Reviewed by Richard Harris (School of Geography and Geology, McMaster University)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2003)
A Taste of Urbane Marxism
A TASTE OF URBANE MARXISM
What can Marxists tell us about cities? North American urban historians seem to believe that the answer is "very little."
The research of historians (and of fellow-travelers such as historical geographers) has rarely been driven by theoretical questions, and the wave of Marxism that invigorated urban studies in the 1970s and early 1980s had less influence on history than it did on other academic disciplines. Then in the 1990s, on an ebb tide, the shifting currents of academic fashion stranded some Marxist theoreticians like supertankers that were unable negotiate the newly-visible intellectual reefs. Today, Marxism may appear to be a discourse of the past, irrelevant to the current concerns with culture, ethnicity, and the environment, or to the fate of cities in a post 9/11 world.
Andy Merrifield, a geographer at Clark University, is one of a newer generation of scholars who believe that if history is not dead, neither is Marxism. In Metromarxism he tries to show how Marxist ideas are still relevant to our time, and our understanding of cities. (He also shows how cities are relevant to our understanding of Marxism, though this is an aspect to his argument that may interest fewer urbanists.) The conventional way of doing this would have been to survey Marxist thinking about cities, probably beginning with an analysis of how cities facilitate the production and circulation of capital, and concluding with urban culture and politics. Instead, Merrifield offers a biographical and (he would argue) dialectical treatment that readers who are new to Marxist thought may find more stimulating and intriguing.
Merrifield shows us Marxism through the words and lives of eight Marxists, beginning with Marx and Engels (fl. 1840s-1880s) themselves, continuing with the German Jew Walter Benjamin (1920s-1930s), the French Catholic sociologist Henri Lefebvre (1930s-1970s) his younger countryman Guy Debord (1960s-1970s), the Spanish-born urban sociologist Manuel Castells (1960s-), and the British geographer David Harvey (1960s-), before concluding with the American urbanist Marshall Berman (1970s-). Most of these writers did not try to build upon the work of their predecessors, in the sense of constructing a single intellectual edifice, but they were aware of the work of earlier writers within the Marxist tradition, and it makes sense to discuss them, as Merrifield does, in chronological order. In each case he tells us as much about their lives as their ideas, and in particular about their responses to the cities in which they lived. For the earlier writers these cities were, disproportionately, Berlin, London and, above all, Paris; later, New York and Baltimore made their presences felt. Merrifield is also careful to point out the sometimes diverse intellectual influences that shaped the thinking of these writers. He notes, for example, the debt that Benjamin owed to Georg Simmel, Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs, as well as to Marx. These, then, are linked mini-biographies, rather than staging posts on a linear intellectual progression.
With the possible exception of Debord, the writers that Merrifield has chosen are all prime candidates for inclusion in such a book. Each has had a substantial impact on the way that urban scholars have viewed cities. Marx himself said less about the character and significance of cities than we might expect, given that the rapid growth of industrial cities was the most striking features of nineteenth century capitalism, and that they were also the notable centers of political resistance, notably in the Paris Commune. Engels said more, but even his comments are suggestive rather than comprehensive. It was not until a century later that Harvey articulated a theory of capitalist urbanization that extends the largely non-spatial language of Marx's masterpiece, Capital. Merrifield has great respect for Harvey's achievement, and it is perhaps because Harvey's work is so obviously central to the modern Marxist urban tradition that he plays up the writings of those writers who drew more extensively on non-Marxist intellectual traditions, who were fascinated by the culture of cities, and who responded unpredictably and sometimes poetically to the urban scene. His eloquent discussions of Benjamen, Lefebvre, and Debord show a Marxist urban tradition that will be new to many, and which are apparently intended to leaven the still-popular image of Marxism as stolid, narrow, and doctrinaire. In an era when the cultural approach to cities is still strong, this may indeed be an effective way of making Marxism more relevant to a new generation of urban scholars.
A couple of the writers surveyed by Merrifield have dabbled in historical research, but none in a sustained way. It is regrettable that he did not include a serious historical scholar, since one of the strengths of the Marxist approach is its historical character. Except for a passing reference (pp. 170-1) he did not even refer to the work of Mike Davis, one of the most influential of the urban Marxists who are currently active, and whose historical interests, though based on secondary sources, have been sustained. This, and a couple of sophomore errors in the use "nineteenth century" to refer to the 1900s, may limit the appeal of the book to some historians, but this would be unfortunate.
The strengths of Metromarxism are immediately apparent. Merrifield is a lively, engaging, and sometimes humorous writer. He brings his subjects alive, and effectively suggests how their thinking was shaped by the cities in which they lived. He says enough about their ideas to pique our interest, concisely, and with the minimum of jargon. His judgments are consistently sound, and the selected references useful. The book will be most useful to those who have little or no exposure to Marxist thought, but even those who are familiar with the writings of some of the writers will find something new. More taster than primer, this book nicely fills a niche.
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Richard Harris. Review of Merrifield, Andy, Metromarxism. A Marxist Tale of the City.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.