by Fred P. Gusoff
A longtime Chestnut Hill resident and retired University of Pennsylvania sociology professor has a lot to say about Marx. No, not Groucho Marx, Karl Marx. He has so much to say, in fact, that he put his thoughts into a book.
“When Marx Mattered: An Intellectual Odyssey” is Harold J. Bershady’s fifth book. He describes it as an “intellectual autobiography,” in which he traces his early passion for Marxism to his moderate liberalism. He discusses his personal experiences and his encounters with radicals in the 1940s.
“Almost all of them were Jewish-Americans,” he said.
Marx, the German economist philosopher who lived from 1818-83, offered theories about society, economics and politics that are commonly known as Marxism, which states that society can only advance through class struggle. Marx is perhaps best known for authoring “The Communist Manifesto,” which he wrote with Friedrich Engels.
“The Manifesto really laid things out for me,” Bershady said. “Marx was a great 19th century thinker. You can’t ignore him.”
In his earlier years, Bershady went to work on an assembly line and as a welfare caseworker. “I discovered businesspeople were pretty decent people,” he said, adding that in the fields of medicine and social work, “A tremendous proportion of Jews have gone into these professions.”
In his book, Bershady writes: “I have sometimes wondered what Marx, the 19th-century prophet of hope for greater justice, would have made of the fact that so many Jews in the United States had by 1960 — nearly a century after his death — become social workers rather than the bankers and money handlers he alleged many Jews had degenerated into becoming in Europe.
Bershady said he tries to answer three key questions in his book: Why were so many of the Marxists and socialists he encountered in his life Jewish Americans; what influences, people and experiences redirected these people, including Bershady himself, to a generally liberal outlook, and what experiences influenced Bershady and some colleagues into becoming sociologists.
Bershady was born in Toronto and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., when he was 6 years old. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Buffalo and a doctorate in sociology and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.
He taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1962 to 2005. “All of my teaching was at Penn,” he said estimating that he taught between 9,000 and 10,000 students before retiring nine years ago. “I could have kept teaching until I dropped, but it was time to step back,” said the emeritus professor, who is now 85. He knew it was time to go when macular degeneration caused him to have difficulty seeing his students’ faces.
“I had a great career teaching. I had wonderful colleagues,” he said. “It was the joy of my life.”
Bershady won the prestigious Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching at Penn in 1993 and was nominated several times. He said his interest in education was encouraged by his parents, who valued learning. “Teaching is an obligation,” he said.
As for his personal philosophy of life, Bershady described himself as a “social Democrat” who believes that “government has a role to play…I don’t care how rich people are; I just don’t want people to be poor.”
Bershady lives on Evergreen Avenue in Chestnut Hill. He lived in nearby West Mt. Airy for a quarter-century before that. He and his wife, Suzanne, have a son, Matthew, an astronomer, and a grandson in college, Isaac, to whom Bershady dedicates “When Marx Mattered.”
He said his latest book took about three years to research and write and that he learned a lot in the process, not the least of which is, “There’s no Utopia.”
The esteemed professor’s book has just been published, but it’s already getting good reviews in the wonderful world of academia.
Roland Robertson, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, had this to say: “Bershady’s ‘When Marx Mattered’ is erudite, poignant and historically insightful. He traces, in reference to his own life, the experience and dilemmas of individuals who were children of immigrant Jews in 1930s America.
“His main question is why so many Marxist Jewish Americans of his generation were to become much more liberal and highly skeptical about the Messianic, utopian claims of Soviet ideology. He does this against a backdrop of the European Holocaust, widespread anti-Semitism and a thoroughly Jewish working-class upbringing. Not least, he explores the issue of the sociological destinations of many people of similar upbringing. Bershady’s book is an excellent example of the proposition that the very best sociology consists in refracted forms of autobiography.”
“When Marx Mattered: An Intellectual Odyssey” (Transaction Publishers) is a 262-page hardback available in bookstores including Barnes & Noble ($36.32) and in Kindle ($34.25) or through Amazon.com.