2014-today: Birth of The Marxist Education Project
After the Brecht Forum closed, a few of us, along with other teachers and activists from the former Brecht Forum, continued offering classes and forums in space rented from the Brooklyn Commons through the contributions of students. These efforts are now organized under the rubric of the Marxist Education Project. This work has enabled the continuation of study groups that have been ongoing (some for several years), the initiation of a few new classes and the maintenance of some important elements from the work of the NYMS/Brecht Forum. We are heartened by the response and interest to these programming efforts and perhaps the MEP will be able to cohere and gain support from younger activists who want to advance non-sectarian Marxist education for today. This is to be seen.
1975-2014: The Brecht Forum and New York Marxist School
In the late 1980s the Brecht Forum was formed by the founders of the first School for Marxist Education (1975) and members of the regrouped collective that organized the New York Marxist School (NYMS-1979), which was later subsumed into the Brecht Forum.
Like many of you in New York City and around the world, we were shocked and saddened by the abrupt closure of a left institution that had survived–even flourished–for 39 years. Our response, after absorbing the initial shock of the dissolution, was to get in touch with each other to discuss the situation and what we might do.
First of all, we feel that the loss of a Marxist educational project in the country that remains both the most politically backward and the most powerful imperialist hegemon is a defeat for the Left – not only in New York, but nationally and globally. We are concerned that, now more than ever, our Left needs spaces for study and reflection upon our manifold political practice, and dialogue about the important issues, struggles and movements of the day.
Today conditions are dramatically different from the mid-70s when the New York Marxist School was founded. The re-shaping of New York as a global luxury city has raised real estate prices to a level that makes it extremely difficult to maintain a space that is accessible citywide and doesn’t either charge its users a lot of money, have an endowment or own the building. The falling real wages for the working class and frequent need for workers to work more hours or several jobs has made it harder for people to sustain alternative institutions on a volunteer basis. The rising cost of living makes it harder for people to work for “movement wages” over the long-term. This is all intertwined with the need to find appropriate organizational forms for this kind of work. Can we find forms that allow for more dynamic and less restrictive internal structures than the tax-exempt 501(c)(3)? Addressing these problems will require creative initiatives from a new generation of activists that we expect will emerge in many ways.
So what can we do? We have identified a few areas.
We want to support the efforts to continue the classes and programming we been involved in for years. This is now taking place as the Marxist Education Project in collaboration with new and former Brecht Forum teachers and activists.
Maintaining the Brecht Forum website as an archive where people can listen to or view some of the lectures, forums and classes held over the past 39 years—including many that still need to be digitalized and posted. We think that this could be a rich resource for movement history. These materials, such as the regular History and Perspective articles in the school’s course catalogues, could be useful to others thinking about how to create Marxist educational spaces.
Perhaps our best contribution, as a historically forged yet informal grouping, could be to review and share in writing the political thinking behind the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School. What ingredients made it a stimulating and nurturing environment for progressive activists from many backgrounds and perspectives for almost four decades? We’d like to share our take on that and invite your creative thinking about how the school’s mission might continue in forms appropriate to today’s conditions. Additionally, some of us are writing more detailed assessments of the project, its history, achievements and shortfalls and the general significance of Marxist education for forging an effective Left in the U.S. context, one that can truly advance a movement towards socialism. If these ideas and the work of the BF inspire others to initiate such projects for this era, we’ll be there to help and support.
What Was Behind a Four-Decade Run?
Of all the educational projects that originated in the 1970s U.S. Left, the NY Marxist School/Brecht Forum arguably has had the greatest longevity and a significant influence worldwide. Many theoretical traditions enrich our struggles and strategies and our sense of the society we’re fighting for, and were reflected in the school’s offerings. But the school put Marxism—in the most undogmatic sense of the word—as the place to start. We called ourselves Marxists and taught and advocated a method of analysis that we consider crucial to conscious, emancipatory action—while being clear that no one had to buy into this to come to the school. In this context, we developed a core curriculum—described above—that was a key to the school’s success. A second key was the spirit of inquiry and the premise that “nobody has all the answers.”
Initially, the founders did not know if this project would find resonance within the Left. But from the more sectarian 1970s through today, the school’s classes relating to the core curriculum were the best attended and most requested—partly because they were hard to find at other alternative educational spaces or within existing parties and tendencies. Similarly, not just independent leftists have valued the school’s independent and anti-dogmatic spirit. Many members of cadre formations have told us that they value spaces where they can dialogue and be challenged by others to think outside the box of their own organizations’ formulations and lines.
A third key to the school’s longevity was its focus on the issues, struggles and movements of the day, using Marxist theory and conscious summation to move beyond just reacting. The school’s main conceptualizer, the late Arthur Felberbaum, reminded us “the tasks of seeking the truth and changing the world go hand in hand.” The school’s programs brought together activists from diverse arenas and scholars to overcome the bourgeois dichotomy of theory and practice, analyze the common root causes of our many oppressions, pinpoint the system’s vulnerabilities, figure out how to overcome the errors and weaknesses of past movements and organizations, and explore how diverse oppositional impulses might cohere to challenge capitalist rule. This commitment to concrete analysis of our concrete situation, identifying key questions and putting them on the left’s agenda, and facilitating principled dialogue, lesson-sharing and engagement of disagreements within the progressive movement was central to our mission.
And the fourth key to success was the centrality of culture in the school. Art exhibits, music, dance, comedy and theatrical performances and workshops like Theater of the Oppressed, often provided first experiences of the space to newcomers. Culture helped us to voice our outrage, mock the rich and powerful and ourselves, celebrate our struggles and victories, make analysis accessible and give form to our dreams and aspirations for liberation. Culture was not an after-thought but integral.
Legacy and Beyond
In his June Monthly Review article on “Popular Movements toward Socialism,” Samir Amin articulated the same premise on which the school was based:
“…a rigorous scientific critical analysis of capitalism taking into account all aspects of its historical reality. This had not been the case with previous socialist formulations or later ones that disregarded Marx. The formulation of capitalism’s law of value; the specification of the long-run tendencies of capital accumulation and their contradictions; the analysis of the relationship between class struggle and international conflicts and likewise of the transformation in methods for managing accumulation and governance; and analysis of the alienated forms of social consciousness—these together define the thought of Marx that initiated the unfolding of historic Marxisms…”
As 2014 brought the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School to a close, it has not brought to a close such ideas nor the need to address the questions of the era, though many need to be reformulated and new organizational forms appropriate to current conditions need to be found. We look to all generations in all our diverse colors and cultural, ethnic, religious and national expressions, gender identifications, sexual orientations and commitments to particular issues and struggles to advance the movement towards human emancipation—and we’ll stick around for the many struggles ahead.
Two, three, many Marxist schools!
Lisa Maya Knauer
Adapted from “Marxist Education Following the Closing of the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School” September 17, 2014