“Reading the Signs in the Streets with Marshall Berman”, Michael Walzer
In: Dissent, 12 April 2017
One of the best essays Marshall ever wrote illustrates this failure; it’s his reply to Perry Anderson’s savage review of All That Is Solid; its title: “Signs in the Street.” The piece, originally from New Left Review, is reprinted in Adventures in Marxism and again in the new collection, Modernism in the Streets. Reading it, I almost felt sorry for Perry Anderson. Toward the end of the essay, Marshall explains that he has “written so much about ordinary people and everyday life in the streets” because “Anderson’s vision is so remote from them.” So it is, still is, and the vision of many academic Marxists is similarly remote. The last line in Marshall’s essay summarizes his new position: “Reading Capital won’t help us if we don’t also know how to read the signs in the streets.” Reading the signs: that’s Marshall’s description of the intellectual engagement he came to exemplify.
So this was his subject: the New York streets, of course, but also the streets of Paris and St. Petersburg, where he read the signs by reading the chroniclers of urban life, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Benjamin; Pushkin, Gogol, Biely, and Mandelstam. This wasn’t political theory anymore; Marshall was still in the academy, loyal to his students, but so far as academic discipline was concerned, he was a free spirit—as if to prove that stadtluft macht frei; the air of the city made Marshall free. He was beyond any of the disciplines.
Here is Marshall’s own description of what became his life project, from the reply to Anderson. All that is Solid, he writes, has
a much thicker density and a richer atmosphere than my earlier work. This is because I’ve tried increasingly to situate my exploration of the modern self within the social contexts in which all modern selves come to be. I’m writing more about the environments and public spaces that are available to modern people, and the ones they create, and the ways they act and interact in those spaces in the attempt to make themselves at home. I’m emphasizing the modes of modernism that seek to take over or remake public space, to appropriate and transform it in the name of the people who are its public.
Those people include members of every social class, though Marshall was always insistent on recognizing the workers who weren’t immediately visible on the boulevards, on Nevsky Prospect, for example, though they would one day arrive there. The workers, the poor, even the desperately poor appear often in Marshall’s pages but never in either of their stereotypical left versions: they are not the victims of capitalist exploitation (though Marshall certainly thought they were exploited) and they are not the “positive heroes” of socialist realism, the militant members of a revolutionary class on the road to state power (though he did believe that they could “take over and remake public space”). They are the ordinary people that you see, but maybe don’t notice, in the streets or on the subway every day.