Remembering Arthur Felberbaum


The Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School—an important left educational and cultural center in New York City since 1975--is undergoing a significant change. Liz Mestres, one of the organization's founders and its Director for the last 18 years, is stepping down and a new generation is stepping up. More than just a transfer of leadership, the Brecht Forum's transition brings to mind both the changes and the continuities between the movements of the 1960s and the new movements that are emerging today.

On December 11, 2012, the Brecht Forum hosted a festive event to honor the members of the founding Marxist Education Collective – Arthur Felberbaum (1935-1979), Mary Boger, Susan Boger, Carol Goldman, Bill Henning, Lisa Maya Knauer, Liz Mestres, Eli Messinger, Luis Prado, and Juliet Ucelli – and to welcome the Next Generation. While all of the founders collectively worked out the strategy for the original School for Marxist Education, it was Arthur Felberbaum who was most responsible for conceiving this remarkable project. The following is based on brief remarks excerpted from that evening.


As we have learned, most particularly from the Native American and African American movements, it is important to remember as we engage today and struggle for the future that we are always building upon the lives and struggles--whether for the better or the worse--of our ancestors. This evening we are taking a moment to acknowledge, and say thanks to the Brecht Forum’s founding members, and most especially to one of our lost comrades, Arthur Felberbaum. Arthur died in 1979 at the age of 44. The best way I can introduce you to him in a short space of time is through a few stories of things he said and did, which give a sense of his character, desires, needs, passions. Through these stories something of the politics of the man emerges.

Arthur dedicated the last years of his life to constructing a space within the left movement that was committed to education as an integral part of movement-building. The first thing he did every morning was to get on the phone and reach out to other individuals—“how are you? what are you up to? I have an idea for a project I want you to participate in, I’ve been thinking about what you said.” Arthur thrived on engagement, he longed for authentic connection and, politically, he believed the questions we needed to address could only be answered collectively.

There’s a passage from Frederick Engels I want to read to you here. After the young Marx and Engels began collaborating, they first set themselves to the task of clarifying their own thinking. This required coming to terms with the critical thinking of their day, and the formulation of their own method and understanding of human development and history. In the passage I am about to read, Engels speaks directly to things I want to say about Arthur, the project of the Brecht Forum and the task of movement-building. Back in the 60s and 70s, the Left was much engaged in an argument over the early and late Marx, and the bad Engels versus the good Marx, a controversy that continues today and will probably remain with us. Arthur was an unabashed advocate for Engels, and wrote a piece, “In Defense of Engels,” that we published in our first and only Marxism and Science journal after Arthur's death. Reading this passage gives me a special pleasure. I can see Arthur smiling. This is what Engels wrote:

"Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person, follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills, operating in different directions, and of their manifold effects upon the outer world, that constitutes history. Thus it is also a question of what the many individuals desire. The will is determined by passion or deliberation. But the levers which immediately determine passion, or deliberation, are of very different kinds. Partly they may be external objects, partly ideal motives, ambition, “enthusiasm for truth and justice,” personal hatred, or even purely individual whims of all kinds. But, on the one hand, we have seen that the many individual wills active in history, for the most part, produce results quite other than those intended — often quite the opposite; that their motives, therefore, in relation to the total result, are likewise of only secondary importance. On the other hand, the further question arises: What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical forces, which transform themselves, into these motives, in the brains of the actors?"

I don’t know if Arthur was aware of this passage from Engels, but it captures the character of his own thinking. He was constantly deliberating over what lessons we needed to learn from our history and how to proceed in the present. He turned to others, from all disciplines and political orientations, sought them out, and asked them to participate in public discussions on these and many other matters. He was especially concerned about what forms of struggle and organization might foster a counter-hegemonic movement within the existing culture that could effectively challenge the prerogatives of capitalist interests. His assessment was that one of the things we in the US left lacked, was an “extant theory of capitalist development in the U.S. ... which explains the principal features of the political landscape, particularly the conditions of working class consciousness.” For Arthur, such a lack did not mean that one simply retreated to the library, drew up the answers, and then went to work implementing the right course. No, quite the contrary. You are to go to the library--and he spent quite a bit of time at the Securities Exchange library--and you are to organize. In a piece he wrote-- The Germ of the New World Outlook, playing off of Engels--he summed up this perspective with the phrase “active sensuous knowing and conscious, scientific practice.” You were to seek out the answers to historical questions in the course of struggling against existing inhumanities, working, as he argued, “together with socialists, workers, gays, women, ecology activists, soldiers, youth, anti-war, and liberation fighters in all those instances of agreement which usually underlie our common anti-capitalist efforts.” And, he considered it a fundamental responsibility to do so based on the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Much like the passage from Engels quoted above, Arthur once said to me that individuals come to the movement from many different places--some out of anger and hurt, others for ethical reasons, others convinced by the science—and all these individuals are part of what makes up a movement. He also said that each of us is one-sided – some deliberative and conservative, others impulsive and ready for action – and it is only through working together that the one-sidedness of each can be corrected, while the presence of each within the collective process was necessary to insure that the whole derived the best possible way to move forward.

Arthur was also occupied with the question of confidence, and felt that it was very important that we in the left think about what we need to do to insure that we are fostering the development of confident individuals and, for him, education was an essential element, not icing on the cake, that you do as an extra, a luxury. This is so because, as he said, it is essential not only to developing the capacity of individuals to engage in self-conscious political practice but also to building a movement that nourishes and brings to life the potentialities of each individual thus enabling each of us to grow rather than burn out through all the ups and downs of the ongoing struggle for human emancipation. In a “Discussion Report on the Fall, 1975 Semester,” the first term of the School for Marxist Education, he wrote: “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.”

Arthur used to say that our struggle for emancipation was not premised on self-sacrifice but on self-interest; it was an egotistical struggle, 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. I think he meant this in the way Engels wrote to Marx when they were involved in critiquing Stirner’s adoption of Bentham’s egoism on the one side, and Feuerbach’s abstract notion of love of humanity and self-sacrifice on the other--neither of which they, nor Arthur, could abide. Engels wrote “we must first make a cause our own egoistic cause ...we are communists out of egoism also, and it is out of egoism that we wish to be human beings.” Engels also says in his letter, that if taking “our departure from the Ego, the empirical, flesh-and-blood individual ... is the true basis, the true point of departure, for our ‘man,’ it follows that egoism – not of course Stirner's intellectual egoism alone, but also the egoism of the heart – is the point of departure for our love of humanity, which otherwise is left hanging in the air.”

These were all matters that Arthur felt were becoming ever more pressing because, as he said, “the development of nuclear weapons, physical sciences in the hands of the capitalists, threatens the very survival of the human species.” He optimistically speculated that this would eventually “show the necessity of production planned for human need, not profit.” He remained confident about the capacity of individuals to become, each and every one--not simply in principle but in fact--social beings.

Thus Arthur believed that we need a movement of individuals with grand confident egos and one that that draws upon and depends upon the full participation and development of the potentials of each, so that we can reclaim our full humanity, not just for ourselves, but for all humankind.

In a Draft Statement for the newly constituted New York Committee For Marxist Education adopted in June 1979, and written right before his death, Arthur wrote: “Our confidence in the socialist future is embodied not in wishes, or hopes, or ethical pronouncements, which for two thousand years have justified the patience of the people to accept their collective fate, but in the lawful and reasonable assumption that the people – who already have it within their grasp, and need only recognize as much – will organize their potential strength, and strike the death blow against exploitation, parasitism, racism, sexism, hunger, and injustice – and not only for this nation but for the world’s population.” But, how is this recognition of the real power embodied within all the individuals of the working class to be realized? Arthur felt this to be a burning question of our time, and I would argue that the question of labor, both as human life-engendering life activity, and as historical agency, is central to whether this next period of historical development begins the transition into the emancipation and recovery of humankind, or not.

Arthur was passionate and deliberate. He was conscious of his own foibles and inadequacies, and aware that because of the nature of the problems we were historically confronting, no one person, no one party or tendency, held all the answers. So much has happened within the world process of capitalist development since 1975, when our School for Marxist Education opened. Many organizations have come and gone; new forms of activity and organization have emerged. As Engels said, even when we act on the basis of a well thought out and grounded strategy, the outcome may not necessarily be what was intended and, even if it is, our actions will lead to new consequences and will set into motion new contradictory processes, some foreseen, others not, and the process will start over again. It’s continuous and will always be so, and this is why self-consciousness and historically conscious practice is so essential to human development. The opening line in the first Statement of Principles in 1975 reads: “The School for Marxist Education is being established…for the purpose of advancing Marxist culture…and conscious political practice.” This principle has stood by us well.

To the Next Generation:

You of the next generation have the task of figuring out what next. The decisions you make need to take into account the many-sided processes at work at any moment, which, even in the best of circumstances, cannot be fully known; nor will the outcomes based on your decisions ever be what you fully intended. Your ancestors through both their successes and failures have left you clues and traces of answers and of course, no one can give you a blueprint. But, I believe, developing character, nurturing mature confident, well-rounded, self-aware individuals who can argue out, change their ideas and learn from each other, agree to disagree but still work together, these things are important. This does not mean being wishy-washy, or, that just because a person says something it has to be accepted as valid in itself. If it’s hogwash, it’s your responsibility to say so; and when you are full of hogwash, to give it up. Anyone who knew Arthur, knew that he was not easily swayed when challenged. He told me once that one does not simply throw out one’s ideas without an argument. If he thought he was right, he would argue the case. But, he said, it is your task to prove me wrong, and if you do, well, then, there’s just one more thing I’m right about. In the early days of the project, I once went to him to complain about another member of the Collective. He looked at me and said, Do you think that someone in the Collective has not come to me to complain about you? We each have our strengths and our weaknesses. Can you instead tell me what you find to be a strength in this person, something you want to work with, and then find a way to connect on this basis, and build something together? He knew he needed others, intellectually, emotionally, physically. In regard to my own personal struggles, as a young woman trying to claim herself as an independent person, he once told me that my true independence could only be realized when I acknowledged my dependence.

One of the beauties of this project for me is that it has become what it set out to be, an open liberated space of and for the movement. We arose as a specific project with tasks we set for ourselves, but we were a particular manifestation that expressed the impulses of a liberatory movement that was taking place worldwide in many forms. We struggle within the movement and within the larger society, and we are supported and nurtured by the movement.

There is so much I would like to say, but I will close with only two stories that I think need to be told.

First, in the 70s we were one among five or six alternative schools in New York City. When one of them, Free Association, entered a serious crisis, the Collective discussed the matter together. Arthur, drawing on his understanding that individuals come to radical movements with different needs, argued that we must give our support and see if there was anything we could do to help them. He insisted that our movement needs many different kinds of schools so that the many different needs of people could be met. He pressed upon us younger members that we were not in competition but, instead, we complemented each other. He said we needed them; I remember this clearly. We had never really thought in this way before, occupied so much with our own survival. So, we reached out to Free Association's organizers to see if we could be of any help. Their school folded anyway but that process led us to organize programs around alternate schools and to see ourselves as part of a network of schools. Then, in the 80s, when we were almost at the point of having to close our doors, who came to our aid but Stanley Aronowitz, a leading figure within Free Association, along with Bill Tabb. Stanley and Bill were both organizers of the Socialist Scholars Conference, now known as the Left Forum. During the conference they used the podium to rally support for the Brecht Forum, and it was greatly through their intervention, that we were able to raise the money needed to keep our doors open. The Brecht Forum is a movement project, of and for the movement. Its capacities and its sustenance come from the movement as a whole.

Finally, I'd like to say something about the last major organizational transformation of the Brecht Forum a few years after Arthur's death. In the bleak 80s, the Marxist Education Collective was worn out and worn down, constantly struggling to pay rent, reduced in numbers, trying to keep classes going in a period when many movements had to a great extent retreated. Many left parties and tendencies had folded, and street protest had receded; we were on our last legs. I don’t remember how it happened, either we reached out to Jim Paul or he simply came and took hold of us, but he helped us make the transition from a collective-run school to a Board of Directors structure with paid staff. This was a very difficult and emotional process. How could we be sure that a board would safeguard the School’s objectives? How could we be certain the non-sectarian character of the project would remain? Jim patiently walked us through these questions and many more, but he was also insistent. And we knew we had to find another way. When Jim tried to steer us towards instituting a rotating board with limited terms, many of us became terrified. People will just come and go. The project will collapse. Jim stayed with us through the transition and was the first chair of the new Board. We owe him a great deal of thanks. Perhaps no one is indispensible, but without him at that time, I don’t think we would all be here tonight. Thank you, Jim. Arthur had always argued that organizational forms are not principles; you determine how you organize yourself according to the tasks and objectives you have set out to accomplish. This truth has now come home to me.

And because of this we can truly say that the Brecht Forum is a project of a broad movement, that continually regenerates itself by drawing on the wealth of individuals who hold all kinds of passions and deliberations and are committed to insuring that a counter-hegemonic cultural institution, non-sectarian but principled, holds fast to its imperatives and thrives. Arthur once said to me that a project that depends on one person is not a project. The Brecht Forum depends for its success on the collective intelligence and capacities embodied in each individual of the movement.

Liz now hands over the tasks of the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School to the next generation--Max, Kazembe, and the Brecht Forum’s activists. You have the support of a community, which embraces you wholeheartedly. Arthur often reminded us that formulating the right questions is half the work. And he knew that answers--which are really in some sense only propositions since we can never know a thing as an absolute truth but only approximately and from particular and limited perspectives--could be best derived through combining the intelligence and experience that is embodied in different individuals. Draw on the collective knowledge of this pool of individuals and they will do their part. And, in this way, we will contribute our part to advancing a powerful unified movement that combines the power of our collective intelligence. I can’t tell you that everything will go smoothly, and that you won’t have sleepless nights, but, you can have quite an incredible journey, and, if you don’t take yourselves too seriously, you can have a lot of fun. My thanks to you and everyone here this evening.