What Future for Left Theory?

In late June wide sections of the anglophone left were shocked to hear about the dismissal of Robert Brenner from the editorial board of Catalyst and the consolidation of the latter under the sole editorship of Vivek Chibber, previously co-editor. Catalyst is a theoretically focused journal which was launched under the auspices of Jacobin yet which was willing to go beyond Jacobin in the depth and "hardness" of its analysis.

In Brenner's opening editorial for the first volume he laid out that:

“It is Catalyst’s purpose to provoke and contribute to a collaborative effort to understand today’s political world in order to assist the struggles to change it. To that end, its fundamental task is to promote wide-ranging discussion and to organize debate on the urgent questions facing the working class, the emergent mass movements, and radical and socialist political organizations.”

The editorial went on to layout a sweeping vision of the economic analysis which underpins much of Brenner’s recent work. Summarized and doing a great injustice to its overall complexity; capitalism is stagnating, keynesianism was tried and failed, the ruling class “no longer believe in the possibility of securing a large-scale revival of profitable production by any means. Instead they have turned to a far-reaching program of politically founded upward redistribution,”.

If Keynesian policies are not just undesirable for the ruling class but actually economically incompatible with continued capital accumulation, this has serious political implications in favor of revolutionary rather than reformist tactics and strategies.

Brenner’s economic analysis played a substantial role in some of the first post-2008 outbursts of radicalization in the United States, particularly the 2009/10 California Student movement and more radical expressions of the Occupy Wall Street movement such as the “Oakland Commune”. The implications of this analysis seemed quite clear; the revival of social democracy was and is a dead project, the only meaningful way to fight back will require the overthrow of capitalism. Radical political experimentation around ideas of “communization” as well as the revival of more traditional communist ideas (Trotskyism, Leninism) created something like the environment of a genuine, revolutionary New Left.

This kind of political and economic analysis is in marked contrast to much of what you will find in Jacobin today and in the wing of the socialist movement oriented towards the DSA. Compare Brenner’s analysis in this launch issue where he declares that “Podemos’s experience so far has been a pale carbon copy of Syriza’s” to the glowing coverage Podemos and Pablo Iglesias continue to receive in the pages of Jacobin and you can see the outline of a substantial political difference.

Nevertheless Jacobin has remained a fairly open platform and as an occasional contributor on Latin America I have never found it’s pages closed to a well written and well argued piece that bases itself upon a more revolutionary political analysis.

Yet the politics of the magazine as a whole and it’s position within the socialist movement are inseparable from the revival of the DSA and of a particular type of neo-reformist politics. One which saw it’s inception with the emergence of new parties like Syriza and Podemos. One which is now being reflected within the United States in efforts to reform the Democratic Party.

As these reformist politics have shifted from a theoretical debate based on far-away Greece or Spain to concrete discussions in the Bronx around Ocasio-Cortez or nationally around Bernie Sanders, Jacobin has shifted towards more firmly promoting these reformist politics and politicians in local and global coverage.

The Coup(?)

Within this context the removal of Robert Brenner from the editorial board of Catalyst is politically important. Catalyst aspires to be something like what New Left Review once was in the 1970’s; a site for genuine theoretical development and debate across the left aimed towards social transformation rather than academic advancement.

Brenner in his initial statement on his removal declared that “Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification.” The removal was based on an alleged failure to carry out editorial duties one which Brenner and his supporters have denied. The original statement alongside further material has been republished by Louis Proyect here; it was posted on the Catalyst website but swiftly removed afterwards.

A statement of support for Brenner signed by prominent left intellectuals and scholars denied the charges of editorial mismanagement and declared that:

“Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.”

The statement goes on to call for an effective boycott of Catalyst until Brenner is reinstated and asks other left scholars to follow them, as well as write directly to Chibber and Sunkara demanding Brenner’s reinstatement. Mike Davis went further and declared (also through Facebook) that “Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara's hand.”

This forced a response from Sunkara, who released a statement through Facebook that there had been no coup and that they had asked Brenner to move to being a “Founder and Associate Editor”. He states that there had been recurring problems with production and that:

“Shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.”

Sunkara calls the campaign “self-indulgent and destructive” and argues that Brenner is attempting to force himself onto the journal. His final words appeal to the continuing success of the publication, stating that “On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.”

On July 5th Brenner’s response was published through a facebook post; he declared that the removal took place solely based on Sunkara’s position as CEO and that it was demanded by Chibber. He goes on to restate his case around his editorial duties and finishes off with a broader political statement:

“As the signers of "Coup at Catalyst" were at pains to emphasize, reducing the journal’s editorial viewpoint is precisely the opposite of what we need in the current political moment. If we are to develop theoretical and historical analysis that has a chance of providing the basis for effective political strategy today, we need to begin from the humble admission that there is a great deal that we do not already know, and acquiring the necessary understanding to overcome our ignorance is bound to be difficult.

This is why the statement’s signers wanted to expand participation in the editorial process so as to involve a greater number of anti-capitalist political currents and a more diverse array of voices with differing theoretical and political orientations. By contrast, Bhaskar and Vivek apparently think that putting one person in charge, unilaterally and without justification, is acceptable practice on the left, rather than a recipe for failure.

To build the journal that socialists require today, we don’t need a concentration of power, literally imposed from above, but the confidence to embrace multiple anti-capitalist standpoints in tension by means of collaborative, collective decision making. In this case, as so often in the radical movement, the requirements of principle and of effective practice coincide.”

Reviewing the Events

Whether or not the accusations around editorial laxity are founded (we do not have access to the appendix which was cited as proof) the episode brings up vital issues for the socialist movement. Catalyst was one of the most promising projects aimed at reviving theoretical debate among the US left; the project of reviving a serious socialist left needs journals like these.

For this reason it is also hugely unfortunate that the crisis has so far been played out almost exclusively through informal networks, posts on facebook and (one presumes) a select number of academic email lists. Subscribers, readers, the entire left have an interest in the future of this project and in knowing the debates which are taking place behind the scenes. If a drastic editorial change has taken place - one which has provoked a number of prominent contributors to declare a boycott - readers and supporters deserve to at least know that a change has taken place.

The most troubling aspect of the crisis is in the methods by which the change was executed: Sunkara’s power as CEO was the decisive factor, and Sunkara’s own statement basically waving away criticism on the basis of improved sales numbers does not help. The fact that Brenner’s statement was erased from the website also demonstrates disdain for openly discussing and debating the change.

Editorial work in itself is to an extent inherently authoritation: the decision of what constitutes good writing, what is worth covering, who is worth interviewing and so on are ultimately left to the discretion of personal taste. Successful publishing projects are rare today and the fact that Jacobin has been so successful is a testament to the talent of the team behind it.

Yet its character as a left project means that we cannot consider either Jacobin or Catalyst in the same manner as a profit-driven publication. The success of any given left publication is owed to the legions of writers and supporters who have contributed their labor or subscribed out of solidarity with the project. An untold number of hours have been worked without compensation by activists. It is not a business and it is totally dependent upon a vast network of volunteer labor.

The dismissal at Catalyst has been executed precisely in the same manner as any capitalist publication would replace the leadership. A business decision has been made on the basis of a perceived lack of productivity, without any consultation among the wider community and supporters. Worse, the publication censored and removed the statement by the former editor which was briefly posted on the site.

Even if this kind of decision were justified, carrying it out without openly discussing the differences and changes with the wider community seriously damages the efforts credibility. From the outset the new Catalyst is boycotted by some of the most important left intellectuals and writers. It is also basically unthinkable that the editorial change does not imply a significant political shift; Brenner's analysis remains far to the left of Jacobin's.

Is there an Alternative?

The change in leadership begs substantial questions around the future politics of the journal but it should also force us to call into question the established order of publishing. Crucial decisions cannot be taken (and justified) in the same manner as by a capitalist enterprise. We center our political activity around demands for the democratic management by workers and users of utilities, transportation, the world economy. How can we bring none of this into publications which are the central voice of our movement?

So far there have been a few alternatives to the Jacobin model, mainly the academic and the party centered approaches to publishing.

The model of an Academic Journal is the one which Historical Materialism has adopted. It has hosted fascinating historical work, important new translations and the book series it publishes stands out as one of the most significant contributions to contemporary Marxist thought. In a universe dominated by publish-or-perish, it also provides a respectable outlet for Marxist scholars.

However as a journal existing within academia it bends that scholarship to match academic norms and language. It requires a subscription and can't easily be accessed by most activists. The scholarly objectivity drilled in through academic graduate seminars also leaves little room for the kind of brash theoretical development that characterized most of the great classical Marxist works which the scholars dissect.

We have also seen over the last year a growing purge of the left-wing across the US university system, Steven Salaita and George Cicarillio-Maher being some of the clearest examples. Attacks on the Marxist left in the university are accelerating while the ever more competitive conditions of publish-or-perish force left scholars further and further away from work linked to the real transformation of the world. Much of the potential which Catalyst represented was in offering an alternative precisely to this dying academic model.

The party alternative is that of the press of small organizations such as Socialist Worker or Against the Current. The advantage of this publishing form is that even if in practice leadership changes are hard to find (when is the last time you've heard of a contested election for the central leadership?), there is a structure in place for accountability to a wider organization. The press serves organizational and political goals which it can be held accountable to.

The disadvantage is that by the time you've actually been in an organization for a few years you can generally predict and articulate exactly what the article is going to say before you even open it up. You won't often find engaging debates around the strategy and future of the left - among the US left you will rarely encounter debates with other organizations at all.

This was not always the case; even going back just to the 60s and 70s the SWP’s Intercontinental press published fascinating analysis and interviews across the global left. The problem is not so much the form, as the lack of dynamism within our own organizations; the press cannot reflect that which the parties are missing.

Alongside these two forms there have also been the emergence of a few dynamic new projects. There are small online communities, ranging from the strictly moderated Reddit Socialism page to the uncensored anarchy of Leftypol. Even if it's politics are far from revolutionary, Chapo Trap House's hundred thousand dollar monthly Patreon budget also shows the tremendous power which crowdfunding can have for left projects. What makes these projects so interesting is that they are genuinely new efforts taking advantage of technology and producing content in a more democratic manner.

We are no longer in an era limited by the technology of print or physical mail. When we purchase a publication as a commodity, obviously there is no expectation of our having control over it. However the reason we subscribe to left journals and magazines, why we write for them, why we share and promote them, is because they are far more than this. They are the voices of our movements and the platforms across which our ideas and theories are tested against one another. Almost no-one who writes for Jacobin is paid, if they were the project itself may (or may not) be economically sustainable.

However this also means that these projects cannot be treated and managed the same way as any other media business. The problem is not that they are profiting (there are no huge profits being made off left theory), the issue is the long standing obstacle of bureaucracy in the socialist movement. Resources which are the product of collective contributions are distributed with little to no input or oversight from the mass of contributors. Even the editorial board itself can be swept aside and remade without so much as a public notice.

Returning to one of the central lines of Brenner's response: “To build the journal that socialists require today, we don't need a concentration of power, literally imposed from above, but the confidence to embrace multiple anti-capitalist standpoints in tension by means of collaborative, collective decision making.” The means exist for this to be achieved not just within an empowered editorial board but within the structure of authority and decision making at the publication itself. A new relationship between readers and writers, theorists and activists can be constructed with the means at our disposal; the only thing missing is the political will to build an alternative and break with the old models.

We at New Militant are attempting one particular vision of how this can reimagined but we certainly hope there will be others. Consolidated in a political slogan:

Abolish the editorial board form, long live workers and users control of publication!