Clash of values at left-wing journal

A war of words broke out at US magazine Current Affairs after staff called for it to become a worker co-op

Staff at an influential left-wing publication in the US claim they were fired for trying to organise into a workers’ co-operative. 

Current Affairs, a bi-monthly magazine and podcast, was founded in 2015 with the aim of making left politics fun and rendering all other magazines “both despised and obsolete and, in the process of doing so, to help usher in a glorious era of democratic socialism”.

 Subscriptions, according to the website, mean that “not only are you supporting a left media institution with credibility and influence, but you’re also giving a cheerful middle finger to wealthy corporations, subservient state propagandists, and joyless buzzkills across the world!”

But angry writers and admin staff say several leading members of their team were ‘unilaterally fired’ at the beginning of August following an online ‘virtual retreat’ where editor-in-chief Nathan J Robinson axed jobs to avoid an organisational restructuring being carried out on co-operative lines. 

Five members of staff, including business manager Allegra Silcox and managing editor Lyta Gold, signed a joint letter, released on social media, in which they claimed the firings were down to plans to restructure the publication to a co-operative model. 

They claim Robinson feared his editorial autonomy would be taken away.

“We discussed it informally, we tried piecemeal reforms, we did a full-organisation survey and one-on-one interviews with editors and staff to try to find consensus on a collective vision. Everyone’s stated goal, including Nathan’s, was to create a democratic workplace where all voices were equally valued.

“But when we finally got around to discussing organisational models during a Zoom meeting, Nathan insisted that in our attempt to set shared internal values, we were disregarding his vision for Current Affairs. The next morning, he sent letters requesting resignations, eliminating positions, and in some cases offering new ‘honorary titles’ which would have no say in governance,” reads the letter.

Managing editor Lyta Gold, formerly a close associate and friend, expressed her discontent on Twitter: “I’m so sad about all of this. I loved my job. I loved the articles I edited and the writers and artists I worked with. I loved the podcast. I still can’t believe that Nathan tried to take Current Affairs from us because he didn’t want to share power.” 

Nathan Robinson speaks at the Austin Democratic Socialists of America in 2020 (Photo: Austin DSA)

Robinson is no stranger to controversy. He once worked for the Guardian as a columnist but lost his slot following allegations of ‘fake news’ Tweets about Israel. Born in Stevenage, his family relocated to the US when he was a small boy and he describes himself as a ‘libertarian socialist’.

Amid the latest furore, he has released a statement in which he admits making ‘terrible mistakes’ but denies blocking moves to make the workplace more democratic. 

He said: “I cannot defend my recent actions as good. Clearly they were a disaster. I felt very stupid about asking Lyta to resign immediately after doing it and apologised profusely and begged her not to go. 

Current Affairs has a record of workplace egalitarianism that I am proud of.” 

He added: “All full-time staff, including myself earn the same salary. Jobs have a high level of autonomy. I have never sought a profit from Current Affairs and never opposed any changes to working conditions. I had a conflict with these staff over editorial control. I ultimately asked two staff members, our business manager and admin, to resign. They declined and still work for Current Affairs. Nobody has been fired.”

Board member Adrian Rennix, also a founding writer for the libertarian socialist publication, said: “Everyone at Current Affairs, including Nathan, has long stated they wanted it to be a democratic workplace. I can confirm that there continued to be universal concern about implementing functional, shared decision- making procedures, and a broad interest in worker ownership.”

Mr Rennix added: “As of the time of the attempted firings conducted by Nathan, no actual decisions on organisational restructuring had been made: we were only beginning the conversation about possible workplace models. For all that Nathan now claims that he does not want total control and ownership over Current Affairs and wanted a board-owned non-profit model for this reason, I would note that he did not consult a single board member about these attempted forced resignations and indeed obstructed all our efforts to reach out to him for conversations in advance of these actions.”

The editorial board of Current Affairs has now stepped in, in a bid to resolve the matter, with a month’s grace for all employees until the end of September when it is still hoped the magazine will resume publication. All staff will be paid until then but no income or severance pay is guaranteed after that. 

The controversy has attracted considerable flak from many on the left, including Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, a former fan of the publication who this week accused Robinson a of hypocrisy. 

However, the 31-year-old editor-in-chief denies the accusations that he has betrayed the socialist principles on which Current Affairs was founded. 

“I have very serious regrets about how I handled it all, and I have a great deal to learn about effectively managing an organisation in accordance with the values I hold,” he said.

“There has never been a dispute between staff and myself over conditions, pay, benefits, hours, etc. at Current Affairs. This is because I have taken great pains to make sure that there are no unfair labour practices. None have been alleged. 

“I strongly dispute that I tried to prevent Current Affairs from becoming a co-operative. I freely admit to making poor decisions that alienated people, but I am absolutely committed to making sure Current Affairs always has fair labour practices. I will endeavour to do better than I have done and we will be transparent and be held accountable. I realise that many of our supporters will want evidence that they can trust us to live up to our values. It is my responsibility to back up my words with actions going forward.”

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