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January 1998 (Volume 49, Number 8)

Notes from the Editors

MR has always been known for its style as well as its substance. We’ve always aimed for depth of analysis without sacrificing clarity and accessibility. We’ve also tried to keep our articles relatively short, not just to maintain the small and affordable size of the magazine but also because we’re writing for an audience of socialists who lead busy lives—for people who work long and hard hours, in factories, offices, educational institutions, and at home, and for activists no less than for intellectuals.

We try, of course, to publish articles that teachers at various levels, from high school to grad school, can use in the classroom and in their own research. But the magazine has one basic rule of thumb: to produce things that people can read on the way to work, or during a lunch break, or in the other rare and precious hours snatched from many other activities and responsibilities. We aim for articles written for intelligent non-specialists, articles that are longer and more substantial than what our readers can get from newspaper op-ed pages, or even from news magazines, but shorter and less burdened with jargon or professional code-language than the typical piece in an academic journal. At the same time, our aim is not simply to summarize or digest ideas already well covered elsewhere but to add something original to a socialist understanding of the world.

This very specific mission has never been an easy one. Any writer knows how much harder it is to say something clearly and concisely than it is to ramble on endlessly. Saying something important in short sentences and accessible language is far more difficult than creating the appearance of profundity by means of pretentious and unintelligible prose. Clear concise prose also has what some writers may think is another disadvantage: it exposes the author to critical scrutiny. Writers whom no one really understands can hide behind their obscurity to shield themselves from criticism. While today’s most fashionable intellectual trends have increasingly taken that easy way out, MR authors have resisted the temptation and have managed to say important things without disguise and deceptive window-dressing.

Of course we’ve always been conscious that there are things—important things—we simply can’t do. Brevity is often a virtue, but some things just can’t be said briefly. There are many contentious issues that need careful dissection and extended debate. But if MR’s style has meant that there have been some important tasks we couldn’t perform, it has until recently been easy to accept what might be called the vices of our virtues. MR has had its own job to do, which no one else has done in the same way, and we’ve been able to count on others to do the things we can’t.

Things are different now. There used to be a wide range of left periodicals, whose politics had certain basic principles in common with ours but who approached them from a different angle. Some, for instance, saw their main task as educating the educators, talking, at great length, to academics in their own specialized languages and taking for granted their specialized knowledge.

But now the socialist culture isn’t as rich as it once was, and there are very few outlets for socialist opinion, ideas, and analysis. Many journals of the left have abandoned socialist discussion and debate for other more fashionable “discourses.” So there are now many more gaps to be filled. For instance, many long-time and loyal readers of MR who teach in universities have lost the other resources they used to rely on for a different kind of extended in-depth debate.

The gaps are likely to be more deeply felt now that history seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction to the current intellectual fashions. The prospects of a renewed left politics seem more promising now than anyone would have dared to believe just a little while ago. The labor movement shows signs of being on the move again. The most cursory scan of the mainstream press reveals that even—or especially—the mouthpieces of capital are nervously noticing a shift in the wind. Consider, for instance, the bad-tempered outbursts about the power of organized labor during the recent flap over Clinton’s defeat on “fast-track.”

Yet at just this critical moment, the intellectual resources of the left are somewhere else. It’s hard to think of another moment in history when there has been a wider gulf between left intellectuals and what’s actually happening on the ground.

So we now think that MR should, occasionally, do what it can to fill some of the gaps. We have no intention of abandoning our own specific project, but from time to time, we’d like to try something a little different. Without ever abandoning our commitment to clarity, we’d like, once in a while, to run slightly longer pieces and debates, on major questions of special concern to socialists in today’s historical conditions. We hope that these debates will, among other things, provide a useful tool for educators—in schools, universities, labor organizations, and other institutions where people are working to awaken a critical consciousness.

In this issue, we’re running a debate of that kind, and we hope to run others in the future. We’d like to hear from readers what you think, and we’d be especially interested in hearing any suggestions from you about the issues that most demand this kind of treatment.

It is with deep regret the we announce the death of Monthly Review author Daniel Nugent (1954-1997). Daniel was a professor of anthropology and Latin American history, his writings include Spent Cartridges of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua (1993). Last year he collaborated on a play, 13 Dias/13 Days: How the Zapatistas Shook the World, performed on tour by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

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