The Brecht Forum, a Left cultural and educational center located in New York City, just announced its closing, in the middle of a term and without any public warning or discussion. We find this strange, but we do not mourn its demise, and we oppose efforts to re-found that institution.
New York City certainly needs a good cultural and educational center for the Left. What we mean by “good” is one that is open, pluralistic, and operates according to clear rules that are applied uniformly. The Brecht Forum was not such a place. Those who wish to create such a place should make a fresh start. They should repudiate the Brecht and its sorry legacy, they should not use its name, and they should dissociate the new center from those who controlled it for decades.
Although the official explanation for the demise of the Brecht centered on high rent “in a rapidly gentrifying city,” the fact is that it has been financially unviable. In 2012, it spent 80 percent more on salaries, alone, than it brought in from fees that people paid to attend its classes and events. The fees made up less than 15 percent of the Brecht’s revenues.
We believe that the Brecht’s lack of popular support was due in part to its exclusionary, anti-pluralistic, character. Ten years ago, it expelled Andrew Kliman, a Marxist-Humanist theorist who was teaching the Brecht’s course on Marx’s Capital, on the stated grounds that he and the class members had objected to the Brecht administration’s alteration of the title of the course and the teacher’s bio.
The alterations were made without consultation and without Kliman’s consent. The title was changed to “Four Questions,” which served to disguise the fact that the course was on Capital, and Kliman’s bio was altered to omit that he had previously taught Capital at the Brecht. Reference to a political organization was added, possibly endangering his professional security. The point of these actions was clearly to scare away students, hurting the Brecht’s own class because it had proved too popular and thereby challenged the old guard’s hegemony over the interpretation of Marx’s work. (For more information and documentation about this incident, see the fourth item here.)
While some people in the New York left were shocked at this expulsion, others argued that in order to maintain “unity,” a “valuable left institution” like the Brecht should not be challenged even if it suppresses other leftists. A student in the course countered,
Only through reasoned debate can leftists work out differences and problems and figure out how best to fight. That is, the tactic of suppressing dissenting views is not only wrong ‘in principle,’ but produces backward movement, not forward. By debating and developing ideas now about what non-capitalism means, we are helping the movement go forward toward that goal. The process we are engaged in is the very opposite of suppressing dissent.
Some students in the course, and Kliman, went on to establish The New School for Pluralistic Anti-Capitalist Education (The New SPACE). Despite some important achievements, The New SPACE was unable to become a viable pluralistic alternative to the Brecht, for two main reasons: first, it lacked the Brecht’s material resources—the Brecht had revenue of $411,000 in 2012 over and above what it took in from fees for courses and events, whereas The New SPACE had nothing besides its fees. Second, The New SPACE was actively subverted by the Brecht administration, which put pressure on teachers and potential teachers at The New SPACE to withdraw their support and participation. One early course had to be cancelled after it had been advertised because, the teacher said, she could not deny her Brecht friends’ request to pull out. Other teachers also revealed that they had received phone calls pressuring them not to teach or speak there.
We do not regard a “valuable left institution” that suppresses dissent as either valuable or legitimately part of the left. Even if some of the Brecht’s current staff and board members were not personally involved in Kliman’s expulsion and the subversion of The New SPACE, they as well as their predecessors had an obligation to acknowledge and repudiate those deeds. They never did.
So we are glad to see the Brecht Forum go, and we hope that a fresh start can be made to form a cultural and educational center that is indeed legitimately part of the left–an open, pluralistic, center that operates according to clear and uniformly applied rules.
Some people will no doubt decry our lack of solidarity with the Brecht. We think solidarity is a two-way street. The needed solidarity was certainly not forthcoming from those who now mourn the Brecht’s demise when it wrecked its own Capital course and expelled its teacher, or when it ran a campaign against The New SPACE, or when it failed to acknowledge and apologize for this history.
If such people had solidarized with The New SPACE, it might have thrived, and the current desperate attempt to establish a new center would be unnecessary. These people made their bed; now they have to lie in it.