Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

September 26, 2013

An American political scientist and social critic whose writings were acclaimed by Christopher Hitchens as “scholarly but jargon-free, anchored in modern references but with a strong sense of history, and animated by a generous sympathy” has died.

Marshall Berman was born in the South Bronx, New York – in a neighbourhood that was later partly destroyed to build an expressway – on 24 November 1940. His parents ran a business in the famously radical garment trade in Times Square – an area he would celebrate many years later in his 2006 book, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square.

A passionate New Yorker, Professor Berman was educated at the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia University before going on to a PhD at Harvard University (1968). It was during his undergraduate years in 1959, at a time when Soviet communism had been widely discredited by the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, that he came across Karl Marx’s early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

It proved to be an almost overwhelming emotional experience. An individual and notably optimistic style of “Marxist humanism”, rooted in the American progressive tradition, was to remain Professor Berman’s core analytical tool for the rest of his life.

Even before finishing his doctorate, he joined the faculty at the City College of New York, where he went on to become a distinguished professor of political science and to help set up the Center for Worker Education in Manhattan, enabling working adults to study for degrees.

Although his books included The Politics of Authenticity (1970) and Adventures in Marxism (1999), Professor Berman was most acclaimed for his 1982 work All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, a much-translated celebration of modern city life ranging from Dickens’ London and Joyce’s Dublin to Baudelaire’s Paris and Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg. He contributed an introduction to the latest Penguin edition of Marx’s Communist Manifesto (2011) and was at work on a book examining “the romance of public space” all the way from the Bible and ancient Greeks to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Earlier this year, Professor Berman delivered the ninth Lewis Mumford Lecture on Urbanism, “Emerging From the Ruins”, where he used the examples of Paris and New York to examine “how much of urban creativity grows out of urban disaster and disintegration”. He died of a heart attack while having breakfast in a favourite diner on 11 September and is survived by his wife Shellie and two children.

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