21st century Marxism and the New York School

Issue 

You may be surprised to know that right in the heart of the international centre of capital, New York, thrives a school for Marxism. The New York Marxist School, according to one of its program coordinators, DANNY LUCE, helps ensure that New York also remains the "centre for anti-capital". Luce told Green Left Weekly's PIP HUNTER and ZANNY BEGG that the school aims to contribute to the flourishing of radical scholarship of all kinds and especially the theoretical rearming of the Marxist movement.

Now in mid-town Manhattan ("a good location but expensive"), the school was started in 1973 by a group of independent activists and academics who formed the Marxist Educational Collective. This later evolved into the School for Marxist Education and then, eventually, the New York Marxist School.

In the early 1970s, Luce was "a free-floating activist", having parted company from "a small sectarian semi-Trotskyist group". He attributes his early political grounding to his father, an activist in the US Socialist Workers Party in the late 1940s.

The Marxist School is not the project of any particular political tendency, Luce said. "Its intention is rather to try to create space for comrades and activists who come from a very wide variety of political traditions to meet and exchange ideas and learn in a non-sectarian environment."

Luce believes that "both the Trotskyist movement in the broadest sense and the proto-communist party, the Committees of Correspondence", are the largest sources of political inspiration for the school. The school's Advisory Board includes Carl Bloice, Ernest Mandel, Manning Marable, Ralph Miliband, Leo Panitch and Annette T. Rubinstein. Stephen Jay Gould, James Petras, Terry Eagleton, Alexander Buzgalin and Boris Kagarlitsky are also involved.

Who attends? Luce said that even though there is a multiplicity of small left organisations in the US, there is a much larger mass of people who are not affiliated with anything ("one of the characteristics of US political life, which is a source of both strength and weakness") and these people make up the school's largest single constituency. However, almost everyone at the school is an activist. "We discourage theory without practice."

The problem of how to help ensure continuity of political experience given the fact that the majority of left activists work outside any political organisation, is something that concerns Luce. While the school, he said, does not resolve this problem, "Everyone involved in it would agree that some sort of regroupment and organisation is needed, but we will not get there without a very wide and ongoing discussion about where we go from now."

The school runs three major projects. Under the rubric of the Brecht Forum, "the corporate parent", is the Institute of Popular Education and the New York Marxist School. The Brecht Forum's publicity describes it as "a place for people who are working for fundamental social change and a new culture that puts human needs first".

The Institute for Popular Education, founded in 1992, "aims to promote a better understanding of the politics of education" and, according to Luce, "is attempting to implement strategies inspired by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator". Many Spanish and Portuguese-speaking activists are involved.

The Marxist School runs classes and lectures on "whatever hot topics we are able to line up speakers on", from Gramsci to Marxist economics — which in New York is a relatively easy thing to do because many leftists visit each year for a conference or two. Luce, a member of the program committee, was visibly proud when he told us, "There are always new students attending classes on Marx's Capital Volume 1". He suggested that there may even be a renaissance of interest in this subject in the wake of the 1989 collapse of so-called socialism. "It is something we can be optimistic about."

The seminars are more an intensive exploration of issues. For example, in early November Boris Kagarlitsky, a deputy to the Moscow City Soviet until it was dissolved last year and a founder of the Party of Labour, will look at the "informal new left" in Russia, the "traditional left" and the trade unions. African issues are set to dominate the school's December program. An article on the transition from capitalism to socialism in South Africa, featured in the current Socialist Register, will form one of the texts for discussion.

The problem of funding "is always with us", Luce said, especially since the school allows people to pay based on a sliding scale, and "nobody is ever turned away for lack of funds".

Luce believes that the school hasn't done enough to highlight the interrelationship of red and green politics. "The Marxist School has not succeeded in bringing the greens into our dialogue, and green activists would certainly benefit from more dialogue with Marxists."

One of the projected topics for a conference is Lenin and Leninism. Annette Rubinstein, a respected Marxist on the editorial board of Science and Society, ("a Marxist theoretical journal once close to the US Communist Party, but now independent") initiated the idea, which Luce also believes would be useful.

"The topicality is self-evident. It would hard to imagine in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and the upheavals in Eastern Europe and China, any single issue where the academic anticommunists have been more hyperactive in spreading confusion and slander than in the continuous defaming of Lenin and Leninism."

He said the ideological backlash against Lenin and Leninism has much to do with the ruling class's need to convince people that there is no alternative to capitalism, and that the outcome of any attempt to overthrow it will inevitably leave people worse off.

"Now that 'actually existing socialism' is a thing of the past, there is little attempt on the part of either mass culture or even the 'high' culture of the bourgeois intellectuals, to try to convince people of the superiority of bourgeois society. Rather it is to convince people that there is no alterative.

"The projected conference on Leninism will be a key part of the much broader problem of trying to meet head on this ideological attack against socialism and Marxism."

What of the influence of post-modernism? "It's very influential in the US, and for that reason does have to be carefully studied and engaged in", Luce said. David Harvey, well-known Marxist geographer, has now given two seminars on post-modernism, and the school is in the process of making the tapes available internationally.

Post-modernists argue that the development of modern society has rendered "the grand narratives of Marxism" or a class analysis of society, historically obsolete. "Possibly the extent of post-modernist influence in the US is related to the underdevelopment of class politics", Luce suggested.

What are the wellsprings of the ideological offensive against Marxism? According to Luce, the culprits are, in the main, academics, journalists and others, many of whom are socialists who have "lost their historical bearings".

"People like this would be well advised to remember one of my favourite quotations from Trotsky from the late 1930s, when there was a huge disillusionment with socialism and Stalinism was in its ascendancy. People were confused, shocked and aghast at what was going on, and Trotsky reminded them that 20 years of the Russian Revolution, in the light of history, was less than an hour in a man or a woman's life.

"That is a point intellectuals, as well as activists, do well to remember. In the task of creating the socialist movement for the 21st century, let us not lose our historical bearings.

"All of us involved in the Marxist School agree that we have to carry out this task with patience, persistence and some sense of historical perspective. We need to work together to achieve a more effective level of international dialogue and common effort. It's a huge project to combat the ideological offensive against socialism and to rearm ourselves theoretically with 21st century Marxism".