Goethe and Marx, these are cardinal figures in the history of modernity. Goethe, the spiritual father of its grand visions and inexhaustible hope. Marx, the outsider, the witness to the sorcery of its soul and that of its organizing principle, Capital. His charge-- it is an artifice of progressively concentrating energy that will not be bound by any responsibility or shared purpose. The practical result is a constant breakdown of community and institutions as they are offered to the flame of re-invention. This is the core of the book's message. Nothing is permanent in the modernist domain. Art, city, ideals, country-- all are subsumed into new solids that immediately fracture and evaporate under pressure of another oncoming order, crashing in with waves of reorganization. The technologies of its own genius are its tools. The post-structural epoch is merely another phase of modernism's relentless push to incinerate the old and recreate society in its own frenzied image. Iconoclasm becomes the coordinating edict. The erasure of all cultural memory is implicit; moral purpose is desanctified; Capital's own ethos is elevated to the realm of faith.
Berman moves from the literary and intellectual movements of France and Russia into the streets. The building of St. Petersburg, with its imposed occidental face on Russia's traditionally oriental sensibilities, the boulevards of Paris's reconstruction of the 1870's, and the highways of the irrepressible Robert Moses-- the urban landscape has chronicled modernism's advance. The breadth of this thesis in choosing such disparate symbols to exemplify the progression is impressive, as is Berman's ability to synthesize them. When the book was written twenty years ago Communism had not yet collapsed, but its moral failure was evident, its material demise imminent. Berman's more romantic notions of a merging of modernism and Marxism, harnessing the creative impulse to popularly reasoned objectives, might have passed from any realistic possibility. His relationship with both is clearly one of fascination and alienation. All that seems to have gone down in flames, in annihilating contradictions, and, in the infinite actualization of modernism's belief in itself. It will tolerate no governance. A persistent anti- modernist insurgency, fragmented and cleaved onto disparate political structures, provides a cowed conscience at best. But with its illimitable dominion seemingly secure, Berman's proposal is thought provoking indeed-- that all of Marx's characterizations of its nature are true, and that no sustainable alternative has yet been conceived.