Ten Years of Against the Current

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

The Editors

AGAINST THE CURRENT (new series) was launched in January 1986, formally representing the fusion of three socialist journals of theory and activism coalescing around a common perspective.  The three magazines were “Changes”, published by International Socialists; an earlier version of “Against the Current”, published by Workers Power; and “Socialist Unity”, published by supporters of the Fourth International (United Secretariat), most of whom had been members of the Socialist Workers Party until 1983.

The amalgamation of three publications, however, was more than just a pooling of resources or the hammering out of a “common political line.”  The convergence of these socialist magazines, previously the voices of organizational competitors on the left, attracted the attention of independent small collectives, individuals from other political backgrounds, newly radicalizing young people, and some veterans of the 1960s, and even the 1930s, awakened from the political semi-retirement into which they had fallen after the Long March of the Reagan years.

Thus, relaunching “Against the Current” added up to something greater than the sum of its constituent parts.  The new series of” ATC” was an opportunity to combine the efforts of several generations of left activists; of trade unionists as well as students and committed scholars; and of individuals who had more often polemicized against each other than collaborated to take advantage of each other’s strengths.

What was new in this venture was not merely a commitment to bring some fresh air into the stagnating atmosphere of the U.S. socialist left. The founders of the new “ATC “were equally motivated by a conviction that they must try not to repeat mistakes made by socialists in the past. We agreed that tradition, critically assessed, would be the basis for creative advances that might be meaningful to the younger generations of activists.

All components of the new project were anxious to launch a journal free of the hidebound orthodoxies that had failed to build a large and lasting movement out of the promising radical ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s.  A particular concern was to move away from “vanguardism” and fetishism over “correct program.”

But there simultaneously existed an agreement that one must not “throw out the baby with the bath water.”  Many of the failings of the U.S. left were caused not only by errors of theory and practice, but also by objective difficulties-for which no socialist tendency had yet found a solution.  Thus, not everything in the legacy need be jettisoned, especially in the absence of convincing alternatives.

So “Against the Current” set out ten years ago to live up to its name in more ways than one. Not only did we consecrate the journal to a militant resistance against the rightward trends that were overtaking the left domestically and internationally (the Nicaraguan Revolution was at that time one of the few exceptions, and we were united in our defense of it).  We also sought to resist the temptation of the two trajectories that have most often derailed socialist movements of the past when confronted by difficult and unanticipated events.

One familiar paradigm is that, under the banner of going “beyond” Marxism and in the name of “newness,” radical journals have done little more than orchestrate the progressive abandonment of almost all the distinguishing features of the revolutionary socialist project-working class independence, a proletarian orientation, classical Marxist theory, internationalist anti-imperialism, and a commitment to building organization.

“Dissent” magazine pioneered this trajectory in the 1950s, and “Socialist Review” seems to be retracing its course today without acknowledgment.  The latter journal actually boasts, in an editor’s note on “SR”‘s twenty-five years of publication, of having “abandoned its commitment to the monolithic notion of `revolution’ in favor of more complex strategies of resistance and reform.”  (“SR” 95/1, 1)

Some journals even seem to function as self-proclaimed vanguards of academic Marxism, with no evidence of praxis-satisfied with discursive fashion rather than addressing head on the political problems presented by deteriorating social conditions and a crisis of working- class organization.

The other pattern has been to use a Marxist journal (of the kind most often put out by left-sectarian parties) to create a religious fervor of belief around a “true program,” or to idealize some far-off country that supposedly represents the vanguard of humanity.  Publications of such political tendencies are frequently characterized by a heresy-hunting, “witch-hunt” atmosphere, with the focus especially on exposing the rank “revisionism” of those radical organizations historically closest to themselves.

From the outset we understood that the first orientation, the “discussion” magazine, leads at best to social democratic reformism, if not the complete abandonment of socialist perspective.  The second, the “line journal,” guarantees short-term survival, but in a sterile, mind- deadening world of practical impotence.  If “ATC” were to set its aim as simply a variant of either of those two types, it would add little of value to socialist culture in the United States.

However, for ten years ATC has sought to defend the necessity of militant socialist activism and the need for revolutionary socialist politics, without falling into pat formulae about “the correct line,” or pointing to a particular group as the “only” revolutionary “party.”  ATC is sponsored by Solidarity, a small socialist organization that seeks to live up to many of the journal’s aims, but not all of its editors, nor the majority of its Advisory Editors, and certainly not a majority of its contributors, are members.

To the contrary, ATC has instituted a policy of including a range of voices from the non-sectarian Left. We welcome contributors from radical traditions and perspectives other than those represented by the three publications that originally fused.  Occasionally we may even publish a position by a representative of a party-like organization that we feel to be of special value or for the purpose of representing a spectrum of views.

In our view, it is the commitment to building a revolutionary, feminist, and multinational socialist organization, combined with institutionalized political pluralism, that distinguishes ATC. Certainly there are other high-quality journals on the U.S. Left, which we read with respect and to which many writers for ATC also contribute—among the best being Monthly Review, New Politics, Crossroads, Science and Society, and Z magazine—yet ATC is also a signal voice characterized by a distinctive political orientation.  While all contributors may not share our editorial views on all these questions, the editors affirm the central and uniquely important role of working class struggles for building a socialist movement.  We also uphold a commitment to such sometimes controversial policies as complete political independence from the Democratic and Republican parties; the right of women and people of color to self-organization; support to national liberation struggles of oppressed national minorities; opposition to Zionism and Israel’s apartheid- like denial of Palestinian self- determination; support to rank and file struggles against the dominant bureaucracies in the union movement.

Equally important, of course, are issues where we believe the Left should stand together: a woman’s right to choose, Gay and Lesbian rights, protection of the environment, demilitarization, and affirmative action.

Perhaps most significant is our advocacy of “socialism from below” and opposition to all forms of bureaucratic “socialism,” such as existed in the pre-1989 USSR and East Europe.  We supported all struggles for workers’ rights, democratization and resistance to national oppression in these societies.  From the outset, however, the editors of ATC recognized that we did not share among ourselves any particular theory of the origins and economic laws of these societies, nor was there even a consensus as to exactly which states or regimes should receive the designation “Stalinist.”

Nevertheless, after considerable debate and discussion, we came to the agreement that the longstanding tradition, especially on the “Trotskyist” Left, of making the particular theory of the USSR the litmus test for revolutionary credentials, and turning that theory into the lens through which all world politics are to be viewed, was no longer appropriate, if it ever had been, in light of the terminal crises wracking the Eastern Bloc.

None of the three founding publications, nor any others of which we are aware, predicted the subsequent form and consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union that occurred three years after our founding.  Thus we continue to feel justified in our choice of designing a publication aimed at bringing the most sophisticated version of all the theories into interaction, with the view that each might provide an important key to understanding the USSR as well as the fate of other 20th century revolutions.

At the same time, the editors also agreed that a fixation on anti-Stalinist polemics (variants of which are frequently articulated by Trotskyists, social democrats and neo- conservatives, often repeated by rote) is of doubtful use in terms of reconstructing a new socialist Left today.

Indeed the priority so often given to anti-Stalinist polemics, can have unanticipated consequences.  The most dangerous may be that they can give rise to the illusion that there are too-simple solutions to the problem of Stalinism, panaceas especially coming in the form of giving allegiance to some other “true” revolutionary vanguard leadership or particular theory of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.  In fact, we now have the evidence, from the authoritarian record of so many anti-Stalinist groups—Trotskyist, DeLeonist, etc.—that denunciations of the crimes of Stalinism are no guarantee of a more democratic alternative.

Our objective is not to settle old scores or to “make the record” in some sort of test of political purity.  Rather, we aspire to educate radicalizing young workers and students about the causes and consequences of bureaucratism in the workers movement and in post-revolutionary societies—and indeed in aspiring revolutionary organizations.

Thus, ATC has chosen to take its stand against authoritarian tendencies on the “Left” by seeking new ways of analyzing the problem, especially by fresh research and theorizing.  These are represented by the discussions held in ATC around Tim Wohlforth’s article “The Two Souls of Leninism,” the various responses to the publication of the book Before Stalinism by editor Sam Farber, a number of debates and exchanges on the Nicaraguan and Cuban Revolution, Alan Wald’s assessment of the history of U.S. Trotskyism and the resulting commentaries, and of course our ongoing coverage of the ex-USSR and China.

A third area where we have tried to distinguish ourselves is in our approach to classical Marxism.  While ATC has no “line” on history or theory, it is true that much of our social thought is substantially influenced by the tradition of classic thinkers such Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky.  Nevertheless, we feel that this tradition has been crucially enriched by many other thinkers.  Thus ATC editors have diverse preferences—and some contentious debates—for and about Du Bois, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Gramsci, Lukacs, Serge and Fanon, as well as dozens of younger theorists, female and male, from many countries.

While editors may also have different opinions as to precise changes taking place in the working-class and the economy, we remain convinced that working people, expressing their aims through unions and workers’ parties, remain central to the process of social transformation.  Whatever the recent setbacks, especially the defeated Staley and Caterpillar strikes in the United States the power of organized workers is repeatedly confirmed, most recently in the magnificent recent French strikes.

Working people, however, are not simply defined by their class.  Workers are also of different genders and sexual orientations, ethnic and regional groups, nationalities and “races.”  Historical materialism today is dead without the vital infusion of feminism, anti-racist theory, ecology, gay and lesbian theory, advanced cultural theory, and many other fertile perspectives.

We ask only that theory do what is intended—to clarify, not obfuscate.  In this regard, we have responded to the variety of new ideas clustered under the rubric of “post-modernism” with friendliness toward those who seek to join socialist activists in creating a more enriched liberatory theory.  On the other hand, we remain ready to challenge those who seek to put old wine in new bottles or sell snake oil to cure our Marxist blues.

It would take many long paragraphs to try to itemize the range of topics covered by the first ten years of ATC. In the near future, however, an index will be available that will provide an overview as well as assist activists who wish to locate past coverage and discussions.

We are especially pleased to have edited a journal that includes so many articles by world-class specialists in various fields—essays by our late comrade Ernest Mandel, Catherine Samary, Branka Magas, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Val Moghadam, Michael Lowy, Delia Aguilar, Perry Anderson, James Petras, Anwar Shaikh, Daniel Singer, Noam Chomsky, Hillel Ticktin, Stephanie Coontz, and others.  We have also been honored to feature contributions and creative work by leading activists of all sorts—Dennis Brutus, Bernadette Devlin McAlisky, Alexander Cockburn, Kim Moody, Margaret Randall, Sonia Sanchez, Jane Slaughter, and others.

At the same time, many of our best pieces have come from rank and file participants in the labor, student, gay and lesbian, ecological, feminist, and anti-racist movements, as well as from individuals reporting on-the-spot from Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, Mexico, and elsewhere.

ATC has aimed to publish articles in many genres, from advanced research in specialized areas to popular journalism, and we are aware that no reader is going to feel satisfied with every type or instance.  But we hope that the blend achieved in this inclusive orientation is a healthy and positive, and we especially plan to continue our efforts to increase contributions by women, people of color, and activists from the newly-emerging generation of socialists.

This, then, is what we see as the function of a revolutionary socialist journal at the present time: To add fresh views and perspectives, yes; but also to preserve and extend what remains most admirable in the legacy of our predecessors.  To that end a special focus of ATC in its tenth year includes critical rethinking of episodes in the history of the U.S. Left.

One of these, Sol Dollinger’s observations on aspects of the Flint Sit-down Strikes, appears in this issue.  Another, Charles Post’s reassessment of the experience of the Popular Front in the United States is scheduled for ATC 62.  And several more such pieces will appear in coming months.  Our hope is that studies of this sort will help to provide a usable past, one that plays a role in bringing about a world in which humanity can at last make history under circumstances of its own choosing.

ATC 62, May-June 1996