Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

Political theorist Marshall Berman, who was my colleague at the CUNY Graduate Center, died yesterday morning.

When I heard the news last night, my first thought was the date: 9/11. There’s no good day to die, but to die on a day so associated with death—whether the murder of nearly 3000 people on 9/11/2001, most of them in his beloved New York, or the 9/11/1973 coup in Chile that brought down Allende and installed Pinochet—seems, in Marshall’s case, like an especially cruel offense against the universe.

For as anyone who knew or read him knows, Marshall was a man of irrepressible and teeming life. The life of the street, which he immortalized in his classic All That’s Solid Melts Into Air; the life of sex and liberation, which he talked about in The Politics of Authenticity (read the section on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters; you’ll never read that book the same way again); the life of high art and popular culture, whether it was the Sex Pistols or hip-hop.

Marshall took in everything; his portion was the world. The only thing he couldn’t abide, couldn’t take in, was ugliness and cruelty. If he had to die, it should have been on May Day—not just the May Day of internationalist radical politics (though that too is a commemoration of death) but the May Day of pagan spring, of dance and song, of maypoles and fertility rituals.

And yet there is something about that date—9/11—that seems appropriate. For Marshall’s vision of life bursting was inextricably linked to his awareness of death and destruction. All That’s Solid Melts Into Air, which takes its name from that famous line in The Communist Manifesto, is a paean to the divided experience that is modernity: the loss of the old world paired with the creation of the new, decay as the condition of construction. Whenever I think of Marshall, I think of that line from Osip Mandelstam’s poem Notre Dame: “I too one day shall create/ Beauty from cruel weight.” (Oddly, though Marshall wrote about Mandelstam at length in All That’s Solid, he never mentioned this poem.)

All That’s Solid is one of those rare texts of theory that is really a memoir, a deeply personal revelation of its author’s being. Like Rousseau’s Second Discourse or Said’s Orientalism, it is intensely, almost unbearably, intimate. Formally a discussion of Marx and modernism, it is the biography of a man who saw his world come to an end as a teenager, during the fateful year of 1953, when Robert Moses came blasting through his neighborhood in the East Tremont section of the South Bronx. The cause was the Cross Bronx Expressway, but in that cause and its demonic villain, Berman found his muse, his Faust, his Fleurs du Mal.

Growing up in suburban Westchester in the 1970s, I remember driving above the South Bronx on those long arterial stretches and looking down and out on the devastation. But it was not till I read Marshall that I understood its source or at least one of its sources: the wrecking ball of a mad urban genius, who set out to reconstruct an entire city as if it were nothing more than a system of highways, an expressway to get people and goods from one end to the other.

Robert Moses is the man who made all this possible. When I heard Allen Gisnberg ask [in Howl] at the end of the 1950s, “Who was that sphinx of cement and aluminum,” I felt sure at once that, even if the poet didn’t know it, Moses was his man. Like Ginsberg’s “Moloch, who entered my soul early,” Robert Moses and his public works had come into my life just before my Bar Mitzvah, and helped bring my childhood to an end.

For ten years, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the center of the Bronx was pounded and blasted and smashed. My friends and I would stand on the parapet of the Grand Concourse, where 174th Street had been, and survey the work’s progress—the intense steam shovels and bulldozers and timber and steel beams, the hundreds of workers in their variously colored hats, the giant cranes reaching far above the Bronx’s tallest roofs, the dynamite blasts and tremors, the wild, jagged crags of rock newly torn, the vistas of devastation stretching for miles to the east and west as far as the eye could see—and marvel to see our ordinary nice neighborhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.

In college, when I discovered Piranesi, I felt instantly at home. Or I would return from the Columbia library to the construction site and feel myself in the midst of the last act of Goethe’s Faust. (You had to hand it to Moses: his works gave you ideas.)

Right there, in that last line, is the man. Standing amid ruins, he reaches for the flowers of high culture, then cracks wise. That was Marshall. That was modernity. Marshall’s modernity. “We come from ruins,” he said in Ric Burns’s documentary on New York, “but we’re not ruined.” (h/t Bryan Waterman)

Marshall liked to sign off his emails with “Shalom.” I used to think he meant simply “Peace.” But shalom, of course, also means “hello” and “goodbye.” That too was Marshall: every hello was a goodbye, every arrival a departure.

Though I first met Marshall in 1999 and was his colleague for nearly a decade, I didn’t know him well. We served on committees together, we shared students and an office (the first copy of Treitschke’s Politics that I read was his, though he never knew it), and he treated me to stories about his son, his ambivalence about Israel, and more.

And yet I feel like I knew him: not only from his work but from the legions of students who loved him, who came to the Graduate Center just to work with him, and regaled me with stories of his kibitzing genius. He was one of those rare advisers (Michael Denning at Yale was like this too) who tossed off a sentence from which an entire dissertation grew.

You’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about if you listen to him in these three clips from Burns’s documentary (thanks to Josh Kamensky for uploading the first, and to Bryan Waterman and Cyrus Pattell for uploading the second and third; make sure to read Bryan’s wonderful appreciation).

Here in the first he talks about Corbusier as an inspiration to Robert Moses; both of them, says Marshall, were “metaphysicians” of traffic. Just listen to the pungent beauty of Marshall’s words, and you’ll know the man: “We have to merge with the cars…the flow that would never end…kill the street.”

And here he is talking about the arrival of Moses and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Again, listen out for that pairing of cruelty and beauty.

And finally here he is talking about graffiti on the subway.

Marshall was our Manhattan Socrates: not the arch dialectician but the philosopher in and of the street, not the aggressive asker of questions but the ambler in the boulevard, the man who seeks wisdom in the agora, in the conversation of Times Square, the walker in the city, the man who died among friends.

Update (October 21, 2013)

Unbeknown to me—but much to my delight—this post has been translated and appears today in the Iranian newspaper Etemaad. Here’s a link to the pdf version.


  1. louisproyect September 12, 2013 at 2:44 pm | #

    I never read anything by him although I am certainly familiar with his reputation. I used to get a kick seeing him on the M104 bus that he was taking down from CCNY (I guess) that I used to pick up at Columbia. He would sit there deep in his thoughts, looking more like a Hasidic scholar (without the accoutrements) than a Marxist scholar.

  2. Rick M. September 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm | #

    I came to Marshall Berman only recently. This is a tremendous loss, but his work remains, and shows us the way to what we have to do. If it is doable.

  3. geofftkennedy September 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Parchment in the Fire and commented:
    Sad news from NYC.

  4. Ken Sherrill September 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm | #

    This is wonderful, Corey.

    I knew Marshall from advising dissertations together, from serving on committees together, from the usual Graduate Center stuff, but best of all, from running into him on Broadway or in Zabar’s and

    Having those amazing conversations about anything that happened to be on his mind. There was a special beauty to the way he thought. And, btw, it was amazing how he could collaborate with a hard-core quantoid on a dissertation. The one we did with Julian Baim was the best one I ever was involved in. Alienation from work and alienation from the state, a study of NYC public employees during the 1970s fiscal crisis. A great piece of work.


  5. Angela Borozna September 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm | #

    I was always looking forward to Marshall Berman’s lectures. He was so inspiring, with his constant parallels between authors and films and art works! And lack of any inhibitions in his speech… He was more than a teacher – he was a friend to many of his students. He was always approachable for a converstions, his heart was always open. He will be missed by thousans of students and friends all over the world. Shalom, Marshall.

  6. neffer September 12, 2013 at 4:36 pm | #

    You have written an excellent article.

    For the record, Shalom’s root meaning is completion, as in leshalem.

    Why do you see fit to place Berman in the same company as that ridiculous phoney Said, a man who effectively turned the field of Middle East studies into partisan politics? If Berman is a Saidist, then he is no scholar.

  7. Neil September 12, 2013 at 4:38 pm | #

    I admired many of Berman’s polemical pieces, however there seemed to be an unresolved contradiction in the man and his thought when on the one hand he claimed that “We have to merge with the cars …… completely identify with them … repress the part of you that loved the streets and felt at home …surpass this … through the concept of the highway system … kill the street”, and on the one hand CR describes him as “our Manhattan Socrates …. the philosopher in and of the street … the ambler in the boulevard, the man who seeks wisdom in the agora … the walker in the city”. At the end of the day was he man-machine or man – the first or the second description?

    • Corey Robin September 12, 2013 at 4:44 pm | #

      When he’s talking about having to merge with the cars, he’s not describing his own position; he’s ventriloquizing Corbusier’s and Moses’s position.

      • Neil September 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm | #

        … but he seems to quote it approvingly. No?

      • Ross Wolfe September 12, 2013 at 7:49 pm | #

        What do you think he means by “merging with cars”? Like, collapse pedestrian and auto traffic into each other? Or more literally fuse ourselves to our cars? If it’s the former, that’s not Corbusier’s position at all.

  8. Ross Wolfe September 12, 2013 at 7:40 pm | #

    At least Robert Moses’ quasi-modernist (actually Fordist) urbanism evoked Piranesian imagery for Berman. That’s a lot more nuanced picture of Moses than one gets reading Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities, or certainly from her epigones who treat that book as town planning gospel. Tafuri highlighted Piranesi as a forerunner to the European avant-garde. He wasn’t wrong.

  9. Stephen Zielinski September 12, 2013 at 8:41 pm | #

    A friend and I would often express our admiration for All that’s Solid, treating it as a model and as inspiration. A public intellectual as well as a New Yorker at its best.

    I never met Marshall Berman. But I once encountered him.

    One day, while standing in a now defunct Manhattan bookstore, my friend walked towards me, tapping me on the shoulder when he arrived. “That’s Marshall Berman,” he whispered. I turned and watched while a wooly man purchased books. Eventually, I got a good look of the person whose work we both admired. It was impossible to miss noticing he wore a dirty white tee shirt which also had a large and conspicuous coffee stain on the fold lying between his chest and stomach. I might have thought him a street person had my friend not informed me otherwise.

    “Of course,” I thought. There was nothing affected about Berman’s ‘fashion disaster.’ Some care more about how the world presents itself to them than they do about how they appear to and in the world. They seem unconcerned about presenting their selves to others. This is their mode of being. Berman may have been such a person. He seemed to be one. I hoped he was. Even so, a graceful spirit could be found in his prose, a splendid accomplishment for a gifted writer.

    I wish that he had a life worth living.

  10. Stephen Zielinski September 12, 2013 at 8:47 pm | #

    Reblogged this on All Tied Up and Nowhere to Go and commented:
    Corey Robin remembers the recently deceased Marshall Berman.

  11. Carol Gould September 12, 2013 at 8:57 pm | #

    “Manhattan Socrates” –What an apt tribute to our beloved colleague. I was privileged to know him for decades, originally in the Columbia Political and Social Thought seminar. Marshall was indeed a gadfly and a brilliant thinker.

  12. Dick Howard September 12, 2013 at 10:37 pm | #



  13. marcos vilela September 13, 2013 at 8:52 am | #

    because i wasn’t paying attention in the obligatory texts for a class that i was attending, i’ve read the introduction to all that solid… and i fell i love. luckily, marshall was heading here, in brazil, some weeks later to give some lectures. it was back in 2009. i went to them both and had the chance to briefly chat with him in the second one. he was very nice, i talked about how i came to reach his book. he laughed. now i’m looking to the book he signed for me, it says “avante!” i guess it was in one word what he beautifully wrote in so many occasions about modern life. we can’t give up. even not attending to a proper curse of him i surelly consider him my favorite teacher, just because he wasn’t a common teacher.

  14. Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 13, 2013 at 10:05 am | #

    What a wonderful writer he was! Dissent has several articles up by Berman, among them the best short introduction to the ‘Communist Manifesto’, and to Marx, that I can imagine . His writing manages to be completely clear but also deep and moving. For example, in other hands, the following metaphor would be some variety of ridiculous cliche, instead of pretty well perfect:

    We could call the Manifesto’s style a kind of expressionist lyricism. Paragraphs break over us like waves that leave us shaking from the impact and wet with thought.

    here’s the link to the whole piece, which is only a few pages long:

    Tearing Away The Veils…

  15. Hernán October 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm | #

    Beutiful article. I am an argentinian journalist who studied the books and enjoyed the wisdom of Marshall Berman. I had the opportunity of having an interview with him in NYC, in 2006. The meeting was in the Metro Diner at Broadway and 100 st, near Mr Berman’s home. I will never forget his kindness. This is part of that conversation

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