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From Below and to the Left - A Brief History of Left Turn, 2001 - 2010

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

As this magazine goes to press, thousands of us from around the country are preparing to travel to Detroit for the US Social Forum. As we get ready to see many of our old friends at the hundreds of workshops and facilitated discussions, meet some new friends on the dance floor at this year's Leftist Lounge party, and strategically plan on how to also sneak in a few World Cup soccer games, we are reminded that the USSF above all shows us the possibilities of our collective power, even as we come to it from many different backgrounds and a range of local struggles.

Left Turn, as a magazine and a decentralized network of media producers, distributors, writers, and organizers, has worked hard to support the USSF process over the past five years. In many ways we see the USSF as a much larger physical manifestation of the kinds of issues, organizations and activism we have tried to bring to life in our pages.

Like the USSF, Left Turn has been and continues to be an experiment and a process. This issue you hold in your hands, #37, marks the start of our tenth anniversary year.  Since the USSF is also about sharing our work, sharing our histories, and articulating our visions for a better world, we believe it is timely to reflect on some of Left Turn's history, to explain who we are and how we got here.

Early beginnings

Left Turn was started by a small group of socialists who left one of the larger party building organizations after the major World Trade Organization protests that took place in Seattle in late 1999. Disillusioned with the lack of internal democracy and debate within the party and increasingly critical of the structure of democratic centralism-which featured more centralism and less democracy-the group launched a new political project that sought to "capture the spirit of the new anticapitalist movements in the US and internationally."

The official position paper that they wrote to the leadership of the party when they left was titled Seattle: A Fork in the Road, after a comment made by Ralph Nader at the Seattle protests. In the decade since its founding, Left Turn has changed and grown a lot, and almost no one currently involved with Left Turn has a direct relationship to that beginning-now mostly an organizational footnote. However, that skepticism of political vanguardism remains as part of our philosophical core.

The first issue of Left Turn Magazine appeared in April 2001 (Issue #1: Rattling the System from Seattle to Quebec). The strong anarchist movements during this time period heavily influenced Left Turn's political direction, as it took on a decidedly anti-authoritarian and nonhierarchical tone. This produced a new kind of loose political network that would reflect the movements it was coming out of while at the same time maintaining some of the traditional strengths of the organized socialist left such as its focus on internationalism, antiracism, anti-imperialism, as well as the importance of organization.

Domestic coverage over the first few years focused on the post-September 11 government roundups & detentions and showing the connections between the Bush Administration's intensified anti-immigrant legislation and the general anti-Arab and Islamophobic hysteria in the media.

The Middle East took on even greater importance during this period, and our coverage of the region more broadly-and the question of Palestine more specifically-quickly became a key aspect of the way in which Left Turn contributed to movement dialogue and debate. One of the primary contributions of the magazine in this early period was providing a framework for the US-based global justice movement to understand the connections between Palestine and a range of other issues.

From the beginning, we also highlighted Latin American social movements and leftward electoral shifts, quickly identifying these movements as a primary counter-force to US imperialism in the current period. Latin America was at the forefront of experiments in radical democracy and left electoral strategies and placed a strong emphasis on bottom-up and autonomous mass organizing.

There were many inspiring examples: worker-run factories and neighborhood assemblies in Argentina, large scale land takeovers by Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST), the autonomous territories maintained by the Zapatistas as they moved towards implementing their own structures of "good government" in Southern Mexico, the "Water Wars" and subsequent rise to power of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the popular uprisings that beat back the US-backed coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. All of these coincided with the suddenly large numbers out in the streets here in the US between 2001-2004. It was an exciting time period politically, even with the likes of Bush and Cheney in the White House. 

Coverage of the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico was one of the most consistent features in Left Turn. We printed a special issue on the movement's 10-year anniversary in early 2004 (Issue #12: We Are Everywhere), and later organized a small regional speaking tour on the Zapatistas' La Otra Campagna (Other Campaign) featuring former Black Panther Ashanti Alston and long time Left Turn writer RJ Maccani, who were joined by local activists in different cities like Walidah Imarisha in Philadelphia (who would later become a guest editor) and Kristin Bricker in Baltimore (currently continuing her reporting from the front lines in Mexico).

Left Turn has supported a generally horizontalist political orientation, perhaps best summed up by the Zapatista's concept of "From below and to the Left." Although many have categorized Left Turn as an anarchist project, the magazine and website have always highlighted a broad spectrum of political debate including in-depth coverage of the 2004 elections, and the aforementioned left electoral shifts happening throughout Latin America, particularly in Venezuela and Bolivia. Rather than align itself with any one particular political ideology, Left Turn has tried to support the concept of creating "a world where many worlds fit."

Looking to the movement

Having successfully launched an attractive-looking publication with sharp design and broad-based yet coherent politics, the challenge became how to build up our networks of contributors and distributors without resources to pay anyone beyond a small stipend for our issue designer. Here started a long (and still ongoing) experiment with what we call our "grassroots distribution model." From the beginning, this model featured several key components, including:

  1. Selling the magazine at whatever spaces were available to us: conferences, the series of large protests leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, local discussions or cultural events.
  2. We made a political decision that the most important thing for us was to get the magazine in as many peoples' hands as possible. This meant sending out boxes of magazines to friends, writers, and supporters all over the country without any promises in return other than that they would get the magazine into the hands of key local activists and organizers or occasionally distribute at a local event. This meant a huge investment in print and postage costs over the first few years, but it also meant that hundreds of new readers came into contact with the magazine.
  3. We developed a grassroots fundraising model that understood that if Left Turn was going to survive on magazine sales, we would not survive very long. We developed a signature series of "anti-capitalista" t-shirts, organized regular house parties and other fundraising events, and asked our community to contribute financially.

We realized that as a movement publication, we would have to rely on the movement to grow and spread the word about the magazine. This meant above all that the issues and organizations covered in our pages would have to remain relevant to organizers and activists involved in daily political work.

A new phase

In August of 2004, Bilal El-Amine, Left Turn's founding editor, left the US. With his departure, the magazine transitioned to a bold new model: eight new editors-some of whom did not know each other and had not worked together, and most with little or no previous publishing experience-joined together to make up Left Turn's first editorial collective, sharing and rotating both the editing and publishing tasks of this still-new project.

This new phase of the magazine, while initially difficult, meant that editors now lived in five different cities (New York, DC, New Orleans, Oakland, San Francisco), had a much larger capacity to take on distribution and logistical efforts, and also brought new networks of social justice activists to the magazine.

The first issue produced by the new editorial collective would take nearly five months to arrive, but finally came out in January 2005 (Issue #15: Death by Democracy).  The new editors worked to bring in larger layers of people who would both help on the actual production of the magazine and participate as distributors in the still largely undefined, larger LT network. Distribution would increase dramatically between 2004-2007 as the magazine published a series of popular sections ranging from the debates surrounding the nonprofit industrial complex (Issue #18: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded), to organizing in post-Katrina New Orleans (Issue #19: From One Gulf To Another, We Do Mind Dying), to the launching of a four-part series on The Black Left by editor Rachel Herzing, (Issues #21-24: Perspectives on the Black Left).

Convening, transition & expansion

While the magazine brought together different voices from the grassroots in conversation with each other on paper, we also saw a need to convene some of these same people and organizations in person. From 2001-2004, Left Turn members organized several major conferences attended by a diverse mix of grassroots activists & academics, something that would be a defining feature of the project for years to come. On November 16-17, 2001, Left Turn organized the first major activist conference, "Globalization & Resistance," to take place in the aftermath of September 11. At a time when many individuals and organizations were searching for new ideas to explain the current political situation, the gathering was an important contribution.

In 2002 members of Left Turn helped launch the anti-Coca-Cola corporate campaign in solidarity with Colombian trade unionists. This eventually led to campus chapters springing up across the country, a US tour of these Columbian unionists, and student-labor solidarity initiatives that still last to this day. This also led to a conference on social movements in Latin America that took place in the spring of 2003, which brought together leading activists from Latin America together with US solidarity activists to discuss political shifts throughout the Americas.

During the summer of 2004, Left Turn was instrumental in organizing the "Life After Capitalism" conference in the lead up to the Republican National Convention in NYC. The conference brought nearly 2,000 people together to discuss strategy, political vision and community organizing. Although not an official Left Turn conference, the program committee was made up of former or current LT editors. Most of the speakers, organizers, and participants involved were either long time LT writers or closely identified with the project.

The conference would bring together activists from all over North America and included Robin DG Kelley, Naomi Klein, Betita Martinez, Paula Rojas, Steve Williams, Michael Albert, Ruthie Gilmore, Vijay Prashad, David Solnit, Lynn Stewart and Michael Hardt. Attending organizations included representatives from the unemployed workers movements in Argentina, the Coalition of Immokalee workers in Florida and Canadian social movement organizations like OCAP and No One is Illegal.

From 2002 to 2008, Left Turn also played a supportive role in coordinating tracks of workshops and mobilizing young activists to attend the annual National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) in Washington DC. Key members from the NCOR organizing core later joined both Left Turn's editorial collective and the wider network of folks that create the magazine and also work on affiliated projects, from Left Turn's website to our participation in events like conferences and other left gatherings.

The First USSF

From 2006 to 2007, Left Turn dedicated itself to building for the first ever US Social Forum. In June of 2007, Left Turn published a special issue (#25: A light Within: The Social Forum Comes to the United States), and Left Turn members and friends distributed several thousand copies throughout the 4-day gathering in Atlanta. Left Turn also played a role in coordinating the "Another Politics is Possible" track at the USSF, which featured over 30 workshops, panels and movement conversations in coordination with such groups as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Center 4 Immigrant Families, Catalyst Project, and The LA Garment Workers Center.

The USSF in Atlanta marked the culmination of much of our work over the previous few years, as many of the organizations that the magazine had highlighted played a big role in organizing the forum and leading some of the critical discussions. The Another Politics is Possible track attracted over a thousand people over the course of the forum, and many of the personal and political relationships that we had built were affirmed by the response to the special issue and our role at the USSF.

The summer of 2007 also saw Left Turn editor Jordan Flaherty breaking the Jena 6 story to a national audience, leading to some of the largest civil rights demonstrations in the deep South over the last 40 years. Although never with enough resources or capacity to fully take advantage of these breakthroughs, the magazine had cemented itself as a fixture and a political reference point for thousands of activists across the US and Canada.

Rotating leadership

It is notable that Left Turn, being an all-volunteer project, has survived the rotating out of not only its founding editors but also several of its core members. By late 2007, half of the original editorial collective from 2004 had transitioned out (all on good terms) due mostly to work and family commitments. The emphasis on leadership development, rotational tasks, and the consistent bringing on of dynamic guest editors has been key in keeping the project healthy and moving forward as we enter our tenth year of existence. Beyond the editors, the project would not have been able to sustain itself without a fierce network of approximately 25-30 additional members, who coordinate everything from bookkeeping to updating the subscriber database to copyediting and web design.

Continuing our commitment to establishing a larger presence outside the coastal bubbles of New York City, DC & the Bay Area, members of Left Turn helped to coordinate the Grassroots Media Tour in 2008, which targeted fifteen cities across the South, connecting local communities with cutting edge independent media projects. During this time, local Left Turn collectives in other parts of the country from North Carolina to Chicago continued to grow.

The work of maintaining a national print publication with no grant funding and no paid or full-time staff continues to be a difficult one. Much of the work, as is true for any political project, is pretty unglamorous and involves the scheduling of conference calls, hours of editing and proofreading, picking up and carrying stacks of magazines, tracking sales and dealing with the occasional tense interactions between writers and editors, artists and activists.

Through all of the work, we remain optimistic and inspired in the face of so much beautiful struggle. When we get off the bus in Detroit and see our friends and fellow travelers from so many places and spaces, we are reminded that we are not alone but instead only one small part of a much larger movement that one day will win.

Max Uhlenbeck has been involved with Left Turn since 2002 and is currently a part of the editorial collective.