Marshall Berman on the Intellectual

I separated out this little section from Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air because in a way it is a little more personal, cuts a little more closely to the bone. I completed my PhD only a couple of weeks ago from an institution that is, for the most part, churning out highly educated kids of privileged background to fill positions in investment banks and other major corporations. There is still some wonderful research emerging from the place, and I still enjoyed teaching students where they engaged in learning. Yet in my quest for a position as an intellectual and a teacher that I hope will contribute to changing the world for the better, and yet will allow me to afford more than a tiny cold room in someone else’s flat while also helping to support my mum living in a stone-age society, so much of being an academic troubles me so deeply. Berman spoke in some really interesting ways to this conflict I see in my work and my politics. In discussing Marx he highlights this:

To bring out one of the paradoxes of their historical role: even though they tend to pride themselves on their emancipated and thoroughly secular minds, they turn out to be just about the only moderns who really believe that they are called to their vocations and that their work is holy. It is obvious to any reader of Marx that in his commitment to his work he shares this faith. And yet he is suggesting here that in some sense it is a bad faith, a self-deception.

The basic fact of life for these intellectuals, as Marx sees them, is that they are “paid wage-laborers” of the bourgeoisie, members of “the modern working class, the proletariat.” (116)

It can’t be denied I worry that my best efforts and greatest labours of love will be not just in vain, but also coopted and utilised. This points to the ways we need to seriously think about how we do our work and what work it is we do:

Bourgeois society, through its insatiable drive for destruction and development, and its need to satisfy the insatiable needs it creates, inevitably produced radical ideas and movements aimed to destroy it. But its very capacity for development enables it to negate its own inner negations: to nourish itself and thrive on opposition, to become stronger amid pressure and crisis than it could ever be in peace, to transform enmity into intimacy and attackers into inadvertent allies (119).

Not that Berman really has any answers, but I suppose this will do for a start:

As for the orthodox modernists who avoid Marxists thought for fear that it might strip them of their haloes, they need to learn that it could give them back something better in exchange: a heightened capacity to imagine and express the endlessly rich, complex and ironic relationships between them and the “modern bourgeois society” that they try to deny or defy (122).

The rest of my thoughts on Berman can be found here. I apologise for the overabundance of the word ‘love’, but I can’t be bothered to go change it.

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