Marshall Berman. (Courtesy Youtube user Patell and Waterman's History of New York)
A few Tuesdays ago, my daughter and i stopped at our usual haunt—the Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway—for dinner. Metro was also Marshall Berman’s usual haunt, and it wasn’t long before he shlepped in wearing his tie-dye T-shirt, hair sprouting in every direction. We chatted amiably about the mayor’s race for a bit before the kid and I went back to our burgers and Marshall joined his wife, Shellie, for dinner.
He was back at Metro the following morning for breakfast, accompanied by his son, when he experienced a fatal heart attack. Marshall was just 72. I learned of this the next day when an obituary by Todd Gitlin, published in Tablet, showed up on my newsfeed. Gitlin rendered Marshall’s unique and outsize virtues as perfectly as a few hundred words could—no small feat given the massive contradictions that Marshall spent his remarkably productive life attempting to rationalize. Titled “Marshall Berman, Marxist Humanist Mensch,” Gitlin’s obit described “the bear-like sage of the Upper West Side” who, in his masterpiece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air and his later collection Adventures in Marxism, painted Marx as “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.”
Marshall was a dedicated member of Ansche Chesed synagogue next door to his apartment building and, as Michael Walzer pointed out in his moving funeral oration, spent his too-short life as “a man of the left and a lover of Zion,” commitments not always “easy to combine, but he combined them with grace.” Marshall was also a man who experienced indescribable personal tragedy and yet not only persevered but flourished as a loving parent, a great teacher, and an archetypal public intellectual and scholar. He was a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and a frequent contributor to badly paying lefty periodicals like The Nation, The Village Voice and, especially, the democratic socialist magazine Dissent, where he also served on the editorial board. I did not go for his tonsorial or sartorial stylings, but the word “mensch” has rarely been so aptly applied.
Imagine the shock, therefore, that I and hundreds of others felt just minutes after Berman’s obit was posted to see the editor of Commentary, a journal that was once the pride of American Jewish writers and intellectuals, comparing this gentle Jewish giant to, I kid you not, a Nazi. This clever fellow, John Podhoretz—a man who has spent virtually his entire working life sucking on the teat of Moonie/Murdoch wingnut welfare and now enjoys the nepotistic perk of a job inherited from his fire-breathing father, Norman—tweeted in response to Gitlin’s article: “Imagine a tribute to a Nazi humanist mensch.” He later said he regretted having done so, not because it was a poor comparison, but only because it appeared to be speaking ill of the recently deceased. Overall, however, Podhoretz found the reaction to his tweet “discouraging” because it failed to appreciate the genius of his effort to hold accountable anyone who used the intellectual insights and tools supplied by the various schools of Marxism for “the real-world manifestations of Marxism in the 20th century [that] had led to (by some estimates) 60 million deaths.”
Truly, one does not know where to begin unpacking the moral and intellectual idiocy of this argument—“by some estimates,” the stupidest words ever to appear on the Internet. Much of the idiocy is self-evident. But how’s this for (unintended) irony? As readers of this space will know, John Podhoretz’s brother-in-law, neocon apparatchik Elliott Abrams, really is responsible for helping to enable an actual genocide. He did so while working in the Reagan State Department to whitewash the crimes of the Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. (The term “genocide” is a legal one applied by the Guatemalan courts, not by your columnist.) Second, his late sister, Rachel Abrams, was known to call for supporters of Hamas to be thrown “into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.” (I swear I’m not making that up.) And yet Marshall is the Nazi…
I could go on, but my larger point is this: along with the conservative movement, neoconservative intellectuals have dumbed themselves down to a degree barely conceivable in the days of the movement’s dawn, in the late 1960s—when Commentary was still a terrific magazine and, together with The Public Interest and its disillusioned liberals (and even a few Marxists), began to discern the anti-democratic and (unfortunately, albeit only occasionally) anti-Semitic tendencies present in the various movements that made up the New Left.
And yet look where they have landed. As with young Podhoretz, it’s hard to believe that any intelligent being could possibly believe the things these people say. Did William Kristol really think Sarah Palin belonged in the Oval Office? Can Norman Podhoretz be serious when he argues, as he recently did on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, that Barack Obama has revealed himself to be “the left-wing radical he seemed to be, given his associations with the likes of the anti-American preacher Jeremiah Wright and the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers”? Is this what comes from regular feedings of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh?
Marshall Berman’s last wishes were that contributions in his honor be made to the Emily Dickinson public school (ps75pta.org) and to Dissent, which, coincidentally, is now celebrating its sixtieth anniversary of being consistently more correct about American politics than any other publication during that period, despite never having much money or many subscribers. You can honor Marshall (and piss off more than a few Podhoretzes) by subscribing to Dissent or by making a contribution in his honor at dissentmagazine.org.
Zichrono livracha: May his memory be a blessing.
In 1998, Marshall Berman wrote a review of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto for The Nation.