U. of C. professor emeritus and longtime activist Mel Rothenberg presents the lecture "Contemporary Capitalism and Why We Need Marxism" at an October 2016 session of Open University of the Left. Credit: Youtube

Perhaps, in this Trump-addled era, you’re finding yourself more than a little concerned about the direction civilization is going? Disturbed by vanishing jobs, rising plutocracies, melting polar ice caps, not to mention numerous other serious threats to a good night’s sleep and a reasonable life for future generations?

Then you may want to head over to the Lincoln Park branch of the Chicago Public Library on a Saturday afternoon for Open University of the Left, a free, monthly, and drop-in-friendly program that’s the equivalent of a graduate-level seminar. OUL presents erudite and impassioned lectures (and the occasional panel discussion) by academics and activists on a range of issues vital to old lefties and, especially now, to all of us. The meetings feature a 50-minute talk, followed by a question-and-answer period of about the same length.

In the past few months OUL has hosted Loyola University sociology professor Lauren Langman discussing the new book he coauthored on the American character, God, Guns, Gold, and Glory, and activist Thomas Frank (great-great grandson of a Chicago mayor, but not the What’s the Matter With Kansas? guy) leading a “toxic tour” of East Chicago, Indiana. Those sessions are up on OUL’s YouTube channel, along with a series of videos Hughes recorded earlier this month at the national 2017 Left Forum in New York. Next up: Lehigh University political science professor Anthony DiMaggio on the question “Does Capitalism Have a Future?” That’ll be at 2:30 PM, July 15, at the library, 1150 W. Fullerton.

The OUL has been around—mostly under the radar—for more than 30 years. Robert Hughes, a participant since 2004, says it was founded in the mid-1980s by onetime SDS official Carl Davidson and former Chicago Public Library reference librarian and activist David Williams. Originally, Hughes says, it was “a leftist Great Books discussion club,” reading authors like Stephen Crane and drawing minuscule attendance: “Five or seven people would show up, and three of them would have the book.”

During the Iraq war, OUL began screening antiwar videos and saw a bump in attendance that led to programming changes and an affinity for the medium. Since 2009 it’s been recording the events and posting them on YouTube. As a result, Hughes says, the live event is now a victim of its own success: “There may only be 25 people at the event, but 1,000 might view it online.”

OUL has survived with no formal organizational structure, no officers, no fees, and no budget. Small donations are sometimes collected to help cover expenses, but aren’t tax-deductible, since the group has no government-sanctioned charitable status. Speakers aren’t paid, beyond the occasional stipend for gas. “It’s a floating crap game,” Hughes says. “We have no money, but that’s a strength. We can’t be squeezed.”

Hughes, who was politicized by the “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic Convention, credits OUL’s longevity to its refusal to get pigeonholed by the factionalism that he says has always been the problem with the left in the United States. “We’re basically leftists, but strictly nonsectarian,” he says. “You will get different perspectives at different events, and there is disagreement galore. It’s a free-speech forum.”  v