The Books Interview: Marshall Berman

Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the author of <em>All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: the Experience of Modernity.</em>

Your book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which is being reissued this month, was first published in the United States in 1982, at the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era. Were you trying to say something in your writing about the spirit of the times?
It was the end of the postwar boom and also the end of the New Left. One of the things I wanted to say was that even though we had lost in the short run, we were going to win in the long run. I wanted the book to convey that, but I didn't want to say it in a soapbox way. I wanted to create a vision of the world in which there were still possibilities. And that was different from a lot of 20th-century left-wing visions according to which, basically, life is over.

So much of your thinking derives from Marx?
That's true. I think in Marx it's ambiguous: sometimes he's trying to urge people to act to make a difference, and at other times there are some formulations in which stuff just happens whatever you do - the end of Capital, for instance, or The German Ideology.

One of the interesting things about Marx, then, becomes the contradictions. It was too bad there wasn't anyone else as smart as him around - you know, Engels wasn't dumb, but he wasn't as smart as Marx. It's too bad that he didn't have anyone to run through this stuff with. But I suppose that's also true of Darwin; it's true of Nietzsche and it's true of Freud.

And All That Is Solid is also a book about the modern city.
Right. It's about expanding the public realm.

You write about the urban analyst Jane Jacobs and you are quite ambivalent about her account of New York.
I think I do good things with Jacobs - that is, I put her in a larger context.I've read a certain amount about her work and it's usually so narrow; it doesn't get out of the 1950s, and it has such narrow horizons. I think Jacobs is fabulous, but I think you can enjoy her more if you put her in a wider frame.

I wrote something recently about how no sex happens on the city street Jacobs describes in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, though you would think that the vitally human vibes are intense enough that it should. But there's no sex and no sexual jealousy, and no sexual rivalry, or insult, or crime.

One word that doesn't appear in the book is "gentrification".
The word "gentrification" was actually coined by the department of housing and development in Washington in 1964, under the Johnson administration. The idea was to take really slummy, disintegrating neighbourhoods and turn them into rows of splendid town houses, which was done on a large scale. You'd find a square mile in which everything would be changed and there would be no trace of the neighbourhood that was there before.

And it seems unstoppable.
The irony is that, once a city is gentrified, the people who most love it can least afford it. And I don't know how to overcome that irony. Clearly, the housing market has to be regulated, but the left hasn't figured out how to do that. All I would say is: please do it, before gentrification becomes total.

I went to a high school fair at one of the high schools in Harlem recently. And I said to my wife, "Let's walk around a little", because it was in a nice side street, with brownstones - very green, like many London streets. Ten years earlier, it had been black holes for blocks and blocks. I love seeing cities full of people. One of the things I find really depressing is streets or areas that are built to be full turning empty. It happened in New York - that was a horrible thing about the 1970s.

Do you still live in New York?
Yes, we're in Manhattan. We live in a neighbourhood on the Upper West Side. We got there at a time of "white flight", in 1965 (that's when I found an apartment for my mother). Five years later it was a completely different ball game and there's no way that either my mother or I could have afforded it. When my mother left the Bronx, she didn't want to go to Long Island or New Jersey; she wanted to move to Manhattan.

The new edition of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: the Experience of Modernity" is published by Verso (£14.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain