Against the Current Celebrates 100 Issues

— Christopher Phelps

IN 1986, AGAINST the Current was something new under the Reaganite sun, a fresh, radical, freethinking magazine of movement strategy and socialist revival.

The very name Against the Current signified opposition to the political tides of political conservatism and runaway corporate domination.  It registered the many defeats suffered by the left while conveying defiance, resistance, and resolve.  An outgrowth of three prior publications, the new series of Against the Current heralded a rare and welcome combination of energies in a socialist movement that had seen far more division and factionalism than coming together.

The spirit was extended to writers from a wide range of political backgrounds who were invited to participate in the magazine's discussions.  This diversity has lent ATC a creative, open air—even as the organized socialist left that it sought to regenerate, paradoxically, has generally continued to weaken.

History and the Radical Magazine

The best way to understand the distinctiveness of the project of ATC is to locate it within the history of radical publications in the United States.  We might begin with the observation that Detroit is an unusual editorial address.  Long a symbol of urban decline, Detroit is testament to the failure of capitalism and its political representatives to meet basic human needs.

Left-wing journals too numerous to count have been issued in New York. But the Motor City was fitting, with a powerful history of industrial union organizing and a larger proportion of African Americans than any other major American city.

A case might be made that ATC's freewheeling cultural spirit, dashes of humor, and support for sexual freedom place it in a vein of independent radicalism running from the bohemian Masses (1911-1917) through Dwight Macdonald's iconoclastic Politics (1944-1949) down to the new left's Radical America (1967-1992).

ATC has printed as many cartoons as it could by Tuli Kupferberg, veteran of the East Village countercultural band "The Fugs."  Every issue contained a humor column written by the pseudonymous autoworker, R. F. Kampfer.  ("Q.  What do you call a Teamster in a three-piece suit?  A.  The defendant.")

In political lineage, however, ATC is more akin to New Politics (1961-Present).  They share a genealogy tracing to the midcentury periodicals of the anti-Stalinist left, especially New International (1934-1958), which emerged out of the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky.

ATC has carried many reminiscences, reconsiderations, and obituaries providing rich histories of this strand of the left, and some revolutionaries, like Ernest Mandel, lived long enough to contribute to both generations of periodicals.  Like those earlier periodicals (and unlike New Politics), ATC is sponsored by a socialist organization, in its case Solidarity.

The magazine's name recalls Against the Stream, a title once recognizable to a left steeped in the writings of Lenin, now more vilified than read. ATC's libertarian Leninism—such phrases were not oxymoronic at one time—has been the source of many crucial conceptual achievements.  Revolutionary organization, collective discussion, common strategizing, movement activity: Taken together, all gave definition to thought.

ATC's distinctive insights on the trade union bureaucracy, the Democratic Party, and social democratic reformism, for example, trace directly to the sponsoring group's emphasis, dating back to its 1970s forerunners, on rank-and-file labor organizing.

That line of descent, though influential, was not determinative, however.  ATC never fit the mold of the party organ.  It takes editorial positions, but often admits to internal differences, and it is open to multiple alternative points of view on the left.

On the whole the journal has tended to be characterized by general political principles rather than definite political lines.  Solidarity—itself a product of formerly rival groups coming together while agreeing to disagree on some matters—developed this form by rethinking socialist organization, emphasizing collaboration among multiple political currents without demanding ideological uniformity.

That thinking, in turn, reflected an assimilation of the liberatory movement innovations of the 1960s as well as a profound reconsideration about left practice as radical movements retreated in subsequent years.

The result was an uncommon form of socialist periodical.  ATC, although sponsored by a group, has from the beginning included independents on its editorial board who are not members of the sponsoring organization.

In its pages it has deliberately sought to foster dialogue and debate inclusive of rival traditions of the left. In these respects, it is most comparable to the Marxist Quarterly (1937), V. F. Calverton's Modern Quarterly (1923-1940), and the American Socialist (1954-1959).  The last of these is closest, perhaps, to a forerunner of ATC's curious combination: implantation in a specific socialist milieu and a very broad range of external radical participation.

The immediate precursors of the magazine were the old series of ATC (1980-1985), Changes (1978-1985), and Socialist Unity (1985).  The first series of ATC was particularly important in pioneering the distinctive "regroupment" ethos of interactive left dialogue, guided in this direction by longtime socialists Carl Feingold and Steve Zeluck.

Sponsored by the group Workers Power and based in New York, the original ATC established a positive reputation on the left that led to the preservation of its name on the masthead.  Changes, based in Detroit and published by the International Socialists, set the graphic design pattern.  Socialist Unity, the third magazine, was issued by a group of Fourth Internationalists.  Today, editors from all three original fusion journals still serve on the ATC editorial team.

Political Analysis and Writing

Perhaps what most delights about ATC are the occasional surprise contributions that don't easily fit conventional categories.

The refreshing and rare include the late socialist labor activist Stan Weir's remembrance of novelist James Baldwin (1989); Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein on the dangers of left-wing asceticism (1992); Robin D. G. Kelley's obituary for African-American Communist organizer Christopher Columbus Alston (1996); and "This is the Thanks We Got" (2001) by Rodney Ward, a flight attendant laid off after September 11.

Some of the most controversial and least predictable writings published in ATC have been the editors' own major contributions, such as Alan Wald's "The End of American Trotskyism?" (1994-1995) and Samuel Farber's "The Black Panthers Reconsidered" (1996).

The magazine is recognizable for its commitment to a constellation of basic concerns:

  • Feminism.  The first issue of ATC featured an article by Johanna Brenner on women and peace, and a symposium on pornography and censorship.  Ever since, ATC has been a forum for socialist-feminism.  As a result of conscious effort, ATC has had more women contributors than many general-interest leftist periodicals.

    Drawing upon talented theorists like Stephanie Coontz and Linda Gordon, covering issues ranging from surrogate motherhood to abortion rights, and carrying a regular activist-cultural column (Catherine Sameh's "The Rebel Girl"), ATC has served as a focal point for analysis and debate among socialist-feminists about issues facing the women's movement, and for exploring how feminists can better address class, race and imperialism.

  • Labor.  Sharp coverage of labor has been a hallmark from the first issue, which carried a survey by Kim Moody.  While many academics pined for progressive union leadership, ATC favored a renewal of rank-and-file activism, control of unions from the bottom up, intransigence against managerial erosions of working-class living standards and working conditions, cross-border solidarity, and strategic recognition of an increasingly multiracial and female workforce.

    ATC helped crystallize new thinking for labor in, for example, its interview of Frank Bardacke on organizing among Latino cannery workers in Watsonville, California, or Jane Slaughter and Mike Parker's dissection of "team concept" management schemes.  More recent contributions, by Stephanie Luce in particular, have covered the growth of living wage campaigns.

    Strike reportage, sometimes written by participants, reads like a litany of tragic defeats—Hormel (1986), Eastern (1989), Staley (1996), Detroit Newspapers (1997)—but there were also victories, namely Pittston (1990), UPS (1997), Verizon (2000) and the Charleston 5 (2002), to sustain hope along the way. The magazine's analysis of dramatic events in the Teamsters in the 1990s was uniquely independent-minded.

  • Socialism.  "We do not," wrote the editors in their last note of the 1980s, "mourn for a moment the disintegration of dictatorial bureaucratic regimes that have long exploited their working classes, excluded their people from the smallest control over their economies and their workplaces, and deprived their citizens of the most basic political liberties."

    ATC has upheld the ideals of classlessness and workers' control while serving as a beacon of honest critical interrogation of nominally socialist regimes.  The same editorial observed presciently that "it would seem that the danger facing socialism today is that it will be discredited and discarded before it has even been tried."

    The magazine sharply condemned the Chinese massacre in Tiananmen Square, and it has published a variety of views on the Cuban state while calling for an end to the U.S.-imposed boycott.

    In dialogues over Leninism, Stalinism, market socialism and other crucial problems in socialist theory, ATC has assisted in recovering the democratic core of Marxism and socialism.  It arranged a well-regarded symposium on the Communist Manifesto in 1998 with reflections by Staughton Lynd, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, among others.

  • Economics.  As New Era gave way to Enron, boom to precariousness, ATC has provided much economic analysis by Robert Brenner, Mary Malloy, and others pillorying free market mythology, pointing to the instabilities of the global economy, exposing the adverse human consequences of "lean production" (a labor regime that its writers named), and relentlessly criticizing such neoliberal policies as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

    Paul Sweezy contributed to a roundup on the 1987 stock market crash, and Mike Davis described Orange County's financial meltdown (1995).

  • Interracial JusticeATC has published voices from the fightback against racism in all manifestations—including South African apartheid and neo-Nazi skinheads in the 1980s, and immigration restriction and the dismantling of affirmative action in the 1990s.  Leading the way have been contributions by people of color focusing not only on African American politics and culture but on Latinos and Latinas, Asian and Pacific Americans, and Arab Americans.

    Especially notable was the magazine's excellent 1996 symposium on the Million Man March featuring Adolph Reed, Ron Daniels, Robin D.G. Kelley, James Jennings, and Tim Schermerhorn.  The magazine has printed articles covering the struggles to free Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo Pratt and other prisoners, and several contributions by the longtime civil rights and Native American organization Hunter Gray (formerly known as John R. Salter, Jr.).

    Historical excavations include a long treatment on women and Caribbean slavery by Cecilia Green (1992-1993) and a number of examinations of the Caribbean-born writer C.L. R. James.  Columns by Kim Hunter ("Radical Rhythms") and Malik Miah ("Race and Class") regularly address race, culture and politics, and in recent years the editorial board has become more substantially multiracial.

  • Independent PoliticsATC, while naturally opposed to the moralism and corporate agenda of the Republican Party, has held the view that the Democratic Party has likewise failed progressive constituencies and cannot be reformed.

    Given corporate and upper middle class domination of mainstream politics, the magazine has maintained that independent political action is imperative.  It has been supportive of a wide range of initiatives, including the exploratory feelers of the fledgling Labor Party.

    In its earliest years, the magazine charted a course of criticism toward the Rainbow campaigns of Jesse Jackson, David Dinkins and Harold Washington that sympathized with the aims and causes mobilized, but called for building social movements and political campaigns independent from the Democratic establishment as more reliable reform vehicles.  That position set it, sometimes uncomfortably, against much of the left.

    By the time of the Ralph Nader campaigns of 1996 and 2000, as new stirrings arose among youth and a desire for independent politics became far more commonplace as disenchantment grew with the Clinton administration, dialogue turned from whether to pursue independent campaigns toward how to make independent politics effective.

  • Internationalism. From the Philippines to Chiapas, from Ireland to the Balkans and Indonesia, international coverage of has been one ATC's consistent strong points.  The magazine solidarized with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, carried extensive analysis of transformations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, opposed the Gulf War and recent Central Asian intervention, critically analyzed the "Middle East peace process" and solidarized with self-determination for the Palestinian people.

    Contributors have included some of the best writers of the European left: Daniel Singer, Perry Anderson, Alex Callinicos, Robin Blackburn, Catherine Samary, Jeanette Habel and Michael Löwy.  Greatest hits include Christopher Hitchens' defense of Salman Rushdie (1989) and a symposium on imperialism in the age of human rights interventions (1995-1996) that drew comments from Michael Parenti, Harry Magdoff, Gayatri Spivak, Paul Le Blanc and others.

  • Gay and Lesbian Liberation. As the editors put it in an editorial on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall in 1994, "the freedom to love without coercion" is a principle proudly upheld by the magazine.  The magazine has published notable articles by Ann Menasche on compulsory heterosexuality (1989), Peter Drucker on queer nationalism (1993), Donna M. Cartwright on transgender struggle and Karin Baker on bisexuality (2002).

  • CultureATC has published poetry by Sonia Sanchez, Dennis Brutus, Melba Joyce Boyd, Hasan Newash and Kim D. Hunter, and many film reviews including the new semi-regular film column "Camera Lucida," by Arlene Keizer.  It has reviewed fiction and literary theory, while providing critical assessments of post-modernism by Tony Smith and Loren Goldner (1993) and of post-colonial theory by E. San Juan, Jr. (1998).

  • History.  The conviction that social movements must study the past to prepare for the future has brought history alive in the pages of ATC, which featured an exchange over Nelson Lichtenstein's biography of United Auto Workers union leader Walter Reuther (1996-1997), Sol Dollinger's recollection of the Flint sit-down strikes (1996), Charlie Post on the Popular Front (1996), and a debate inaugurated by Ellen Meiksins Wood's essay on Eurocentrism and capitalism's origins (2001-2002).

  • Ecology. An early article on capitalism and global warming by Mike Wunsch (1989), a talk by Alexander Cockburn on deforestation of the Amazon (1990), and a special issue on "Environmental Justice" (1993) linking race, empire and ecology, as well as extensive recent coverage of the "global justice" movement since the Seattle mobilization all show the ways that ATC has sought to expose the connection between an inequitable, profit-at-all-cost social system and environmental devastation, while hoping to draw green movements toward socialist conclusions.

Survivor

A great achievement of ATC is to have survived across fifteen years when many left-wing publications and much of the organized socialist left imploded or fizzled out, demoralized by the collapse of Communist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, or disoriented by the triumph of market ideology that pulled the center of political gravity rightward.

ATC survived the deluge because of the strength of its perspective, bolstered both politically and materially by the sponsoring group Solidarity.  It always looked to the working class as the baseline of politics, a working class served poorly by command economies and the profit system alike.  It held a realistic view regarding the direction of history, yet it refused to relinquish radical politics, revolutionary theory, or socialist hope.

It kept its pages interesting by continually reaching out to well-regarded independent radical writers, from Paul Buhle to Noam Chomsky.  Today ATC carries on its function as a place for dialogue on the left and is well-positioned to help give voice to a new generation of instinctively anticapitalist activists.

The stability of the magazine is also a result of a group of editors drawn from the activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s.  Robert Brenner, Dianne Feeley, David Finkel and Alan Wald have served since the first issue, and Samuel Farber since the second.  Susan Weissman joined the board in 1989.

This team of six editors, in other words, has presided over the magazine from its beginning.  Other editors have left their mark along the way, including Johanna Brenner, Nancy Holmstrom, Joanna Misnik, César Ayala and Peter Drucker.

Not that the editorial process has allowed for sausage-making without bloodshed.  Spread out around the country, the editors have almost never been able to meet as a group in person.  They have been compelled, therefore, to make decisions by collective monthly Sunday morning phone meetings plagued invariably by technical weaknesses.

From time to time, serious political disagreements have erupted—even, once in a while, cantankerous shouting, usually leavened in the end by wit and camaraderie.  (Barking once ensued in the background as a household pet joined the yelling match, leading one editor to denounce another's "dogmatism.")

Credit for getting the magazine out especially goes to David Finkel, whose sardonic wit and erudition in world politics have informed "Letter from the Editors" drafts over the years, and Dianne Feeley, who has laid out the pages of every issue.  In a media mode of production dominated by a handful of giant corporations, ATC is that anomaly, a labor of love.

Every reader will have a criticism or two to level at ATC. Density of text has sometimes precluded airy design, the desire for inclusiveness has sometimes resulted in admission of weak articles, and academic jargon has crept in from time to time.

This is not the place for a full critique of the magazine, or a full history, which would have to ruminate on where some of its best young writers of the 1980s wound up. (Hints: One writes for Money, believe it or not. Another has reached the pinnacle of cultural journalism.)

For the most part, ATC has balanced analytical depth with lively accessibility.  It mixes the intellectual and the activist, the topical and the theoretical, and the cultural and the political.  So long as the project of radical renewal remains incomplete, so long as capitalism continues to degrade the earth and exploit humankind, this magazine has its task set for it. For the foreseeable future, ATC will be found swimming upstream.


Christopher Phelps teaches history at Ohio State University and is an editor of Against the Current.

ATC 100, September-October 2002

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