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The Brecht Forum, 1975–2014

John Tarleton May 3

Faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and finding itself in the legal crosshairs of its former landlord, the Brecht Forum announced April 12 that it will close after 39 years. The decision marks the end of an era for the Marxist education and community center, which will hold its final public forum on May 8 and will cease all business operations as of May 30. After that, it will move to dissolve itself as a non-profit corporation.

“It has become clear,” Brecht’s board of directors wrote in a public statement, “that in a rapidly gentrifying city, we have been living on borrowed time, and that despite the strong support of our community, this configuration of our project is unsustainable.”

“It’s a big loss,” said Sam Anderson, co-chair of the 10-member board of directors. “I feel really, really sad we had to close up.”

Anderson’s sense of loss was mirrored in the larger Brecht community as the news spread on the Internet and across social media.

“I can’t believe the news I just heard,” wrote Vijay Prashad, a Brecht supporter and author of more than a dozen books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, on Facebook. “How many tears, and how much laughter did we shed in the Brecht?”

“When I was a teenager in NYC, [Brecht] gave me sense of community that was so vital in Manhattan,” wrote Bel Nogueira, another supporter. “The people I met at the Brecht showed me new ways of relating to each other and acting in the world politically. They were some of the first adults I thought I would like to be like.”

“Is there really no way to raise the funds?” Another supporter asked. “I find this so hard to grasp!”

Brecht’s Origins

The Brecht Forum was founded in 1975 as the New York Marxist School by civil rights, student, labor and community activists who thought the radical movements of the previous decade had been weakened by an anti-intellectualism that privileged spontaneity over strategy and action over reflection. Their goal was to spur a deeper understanding of how movements that arise in a given moment can relate themselves to larger historical processes.

Brecht’s founders had also witnessed the New Left’s splintering into small, doctrinaire revolutionary parties at the end of the 1960s and sought to create an ecumenical, non-sectarian space in which leftists from various perspectives could study, debate and learn from each other. Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism — the idea that changes in material conditions such as technology and productive capacity are the primary drivers of how society and the economy are organized — was presented not as infallible truth but as a methodology for thinking critically about the world.

“It was a place where everyone on the Left was welcome,” recalled Bill Koehnlein, who in 1986 took a class in which he and about a dozen other students read and discussed Volume I of Marx’s Capital on Sunday nights for a year. He has been an active participant at the Brecht since then. “That class changed how I saw the world and how I formed prescriptions for making change in the world,” Koehnlein said.

Making a Move

Taking its name from the German playwright Bertold Brecht, the New York Marxist School incorporated itself as the Brecht Forum in 1984. It would endure through the Reagan Revolution, the stock market-driven boom of the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union and the “end of history” proclaimed by conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama. With its 30th anniversary approaching, Brecht made a bold decision to leave its modest home in a Chelsea office building for a much larger venue that would present enormous challenges but offer the organization a chance to remake itself in a powerful way.

In 2004 Brecht signed a 10-year lease to move into the sprawling ground floor of a rundown brick building in the West Village. The group’s board of directors envisioned the space becoming a bustling crossroads of Marxist popular education and movement building for the many disparate groups that make up the New York City Left.

Brecht’s new landlord was Westbeth Artists Housing, a non-profit rental complex in the West Village for low and moderate-income artists. Their lease agreement stipulated that rent was slated to gradually increase over a decade’s time to more than $8,000 per month. To make the building fit for use, a loan had to be taken out to finance more than $200,000 in capital improvements.

“It was a leap of faith,” recalled one Brecht supporter with close ties to the group’s leadership.

Brecht’s new home by the West Side Highway was a 15-20 minute walk from the nearest subway station and visitors to the new venue were slow to arrive at first. However, by 2008, Brecht had become a hive of activity. A younger and more diverse crowd poured through its doors, thanks to the work of two new staffers — Kazembe Balagun and Max Uhlenbeck — who were both under 35 and had extensive ties to youth and people of color activist groups across the city.

The Brecht was a place where Black nationalists and feminists, old-school Marxists, dreadlocked anarchists and community organizers of all stripes could gather. With regular panels, performances and classes on everything from introductory Spanish to Gramsci’s revolutionary strategy, the Brecht was packed on many nights. At the monthly Game Night, you could blow off steam playing table tennis, foosball or Class Struggle, the Marxist version of Monopoly created by NYU professor Bertell Ollman. Big-name lefties like Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Cornel West and Slavoj Žižek spoke at Brecht events. After Wall Street crashed the economy, Marxist economist Richard Wolff’s regular talks explaining the economic crisis became wildly popular.

“It was an exciting time,” said Uhlenbeck, who stepped down as Brecht’s director of development in October. “The movement was using Brecht Forum.”

All of this post-crash/pre-Occupy ferment at 451 West Street caught the eye of the New York Times, which observed in a 2010 profile that “in a city known for cynicism, the Brecht, which survives on donations, is a surprisingly open and idealistic place.”

Despite Brecht’s success as a community and educational center, it was straining to meet its rising rent and pay off the initial capital loan it had taken out to open the space. Big fundraisers like a Chomsky talk, given at a jam-packed Riverside Church in 2009, helped Brecht stay afloat but no more than that.

“We swam uphill the whole time,” said Matt Birkhold, who has been Brecht’s executive director since October 1 and who began volunteering at the organization in 2007. “We were always fundraising to catch up.”

Hurricane Sandy

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy upended Brecht’s fragile finances. The storm left the Brecht’s building without heat or electricity for four months and the organization was unable to do any programming.

“I don’t think people understand the impact of Sandy,” said Brecht board member Tami Gold. “We had four months without income while still having all our regular expenses.”

With Brecht hemorrhaging money, the board decided in the spring of 2013 to vacate the space at Westbeth with one year left on the lease and move to a smaller, less expensive home. In October, Brecht came to the Brooklyn Commons in downtown Brooklyn, where it has been sharing space with WBAI-99.5 FM, the Right to the City Alliance and The Indypendent, among other groups. Brecht also dropped its staffing down to one full-time employee.

“We had to reduce ourselves to continue,” Anderson said. “We would not have survived if we stayed at Westbeth.”

As Brecht prepared to leave its home at Westbeth at the end of last September, it was approximately $50,000 to $80,000 in arrears on rent payments to Westbeth. The two parties disputed the precise amount of back rent due, with Brecht claiming that it was not obligated to pay rent for the four months its space was unusable after Sandy. Once Brecht stanched its losses, the board thought the debts to Westbeth could be gradually repaid.

The board also hoped that its decision to move out would persuade Westbeth to forgive the final year of the lease, worth about $100,000. On September 27, 2013, Westbeth’s lawyers sent an email stating that the last year’s rent was still Brecht’s responsibility. At the same time, Brecht’s lawyer received an informal assurance from an official at Westbeth that the amount stood a good chance of being forgiven. However, Gold said no one on Brecht’s staff or board of directors insisted that assurance be put on paper.

With rent and usage fees of under $3,000 per month at the Brooklyn Commons and generally strong turnout for its events, Brecht seemed poised to begin exiting its financial crisis.

“Things were looking so good,” said Gold, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who took her first Marxism class at Brecht in 1977. “We were going to get out of this hole.”

Power Play

With Brecht’s financial outlook improving but Birkhold having to do the work of three people to keep the organization afloat, the board wanted to begin fundraising for a second staff position. However, in January, Westbeth’s lawyers began sending notices to Brecht stating that it was on the hook for the full amount of its 2014 rent in addition to all previous back rent and that it was prepared to take legal action to collect payment.

“This whole move was premised on a complete inaccuracy in regards to our relationship with Westbeth,” said Birkhold.

The board decided to postpone its fundraising plans until Westbeth’s claims were addressed. On April 1, Birkhold, Board Treasurer Christy Thornton, board member Pam Brown and the organization’s lawyer gathered at the Brecht office to hold a conference call with Westbeth’s lawyers.

According to both Birkhold and Thornton, Westbeth’s lawyers reiterated their demand that Brecht make good on all its debts, including the full 2014 rent, and asserted that they would pursue the matter “to the furthest extent of the law.” As a commercial landlord, Westbeth can sue to garnish assets in order to satisfy payment.

Thornton said that when Brecht’s representatives inquired about making a smaller initial payment, Westbeth’s lawyers told them that paying off $80,000 in pre-2014 back rent would be the starting point for reaching a final settlement.

“That was a floor, and that seemed pretty impossible,” said Thornton, who served as Executive Director of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) from 2004-2009.

Between its debts to Westbeth, internal “friendly” debts of more than $100,000 and the $100,000 per year that it would cost to fill two staff positions, the Brecht was looking at financial obligations that were pushing $400,000. Meanwhile, its main creditor was threatening to come after its bank account.

It was checkmate.

On April 6, the board met at Tami Gold’s Brooklyn home to decide on the organization’s fate. By a vote of 8-0 with one abstention and one member absent on paternity leave, the group decided to dissolve the organization.

“The decision to close was a responsible one because you can’t operate under the cloud of that kind of debt,” said Gold.

“There will be no recourse for [Westbeth] after having forced us into this dissolution,” Thornton affirmed.

An Uncertain Future

An April 12 email message from the board, titled “An End Is A Beginning,” urged supporters to remember that “the larger project of the Brecht Forum is clearly not over” and that the demise of the Brecht as an organization “only signals the need to organize harder and smarter, to find a sustainable way to build movement power and support popular education in New York City.”

“The enormous commitment remains,” Gold said. “People are coming up to me and saying, “Oh my God! I don’t want this to go.”

Uhlenbeck suggested that a Brecht-like organization could continue putting on events and conducting classes out of other groups’ spaces. But, he added, any hopes of once again running a project on the scale the Brecht previously achieved would require having a space to work out of. This is turn would present the same economic challenges that Brecht spent the past decade grappling with.

“There’s a great need, but the fundraising work needs to be figured out,” Uhlenbeck said.

For her part, Thornton said she thought members of the Brecht community would likely disperse and start or join a variety of activist projects and enrich them with the knowledge and experience they gained at the Brecht.

The discussion about how the Brecht community should move forward is slated to continue in a public meeting scheduled for Thursday, May 15. In a sign of what may lie ahead, a venue for the meeting still had not been confirmed when The Indypendent went to press.

Hard to Say Goodbye

Meanwhile, the board is focusing on carrying out the dissolution of the organization. Birkhold said he expects it will take four to six months to wind it down. Going broke isn’t cheap, and to minimize expenses the Brecht is seeking a pro-bono lawyer who specializes in non-profit law, Thornton said.

During the final week of April, Brecht volunteers helped break down the group’s office at the far end of the narrow second floor hallway in the Commons. Ducking my head in, I saw a stack of cardboard boxes full of neatly filed papers marked “Tamiment,” the NYU-affiliated library that serves as the repository for the ephemera of countless radical organizations and movements. Inside the boxes were neatly organized folders full of financial documents, grant applications, curriculum, promotional materials — the regular output of a living, breathing organization now embalmed, as it were, and ready to be carted off to its final resting place.

“We probably would have made it if Westbeth hadn’t come after us,” Birkhold said in his friendly twang, shaking his head slowly as if to say, “What can you do?”

The demise of the Brecht has been emotionally wrenching for long-time members who have dedicated 20, 30 or even 40 years of their lives to the project. It’s also been tough for Birkhold, who was hired last fall to revive a faltering organization and instead finds himself presiding over its burial.

“It’s heavy,” he said early one evening as we sat and talked on the roof of the Commons building. “It’s like a breakup you really don’t want to do but know it’s got to be done.”

Once he is laid off, Birkhold said, he will go on unemployment and finish his dissertation.

I asked him which quote from Marx came to mind when he thought of the Brecht’s demise. He brightened and then paused for a moment before providing a gender-neutral paraphrase of Marx’s observation in the 18th Brumaire, that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please … but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

The sun swung low, hanging just above the residential houses in front of us while a chill blew across the roof of the Commons. In the life of an individual, or an organization, I wondered, is it better to stay within one’s known limits, or to burn brightly for a moment at the risk of flaming out?

“Was the Brecht’s decision to move to Westbeth worth it?” I asked.

“The move put us in a position where we were rowing upstream every day,” Birkhold said, weighing his words carefully. “It also put us in a situation where Brecht was making amazing contributions. Both were true at the same time. I wish it were simple as either/or, but it’s just not.”

The intellectual in Birkhold then suddenly came to life. “Two ideas that contradict each other can both be true,” he pointed out before breaking into a gale of laughter. “Man, Hegelian logic has never been more practical in my life!”