Remembering the author, who died yesterday at 72
The cover of his 1999 essay collection, Adventures in Marxism, containing twenty years of his essays, depicted a cartoon of the full-bearded Marx, stubby arms flailing, one hand in a fist, the other, waving, in a mid-jamboree dance step like some sort of hybrid of hora and kazatzka. Change the face from Karl Marx’s to Marshall Berman’s (as bushy-bearded as big-craniumed as Karl’s, but warmer-eyed) and you’d have a logo for the collected works of Berman, bear-like sage of the Upper West Side, who was often found on the street wearing a T-shirt bearing the visage of Marx or Nietzsche, and who could explain to you with great flair why you were mistaken if you thought those two 19th-century guys were not a dynamic duo.
Characteristically, Marshall introduced those twenty years of essays on Marx with a story about his father, who made his living in various garment industry jobs, then wrote and sold ads at Women’s Wear Daily, which led him into a failed magazine start-up from which his partner took the money and ran. This story led to a riff on the brutality of cutthroat capitalism. The personal was political. From there, he hastened to Marx, but not Marx the prophet of surplus value and the expropriation of the expropriators; rather the Marx who was “part of a great cultural tradition, a comrade of modern masters like Keats, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence (readers are free to fill in their personal favorites) in his feeling for the suffering modern man on the rack.” Leave it to Marshall Berman to swing from the garment district (where the rack was literal) to Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Essays of 1844 (where he rightly celebrates Marx’s “feeling for the individual”) in fewer pages than it would have taken Marx to amass factory inspector reports or to clear his throat going after Hegel hammer and tongs. (more…)