is the sober philological truth, as even a cursory inspection of Marx’s work makes clear, and Norman Geras’s recent book Marx and Human Nature—Refutation of a Legend makes irrefutable.footnote22 That nature, for Marx, includes a set of primary needs, powers and dispositions—what he calls in the Grundrisse, in the famous passages on human possibility under feudalism, capitalism and communism, Bedürfnisse, Fähigkeiten, Kräfte, Anlagen—all of them capable of enlargement and development, but not of erasure or replacement. The vision of an unhinged, nihilistic drive of the self towards a completely unbounded development is thus a chimera. Rather, the genuine ‘free development of each’ can only be realized if it proceeds in respect for the ‘free development of all’, given the common nature of what it is to be a human being. In the very pages of the Grundrisse on which Berman leans, Marx speaks without the slightest equivocation of ‘the full development of human control over the forces of nature— including those of his own nature’, of ‘the absolute elaboration (Herausarbeiten) of his creative dispositions’, in which ‘the universality of the individual . . . is the universality of his real and ideal relationships’.footnote23 The cohesion and stability which Berman wonders whether communism could ever display lies, for Marx, in the very human nature that it would finally emancipate, one far from any mere cataract of formless desires. For all its exuberance, Berman’s version of Marx, in its virtually exclusive emphasis on the release of the self, comes uncomfortably close—radical and decent though its accents are—to the assumptions of the culture of narcissism.
The Present Impasse
To conclude: where, then, does this leave revolution? Berman is quite consistent here. For him, as for so many other socialists today, the notion of revolution is distended in duration. In effect, capitalism already brings us constant upheaval in our conditions of life, and in that sense is—as he puts it—a ‘permanent revolution’: one that obliges ‘modern men and women’ to ‘learn to yearn for change: not merely
Revolution is a term with a precise meaning: the political overthrow from below of one state order, and its replacement by another. Nothing is to be gained by diluting it across time, or extending it over every department of social space. In the first case, it becomes indistinguishable from mere reforms—simple change, no matter how gradual or piece-meal, as such: as in the ideology of latterday Euro-communism, or cognate versions of Social-Democracy; in the second case, it dwindles to a mere metaphor—one that can be reduced to no more than supposed psychological or moral conversions, as in the ideology of Maoism, with its proclamation of a ‘Cultural Revolution’. Against these slack devaluations of the term, with all their political consequences, it is necessary to insist that revolution is a punctual and not a permanent process. That is: a revolution is an episode of convulsive political transformation, compressed in time and concentrated in target, that has a determinate beginning—when the old state apparatus is still intact—and a finite end, when that apparatus is decisively broken and a new one erected in its stead. What would be distinctive about a socialist revolution that created a genuine post-capitalist democracy is that the new state would be truly transitional towards the practicable limits of its own self-dissolution into the associated life of society as a whole.
In the advanced capitalist world today, it is the seeming absence of any such prospect as a proximate or even distant horizon—the lack, apparently, of any conjecturable alternative to the imperial status quo of a consumer capitalism—that blocks the likelihood of any profound cultural renovation comparable to the great Age of Aesthetic Discoveries in the first third of this century. Gramsci’s words still hold good: ‘The crisis consists,’ he wrote, ‘precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.’footnote25 It is legitimate to ask, however: could anything be said in advance as to what the new might be? One thing, I think, might be predicted. Modernism as a notion is the emptiest of all cultural categories. Unlike the terms Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Mannerist, Romantic or Neo-Classical, it designates no describable object in its own right at all: it is completely lacking in