'The Indispensable One' - New York's Brecht Forum
In mid-April, Vijay Prashad, sentinel thinker of the Global South, paused after returning to Beirut from the Bekaa Valley. Focusing away from his surroundings and momentarily halting his ongoing commentary on the Indian elections to his East, Prashad gazed west to New York City. “I can’t believe the news I just heard. The Brecht Forum is closing down…” he posted to Facebook before recalling his 1993 introduction to the Forum by Paul Sweezy and finding “this remarkable place with Marxism schools, an African drumming teacher, a solidarity organization with China, a library with all the left books [that] I had never read, and a large space for events.” Prashad was by no means alone in his despair as subsequent reactions and large meetings affirm. As noticed by both the New York Times and CBS, the Brecht Forum is indeed closing down after almost 4 decades of service to the broad progressive movement. However, the termination of a legal identity is unlikely to mark the end of such a successful, necessary and endearing political-cultural project.
Since its founding in 1975, as the New York Marxist School, the Forum has been an indispensable player and part of the left “ecosystem” in New York City.[ii] With the rise of the #Occupy movement, its facilities were among the crucial rear bases of operation outside of Zuccotti Park. But the same could be said for every major wave of organizing and movement building on the left going back at least as far the anti-nuclear mobilizations of the 1970s and 80s. Where the #Occupy movement and others that came before it would face the methodical fury of the repressive corporate state, the Brecht Forum, as we shall see below, has also had to contend with (1) the impersonal but debilitating tendencies of the capitalist marketplace for real estate and labor and (2) the challenge of raising resources from a base that does not fully understand the nature of the costs. This overview of its history and motivation, its political meaning and space, will suggest both that Prashad’s dismay is warranted and that there will be a Forum after the Brecht.
Mixing one's wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably.
Bertolt Brecht, The Singer, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, prologue (1944)
Looking back at the 2008 – 2012 heyday, Max Uhlenbeck, a former Brecht development director, noted that the Forum was hosting events and classes nearly every day of the week. This period, he remarked in a recent telephone conversation, “coincided with world historical developments including the Great Recession, the election of Barak Obama and the rise of the #Occupy movement.” Over a sustained time, they hosted “Third Thursdays”—open conversations about current events featuring leading writers and experts—generating throngs of attendees and spin-off conversations. In addition to the regular programming and classes held at its space, the Forum also produced large public events leading with speakers like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Doug Henwood and Michael Moore. Liz Mestres, a founder and 19-year director, contrasted this period with the nineties when “most audiences were predominantly grey-haired,” by the end of 2012, at the end of her tenure as director, the audiences had “gotten younger” and “less white,” and closer to the Forum’s “original aim of being “multiracial, interdisciplinary, intergenerational and better able to address issues of social fragmentation.”[iii] Conversation series addressed issues of the day; the Forum called one of the first major organizing conferences on hydrofracking; it thought through the “Right to the City” with David Harvey and scores of grassroots organizers; in the command city of global capitalism, it networked builders of the emerging solidarity economy. As a physical site in the city, it also connected with the day-to-day struggles of working people in the city. For example, reflecting the movement challenging NYC’s repressive policing program, the Forum hosted an art exhibit, ‘The Stop “Stop & Frisk” Youth Showcase.’ In short, the Forum had established itself as place to be if you cared about the world and wanted to change it.[iv]
Anecdotes abound to suggest that the Forum successfully bridged the political generations of the 1970s with the current one by developing many different kinds of programming. By way of illustration, a young Boston-based colleague who is not a Marxist, first studied the Theatre of the Oppressed movement at a workshop offered by Augusto Boal at the Brecht Forum. She subsequently organized similar workshops in Boston and collaborated with the Brecht-trained Gail Burton for additional workshops serving the anti-violence movement. Writing in the Guardian, then staffer Kazembe Balagun noted that, “the Brecht has also acted as a "ground floor" for emerging black artists such as the Blacktree Collective, Freedom Train Productions and Women on Wednesdays.” Going further back, the Forum opened the 21st century by celebrating the centenary of Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks with a conference on its central theme, “the problem of the color line.” In 1998, it marked the 150th Anniversary of the Marx & Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party with a “Manifestivity” that featured Maria Helena Alves, Amiri Baraka, St. Clair Bourne, Dennis Brutus, Barbara Fields, Stephen Jay Gould, Luis Reyes Rivera, Annette T. Rubinstein, Daniel Singer, and Ellen Meiksins Wood, among many others. Immediately, this list demonstrates the Forum’s intellectual capital together with its global and ecumenical reach within the broad left. Going back a further decade, Victor Wallis, editor of Socialism & Democracy, recalls that the Forum’s “weekly program announcements in the Guardian throughout the 80s offered a regular reminder of the vibrancy of Left thinking.” For all these activities, the Forum earned broad support from the left and opprobrium from the right, including a spectacular assault from the ever-entertaining fascist, Glenn Beck.
The Brecht Forum was also deeply connected to other important parts of the national left eco-system – actively contributing to and networked with the Left Forum and its predecessor, the Socialist Scholars Conference, supporting the organizing toward the United States Social Forum, connecting with currents like Free Association and journals like Left Turn, Socialism & Democracy, Science and Society, Monthly Review and others. Throughout these developments and events, the forum succeed in remaining non-sectarian in its orientation, becoming in the words of another its founders, Mary Boger, “an open liberated space of and for the movement.”
That Boger’s remark evokes both the consciousness-raising praxis of the feminist movement and the Peoples’ War metaphor of “liberated zones” is no accident. Although deeply rooted in the US left, the Forum also emerged out of a milieu connected to movements in Latin America, including the US’s last colony, Puerto Rico. Liz Mestres has pointed out that her introduction to Arthur Felberbaum with who she, Boger and others would establish the Forum, came by way of her association with Alfredo Lopez, a leader of the Puerto Rican freedom movement. Establishing a school devoted to left theory, they felt, was perfectly consistent with their movement-building work. In fact, this came just after the time they filled Madison Square Garden in a mega-event leading to the establishing of Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee chapters across the US. Literally founded in the citadel of global capitalism, the Forum was clearly to become a space of global resistance to the same.
But the Forum would not become crude reduction to some or other central committee’s momentary objectives. Instead, it was based on a deep commitment to filling a very fundamental need. Boger recalls Arthur Felberbaum’s insistence that, “our struggle for emancipation was not premised on self-sacrifice but on self-interest; it [is] an egotistical struggle, [but it is] an egoism defrocked of its capitalist garb. It is a reclamation of the self in its entirety and as such it is also a real expression of our love of humanity.” She connects this sensibility with a remark from a youthful Freddy Engels in his polemic with Max Stirner, “it is out of egoism that we wish to be human beings.” This emphasis on the development of individuals was at the heart of the Forum’s mission, Boger quotes an early report from Felberbaum:
The peculiarities of the American left include an enormous lack of confidence, usually shouted down with loud barking at one another. Our reply is that the American left must do even more than any other left to ground our politics in science, with an awareness of the power of the capitalists, the seeming powerlessness of the working class, the rule of bourgeois methodology (empiricism-pragmatism), the historical lack of a workers’ party, and the persistence of the dominance within the workers’ movement of the bureaucratic caste, which holds it down to the narrowest concerns of business unionism.
Following on this thesis about confidence, the mission of the Forum was clear: “to insure that we are fostering the development of confident individuals… [and for this] education was an essential element, not icing on the cake.” Four decades of serious study groups and classes including especially a successful series on global revolutions delivered on this mission statement. In this vein, practical, nuts-and-bolts classes also strengthened the movement… but with a shift in emphasis over time; Liz Mestres observed that, “In the old days… we had workshops on public speaking; now we see workshops on listening.”
Dreams always fly ahead of actions; their vagueness allows the new field to appear unrestricted;
in this way they stimulate.
Bertolt Brecht quoted in Beyond Catastrophe by Mark W. Clark (p.136)
Beyond an event venue, what made the Forum a movement-building space? This is an important question to ask if we are to think about what must survive into putative future iteration - after all, churches, hotels, conference centers, and TED talks all host many events featuring the leading intellectual lights. Taking the just described Forum events, courses and activities in account, one may discern the following movement-building roles:
1. The Forum played a curatorial role connecting audiences, speakers and performers in a timely way with current issues;
2. Cutting across organizational and even ideological lines, the Forum networked the movements’ multiple strands achieving cross-sectoral impacts – not passively penciling in reservations, they actively shared information and ideas;
3. It also amplified movement work by providing an infrastructure and even “organizational memory” that in other countries may have been provided by the state, large cooperatives or even left political parties;
4. The Forum connected local efforts with national and global movements (more on this in section IV) utilizing the relationships that the Forum had developed over the years;
5. It connected radical histories with new generations challenging on a daily basis the historical amnesia that defines much of our “presentist” culture.
Additional functions, not readily apparent even from the distillation above are the invisible labors typical of left-wing organic intellectuals – which are what the Brecht’s staff people and circle of regular volunteers really are. This includes sustaining other projects necessary for the Left, peacemaking internally and across the left, and building a culture of tolerance. As Matt Birkhold, the Forum’s executive director put it, “What I will miss the most is the ability to feel like I contribute to a space in which people can work through very important political questions.” Similarly, back in 2011, Balagun wrote that, “In thinking about the re-emergence of a black liberatory politics, it is important to create spaces that allow for previous and new generations of activists to meet, conspire and organize.” This role is both different from and over-and-above the traditional administrative-managerial tasks of a non-profit.
By catering in an ecumenical way to the left and its needs and by reaching nearly 10,000 people a year (in person and not virtually via their website), over about 250 events every year, the Brecht Forum seems to have played the role that Ralph Miliband hoped (in his last work, Socialism for a Skeptical Age) the socialist left would play “helping to clear a path in the jungle constituted by contemporary reality“ (p.157) building on the fact that, “In all countries, there are people, in numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation—the essential values of socialism—would be the prevailing principles of social organization. It is in the growth in their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for humankind” (p.194-5)
If the foregoing conveys a sense of the Brecht’s achievements and suggests that it fulfills certain movement needs, we can understand Prashad’s disappointment. However, how are we to understand why such an obviously valuable and long-lived space should come to the present inflection point in its evolution? Why was it unable to convert popular participation and social utility into fungible dollars? These questions may better be understood in terms of the physics governing social movements and the distinctive urban political economy impacting New York City.
“Therefore, I beg, make not your anger manifest/For all that lives needs help from all the rest.”
The Brecht’s particular niche in left ecology is well understood by scholars of social movements. In their classic, Free Spaces, Sarah Evans and Harvey Boyte identify, “Particular sorts of public places in the community, what we call free spaces… in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation” (17); these are sources of democratic community that “confer the dignity of authorship on ordinary people” (203). In his study of 19th century movements Eric L. Hirsch (216) notes that “Successful recruitment to a revolutionary movement is more likely if there are social structural-cultural havens available where radical ideas and tactics can be more easily germinated.” Similarly, Aldon Morris has emphasized the indigenous sources of power based on women’s organizations with the Black Church as essential to the Civil Rights movement. In the same vein, focusing more on ideas and individual thinkers, historian Russell Jacoby, writing in The Last Intellectuals, demonstrates the importance of coffee houses and cafés for sustaining public intellectuals (outside the higher education institutions he later labelled Velvet Prisons).
With the ebbing of the 60s radical tide in the US, a major part of the left responded with party-building activities; others took a more cultural turn, opting to build what is today called the “solidarity economy”; still others invested their energies in single-issue campaigns; those in academia led a revolt against 19th century disciplines adding insurgent programs of study based on revalorizing the identities of oppressed groups. In this spectrum of strategies, the Brecht Forum emerges as a unique counter-hegemonic response: confident in its ideological choices, understanding the value of ideas, but remaining outside the institutional constraints of the academy, recognizing the need for leadership development without lapsing into sectarian recruitment, supporting campaigns but resolutely focusing on the whole system.
However, as the free spaces celebrated by movement theorists and exploited by wily organizers became all the more infrequent, as the spatially-bound working-class communities that incubated such spaces melted into air, the Brecht Forum’s strategic value to the left only increased. After all here was a radical space and home to outlaw ideas in the heart of the city.
Long ago, Robert Fitch recognized New York’s distinctive political economy as a city whose ruling class is bent on maximizing rents and whose restructuring of the city is a conscious political process governed as much by market forces as by ruling-class prerogatives. But Fitch also went further, casting his critical eyes on the institutions one would expect to challenge these imperatives. Unfortunately, they’ve come up short.
Among global financial centers, New York City is the first among equals. Finance capital is deeply tied to real estate and the production of space.[v] Even with the crisis ridden character of capitalism with its boom and bust cycles, the physical places that social movements depend on are increasingly rare and subject to upward price pressures.
For a radical space, there are unique challenges. The primary places with the resources, the state, corporations, and political parties, are generally hostile to its ambitions. Secondary institutions like the universities, churches and trade unions are usually captured by and dependent on the primary institutions. Some find hope in the non-profit “third sector” but these are dominated by large foundations and larger non-profit enterprises that generally have a symbiotic relationship with the primary institutions. Set against this background, the Brecht’s multi-decade journey is a Promethean one – creating new realities in a hostile institutional context. Specifically, it means that even well-meaning individuals shaped by the other institutional contexts and the associated logics may find it hard to understand exactly how to build and contribute to a project like the Brecht Forum.
If the fundraising is seen as primarily necessary to pay rent in the order of tens of thousands of dollars, many parts of the left simply see it as too expensive and prefer to hop venues, seeking places that will host this or that activity on an ad hoc basis. If the left acknowledges that important skills are needed for many of the activities, they offer volunteer time and interns. If however the left was to more fully understand the aforementioned movement-building functions that the Forum fulfills via having both a fixed primary location and a regular staff (acting as repositories of relationships or movement history), then the scale of the investment needed to sustain the Brecht Forum would be more obvious and the Forum itself more financially viable. The Brecht’s small staff (three at its peak, one in the current period) were supported by a significant layer of volunteers and collaborators. They were as important as the staff to delivering everything that we have celebrated in this essay. However, without the staff to coordinate activities, and to pro-actively network between individuals, organizations and communities, much less would have been possible. It is now up to those who would continue the work to better explain what a movement building space is and to pull together all those outraged at the loss of their Forum.
For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.
Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Realism” (1938)
Confronted by new circumstances, the broader Brecht Forum community is likely to metamorphose into a new entity to fill the vacuum. If a successful transition happens to a Brecht Forum Reincarnate, then it will be in no small part due to the groundwork laid by its current staff and volunteers. And the work has had impacts well beyond their home city. In early 2007, for example, the Forum partnered with encuentro5 (Boston), Red Emmas (Baltimore), Bluestockings Bookstore (NYC), the Center for Political Education (San Francisco), and the Center for Global Justice (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) to organize US Social Forum workshop on movement-building spaces, their achievements and challenges. They repeated the effort in Detroit 2010 (adding spaces like the Boggs Center [Detroit], the Flying Squirrel Collective [Rochester, NY], the Socialist Project [Toronto] and Rhizome [Vancouver]) and at the Left Forum (2011 and 2012). These conversations laid the basis for collaborations between spaces, connecting to one another by video links and through national activist and author tours. More globally, the Forum has organized audio and sometimes video link ups with Patrick Bond’s Center for Civil Society (in South Africa), with Samir Amin (piping in from Egypt at the height of the Arab Spring), and with Evo Morales’ Forum on the Rights of Mother Earth (live from Cochabamba, Bolivia).
If one thing stands out from our description of the Brecht Forum, it is that it was able to successfully tap into the place that New York is—home to many higher education institutions, diversity of conferences and cosmopolitan networks, immigrant and people of color communities—in order to re-arm the left with ideas. It is this innovative role that must continue; if the Forum as movement-building space is to survive in the current financial climate, it will have to find ways to defrays costs by establishing multiple use spaces, co-locating social movement organization offices, coffee shops, maker spaces, entertainment activities and cooperative ventures into the physical places it occupies. All of this will require multi-skilled staff with a high tolerance for diversity, complexity and uncertainty. Fortunately, the Brecht Forum has developed just such people!
[i] “Those who are weak don't fight./Those who are stronger might fight/for an hour./Those who are stronger still might fight/for many years./The strongest fight/their whole life./They are the indispensable ones.” Bertolt Brecht in the play The Mother (1930)
[ii] For the sake of consistency, this essay will refer to the “Forum” when referencing both the New York Marxist School and its successor, the Brecht Forum.
[iv] In the days following the board’s announcement that the Brecht Forum will be closing its doors, other stories and observations about its value surfaced in social media and email lists. Not the least of these are the many stories of people meeting their future life partners at the Brecht!
[v] A recent study explains the close connection between financial corporations and real estate: “Those same financial firms are the occupiers of space, as owners or as tenants. Thus rents and capital values are linked to the fortunes of international financial firms and their demand for space. It is those same firms that invest in offices in financial centers – directly by acquisition for their investment portfolios, indirectly through investment in real estate funds, by holding shares of property companies owning the buildings or by investing in securitized debt products backed by office values. Those investments are significant parts of the asset base of the financial firms and act as collateral for their operational activities, including property lending. Thus occupier, supply and investment markets are locked together.” New York City recently edged past the City of London to take first place in an authoritative survey - Global Financial Centres Index #15 – March 2014
Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Mass. Global Action and Boston’s encuentro5, a movement-building space inspired by the Brecht Forum. Suren thanks Liz Mestres and Max Uhlenbeck for their comments. He may be contacted via email to suren [ at ] fairjobs < dot > org.