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New Left Review

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Resignations from the Editorial Board of New Left Review

Newsgroups: alt.society.revolution
Subject: New Left Review
Date: 5 Mar 93 14:53:10 GMT

What follows is an account of the events which have led nineteen members (out of twenty-seven) of the Editorial Board of New Left Review to resign.

In the autumn of 1992, by means of what amounted to a boardroom coup, control of New Left Review was for the first time in its thirty-year existence taken from the Editorial Board/Committee and given into the hands of a shareholders' Trust. The EC was peremptorily disbarred from overall responsibility for the Review and informed that any future role it might play would be at most advisory.

New Left Review, since its foundation in 1960, has been legally owned by New Left Review Ltd. Shares in the company have been regularly allocated on the basis of membership of the journal's Editorial Committee. Consequently, over time, formal ownership has come to be shared among a sizeable number of past and present editors (twenty-seven at the time of the coup). Ever since the Review was recapitalized under new editorial management in 1964, however, this legal ownership has played no part in the life of the journal. So too with the company's directors: appointed in compliance with the requirements of company law and formally responsible to the shareholders, they have in practice been elected by the EC, seen themselves as accountable to it, and played no independent role. The Review has actually been run by a self-governing body - its Editorial Board/Committee, with an elected Editor -according to democratic procedures which since 1982 have been embodied in a written constitution. This states unambiguously: `The direction of NLR is the responsibility of the Board of Editors, which ... is the sovereign body of NLR.'

Now, however, the powers of the Editorial Board - including its right to determine what NLR publishes in its pages, to elect its Editor, and to exercise ultimate control over its business affairs - have in effect been abrogated in favour of the new Trust, on the basis of a narrow majority of shares. Henceforward, the Trust - whose trustees comprise Perry Anderson, his brother Benedict Anderson and Ronald Fraser - will run the Review. Directors will be responsible to it, and it will appoint the Editor. (Robin Blackburn, the current Editor, has regrettably taken an active part himself in the disempowerment of the Editorial Board - the very body which elected him to his post.) Of the three trustees, Benedict Anderson (of Cornell University), though a valued contributor, has never been an NLR editor; Ronald Fraser resigned from the Review in 1977 and now lives in Spain; Perry Anderson withdrew from active involvement on the EC in 1989, soon after taking up a teaching post in Los Angeles.

At the AGM of New Left Review Ltd on 20 November 1992, a majority of proxy votes was used to deny shares to new members of the Editorial Board/Committee, despite an assurance by the Editor as late as July 1992 that these would be issued in line with previous practice. There was some irony in the fact that the votes of former editors, who themselves held shares only on the basis of their past service on the EC, should have been used to disenfranchise a majority of the Review's current editors. Two new directors were appointed who were prepared to support this takeover of control (Tariq Ali, an associate editor who withdrew from the EC some years ago due to pressure of other commitments, and Alexander Cockburn, who lives in northern California and has had no involvement in the Review's affairs for over twenty years); two others who did not support the takeover (long-serving EC members Quintin Hoare and Ellen Meiksins Wood) were removed, having first been misled -along with the rest of the EC - about the intended nature of the AGM at which these actions were to take place. The new directors are now apparently entitled to exercise plenipotentiary powers on behalf of a majority of shareholders. Their first official act was to dismiss the Production Editor, Robin Gable, declaring him redundant on the basis of a highly controversial assessment of the company's financial position.

Not only did the coup represent a rupture with the traditions of NLR and the principles on which it was founded, but the means by which the seizure of power was achieved were themselves indefensible and, we have been advised, vulnerable to legal challenge. Even Perry Anderson has admitted that the changes were effected by `stealth'. Shareholders, many of whom have had no involvement with the Review for years, even decades, and who knew little if anything about its current situation or internal life, were asked on the basis of extremely contentious accounts of these to make over their shares to the Trust. The accounts seem to have been variously tailored to suit the dispositions of individual shareholders, but two reasons were given more or less consistently: that the Editor's position was being threatened by a cabal, and that the EC was refusing to face up to a financial crisis which required drastic action. Since the Editor had just been re-elected for a three-year term, leaving his position secure, and since the EC has already, in accordance with advice given by the company's auditor, begun to deal decisively with what were manageable financial problems, neither of these reasons could withstand scrutiny. At no point were arguments presented openly, in such a way that EC members could know about or reply to them at the time. There was no communication between the relevant shareholders and other parties to the dispute. The effect was to deprive the EC of the very responsibilities which these shareholders had themselves long exercised as editors.

The change of control affects not just New Left Review Ltd, but also its associated publishing company Verso (New Left Books Ltd). As the latter's company charter states: `the central role of the Review in the creation of the imprint was given institutional form by the allocation to it of one half of the shares in the company, as a controlling interest - the other half being divided among three private investors.' This controlling interest was reflected in the right of the Review's Editorial Board to appoint a majority of directors to the Verso board. However, ultimate control of the publishing company has now passed into the hands of the private investors, two of whom - Perry Anderson and Ronald Fraser - are also trustees of the new Trust. This clearly could have implications for the continued independent existence of Verso.

It must be emphasized that the present conflict does not correspond to any intellectual or political differences on the EC, which contains a wider spectrum of views than ever before - indeed only two years ago it underwent a major expansion, designed to enhance its political and cultural diversity and achieve a better gender and generational balance - and which has implemented editorial policies more open than at any other time in the Review's history. There have been plenty of vigorous disagreements among us, but no consistent polarizations. Although nothing could excuse the coup and the manner in which it was carried out, it might have been less intolerable if it had at least been explicitly motivated by some identifiable and irreconcilable political or intellectual division, the end result of open debate; if, in other words, it had been something other than a simple assertion of power, control and proprietorship. As it was, however, those who initiated it, instead of engaging in reasoned and principled discussion, chose the terrain of the company boardroom.

In response to these events, the Editorial Board/Committee has tried in good faith to find a negotiated solution. Its aim has been to find a basis on which those associated with NLR in the past - and who have made major contributions to it - could continue to cooperate for the Review's long-term benefit with the current EC. We regret to say that it has not been possible to obtain agreement on such a solution from the new directors representing the trustees. The only other recourse available to us would have been the instruments of company law (the very terrain chosen by those who organized the coup) and the courts. Obliged in the circumstances to consider that option, we did indeed establish that there were strong grounds for challenging the legality of the proceedings, and hoped that this fact would persuade the trustees and their representatives to draw back from their chosen course of action. But this has not happened.

We do not know whether the coup portends a change of editorial direction for NLR. All we can say with reasonable certainty is that the journal will no longer be organized on democratic lines, however many names may in future appear on its masthead. For our part, we remain committed to the principles of democratic socialism. We can only hope that NLR too will retain that commitment, if not in the way it conducts its own business then at least in its editorial policy. Anything else would represent a serious loss to the left. We, at any rate, shall now explore other avenues for advancing socialist ideas.

The events outlined above have already led to several resignations from the Editorial Board: those of Patrick Camiller, Paul Cammack, Diane Elson, Robin Gable, Norman Geras, Monty Johnstone and Elizabeth Wilson.

We, the undersigned members of the Editorial Board of New Left Review, find the proceedings which have brought NLR to this point intolerable and quite inappropriate for a socialist journal. With regret, therefore, we are resigning from the Board.

Christopher Bertram, Peter Dews, Ken Hirschkop, Quintin Hoare, Deniz Kandiyoti, Branka Magas, Doreen Massey, Robin Murray, Mike Rustin, Kate Soper, Hilary Wainwright, Ellen Meiksins Wood.

24 February 1993