On Wednesday, five staff members of the socialist magazine Current Affairs announced in an open letter that the publication's editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson, author of Why You Should Be a Socialist, had unceremoniously fired them on August 8 for attempting to form a worker co-op.
In an August 8 email to the managing editor that Motherboard obtained, Robinson wrote, "I have never stepped up and owned the fact that I think of the magazine as mine in my guts. This leads to the situation where it looks like I care about democracy but then I actually want to control everything, I tell myself I am a good person and do not confront the fact that when it comes down to it I want to run the organization myself, because that is a really shameful thing to admit and I don't want it to be true even if it is."
For years, Robinson's work has attempted to make socialism accessible to everyone. In the past, Robinson has advocated for workers' rights to organize and promoted democracy in the workplace. Current Affairs, which was founded in 2015, frequently parodied companies that exploit workers, and paid all of its staff, including Robinson, the same $45,000 salary.
Robinson's decision to terminate most of his staff in response to their proposing a more egalitarian alternative structure falls in line with a list of outwardly progressive employers that have preached socialist and egalitarian ideals but have resisted worker organizing.
According to three of the fired workers, in recent months and years, there had been discussions as to what the organizational structure of Current Affairs would look like as the magazine grew. Workers had considered non-profit status or a worker-owned media co-op, or both, but had not reached a decision.
In early August, the staff had planned a retreat at which a vote would be held, after a series of surveys and one-on-ones had been held to gauge the feelings of staff on the future of the organization.
"There was general consensus that we wanted egalitarian procedures and we wanted a lot more clarity on what each person's role meant and what they were allowed to do autonomously versus what should be a collective decision," Allegra Silcox, Current Affairs' business manager, who was hired in part to research new organizational structures for the publication and fired on August 8, told Motherboard.
"We thought Nathan was completely on board with it until right before he fired us. It was really sudden, his change of opinion," said Lyta Gold, the managing editor, who was fired and had been full-time at Current Affairs for three years.
On August 8, five Current Affairs staffers learned that they had been fired when they were locked out of their Slack accounts—and subsequently received personalized emails from Robinson, asking for their resignation and insulting their job performance. Robinson fired five members of the staff in total, leaving only one recent hire remaining.
"I tried to reason with [Robinson] and told him, 'you're destroying Current Affairs,' and he said, 'No I'm saving Current Affairs,'" said Gold.
According to the three staffers, Current Affairs had a policy that the publication could not fire anyone without first putting them on a two-week performance improvement plan, but Robinson had provided no notice.
Kate Christian Gathreaux, an administrative assistant who was fired, told Motherboard, "My email [from Nathan] said 'Face it, I think as I believe you know, you are not naturally suited to administrative work.'
"It revealed how differently he views administrative and editorial workers—that he views those things in a hierarchy," they said. "This was my first time in an administrative role, before this I was a waitress and housekeeper."
The next day, Robinson sent emails to each of the fired staffers, apologizing for his "ugly" statements, but stood by his desire to have them leave the publication.
"It was yet another manifestation of my unwillingness to simply tell the truth about wanting a managing editor who I am clearly supervising, and with whom I have a different kind of relationship to the one you and I have (had)," Robinson wrote to the managing editor. "I never had the strength to admit what I wanted."
According to three of the fired workers, in retrospect, there had been warning signs along the way that Robinson wasn't actually interested in running a democratic workplace. Robinson micromanaged many aspects of the print magazine's editorial operations, from editors' relationships with freelance writers to the nitty-gritty of the print magazine, and went back on major decisions at the last minute without explanation. He was often absent during the work day, writing books and working on other personal projects, but expected staff to work long and inconvenient hours.
"In retrospect, there were red flags," said Gold. "I had particular frustration with that because as managing editor, I wasn’t in power to make as many decisions as I needed to be. A writer asks something and I'm not in the power to make the decision but he's not available."
"A week after I was brought on full time, I reached a point of stress that felt untenable. He expected everyone to be working exactly when he was," Gathreaux said. "Sometimes he wanted something to be shipped at 11:30pm on Saturday night. Because I was really new to this environment, it was on me for not having boundaries."
"He was quite skilled at simply ignoring things until you just gave up on addressing them with him," Gold said.
In the email obtained by Motherboard, Robinson wrote, "I am not good at running an organization. I freely admit this. All I can promise is that I will take steps to ensure that I never, ever again do something this terrible to someone."
Yasmin Nair, a Marxist activist and editor-at-large at Current Affairs, told Motherboard, "The impulse is to take positions on either side. Very young organizations that are very successful have tensions and issues. We in the public tend to feed off that information. I'm still sorting through everything that has happened. I don’t think the matter is as simple as we might imagine it to be."
Robinson did not initially respond to a request for comment, but posted a lengthy explanation for his actions in a public Facebook post on Wednesday. After this article was published, he posted a 2,700-word statement on Google Docs in addition to what he had posted on Facebook.
"Since starting [Current Affairs], I have resisted making Current Affairs 'owned' by staff not because I want to own it myself but because I don't want it to be owned at all, I want it to operate as a not for profit institution that does not belong to particular people," he wrote on Facebook. "Now, I don't want to be a workplace dictator, and I think nobody can say that before this I acted like one in my day-to-day work, but I do feel a strong sense of possession over the editorial vision and voice of the magazine, having co-founded it and worked at it the longest."
Motherboard reached out to members of the editorial board via email and Twitter, but members either said they were not prepared to comment or did not reply.
Robinson has told fired staffers that he intends to replace them, but according to a note to subscribers from the editorial board, the magazine is currently on a hiatus to "deal with this painful chapter." "We as a collective remain committed to transparency, workers' rights, and a better, kinder left," it wrote.
Update: This article has been updated with a link to Nathan Robinson’s statement.