NEW YORK — Marshall Berman, an author, philosopher and educator whose optimistic, humanist writings on economics, art and culture were shaped by his early and lasting immersion in the works of Karl Marx, has died. He was 72.
Fellow author Todd Gitlin says Berman, a native New Yorker and longtime Manhattan resident, died Wednesday of a heart attack while eating at one of his favorite Upper West Side diners, the Metro.
"Master lyric-analytic Marxist, defiant chronicler of cities, activist, sage, dear friend" was how Gitlin remembered Berman in a posting Thursday on Facebook.
Berman, a hirsute and heavyset man who could pass for a descendent of Marx, had a long and prolific life of the mind. He wrote several books, notably the 1982 publication "All That is Solid Melts Into Air"; served on the editorial board for the leftist magazine Dissent; contributed essays to The New York Times, The Nation and other publications, and taught politics at the City University of New York and the City College of New York.
He was class conscious for much of his life, but his intellectual awakening happened while he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, in the late 1950s. He came upon Marx's "Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844" in a bookstore and was soon "in a sweat, melting, shedding clothes and tears, flashing hot and cold." Long after the Cold War ended, he remained openly influenced by Marx and interpreted his hero in ways that both delighted and infuriated critics.
Berman was widely praised as an exuberant and lyrical prose stylist who made subjects ranging from Goethe's "Faust" to Brazilian architecture accessible to general readers. "What's most important about Marshall Berman's `All That Is Solid Melts Into Air' is that it's a good read," Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice. "I embrace that cliché first of all to encourage people to read the damned thing, and I hope it helps."
His great subject was modernism, or life in the modern world, defined by Berman as confronting, and hopefully besting, "the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives." He explored this struggle through literature, art, philosophy and architecture, whether the fiction of Dostoevsky or the proliferation of highways and other public works projects in New York City that Robert Moses masterminded in the mid-20th century.
Berman's detractors also credited him as original and stimulating, but faulted his views of history and of Marx. He called himself a Marxist humanist, and advocated a new way of perceiving Marx – not as scripture for Soviet bureaucrats, but as dynamic and disruptive, a guide for free thinkers, a man whose writings were "as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself."
"This Marx never grows strident, nor does he ever seem to mention, let alone promote, revolution," Douglas A. Silva wrote in The New York Times in 1999. "According to Berman, people like Woody Guthrie, Arthur Miller and Studs Terkel have captured Marx's sentiments better than Lenin ever did. In fact, Berman believes that the American progressive tradition is the true repository of Marxist thought."
Berman's other books included "Adventures in Marxism" and "The Politics of Authenticity." He is survived by his wife, Shellie, and his children Eli and Danny.