Socialist Education at the New York Marxist School

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by Mary Boger & Juliet Ucelli in Socialism and Democracy, 1987

The New York Marxist School, (NYMS) is a place where university professors mingle with 17-year-old North American working class kids and with activists from such countries as Haiti, India, and South America. Each term the School offers twenty courses, forty lectures and various cultural events. These are presented and attended by people who define themselves as Black nationalists, religious anarchists, feminists, pacifists and Marxist-Leninists. No party, foundation or single benefactor underwrites the school. It is organized by a self-constituted committee of activists from the anti-war, student’s, women’s, and Puerto Rican liberation movements who unite around the task of public, non-sectarian Marxist education. This committee conceives of itself primarily as an educational collective; it does not aspire to the scope of programmatic unity common to pre-party formations.

The NYMS was founded in 1975 and attracts around 150 registered students and several hundred one-time attendees for each of its three annual semesters. Its courses cover a broad spectrum of topics, from Marx’s Capital to current events, from Shakespeare to rap, from psychology to ecology, from women’s and gay history to U.S foreign policy. The NYMS also offers workshops where participants reflect on the personal pain and growth associated with oppression and radical activity.

This article summarized some of the political ideas that underlie the program of socialist education at the NYMS, which has survived through a lull in the mass struggle that has been longer than anyone expected. It also reflects upon the developments of the School in relation to the evolving progressive movements.

Like many of the left institutions and projects that weathered the ‘70s, the New York Marxist School represents a synthesis of traditions and impulses from the old and new lefts. In its core curriculum is classical Marxism with an emphasis on the themes and approaches elaborated by thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Paulo Freire, and Amilcar Cabral. It emphasized class analysis but has given ample attention to the debate over the “crisis of Marxist theory.” It makes an energetic effort to connect with the new social movements and their theoretical contributions, and stresses that “the personal is political.” Capital, the subject of its most popular regular course, is seen as the most coherent presentation of a methodology for analyzing how human beings create our total material and cultural life under conditions of class domination, rather than as a study of political economy in a narrow technical sense. Marx’s tenth thesis on Feuerbach encapsulates the School’s approach: “The standpoint of the old materialism is “civil” society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or socialized humanity.”

How We Started

Most of the founders of the NYMS were radical young students, veteran and labor activists (disproportionately women and from working class backgrounds), though our main strategist, Arthur Felberbaum (who died in 1979) had been a member of the Socialist Workers Party until the early ‘60s and an organizer of the Bertrand Russell Peace Tribunal. We came together in the alternative summer schools which stemmed from the 1968 teach-ins at New York University and survived through the signing of the Vietnam peace treaty and the subsequent waning of “the movement.” Since antiwar activists who didn’t join party formations were often joining study groups in the early 1970s, we had about 70 people in year-round study groups on Capital, the development of U.S. capitalism, the history of the Russian Revolution, and Marxism and science when we officially founded a Marxist education collective in 1973.

We believed, like many Marxists, that debilitating tendencies that run throughout U.S. radical history held the mass movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s back. Our movements fall prey to the capitalist-inspired notion that ideology is a thing of the past. We tend to look for immediate solutions and distrust theory. We tend to discount study of the historical process.

Most of us wanted to be members of anti-capitalist organizations that worked in mass movements on the basis of a collectively elaborated strategy and program. We doubted whether a “Leninist” party was appropriate in an advanced capitalist democracy with a large and fairly educated working class. We also were dismayed that most of the existing left parties discouraged genuine democratic discussion internally, proclaimed “correct lines” without sufficient theoretical investigation or concrete analysis and refused to acknowledge their lack of a following in the working class.

But we optimistically expected that U.S. socialists would begin to question established dogma, and that working and oppressed people would develop anti-capitalist consciousness. The credibility of the U.S. state had been shaken by the Watergate scandal, and the decline of U.S. political and economic hegemony, we thought, would bring at least relative declines in U.S. workers’ living standards, which, combined with the emerging consciousness of Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and women, might lead to a qualitatively different oppositional movement. The Maoist left was in disarray with the opening of U.S.-China relations, the struggle over Mao’s successor, and China’s support for counter-revolutionaries in Angola; the Socialist Workers Party, though claiming to value both theory and internal democracy, had alienated many student activists in its attempts to win control of anti-war organizations; the Communist Party had again lost legitimacy after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. All this indicated that some of the most principled activists in all sectors of the left would be rethinking their politics.

In founding the NYMS in 1975, we sought to provide a place where activists could appropriate the methodology of historical materialism and apply it in concrete situations; where the issues important to progressives (not just Marxists) could be discussed and debated in a principled and supportive way; and where people could reclaim their history and connect with the aspirations of other peoples by experiencing, studying, and creating music and the arts.

We had no illusion that providing a forum or space for the entire progressive movement, or for various vanguards (in the broadest sociological sense—the most articulated, historically resilient expressions of the aspirations and critiques of various oppressed groups) would make us a super-vanguard. We wanted to help the process of developing anti-capitalist unity, but we knew we were not “it.” In this period, we believe that all progressives have to learn to build organizations and institutions that address limited needs with an eye to the entire struggle; that only a recognition of the real diversity of oppositional impulses and movements, a conscious quest for dialogue, and collaborative effort in action will make genuine anti-capitalist unity possible.

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