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The Annette T. Rubinstein Reading Room
The Brecht Forum's library is dedicated to our dear friend and teacher Annette T. Rubinstein who died on June 20, 2007 at the age of 97.
Born in 1910 in New York City into a family of immigrant Jewish Socialists, Annette became an active socialist in 1934 and that commitment sustained her throughout her life. Annette was a rare combination of teacher, scholar and political organizer. She was in the forefront of the important political struggles of the last century, exemplifying Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s maxim that "...it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged never to have lived." Annette certainly does not stand at peril of being judged not to have lived as attested to by her eighteen and a half pound FBI file which she acquired under the Freedom of Information Act in the 1980s. Her life was colored by strong passions -- for freedom and social justice, for literature, for teaching.
Annette shared the passions and actions of all the major working class, anti-racist, political and social movements of the twentieth century. Her life was intertwined with the lives of other important figures of the American radical movements. People such as Paul Robeson, Dorothy Parker, W.E.B. DuBois were among her allies and her friends.
Annette was a consummate political person all of her life. She worked with the Spanish Refugee Committee during the late thirties and forties, joined in the mass working-class upheavals of the 1930s, and was a member of the American Communist Party until 1952. She was blacklisted during the McCarthy period and called before the House of Un-American Activities three times. Earlier she had been subjected to institutionalized anti-Semitism when, after being accepted to Barnard College as an undergraduate at the age of fifteen, she was told there had been a mistake regarding her application since the Jewish quota had already been filled. So, she went to New York University instead. Fortunately, by 1929, the barriers had been broken and she entered Columbia University as a graduate student of philosophy. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in 1933.
Annette was a lifelong supporter of independent socialist politics. She served as an organizer of the American Labor Party between 1936 and 1954 working closely with Congressman Vito Marcantonio. In 1950 on the American Labor Party ticket she ran for congress against the Liberal Party's candidate, F.D.R. Jr. In 1958 she ran with Corliss Lamont, Jack McManus, Captain Hugh Mulzac, and Scott Grey, Esq., in a New York State gubernatorial campaign that brought together for the first time socialists of various tendencies, under the auspices of the United Independent Socialist Party. She ran for New York State lieutenant governor. Annette compiled selections of Marcantonio's writings and wrote his political biography as an introduction to the book she edited entitled I Vote My Conscience. In 1992 she was awarded the first Marcantonio Award.
Through the years, Annette helped defend political prisoners such as the Trenton Six, the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell, the Attica Brothers and the Harlem Six, organizing around these cases and producing pamphlets which are classics of U.S. political literature: The Black Panther Party and the Harlem 21, Attica 1971-1975, and Suicide on Rykers Island. In these pamphlets Annette convinces the readers intellectually by objectively presenting the facts of the case while touching them at the deepest levels of their humanity. Whenever as an activist she took up a defense, she somehow showed that defense itself is not just necessary but always possible.
Blacklisting during the McCarthy period by no means put an end to Annette's political and educational work. She was a co-founder of the Fund for Social Analysis, a grant-making body established during the darkest years of McCarthyism for the support of independent research and writing in Marxist studies. Her association with the Fund led to her third subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, issues in the late 1950s. Annette fought equally hard against racism at home and imperialism abroad. During the Mississippi Summer of 1964, she helped found the Charter Group for a Pledge of Conscience, an organization dedicated to developing an anti-racist consciousness among Northern white liberals and radicals. She and other members of the Charter Group helped lead the struggle to desegregate New York City's public schools, and the book Annette edited, Schools Against Children, embodied the spirit of that struggle.
She was a continuous advocate for self-determination. During the 1970s and 80s she participated in the various U.S. People's Delegation to the United Nations Decolonization Committee's hearings on Puerto Rico, and in 1982 presented testimony on behalf of the Delegation condemning the U.S. colonial occupation of the island. She has actively defended Puerto Rican political prisoners.
Annette's love of literature resulted in one of the only authentic North American Marxist treatments of English literature, The Great Tradition in English Literature from Shakespeare to Shaw. She published innumerable literary articles and reviews in journals such as Science and Society, Jewish Currents, Monthly Review , Socialism and Democracy and Masses in Mainstream. In a chapter in the Monthly Review book entitled New Studies in the History of US Communism she discussed the Federal Theater and its significance in American left political social culture. She knew the people and actors directly involved in this WPA project of the 1930s and her own brother, Irwin Rhodes, served as National Counsel to the Federal Theater.
In 1986, at the young age of 75 and between teaching engagements in the People's Republic of China, Annette completed the sorely needed critical history of North American literature entitled American Literature Root and Flower. This book was first printed and used in all the universities in China, including Beijing Foreign Studies University where Annette taught English and American literature for two years, 1982-83 and again in 1987-88.
More than anything else, Annette was a teacher. She taught philosophy at New York University and became principal of the Robert Louis Stevenson School. She lectured across the United States and throughout Eastern Europe. In 1954 alone, blacklisted and during the national hysteria around the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, she toured twenty cities in thirty days and lectured sixty times. With a sparkle in her eye, she would tell you how restful this tour was since all she had to do was speak--restful as compared to her own organizing efforts of the time and of those who organized her tour. She took her role as an educator of political activists seriously. She made herself available over the years to generations of young political organizers, teaching writing, editing and public speaking skills.
Following her days at the Robert Louis Stevenson School she taught English to immigrant peoples in classrooms and in her home. She was never been too busy to help edit a newsletter or critique a fund appeal. Whatever she set her hand to became teaching: in all settings, she took the knowledge she had and opened it to all comers. Annette was a teacher and chairperson of the Cultural Department at the Jefferson School throughout its existence, and taught at its predecessor, the School for Democracy.
She began working with the Brecht Forum's New York Marxist School when it opened its doors in the fall of 1975 and remained a tireless friend, critic and supporter for the rest of her life, teaching classes on literature, drama and politics almost every term. She was a member of the Brecht Forum's Board of Advisors and helped guide the Brecht Forum through times of political and financial turmoil. In 1995, she was proclaimed our 20th Anniversary Teacher.
Annette T. Rubinstein participated in every kind of political period: from times when mass movements were strong and one felt that the revolution was around the corner to the debacle of fascism, the holocaust and World War II, on through the difficult McCarthy period, then the new wave of protests of the civil rights, anti-war, national liberation, new left and women's upsurges, to our current rather bleak but hopefully germinal period. Throughout her life she was ever learning and asking questions while teaching those around her. Among her many ongoing projects she served as an advisory editor of Jewish Currents and an editor of Science and Society, the longest-lived Marxist journal in the United States and the world.
Perhaps, among her most valuable teachings is the Talmudic quotation she often repeated: "It is not upon you to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it." By being in her presence--whether leisurely sipping tea with her in her 71st Street apartment, or working alongside her, or attending her class on Herman Melville--through the sum and substance of Annette one learned that the good fight is a joyful life-engendering activity. And who knows, living out the good fight may even lead to longevity, if Annette was any example.
She would tell you at times that struggle is also your duty, but even then she was really telling you that taking responsibility to understand and to act to transform the world is the most authentic and meaningful life to lead and is the one most filled with the pure joy of being in the world. Choosing to lead such a life is not a sacrifice but a realization of one's self. The women's movement has taught us the important truth that the personal is political and Annette was always quick to remind us that the converse is equally true, the political is personal.