The Fifth Estate started publishing in 1965!
The Fifth Estate: Over Fifty Years in the Underground (Press)
By Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan
[this article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Green Horizon Magazine]
Inrtroduction by GH co-editor Steve Welzer:
The radical movement of the sixties was influenced by and expressed through the thriving “underground” press of that era. There was a certain division at the time between New Leftists, who tended to read Ramparts Magazine and New Left Notes, and counterculturalists, who were reading the Berkeley Barb, East Village Other (New York), Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta), Old Mole (Cambridge, MA), and Space City (Houston), among many others. I helped produce All You Can Eat out of New Brunswick, NJ. Our “rag” felt that it was especially influenced by Detroit’s Fifth Estate (FE).
Over the years most of the underground press newspapers and magazines faded away. By the nineties I assumed that they were all defunct. It was with surprise and interest that a friend in the Green Party started talking about the exciting material he had recently been coming across in the Fifth Estate.
FE was still going strong! And I’m happy to report that it still is — over fifty years after its launch in 1965.
When I started reading it again on a regular basis, I immediately appreciated the relevance of its perspective to the broad movement that I think of as “the greening of society.” I ordered a bunch of back-issues that contained articles by or commentary on such key writers as Fredy Perlman, Vandana Shiva, David Watson, John Clark, and Gary Snyder. I noticed, though, that Fifth Estate wasn’t viewed as a voice of the Green politics movement or the Green Left, but rather of the anarchist movement.
I had identified as a socialist for many years prior to my “Red to Green” transition of consciousness. At the time, conventional wisdom on the left associated the black flag of anarchism with marginality and violence. Yet Fifth Estate quoted Gandhi (!) as saying: “I, myself, am an anarchist, but of another type . . .” Their articles often referenced the work of Theodore Roszak, and here’s what Roszak wrote in his Introduction to E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: “Schumacher’s work belongs to that subterranean tradition of organic and decentralist economics whose major spokesmen include Prince Kropotkin, Gustav Landauer, Tolstoy, William Morris, Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, and, most recently, Alex Comfort, Paul Goodman, and Murray Bookchin. It is the tradition we might call anarchism, if we mean by that much-abused word a libertarian political economy that distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem. That tradition, while closely affiliated with socialist values, nonetheless prefers mixed to ‘pure’ economic systems. It is therefore hospitable to many forms of free enterprise and private ownership, provided always that the size of private enterprise is not so large as to divorce ownership from personal involvement and community oversight, which is, of course, now the rule in most of the world’s administered capitalisms. Bigness is the nemesis of anarchism, whether the bigness is that of public or private bureaucracies, because from bigness comes impersonality, insensitivity, and a lust to concentrate abstract power. Hence, Schumacher’s title, Small Is Beautiful. He might just as well have said ‘small is free, efficient, creative, enjoyable, enduring’ — for such is the anarchist faith.”
Don’t the Green key values Grassroots Democracy, Decentralism, and Community-based Economics derive from such a perspective?
I have an article in this issue that says: perhaps a phase of socialism will be necessary in order to enable a shift away from corporate capitalist dominance. But, ultimately, we should be striving for the deconstruction of all the states, corporations, and empires. An anarchist sentiment, indeed!
Though I believe that our movement will achieve more resonance employing the verbiage of ‘decentralism’ and ‘communitarianism,’ nonetheless I think we should acknowledge the extent to which our heritage derives from a certain strain of the anarchist tradition. It’s on that basis that I remain a fan of the Fifth Estate. — SW
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The Fifth Estate (FE), which began its life as an alternative counterculture paper in the social ferment of the 1960s, grew into one of the most relevant anarchist and ecologically aware publications on Turtle Island, and continues to inspire critical thought and challenge authority today.
Founded in 1965, it was part of the first wave of periodicals that came to be known as the underground press. As the ’60s progressed, hundreds of such publications were created, but most only lasted a few years before folding. The FE is still alive and thriving.
The FE was started in a Detroit suburb by a 17-year-old high school dropout, with a little help from his friends. The first issue, dated November 19, 1965, was billed as “Detroit’s New Progressive Biweekly Newspaper.” With the second issue its self-description became “The Voice of Liberal Detroit.”
In 1966, the paper moved to a storefront near Detroit’s Wayne State University, a neighborhood attracting artists, radical political activists and others involved in the growing counterculture. The FE offered those inspired by the ’60s milieu the opportunity to express political, literary and artistic defiance.
The Fifth Estate office became a gathering place for artists and a variety of radicals to discuss their concerns and latest projects. There was also a mimeograph machine available for quickly and cheaply producing multiple copies of newsletters, leaflets and other printed material. This was greatly valued at a time when commercial printshops often refused to produce radical or avant garde material they didn’t like. The mimeo was often used by high school, civil rights and anti-war groups, dissident union caucuses, and even anti-Vietnam War GIs.
Many early FE articles supported the civil rights and anti-war movements, rage against a murderous and unjust society, sexual liberation, as well as a culture based on love and experimentation. From early on, articles also questioned aspects of progress, modernity and industrialization. All of these themes were sharpened in the 1970s and 1980s and still are in evidence in its pages today.
Intensified discussions about societal problems during the 1960s led to a growing consciousness of the devastation caused by U.S. imperialism, as well as the pervasive racism, and police violence against workers, people of color and the poor. The brutal suppression of the 1967 Detroit rebellion, the South Carolina Highway Patrol killing and wounding of demonstrators on the campus of South Carolina State University who were protesting racial segregation, police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Ohio national Guard murders and wounding of protesters at Kent State University and the police killing and injuring of students at Jackson State College in Mississippi, all led to a growing sense of urgency for real societal transformation. But it also led to fatigue and burnout among many. Underground publications across the country folded as internal disputes, financial problems and government repression took their toll. All but a few radical periodicals ceased publishing by 1975. The Fifth Estate was not immune to these challenges.
By 1975, the FE was unable to earn enough money through advertisers to pay staff and was deeply in debt to printers and suppliers of material needed for production, and stymied by several staff resignations because of personality clashes.
A group of eleven former staffers, constituting themselves as the Eat the Rich Gang, decided that the paper was a valuable community resource worth saving from the destruction of market forces. They transformed it into a non-commercial project, stopped accepting ads and ended paying salaries.
In the August 1975 issue, the new editorial group announced, “The newspaper you are now holding is the last issue of the Fifth Estate — the last issue of a failing capitalist enterprise, the last issue to appear in coin-boxes, and the last issue produced as a commodity dependent on advertising revenue for support, and the hiring of wage workers for its production.”
Since then, the Fifth Estate has described itself as an anti-profit, cooperative publication, produced by a volunteer collective of friends and comrades, holding a range of views on all issues while sharing an anarchist orientation and a commitment to a nondogmatic and action-oriented radical politics. As opposed to professionals who publish to secure wages or invest in the media information industry, the FE collective produces the magazine as an expression of resistance to an unjust and destructive society.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, FE staff and their circle of politically interested friends and comrades were exploring ideas that challenged the traditional left and the basic concepts of Marxism. They discussed the ideas of anarchists who had participated in the Spanish Revolution, as well as Situationist International and council communist critiques of the authoritarian left.
This led to articles concentrated more clearly on critiques of Marxism, capitalism and the society of the spectacle; the state capitalism of the so-called communist countries; established labor unions, modern education, the ideologies of work and industrial progress; mass culture and consumerism; as well as ideologies of sexuality and the family.
FE editors and contributors also explored eco-anarchism, becoming more aware of the dimensions and implications of industrial capitalism as a technological system, and its toxic effects on global ecological life webs.
Sharp criticism focused on the notion of progress, the ideological excuse for industrialization and imperial expansion. Many articles, especially during the 1980s, covered the emerging anti-nuclear movement in Europe and the United States and the political debates they engendered.
During the second half of the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, participants in the FE welcomed the decline and breakup of the political sects and front groups that championed the leninist, state-capitalist tyrannies. They understood these groups as little more than rackets organized, however ineffectually, for seizing power for the militants who directed them.
There were also articles criticizing nationalism and national liberation movements, including zionism and Arab nationalism, that are still relevant and worth reading today.
The FE crew also extended its anti-authoritarian critique beyond the obvious oppression of capitalism and the state to uncover deeper roots of the repression of the human spirit and the biosphere. This led to the positions often characterized as anti-technology and anti-civilization that the paper became known for advocating.
Many of the essays led to spirited debates that lasted over several issues of the paper, and the letters sections and exchanges sometimes made up the bulk of issues during that period.
During the 1980s and beyond, the FE was actively involved in campaigns against nuclear power, war, and assaults on the environment.
Articles engaged in critical discussions with adherents of deep and social ecology, eco-feminism, indigenous movements, radical democracy, to name only a few.
With the re-emergence of a vibrant anarchist movement in the 1990s, there was an increase in interest in Fifth Estate articles critically discussing such subjects as recycling and liberal reform, computers and high tech, understanding the role of labor unions free of leftist mystique, and refining understandings of primitivism, ecology and civilization.
The Fifth Estate is now in its fifty-second year, still making trouble, pushing limits, seeking understandings, and fighting for and dreaming of a new world. The topics that the Fifth Estate began addressing in its early days remain highly relevant today — how to relate to politics and political movements; the problem of nationalism; how to go beyond hierarchies of class, race and gender; the critique of culture, daily life, and authoritarian conditioning; along with a critique of technology, science, and industrial plagues.
Interested readers are encouraged to visit its website, fifthestate.org, where current issue details and a growing archive give more information than any article could offer.
About the authors
Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan have been involved in anarchist circles since the 1960s and friends of the Fifth Estate since the mid-1970s. They are currently both part of the FE editorial collective.