The left-wing press is in an awful state. Take the Nation (please): there’s little reason even to flip through it anymore. Oh, Alexander Cockburn is always a pleasure, and Stuart Klawans is a fine movie critic, and Christopher Hitchens is worth reading when he isn’t issuing pretentious dispatches from Europe. But good feature stories are as rare there as in the Weekly Standard: where once one might have expected to find an essay by Gore Vidal or an investigative report by the late Penny Lernoux, one’s much more likely to see a slavish defense of the President against the alleged vast right-wing conspiracy to dethrone him, or a ridiculous article by Jay Walljasper, breathlessly declaring that one yuppie town or another should be the new social model for the left.

Similar ills bedevil Mother Jones and the Progressive and (worst of all) the Utne Reader. The average reader should be forgiven for assuming that there is no good leftist writing in this country at all. For alternatives, one must turn to publications that are either obscure (Warren Hinckle’s Argonaut, Paul Piccone’s Telos, Jason McQuinn’s Alternative Press Review) or, more often, local. Oregonians, for example, can read the Portland Free Press, a sometimes amateurish but freethinking and lively bimonthly. Northern California is home to the best left-wing paper in the country, the Anderson Valley Advertiser. And here in Washington, D.C., there is the Progressive Review, edited by one of the few truly independent minds left in ideological journalism, Sam Smith.

The Review began as the Capitol East Gazette, a neighborhood paper Smith founded back in 1966. The original Gazette folded in the wake of the riots of 1968. “A certain number of our readers,” Smith recalls, “had decided to burn down a certain number of our advertisers. This created a very difficult marketing situation.” So the Capitol East Gazette became the D.C. Gazette, a paper for all the neighborhoods of the city.

Like other alternative papers of the time, the D.C. Gazette opposed the Vietnam War and endorsed civil rights. But its chief focus was local, a voice for people who didn’t want the feds to force a freeway through their block. Nor was it “liberal,” at least in the modern sense of the word. Its readers were more likely to be on the receiving end of the war on poverty than the dispensing side, a somewhat different vantage from which to view the federal edifice. (“Most people who are alive today have never seen a liberal do anything worthwhile,” Smith comments. “I’m old enough to remember when leftists and liberals actually did something, which is why I would not describe myself as anti-liberal or anti-leftist. I just think the current crowd is pretty pathetic.” More on that later.) And there was an interest in what at the time was called “building alternative community structures,” such as the experiments in direct democracy and community technology then taking place in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. (The Adams-Morgan experience is described well in Karl Hess’s 1979 book, Community Technology, though Hess neglects to mention how the most famous effort, an experiment in basement-based aquaculture, came to a sudden end. “They were trying to grow trout in the basement of a building,” Smith recalls. “This was one of the great efforts in urban agriculture—which came to a crashing halt when we had our first post-trout brownout.” All the fish died, and the stench wafted deep into the streets. After that, “we went back to eating trout from natural streams.”)

By the mid-80’s, the local beat was burning Smith out. Tired of repeating himself, he remade his paper yet again, turning his attention to the national and global scenes. But it’s hard to rinse the sidewalks from your blood: the rechristened Progressive Review has not only continued to cover Washington issues, but even its national and international coverage often hinges on a concrete, local angle. This reflects the editor’s distrust for abstraction, his firm belief that “it’s very difficult to talk in any sensible way about any policy” if you have “stepped out from the real . . . into a totally theoretical world.” The Review presently exists in two forms: as a monthly newsletter, usually consisting of one long essay by Smith and several smaller items, and as a constantly updated website (, filled with short remarks about current events; items of interest to activists of greenish, localist, or civil libertarian hue; and investigative reports on the misdeeds of the high and mighty. (The Clinton administration does not fare well.) Unable to resist the pull of city politics. Smith has opened a second site, the D.C. News Service (, chiefly dedicated to overthrowing the federally appointed control board that now runs the city. The control board has a bias towards bureaucracy and little regard for democratic input; as such, it is Smith’s perfect foil.

Smith is, as I’ve said, a man of the left, albeit one more likely to quote Chesterton than Marx. Forced to shove him onto the silly, constricting map called the political spectrum, I’d place him somewhere between Eugene McCarthy and Paul Goodman. Yet in recent years, he’s found himself increasingly alienated from liberal and leftist elites. In this he is not alone: never before has the American left faced such a tremendous split between the real grassroots and the foundation-sucking spivs who claim to speak for them. Smith actually believes in decentralization and individual liberty, and while his interpretation of those phrases might not always jibe with, say, Murray Rothbard’s, they’re an even ungainlier fit with the views of the Pew Charitable Trusts. You will find no apologias for the Clintons in the Progressive Review, no politically correct jargon, no snooty condescension toward rural and suburban America, no defenses of federal departments that do more for their employees than for their clients.

Back in the 1980’s, Smith made what he now calls “a rather naive effort” to work with Americans for Democratic Action. The stormy marriage finally fell apart over the War on Drugs. Smith and some others passed some resolutions suggesting that the nation should adopt a drug policy “that wasn’t based on the premise that it’s all right to send young black males to prison for preferring marijuana to daiquiris.” The politicians who actually run the organization were not amused. Smith soon left, and today describes liberals as “AWOL.”

Nor is Smith a conservative. (“I think the bind I find myself in is that too many conservatives want to ignore people who have problems, and too many liberals want to tell them what to do.”) Nor is he a libertarian. (“I could never be an acceptable libertarian, although I clearly have libertarian streaks, because I believe in community too much.”) He’s the sort of fellow you’ll hate if you’re the type who judges a man by how closely each and every opinion he holds coincides with yours: like all those who think for themselves, he’s sure to have some opinions you don’t share. I can’t, for example, sec how he can oppose the war on narcotics yet want to expand government restrictions on tobacco, even if he insists it’s the industry he wants to target, not the smokers. (That’s like locking up the prostitutes and freeing the Johns.) But that’s irrelevant: what matters is the spirit that motivates his views, not every view itself. Smith’s decentralist creed leaves plenty of room for diversity and debate. He recalls some early meetings of the Maine Greens, in which a fellow from the Reform Party and a couple of Libertarians turned up. The reformer stuck around, and

wrote a piece in which he said the difference between the Greens and the Reform Party is largely centered over the issue of property. But then he said that we agree that we don’t want this issue decided by the national media or by national politicians. And that, I thought, was a very profound comment. The things we disagree on do not necessarily have to be decided at the macro level. We can work out our own arrangements, we can have our ow n debates, and that’s a lot healthier.

On his own micro level. Smith enjoys life in Washington, D.C.—not the official Washington of lobbyists and lawmakers, but the pleasant backwater below it: “this has been a wonderful city for me. It’s been a wonderful place to raise kids. . . . It’s got a nice pleasant pace to it, as long as you’re not striving to get too much power or striving to make too much money.” And if you are? “One of the things I notice about people in power in Washington is how rootless many of them are. It’s been said that they’re the sort of people that when they’re in a room by themselves, there’s no one there.”

“One of the things I do these days,” he tells me,

is talk to groups of younger activists. And one of the things missing today is the idea that seemed normal to me, as a child of the existential period and a product of a Quaker education, that you have to make choices, whether the times arc good or bad. . . . I was talking in a bookstore in Maine, and a guy who was about 30 came up to mc afterwards. He said to me, “I came in late to your talk, and I heard you talking about choice. And I assumed you were talking about abortion. You know, you really ought to be careful using that word, because people might misunderstand you.”

I interject: “And you said, ‘No, I was talking about school vouchers.'”

He laughs, politely, then returns to his story. “But that really set me off thinking. And I realized, choice for young people is a choice of consumption, a choice of association; the idea that it is a constant moral activity is not very strong. . . . Matthew Arnold talked about living in two worlds, one dead and the other not able to be born. That’s the sort of sense you have of this time.”