The Color of Comradeship: Socialist Education Center Thrives Despite Contradictions

In Midtown Manhattan, at The People’s Forum, a socialist education center whose mission is to be “a movement incubator for the working class,” a panhandler wandered up to the café line. Although it was a cold winter afternoon, he wore shorts and a t-shirt. The t-shirt happened to be red, which matched the color of the tables and chairs as well as the general decor.

Every wall of the People’s Forum is decorated with political statements. One sign reads “Fight Poverty, Not the Poor.” There are four murals representing working people’s struggles (one in red paint), as well as the flags of Venezuela (red), Cuba (red), Palestine (red) and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, which depicts a man and woman holding a sword in inside a green outline of Brazil (boldly framed in red).

The Brazil that the Forum supports with the landless worker’s flag is a very different to the one that stormed the Brazilian capital earlier this month. On January 8, pro-Bolsonaro protesters attacked the Praça dos Três Poderes in Brasilia to protest the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The insurrectionist attack reached the Brazilian supreme court buildings, halls of congress as well as the President’s offices. While far-right activists in both north and south American democracies have used violence in their political strategy, The People’s Forum chooses socialist education and offering a space for people to gather as their preferred method of radical politics.

This former garment-district factory calls itself “Your shop for socialist literature and revolutionary theory.” The place offers hundreds of educational events every year, with 17 events in January alone. The Forum has more than 100 partner organizations, as well as a publishing arm called 1804 Books, whose name is in honor of the Haitian Revolution where slaves won their independence from French colonial rule and established a nation state 28 years after the United States was founded. The regulars are mostly young, female, and people of color.

When Layan Fuleihan, the Forum’s director of education, spotted the panhandler in the cafe, she offered him something to eat. But the moment she turned to order from the barista, the man slipped away to find new people to solicit in the Forum’s crowds of socialists.

Earlier that day, the Forum had hosted two midday member meetings. One event took place on the second floor behind closed doors. The other, on the café floor, was a gathering of public sector union workers from DC37 and the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. That meeting ended with a rendition of “Solidarity Forever.” Written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, the song became the unofficial refrain for American trade unions. Triumphant rounds of the song’s chorus – the lyrics “solidarity forever” followed by “The union makes us strong” – echoed through the space. As the song ended, the activist organizers for the evening events were setting up.

The larger of the two evening programs was the Kimchi Bowl – a raffle fundraiser for the effort to reunify North and South Korea. The organizers scurried around the café tables, identifiable by their uniform hats: navy-blue with baby-blue Korean peninsula logos. One team arranged folding tables down the center of the room. Another group, also in hats, sang near the stage doing audio check for the concert portion of the raffle. Others stacked kimchi jars among the raffle items. There was no signage explicitly identifying which side of the demilitarized zone the raffle supported.

Meanwhile, attendees for the Science Against Capitalism lecture waited at the café tables for the upstairs meeting space to open.

Observing the full house, Fuleihan smiled. “Start off with some union meetings, have some geochemistry and solar energy discussions then end with the reunification of Korea. It’s a good Saturday in my opinion,” she said.

The People’s Forum, which opened in 2018, has 12 staff members. Fuleihan describes the work culture by saying, “We are not colleagues. We are comrades, which means we work together in a shared political project.” The comrades operate that project as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. In the Forum’s 2019 tax filing, they received $15 million in contributions – the details of any contributions are not listed on their tax filing forms from any year since they opened – and had $1.1 million in payroll. The filing from the 2020 pandemic year discloses over $15 million in assets, with a payroll of $696,381. While leaders at the Forum fundraise and generate revenue from the café and bookstore, this income alone would not cover the $2.7 million in expenses from 2020.

Of those expenses, $1,797,999 went to free public education and cultural events put on throughout the year. The Forum’s programming is delivered through poetry readings, language classes, lecture series and summer courses. The “‘Revolutionary Summer School,”, for example, is a 13-week program complete with course work, group projects and classes over summer weekends. It had 300 students this past summer. Fuleihan would like to offer a degree, but she wonders what educational institution might recognize a certificate from a place with their political agenda. She doesn’t think they need the accreditation, as those university’s reasons for associating with the Forum might be suspect. So, while there is no official degree, Fuleihan is proud of their educational programming.

Upstairs, the evening’s Science Against Capitalism lecture was delivered by David Schwartzman, a biochemist who taught at Howard University for 39 years. He spoke with the throaty, broad vowels of an old-school Brooklyn accent. He wore a red long-sleeved t-shirt tucked into oversized cargo pants, the pockets of which were filled with heavy objects and swung in sync with his steps. His remaining hair and unkempt beard were like a cartoonist’s Karl Marx.

Shwartzman’s slides were out of order and – while waiting for the correct slide to be found said that he was born a red diaper baby, “the child of Communists.”

Schwartzman’s lecture was a presentation about geochemistry and climate change. While trying to explain a technical point about carbon capture, Schwartzman spotted a white board in the corner. He grabbed a marker and attacked the board with the passion of a former lecturer. Unfortunately, the red marker was mostly out of ink, and so the chemical and molecule names appeared as fuzzy red squiggles. He attempted to explain – by spelling out an actual chemical equation to the room of socialists – why one specific kind of rock found on the southeast side of Oman happens to be great for carbon capture. While balancing the ions, he turned to ask if the class was following. Not a single head moved up, down or sideways.

Following a rebuke of Georgescu-Roegen’s fourth law of thermodynamics – resources in a closed system, like the Earth’s, are finite and tend towards “material death,” meaning humanity is screwed – Schwartzman made a controversial statement: for solar energy to reach the scale required to be a force for collective good, it would need partnership and financing. Such an effort requires capitalism. Invoking Lenin, he reminded the Forum attendees that, sometimes, one must accept certain contradictions on the road to achieving some goals.

When Fuleihan spotted the panhandler in the red t-shirt, she spoke to him quietly. He dropped his shoulders and shook his head left to right. After walking out the front door, he took a right down 37th Street. Through the glass window he pursed his lips in a scowl and, strutting out of view, gave The People’s Forum the finger.