The death of Marshall Berman, the last romantic Marxist and author of the brilliant All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, is a reminder that the halcyon days of historical materialism are long past. Once upon a time, there was distinct “utopian” feeling, represented by the existence of the CCCP. Even though everyone (aside from the most ardent Stalinist) knew it was horrible da drüben, it was also different in its larger aim which was not entirely debased by really existing socialism. The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to sap the collective energy out of intellectual and political movements on the left.
Although its pretension to scientific certainty was exposed as closer to faith than fact, Marxism provided a unified framework for imagining something else, which could drive movements, spur debate, etc. It provided coherence. Post-1989, there is fragmentation. Movement types can’t agree on the problems to be solved (climate? North/South? surveillance? identity? Empire?) and, in many cases, theorists turn their critique on each other (e.g., “feminism”). What I sensed as a student was an organic link between intellectual work, within a “tradition,” and politics outside the academy and its journalistic productions. That link was supplied by an engagement with an “enlightenment project.” Marxism (economic justice + radical democracy) was one important element of that project. With the critique of that project’s biases and blind spots, there is dispersal, centrifugally, and in some cases self-defeating purism. While people do occasionally wake up (e.g., Occupy’s break from waiting in line at the Apple Store), today’s wakefulness is likely to take the form of Jihad, Tea Party madness, or the culture of outrage enabled by social media.