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Internal turmoil at the prominent progressive magazine Current Affairs boiled over on Wednesday when a group of staffers announced they were “fired by the editor-in-chief of a socialist magazine for trying to start a worker co-op.” The alleged “purge” has put Current Affairs on “a short hiatus” and left staff in shock and pointing fingers at their former leader, Nathan J. Robinson.
“The problem here was definitely, specifically about one person,” former Current Affairs Business Manager Allegra Silcox told The Uprising.
Robinson, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, co-founded the magazine with civil rights lawyer Oren Nimni in 2015 after raising funds on Kickstarter. Current Affairs began publication just as the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, and the rise of Donald Trump spurred explosive growth in a new progressive politics.
According to multiple current and former staffers, the magazine grew along with the movement and went from an operation that had one paid employee — Robinson — to a publication with multiple full-time staffers. As Current Affairs expanded, so did the profile of Robinson, who favors three-piece suits and dry wit. He became a sought after commentator with a slew of media appearances and multiple book deals including a tome on “Why You Should Be A Socialist.”
“Very sad to hear,” Chomsky wrote in an email to The Uprising on Wednesday, adding, “I can’t say anything more before looking into what happened.”
Indeed, the story behind the Current Affairs hiatus seems like a complex tale. People who worked for the magazine described its demise as stemming from a combination of “growing pains” and “untenable” behavior from Robinson.
According to the statement that was released by five staffers this morning, all of Current Affairs’ progress came to a screeching halt earlier this month when Robinson abruptly “became agitated” during a Zoom meeting to discuss a restructuring of the magazine’s leadership.
“He insisted that in our attempt to set shared internal values, we were disregarding his vision for Current Affairs as published in the first issue. There was a palpable shift in his demeanor, and he behaved in a hostile manner throughout the rest of the conversation,” the statement said. “The next morning, he started removing people from the company Slack, and sent letters requesting resignations, eliminating positions, and in some cases offering new ‘honorary titles’ which would have no say in governance.”
Multiple Current Affairs staffers said restructuring conversations at the magazine were ongoing for several months.
“This was always a thing that was going to happen and we wanted it to happen,” said the publication’s managing editor, Lyta Gold, who signed the statement about the firings.
Silcox, the business manager, also signed the statement and said the changes were, in part, driven by a desire to have the publication’s structure align with its progressive values. She spoke to The Uprising on a phone call with Gold.
“We spent a long time talking about how to make things egalitarian and how to clarify things that were just not written anywhere and being decided ad hoc for a long time,” Silcox said. “The conversation around a worker co-op was derived from surveys that we did of the whole staff and one-on-one interviews of the whole staff.”
A Current Affairs editor, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said there were multiple possibilities being discussed.
“There were a couple of possibilities floated, one was creation of a non-profit, one was creation of a worker’s co-op. And none of the specifics had been really worked out when he took the actions,” the editor said of Robinson.
According to the editor, “like most small publications” Current Affairs “took a hit during the pandemic but had been doing relatively well up until then.” The editor said the re-organization was, in part, driven by the turbulent market landscape caused by COVID. It was also necessitated by the magazine’s relatively casual structure, They described the changes as “nothing foreign to a small organization or even to leftist organizations that occasionally have undefined roles as people try to determine what they’re best suited to.”
Nevertheless, Robinson allegedly responded to the potential shifts by sending the team emails asking them to resign. According to multiple staffers, he initially sent the staffers emails questioning their performances before following up 24 hours later with another message admitting he was uncomfortable with the proposed restructuring.
“I was in denial about the fact that the answer is I think I should be on top of the org chart, with everyone else selected by me and reporting to me,” Robinson said, according to an email quoted in the staffers’ statement. “I let Current Affairs build up into a sort of egalitarian community of friends while knowing in my heart that I still thought of it as my project over which I should have control.”
Silcox described Robinson’s response as “two opposing emails.” She speculated he “framed it as a resignation” because he was “not allowed” to dismiss staffers “without a two week performance plan in advance.”
Firing employees during an organization effort is starkly at odds with the positions Robinson advocated within the pages of Current Affairs. In one 2019 piece, he suggested liberals engaged in this behavior are “idiots” who “want to be good but aren’t invested in the political projects that make the world better.”
“A ‘liberal’ is the person who will lament the increase in inequality, without recognizing the labor struggle that is necessary to take power away from rich owners and give it to ordinary workers,” Robinson wrote.
Along with criticizing progressives who don’t back organizing efforts, Robinson attacked “anti-union” companies who engaged in the very behavior he is now being accused of by his colleagues.
In another 2019 piece, Robinson wrote about how Kickstarter “actively opposed” a union drive including “suddenly” firing lead organizers “during the middle” of the campaign. He described the company’s behavior as essentially telling its workers to “drop dead.” Robinson further said Kickstarter’s decision to fire the organizing workers was against his “core values” and announced Current Affairs would stop using the company for fundraising.
“The company is taking its workers and users for granted,” Robinson wrote of Kickstarter. “If they get away with it, other companies will feel even more empowered to crush their own organizing efforts.”
Now, it’s Robinson himself who’s being accused of trying to thwart an organizing effort, according to multiple staffers. Silcox and Gold said the editor-in-chief asked the unpaid president of the magazine’s governing board, which included key founders, to resign along with the employees.
“Nobody wanted anybody to quit except Nathan,” Silcox said of Robinson.
Part of the discord may be due to the fact that, along with democratizing the workplace, the restructuring at Current Affairs appears to have been driven by dissatisfaction with Robinson’s leadership. Both Silcox and Gold described him as an editor in chief who held on to power while disappearing for long stretches. Gold said the “major impetus” behind the reorganization push “was because we wanted a more democratic organization” while a “minor impetus” was “problems with structure and communication” that were largely due to the editor in chief.
“I had gotten very frustrated with Nathan in the past because he kind of micromanaged details, but also wasn’t very responsive,” said Gold. “So, he wanted to have buy-in on a lot of decisions, but he also just wasn’t really available.”
Gold said staffers made “workarounds” because Robinson was “kind of inattentive but wanted buy-in.” She created lists of writers who had questions for the editor-in-chief that she wasn’t “empowered” to answer. It became such a routine situation that Silcox, the business manager, came up with a technological solution.
“Allegra even developed a robot in the Slack, an automatic bot,” Gold said. “I could assign the bot to it and then it would remind him to answer. And he answered maybe 70 percent of the time. Maybe. Maybe less than that. So, it kind of worked.”
Overall, Gold described the issues with Robinson’s leadership as “untenable.”
“So, this restructuring, it very much needed to happen,” Gold said.
Both Gold and Silcox said Robinson did not indicate he had any issues with the reorganization prior to the meeting where he appeared upset and subsequently demanded resignations.
“We were all fine with it. We were all really excited about it. It was only Nathan that had a problem with it … a secret problem with it that he didn’t tell us until the last minute,” said Gold.
The drama has led some to mock the magazines’ socialist principles. The idea leftists can’t live up to their own high workplace standards Others on the left speculated that, perhaps, the dapper Robinson was just a "poppinjay” ideally suited “to discredit socialism.”
The magazine’s staffers are also wrestling with this question. Gold argued Robinson was the only one who wanted to stop the effort to form a co-op.
“People want to make this a referendum about socialism, but like, it’s only the boss that has a problem with socialism. The rest of them don’t. The rest of us think it’s great. We want to make it happen,” she said. “Ultimately we were all on the same page except for him.”
Silcox similarly suggested the problems at Current Affairs came from Robinson’s unique issues.
“This has given me a lot of difficult things to think about how socialist organizations can identify wreckers, you know, people will purport to believe in the cause but have some kind of either difficulty with interpersonal relationships or some other secret aim of joining,” said Silcox.
The anonymous Current Affairs editor offered another view and suggested the problems at the magazine were due to “growing pains” rather than issues from any one source.
“All these things are always complicated and I don’t think this was necessarily a case where Nathan is a complete villain or where this is an example of socialism failing,” the editor said. ”This is sort of like organizations have a lot of dysfunction and sometimes it turns out very poorly.”
Whatever the cause, the magazine’s “short hiatus” has caused a precarious position for its former staffers.
“I personally just bought a condo, so I’m not feeling really great,” Silcox said. “It’s pretty terrifying. ... We do know where our September rent is coming from, but October is a big mystery,”
“I’m pretty much in the same place, minus the condo,” Gold said. “I’m still really just floored by the whole thing and I also thought Nathan and I would be friends for life. It’s the double whammy of losing a job and losing a friend.”
The magazine’s monthlong break includes the possibility it could resume publication. And, of course, there’s the question of whether a Current Affairs comeback would include Robinson.
Both Silcox and Gold said they couldn’t say whether the magazine — or its controversial editor-in-chief — would return.
“I have emotional feelings about it right now, but I know that some of those could change in the future,” said Silcox. “It’s really difficult to imagine because we were already very overworked and stressed about our devotion to the cause basically. Now it’s going to much much harder to go back and pick up those pieces.”
“We love Current Affairs. We’d love to save it. I would love to see a scenario in which that is possible,” Gold said. “We’ll see. I really can’t make any promises.”
Update (August 20, 2021): In an email to The Uprising, Robinson admitted to issues with his leadership of the magazine while rejecting the notion he stopped any “labor organizing” by the staff.
“I would never interfere with union organizing. There was no union organizing drive at Current Affairs and I would completely support one if it ever arose,” Robinson wrote. “I have tried very hard to make sure that Current Affairs follows fair labor practices and I would never attempt to quash labor organizing.”
Robinson also provided a link to a longer statement claiming he requested resignations from three staffers, changed one employee’s title, and offered a contractor a different position than the one they had. According to Robinson, he made these moves to optimize the magazine.
“I do not believe my actions were correct and I believe that the situation I was attempting to address was entirely of my own making. I have apologized to staff for significant errors of judgment I made,” he said. “I acted rashly and should have found other means to address the internal problems I was seeking to fix.”