September 16, 2013 | Faculty
September 16, 2013
Marshall Berman, an author, academic, philosopher and lyrical defender of modernism, Karl Marx and his native New York City, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 72.
His death was announced by City College, where Dr. Berman had taught since 1967 and was distinguished professor of political science. His son Danny said Dr. Berman had a heart attack while eating breakfast with a friend at a diner he loved, the Metro Diner on Broadway and 100th Street.
Dr. Berman was a public intellectual and often an optimistic one. He heard song in conflict and argued that the stop-start stumble of modern life was, for all its inexplicability and despair, necessary and promising. Marx, he insisted counterintuitively, might admire the energy and diversity that capitalism has delivered to the United States even if he believed there was a better way. The Bronx, Times Square, all of New York in its many incarnations — from the seedy, bankrupt 1970s to the murderous 1980s to today’s urban boutique — was in his view alive and luminous in its recklessness and resilience.
“Something is happening that I never could have imagined: a metropolitan life with a level of dread that is subsiding,” he wrote in an introductory essay to the 2007 book “New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg,” which he edited with Brian Berger
“Some people say they’re worried that a life without dread will lose its savor. I tell my students and people I know not to worry. If they just scrutinize their lives, they will find grounds for more than enough dread to keep them awake. While they’re up, they should seize the day and take a midnight walk.”
Dr. Berman arrived at City College shortly after he finished his doctoral studies at Harvard. But he was not interested in academic solitude. Devoted to the university’s missions of diversity and accessibility, he passed up chances to move to Ivy League schools or colleges in the West.
Inside the kitchen cupboards of the Upper West Side apartment where he lived for decades, he stored his staples: books. Inside the bathroom cabinets, he stored his balm: more books.
His intellectual passion was first stirred by Marx — with his shaggy hair and beard, he eventually started looking like him — and he viewed Marx as deeply relevant long after Communist governments faded.
“Marx was appalled at the human costs of capitalist development,” Dr. Berman wrote in the introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” published in 2011, “but he always believed the world horizon it created was a great human achievement, on which socialist and communist movements must build.
Remember, the grand appeal to unite, with which the Manifesto ends, is addressed to the ‘workers of all countries.’ ”
Dr. Berman’s best-known book, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity,” was published in 1982 and took its name from a line in the Manifesto. Reviewing it in The New York Times, John Leonard called it “brilliant and exasperating.”
“Being modern is being new, whether we like it or not,” Mr. Leonard wrote, summarizing his assessment of Dr. Berman’s argument. “He likes it, Mr. Berman. Seize the day and change the world. Modernism is ‘a permanent revolution,’ full of radical sunrise and great dawn. We synthesize ourselves, without tears.”
Mr. Leonard added: “I’ve read Goethe, Marx, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, and I’ve been to Leningrad. Mr. Berman, generous and exuberant and dazzling, has been somewhere else, with a ‘shadow passport,’ inventing another history and literature, a romance of great ideas. I love this book and wish that I believed it.”
Marshall Howard Berman was born on Nov. 24, 1940, in the Bronx. His parents, Murray and Betty, ran a tag and label business in Times Square. His father died when his son was 14. Dr. Berman grew up taking the subway with his family to Times Square, a lifelong stimulant he celebrated in his 2006 book, “On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square.”
Among the other books he wrote or edited were “The Politics of Authenticity” (1970) and “Adventures in Marxism” (1999). He wrote for many publications, including The Times, and he was a board member of the leftist journal Dissent.
He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and received his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his doctorate from Harvard in 1968. In addition to his son Danny Berman, Dr. Berman is survived by his wife, Shellie Sclan, and another son, Eli Tax-Berman.
At City College, Dr. Berman helped establish the Center for Worker Education in Manhattan, where working adults could pursue college degrees.
The neighborhood where Dr. Berman grew up was later leveled to make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He wrote in “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air” that the visionary behind the highway, Robert Moses, represented the tension in modern life: destruction goes hand in hand with perceived progress.
“The tragic irony of Modernist urbanism,” he wrote, “is that its triumph has helped to destroy the very urban life it hoped to set free.”
Originally published by The New York Times