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[whitespace] High Marx For Karl

Marshall Berman argues for a Marx better than the societies he begat

By Ralph Seliger

Adventures in Marxism
By Marshall Berman
Verso Books; 272 pages; $22 cloth

MARSHALL BERMAN prides himself on transcending the narrow confines of his chosen discipline of political science into the arenas of social and cultural criticism. In this spirit, he first made his mark in the late 1960s with front-page articles in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times on the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing and the pioneering sociologist Erving Goffman.

He has taught at the City College and the City University of New York Graduate Center since the mid-1960s, when this reviewer was a CCNY undergrad. Albeit with a few wrinkles and quite a few more pounds, Berman remains much as he was then: modest in manner and casual to the point of slovenly. An early New Leftist, he characteristically refers to himself in his late '50s as a "used leftist."

Early in June, he spoke at the Bertold Brecht Forum, a Marxist seminar center in New York, to celebrate his new book, Adventures in Marxism. He appeared in a "Marxist" red T-shirt, displaying pictures of the Marx brothers alongside Karl.

Berman's good-humored and levelheaded passion for Marx is infectious. He shares with readers his lifelong romance in this collection of essays, which are nonetheless charming for being mostly recycled from the prominent journals to which he has contributed for more than three decades--The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Dissent, Bennington Review, New Left Review, New Politics and the Village Voice Literary Supplement.

In the introduction, Berman relates two interconnecting stories for the first time. One is how his discovery of Marx's early works, published as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, changed his life. In 1959, he bought up 20 copies (at 50 cents apiece) at the Four Continents Book Store, New York's outlet for Soviet books, and gave a copy to everyone he felt close to (solving his "Chanukah problem"). He exuberantly swore that it would affect them as powerfully as it was transforming him. Discovering that ideas could be potent and moving, he was propelled into his career as an intellectual, going on from Columbia College to graduate studies at Oxford and Harvard.

The other tale is of his high school-
dropout parents, who spent their entire lives working in New York's garment district. His father went from "outdoor schlepper" to "indoor schlepper" and onward from there. Eventually he was robbed blind by a partner. His parents made a new beginning as middlemen in the industry until a Japanese firm undersold them and contractually compelled their close friends and colleagues to cut them out, without revealing why. His father died of a heart attack at 48, a victim of what we now call "globalization." Berman believes that Marx helped him understand why.

BERMAN WRITES of Marx as a flesh-and-blood human being who penned essays on love and property while on his Paris honeymoon with his lifelong mate, Jenny von Westphalen. This view of Marx as a humanistic and even psychologically aware thinker is actually not new--Erich Fromm stressed these points in 1961 in Marx's Concept of Man, as had Fritz Pappenheim in The Alienation of Modern Man, first published in 1959.

Berman contends that the humanistic Marx, although less apparent, existed in his better-known later works as well. He illustrates how in awe Marx was of the productive power and potential for change that capitalist market forces have unleashed in the world. The Communist Manifesto may be read as much as an ode to the creative energy of the bourgeoisie as a case for its downfall.

But Berman whitewashes neither Marx nor his mixed breed of successors who made their way as "Marxists." He notes with embarrassment that shortly after writing an attack on anti-Semitism and advocating full civil rights for Jews, Marx himself wrote an anti-Semitic essay in 1843.

In the essay "Georg Lukacs' Cosmic Chutzpah," Berman mixes an appreciation of this maverick Hungarian communist's life and work with a critique of his "incarnation" concept of the vanguard party, for its totalitarian implications. Yet Berman is refreshingly gentle in his criticisms, even when responding to a critic of his own work, as originally published in New Left Review.

He argues that "Marxist humanism" (a vision of humanity's capacity for social solidarity and individual fulfillment) is Marx's authentic legacy, rather than the nasty police states that claimed to rule under his inspiration. Berman sees Marx as useful in debunking today's prevalent notion, revived from Marx's time, that the proclivities of the marketplace--the relentless pursuit of profit, cutthroat competition and class inequities--are forces of nature that cannot be tampered with.

We'd all benefit if Marx's humanistic insights became common knowledge but were forever divorced from the very flawed movements and states most infused with what we usually call "Marxism." Berman is too delicate to go this far explicitly, but most of his writings tend toward this conclusion.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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