August 20, 2021 - 10:19am

This week, a crisis rocked the digital newsroom of Current Affairs, a small but influential American Left-wing publication established in 2016 by Nathan J. Robinson, a Yale Law School graduate and erstwhile Harvard Ph.D. candidate. Robinson is a foppish character: he affects an English accent and a dandified mode of dress, and had grown weary of his employees’ recent attempts to organise a cooperative workplace rooted in egalitarian principles of governance.  Following a contentious Zoom meeting on August 7, Robinson began eliminating positions as part of an attempt to regain control of a project he regarded as uniquely his.

For those of us who have observed multiple intra-Left schisms, dirty breaks, and other contretemps, this comes as no surprise.  The post-Bernie Sanders left in America has fragmented, with its most notable members reabsorbed into the centre-Left party apparatus for which they had provided service as border guards of its left flank.  The remainder, such as the Current Affairs staffers now left to virtually busk for jobs and funds with Robinson’s betrayal as their cause célèbre, will have to muddle through and determine where they fit — if anywhere — in this evolving hierarchy. Another youth movement has grown old, as they always do, but the song remains the same.

Nathan Robinson’s actions struck some long-time supporters as hypocritical.  Robinson, after all, did much to publicise how he had pushed Current Affairs in a more progressive direction, moving away from early essays by the likes of Angela Nagle and Fredrik DeBoer in favour of contributions from a diverse staff ostensibly more reflective of the increasingly identitarian aims of its founder.  And Robinson had also staged a kerfuffle when he claimed his editor at The Guardian had “fired” him over anti-semitic tweets, a curious claim given that he was an independent contractor, not an employee of the publication.

What matters is that Robinson, an idealist with little use for Marx but much use for beauty and joy, can return to realising his vision: using the magazine as a springboard to become a sort of snazzily-attired character, a Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe for the Zoomer set.  This hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps without the meddling of the apparently inefficient “comrades” he damned with faint praise in his public statement about the matter, he will make this so.  “I have felt like it [Current Affairs] is my baby,” he wrote.

There is another, simpler explanation for all of this, although it is one a utopian socialist such as Robinson may find harder to swallow.  Robinson cared a great deal, at least on paper, about ideals such as social justice, less so about the material reality of the society in which he lived. In society, people cannot escape their social relation to the means of production, in this case a small business such as Current Affairs. Our interests, attitudes, beliefs, and values arise from this relationship. The workers for Current Affairs will want higher wages or some greater control of the means of production, and Robinson — essentially the owner of the operation, a textbook petty bourgeoisie — will want to increase the operation’s profitability and efficiency. This essential truth smacks the reader of Robinson’s personal statement in the face: the business had “developed a kind of messy structurelessness,” “become very inefficient,” and “our subscription numbers had not been doing well lately.” Analysed in this way, the man some critics call the “plantation riddler” seems like more a run-of-the-mill overseer looking to balance the accounts of his flagging vanity press.

In the heart that remains concealed beneath his seersucker suits, Nathan Robinson may believe that this is his cross to bear, an unfortunate moment in a colourful life devoted to truth, justice, and beauty.  Other observers may characterise it as one pitched battle in a grand latter-day struggle redolent of the CIA-backed, anti-communist American left of the 1950s mopping the floor with the communist remnants of the pre-Cold War left.  But for doctrinaire Marxists, as well as those of us labouring in the boardrooms of corporate America, this amounts to business as usual.  

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work