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A Departing Letter

In his final editorial, Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw reflects on his five years in the job.

Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw speaks at the 2021 Tribune Rally in Brighton. (Photo by Kevin Hayes / Alamy Stock Photo)

As a young socialist, I remember reading a quotation attributed to Bertolt Brecht: ‘Because things are the way that they are, they will not stay the way that they are.’ I was intrigued; here, it seemed, was a promise that abject conditions would necessarily produce their own demise. I tried to chase down the source but to no avail. I concluded that it was probably apocryphal.

Years later, while reading Brecht’s Galileo, I stumbled across what I now think must be its origin. In a breathless opening to the play, the protagonist explains the present conjuncture to his young student. ‘For the last hundred years mankind has seemed to be expecting something,’ Galileo enthuses. ‘Now the word is, “that’s how things are, but they won’t stay like that.” Because everything is in motion, my friend.’

Brecht was using this opening sequence to foreshadow another famous line. In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition and forced to recant his finding that the Earth moved around the Sun. In response, legend has it, the revolutionary astronomer muttered: eppur si muove  [and yet it moves].

It seems unlikely that Galileo could have escaped Rome unscathed after such brazen defiance but, from Brecht’s perspective, the accuracy wasn’t the point. The aim of the play was to use the story of Galileo’s life to explain the dynamism of human progress. First, the telescope would be discovered, then it would be used to broaden our understanding of the universe, which in turn would produce social upheaval and shake the foundations of powerful institutions.

Galileo, in his own writings, said that he studied the Earth ‘precisely because of the diverse alterations … that occur in it incessantly’. For Brecht, the particular fascination was with human society, which was in a state of motion no less constant than the Earth itself. This was a source of hope that endured throughout his work: the idea that even the most miserable circumstances could be relied upon to change.

As the years passed, however, I found that original quotation from Brecht less and less satisfying. When you learn the full extent of forces ranged against progress, and watch movements crash into them like waves upon a storm wall, you come to appreciate how difficult the process truly is. Because things are the way they are, they most often stay that way. Change might be incessant, but progress is intermittent.

Relaunching Tribune five years ago was certainly a change. The media landscape was relentlessly hostile to the Left and, although the impressive 2017 general election remained fresh in the memory, few socialist institutions had been built to cement the gains of those years. Reviving Tribune, which had articulated popular struggles for eighty years, was both an enormous undertaking and a worthwhile challenge.

We began this era of Tribune with no subscribers, few resources, and a skeletal staff. Whereas new media projects on the Right can rely on the largesse of millionaires and billionaires, we began from scratch — and had to act like it. My abiding memory is waking up at 7 AM to edit articles on the morning I was best man at a wedding. It was a difficult job but a purposeful one.

Looking back, there were plenty of shortcomings. We didn’t transform the British media landscape, which remains thoroughly reactionary. We couldn’t prevent the devastating 2019 general election defeat, nor the collapse of the Corbyn project which followed. More recently, our effort to inspire a renewal through Enough is Enough came up short, as we were unable to secure the finances or institutional support necessary to sustain a national campaign.

In each of these cases, things could have been done differently and better. But they also show, in their own ways, how difficult it is to achieve progress. In the workplace, in the media, and in politics, vast amounts of money conspire to keep things the way they are. That power doesn’t yield to bright ideas, good intentions, or sheer force of will.

When you learn how difficult it is to achieve progress, you also learn to appreciate it more. I can now see much more clearly the milestones that Tribune has achieved in the past five years. We grew our circulation to become the largest socialist magazine in Britain since the 1970s and took Tribune back to high street shelves in WH Smith for the first time since the 1990s. We produced twenty of the best-designed socialist publications in British history, as well as hosted some of the largest and most vibrant political rallies anywhere in the country.

We helped our readers to develop a network of Tribune Clubs from Luton to Liverpool, where they could put their ideas into action. We also hired one of the few full-time industrial correspondents in Britain and contributed to a revival of labour reporting after decades on the sidelines. From justice campaigns to picket lines, protest marches to community foodbanks, wherever those ignored by the mainstream media needed a voice, we tried to provide it.

Earlier this year, I decided that I had taken the magazine as far as I could and that it was time for change. At that point, I realised that the aspect I’m proudest about in these five years is this: Tribune is now an institution. This magazine is no longer reliant on the efforts of an individual. It plays a much larger role in the wider movement and is sustained day-to-day by an extraordinarily committed team of socialists who will take this project forward in the years to come.

We have, in five years, managed to bring Tribune back to life. And I want to thank those who made that possible: Bhaskar Sunkara, Remeike Forbes, and the team at Jacobin for reviving the magazine with us in 2018; our brilliant designer, Polina Godz, who contributed not only to the aesthetics of this publication but to its soul in every issue, and her predecessor, Kevin Zweerink, who commissioned some of its most iconic covers; our circulation managers, Sean Waters and Ashiya Eastwood, and copy editors, Mala Ramamoorthy and Michael Watson, who did at times unglamorous but always essential work in getting us to print and to our subscribers.

In recent months, I have paid tribute to Francesca Newton and Owen Hatherley, each of whom played seminal roles in the magazine’s development. So, too, have Grace Blakeley, our staff writer, and Owen Dowling, our archival researcher, whose writings have been a wonderful and varied part of every print issue in recent years. I also want to note my appreciation to our columnists and to Faiza Mahmood and Fraser Watt for the advice, assistance, and support they provided.

It is far harder to pay appropriate tribute to the hundreds of people who wrote thousands of articles for us in the past five years. But if you were one of our writers, thank you; we appreciate the time and effort you made to appear in these pages and to build this magazine. Thank you also to the union printers at CPI Croydon who produced issue after issue to the highest quality and the trade unions, advertisers, and grant funders who helped along the way.

I will be succeeded in Tribune by two people I consider friends as well as comrades, Karl Hansen and Taj Ali. As the author of Labour’s radical workers’ rights and transport policy under Corbyn’s leadership, Karl is already a leader in our movement and one of the most impressive people I have met in British politics. Taj, as our industrial correspondent, has rapidly become the face of this magazine, bringing to it dynamism and innovation as well as renewing our roots in the labour movement. Together, they will be exemplary custodians of Tribune’s politics, history, and tradition.

In my last words for Tribune, I want to thank you, our readers and subscribers. We have no wealthy benefactors, so from the start it has been your support that kept us going. You are the lifeblood of this organisation. And you have been more than that too — your kind words, when I met you at events or protests or picket lines, kept me going in the tougher times, reminding me that there were those who believed in the work we did. For that, I am deeply grateful.

I am leaving Tribune but not the fight for socialism. I will continue, in the words of the late Michael Foot, to sustain the old cause with the old weapons. I hope these past five years have inspired a few more of our readers to join that arduous but meaningful struggle for progress.