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by Mary Boger
Arthur Felberbaum, the founder of the New York Marxist School, was born into a Philadelphia working-class Russian-Jewish immigrant family on March 21, 1935, the youngest of six children. His father, a taxi cab driver, was murdered when Arthur was an infant, and his mother was left with six children to provide for. For years she worked as a garment worker in the sweatshops of Philadelphia.
Under the pressures of poverty, his mother placed the six-year-old Arthur in Girard College, an institution for working-class boys. His hatred for authoritarianism, its thwarting of creativity and individuality, and his recognition of the importance of an independent youth movement began during this period.
After graduating from Girard College in 1953, he attended Temple University and studied accounting. This provided him with a livelihood and with concrete knowledge of the internal workings of capitalist industry. During his college years, Arthur entered the revolutionary movement, which became, and remained, the focus of his life energies. His energy and enthusiasm were especially remarkable in a period marked by the post-war disintegration and retreat of the working-class movement, the cold-war witch-hunts, the Rosenberg murders and the wave of anti-communist feeling that followed Khrushchev’s revelations of the history of Stalinism.
Inspired by the Cuban revolution and the re-emergence of the Civil Rights and student movements, Arthur, after serious questioning, investigation and study of Marx, made his fundamental decision to devote his life to working for the self-emancipation of the working class and of all oppressed peoples. The premature loss of his mother, who died, worn out, immediately upon her retirement in 1959, reinforced Arthur’s hatred of the brutal capitalist exploitation, which had devoured her life’s energies. Arthur’s sensitivity, compassion and commitment to struggle against sexism and the oppression of women were largely developed through his informed sorrow at his mother’s death—and life. His abhorrence of exploitation and his complete faith in the capacity of the working class to reclaim its full humanity was not mere rhetoric but the very essence of his being.
During the 1950s, Arthur discovered Leon Trotsky’s contributions to the Marxist movement, and accepted the centrality of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution as a key to understanding the development of the proletarian epoch of society. In l958, while a student at Temple, Arthur helped establish a Young Socialist Club, forerunner of the Young Socialist Alliance. He was a delegate to the founding convention of the YSA in 1960, and served for a time on the editorial board of The Young Socialist. As a founding member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1961, he actively engaged in defense of the Cuban revolution and helped organize a national campaign against U.S. government propaganda to bring the truth of the revolution to U.S. workers. In 1963, he left the YSA.
Arthur's first trade union work was his participation in building a strong and sustained organization of blacks, liberals, socialists and young people to keep the picket lines going at the Philadelphia Woolworths as a protest against their racist policies. Concurrently, he was engaged in the campaign to put the Socialist Workers Party on the ballot, and was then active in the 1958 campaign for a united socialist ticket, an attempt to break through Left sectarianism.
From that time on, Arthur fostered comradely discussion and debate about differences, combined with unity in action around issues of class defense and solidarity. This he called “regroupment work.”
During the mid-sixties, Arthur organized and worked vigorously in the student, anti-war, civil rights and trade union movements. He had moved to New York City and left the SWP, and now undertook a serious re-examination of the basis of his politics, to decide how he personally could most effectively advance the scientific development of a conscious revolutionary cadre while continuing to engage in the practical struggles of the period.
In 1968, Arthur visited Mexico during university upheavals, when protesting students linked up with workers through the preparatorio popular (people’s schools). This experience of the revolutionary process marked a turning point in his life and reaffirmed his belief in the centrality of workers’ and oppressed peoples’ self-education. He was also tremendously moved by the participation of students and workers in the May events in France, which reaffirmed his belief in the centrality of the proletariat as the agent of social change and by the Tet offensive and the struggle of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism.
Arthur then began an intensive program of self-education, seeking out others who also felt that need. This was the basis for what became the Marxist Education Collective and the School for Marxist Education.
Convinced of the necessity for a thorough-going examination and rediscovery of Marxist science and theory of history, Arthur was especially concerned with analyzing what he called "the American question"-- why the largest and most concentrated working class in the world, the U.S. working class, was not political, and why it had not organized itself as an independent class. He set out to explore this question, and encouraged others to contribute to the process of clarification.
From 1969 to 1970 Arthur served as Executive Secretary of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, and in November 1969 organized the Town Hall Conference “Strategy for Revolution,” which was attended by over a thousand people focused on the working class as the “agent of revolutionary change.” He also played a major part in setting up Commissions of Inquiry into War Crimes in Vietnam, in building a meeting of 1600 people for Bernadette Devlin in 1971, co-sponsored by International Socialists and attempted through a caucus called the Militant Action Caucus to add an anti-capitalist opposition to the war on a working-class base. Another field in which he made a significant contribution during this period was that of student and faculty struggles at New York University, notably support for the bitter strike of Teamsters Local 810 and attempts to organize faculty and serious actions in defense against political and economic repression at NYU and the “open the books” movement for which he helped organize and write NYU Inc. At this time, Arthur began the process of organizing classes, study groups and research projects on Mar’s Capital, the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the development of capitalism in the U.S., and Marx’s method—dialectics. Out of the 1970 strike at NYU emerged an Alternate Summer School, which Arthur undertook to organize and which continued for eight successive summers. This laid the basis for the 1975 School for Marxist Education.
In 1975, Arthur, with other movement activists drawn from the trade union, Puerto Rican, women’s and anti-war movements, formed the Marxist Education Collective, which opened a public school in the fall of 1975, The School for Marxist Education, founded on the demonstrated achievements of Marxist science had as its educational premises 1) the scientific presentation of historical materialism contained in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy and 20 the lessons of the Russian Revolution as a turning point in working-class history let by self-conscious Marxists.
From 1975 until his sudden death in 1979, Arthur devoted himself to the furtherance of Marxist education as an indispensable part of the revolutionary movement. He served as Education Director of the School for Marxist Education until Spring, 1978, organizing discussion of differences in the workers and revolutionary movement, trade union work, Puerto Rican solidarity work, fighting to publicize the truth about Portugal (1975), helping workers to research their workplace and industry, teaching Capital, building and supporting educational work in other cities across the nation, relating to current struggles in health, science, education the women’s movement, the New York City crisis, student struggles at Hostos and other community colleges, and such political defense work as the Pat Swinton and Miguel Cabrera cases.
All this time Arthur worked as an accountant to support himself and his young son Jeffrey. Except for the brief time at the Russell Foundation, he never received any material recompense from the movement. He was never concerned about making a name for himself, or even about having his work acknowledged. He used his own resources to the fullest and where he felt a lack he brought together others who, he believed, could contribute to the process of founding a new American Marxism. Throughout he was sustained by his passion and confidence in the potentiality of the workers to realize fully their own human capacities and transform the world.
Arthur's exceptional approach to teaching Capital, not as an academic exercise but as a tool to serve the working class in its struggles for liberation have become widely know during his five years of formal teaching and in 1977 he accepted invitations for a national speaking tour. He discussed Capital, its applications, and other strategies for Marxist education at over 20 meetings, and returned to New York with high hopes of committees to set up Marxist schools in an number of cities and tentative plans for a magazine to advance the scientific and cultural understanding of Marxism in the U.S.
These plans might have been more fully developed but in Arthur’s last months he was unfortunately forced to engage in a defensive struggle—a struggle to preserve the scientific and cultural work of the School for Marxist Education from the destructive attacks of the sectarian and personal envy which so often plagues the Left. He refused to engage on that level, concentrating on constructive political work. The outstanding success of the Conference on Marxism and science in April 1979, which he and his comrades organized, was one of the last great satisfactions of his life.
As a teacher, Arthur transformed the lives of many people. He provided a space where workers and students could develop the confidence to take on difficult intellectual tasks. He pushed his students to the limit of their abilities while always patient with the frustrations and confusions of the learning process, never belittling and considering all questions seriously. It was, in fact, hard for some people to accept his earnest concern about their opinions, thought and decisions, his faith that such things made a difference. Yet he was always ready to give personal support, creating an environment to provide growing space for men and women of all sorts. He never forgot the social context of people’s lives and its effects on the emotional needs of individuals. Although he never organized on the basis of personal needs, he understood the dehumanizing impact of decaying bourgeois cultural life and the apparently all-powerful force of capital, the cynicism of a Left isolated from a thriving working-class movement, the atomization of people’s everyday life, and felt that one of our greatest problems was to recognize the need for integration--subjectively, emotionally and intellectually--in daily functioning.