History of the Fifth Estate: The Early Years
This article was originally written for our 30th anniversary edition which appeared in 1996. It has been updated and expanded for this issue.
“The Fifth Estate supports the cause of revolution everywhere.”
-- FBI Report
This nine-word summary by the nation’s secret police, I suspect, serves adequately as an abbreviated history of this paper on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. It is not due to an inflated sense of self-importance or radical nostalgia that people in the current Fifth Estate collective feel the story of our four decades of print should be recounted. Rather, it is because the history of this paper mirrored a period of large-scale rebellion throughout those years and continues today to give expression to a body of ideas which often finds little expression elsewhere.
Origins of the Fifth Estate
The FE was started by Harvey Ovshinsky, a 17-year-old Detroiter, who had previously self-published what was then called a fanzine in high school. After spending the summer of 1965 working on The Los Angeles Free Press, the first of what was to be dubbed the Underground Press, he returned to Detroit filled with enthusiasm for a similar effort here. Ovshinsky also brought back the title, Fifth Estate, for his paper, swiped from a coffee house he frequented on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. The shop owner later threatened to sue the paper for appropriating its name from his shop, but gave up when he realized there were no assets to go after.
Ovshinsky assembled a staff of his siblings and a few friends in the basement of his parents’ suburban home and borrowed money from his father to pay the printer. The inaugural issue of The Fifth Estate, dated Nov. 19, 1965, proudly announced on its masthead that it was “Detroit’s New Progressive Biweekly Newspaper.” It was produced on a portable typewriter, taking advantage of the so-called “offset printing revolution,” which meant anyone with a typewriter, scissors, and glue, could publish a newspaper on their kitchen table. Previously, print technology was so large and expensive, that only those with enough money and a specialized work crew could see their views in print. Suddenly, newspaper publishing became available to anyone with something to say, and it happened just at a point when a whole generation was ready to say volumes about the state of the world.
The first issue featured a critical review of a Bob Dylan non-acoustic concert as its lead story,  a “borrowed” Jules Feiffer cartoon, a “hip” events calendar, an announcement of a March on Washington demanding an end to the war in Vietnam, an anti-draft story, and one about jailed civil rights workers. The finished product was passed out free to students and concert-goers. When I received a copy of the first edition at a concert at the University of Detroit featuring a local blues legend, Mr. Bo, I was astounded that a paper with radical content could be produced by young people like me.
Such a publishing venture doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary today, but 40 years ago, with the exception of a few newspapers like New York City’s Village Voice, little similar to this was being printed anywhere. The mainstream press didn’t review Dylan, or publish calendars (certainly not for poetry readings and protest meetings), and articles critical of the growing US involvement in Vietnam were unheard of except in a few socialist papers.
Saved From An Early Extinction
The fledgling FE stumbled along for a few issues, changing its self-description by the second issue to “The Voice of Liberal Detroit,” covering the emerging alternative arts, culture, and political scene.  But, in early 1966, after Ovshinsky moved the paper’s office from his parents’ basement to a Detroit Cass Corridor storefront near Wayne State University, it became almost a one-man operation. The move, however, saved the paper from an early extinction when it was quickly discovered by young activists from the newly-formed Detroit Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the Detroit Artists’ Workshop, and others in what was a bohemian, arts, radical politics, student, youth ghetto. Almost overnight, the paper’s office became a bustling center of writers, photographers, and artists, all anxious to contribute their efforts.
As the antiwar, civil rights, hippie, New Left, and alternative culture movements grew in Detroit, so did the paper. Our pages became a forum for the new and rebellious ideas that characterized the era. By late 1966, the FE relocated to a high-visibility, hippie hang-out area known as Plum Street close to downtown Detroit where we opened a book store above our offices, run by John Sinclair, who later formed the White Panther Party and managed the MC5 rock band. The early paper’s content was a mix of articles about psychedelic drugs, the antiwar movement, rock and roll, the alternative culture, and anything that was anti-authoritarian. The latter category contained anything and everything, including support for armed struggle against the police and calls for independent police review boards, the Black Panthers and non-violent civil disobedience, Marxism and anarchism, militancy and hippie faux-Eastern mysticism.
Denouncing “the Pigs”
Though the 1960s have received a bad name in some quarters for hyperbole in writing and excess in action, these are exactly the qualities both then and now that made the FE attractive to me. When I look back through crumbling early issues of the FE, with their colorful psychedelic artwork, articles denouncing “The Man” and “the pigs” and “Amerikkka,” and photos of exuberant young people holding up clenched fists or dancing with abandon at a “Love-In,” much of the writing and ideas still look good to me even after the passage of a generation.
The nationwide underground press movement of the time was enormous in scope, with at least 500 regularly-appearing tabloids by 1970 and perhaps thousands more which disappeared after only an issue or two. The FE office’s mimeograph machine was often used by numerous high school, civil rights, and antiwar groups, dissident union caucuses, and even GIs, to print their newsletters. To the horror of their officers, active-duty GIs circulated hundreds of antiwar papers, both tabloids and mimeographed, at US bases, on ships, and even in Vietnam.
Liberation News Service, a sort of left-wing Associated Press, centered in New York City, sent out twice-weekly news packets. These included reports of domestic protests and radical activity, as well as features from guerrilla struggles around the world including much from the North Vietnamese/NLF side of the war. The Underground Press Syndicate was established to coordinate connections between the papers and promote their distribution. It was estimated the combined weekly circulation of the alternative papers reached two million as 1970 approached.
On FE publication day, thousands of papers were delivered to local stores by a group of our friends specializing in the distribution of radical periodicals-the Keep on Trucking collective. Hundreds were mailed to GIs in Vietnam who apparently were not offended by either our call for the victory of their enemy in the field or for them to mutiny as a way to end the war. Soldiers often wrote to tell of how our papers were passed along from unit to unit throughout the war zone or around bases in the US. In turn, they shared their first hand stories of atrocities they witnessed, and how they hated the conflict and their officers. Though the paper frequently featured headlines such as “Victory to the Indochinese Revolution,” and Viet Cong flags regularly appeared on our covers, we never received a single letter of condemnation from those fighting on the side of the US empire against those we supported.
Each week, on publication day, a small army of street sellers would assemble at our offices to grab a bundle of papers for resale at demos, concerts, and shopping malls. The cover price was 15 cents and the sellers kept a nickel. We had to fight constant battles with cops, military brass, security guards, principals, and foremen for the right to distribute our paper without harassment. Later, the FE was available through a network of 80 FE coin boxes we installed across the city. We had to fight constant battles with city officials, as well as right-wing vandals, to maintain them on the streets.
Making Love and Revolution
The early paper reflected the lives of people who thought either the Age of Aquarius or World Revolution (or both) was at hand, and who believed that we were a vital part of it. Maybe this sounds like youthful foolishness today, but in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the empire appeared to be unraveling at home and abroad. We saw ourselves, at once, as the allies of Third World guerrilla movements which were fighting US imperial forces abroad, and as the leading expression of revolution at home “within the belly of the beast,”--as we glamorized our actions in those days.
To us, making love and revolution to the sounds of the MC5, the Stooges, and other seminal Detroit rock bands was fun as well as a serious calling. Add the entire psychedelic experience, and we were a long way from the lifestyles of either our parents or from the last generation of revolutionaries who had their origins in the 1930s labor movement. The rush of events and the fact that many of the prime actors of the period were barely out of their teens and often feeling overwhelmed by the epoch-shaking and shaping events, and gave rise to the feeling of re-inventing the wheel.
The edge of “fun” began to diminish, however, with the advent of events such as the massive 1967 Detroit uprising/riot (the FE offices were tear-gassed by the National Guard) and other urban black uprisings, the police rampage at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the escalation of the US war against the civilian population of Vietnam and revelations of civilian massacres like that at My Lai, the domestic counter-insurgency murders of Black Panther Party members, the assassinations of Martin Luther King (to halt his potential for labor organizing and antiwar opposition) and Bobby Kennedy (who would have beat Nixon handily in the 1968 elections and probably ended the Vietnam war), the Tet Offensive, the murder of the Kent and Jackson State students, and the 1970 declaration of martial law in Canada to combat Quebecois separatists. These and other similar events came down on us youthful revolutionaries with an intensity we hadn’t anticipated.
We suddenly realized that the empire we had characterized as “a house of cards” was fighting back tenaciously and with deadly force. Our publishing efforts reflected this change. There was less “fun” and more “struggle” in our pages. We became a weekly in 1970 with a circulation of 15- to 20,000; strident calls for revolution became standard fare on our covers with frequent images of armed Black Panthers or Viet Cong guerrillas.
During that period, FE staff members traveled to North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba to meet with the “enemy” in a show of solidarity with those at the forefront of combating “US Imperialism.” Although we may have exhibited a large degree of naivete about the nature of the Stalinist regimes we glorified, the fact that young people in their teens and twenties took on the tasks of internal opposition to a monstrous war machine still seems admirable to me. Anarchist critiques of communist police states were unknown to us at the time even though they existed, and our objections to Stalinism came primarily from Trotskyist and Maoist sources, although it should have occurred to us that the criticism they made of the Russian bureaucracy and its lack of revolutionary aspirations applied equally to them. We figured it out in later years.
End of the 1960s
Every important social and political current of the sixties found expression in the pages of the Fifth Estate. The antiwar, civil rights, gay, feminist, youth and labor struggles, were cumulatively referred to as The Movement. It involved millions of people across the country who carried out actions and built counter-communities everywhere from the big cities to remote rural towns. But, like the precipitous crash of the passenger pigeon population, it went from its vital apex in 1970 to almost total dissolution as a powerful resistance to power in a matter of only a few years. In retrospect, it seems incredible that the rug could have been pulled out so quickly from under a social phenomenon of such breadth and depth. Although the reasons for the collapse of the movements of that era and with them the underground papers are complex--I would suggest the 1972 election of Richard Nixon as a watershed event marking the official end of “the sixties.”
The emergence of the 1970s “Me Generation,” followed by the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s began with the massive defeat of presidential “peace candidate” George McGovern, and the landslide re-election of the war criminal, Richard Nixon. Our realization that the American voting public was unwilling to elect a Democrat with a barely tepid antiwar platform, and instead chose to return to office the person responsible for the mass slaughter in Vietnam, was a blow from which the antiwar movement and the New Left never recovered.
The dreaded Nixon, who had won office by less than a percentage point four years previous, had actually improved his popularity despite all the returning body bags and illegal bombings of North Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, the ending of the hated draft and the Vietnamization of the war began to erode public support for The Movement which had become increasingly more radical in its beliefs and actions as evidenced by the bombing campaigns of the Weather Underground and others.
Those at the core of resistance and newspaper projects began to burn out. By 1972, the FE returned to publishing twice monthly after appearing weekly for almost a year--a schedule, which combined with our intense political work, had nearly destroyed our brains and bodies. For five or six years, many of us had literally done nothing else night and day other than movement work, never taking a vacation, rarely even taking a trip to the movies. (People were dying in Vietnam; how could one justify “entertainment”?)
Relentless contestation--unending rounds of meetings, demonstrations, rallies, occupations, deadlines, conferences, arrests, courts and the like--took its toll. Although these activities contained the positive moments of an oppositional movement (being at a march with a million people or with thousands of young men burning their draft cards is indeed a rich and memorable experience), they were also emotionally grueling.
People throughout the movement began bailing out. Jobs, families, gurus, rural communes, even Leninist sects, plus a host of other activities were sought to provide some respite from years of relentless revolutionary agitation.
Alternative papers across the country began folding at a rapid rate as internal disputes, lack of purpose, financial problems, and official repression took their toll.  By 1975, Liberation News Service and the Underground Press Syndicate had disappeared and all but a few radical publications ceased publishing within a very short period.
In 1974, I joined the exodus, leaving the paper after eight years, for a combination of the above reasons (with the exception of a guru and leninism). Rather than endure what one staffer suggested would be a “dignified death,” the remaining FE members began thrashing about for a new identity. They took on a fortunately short-lived perspective of labor militancy, influenced by the International Socialist group before managing a burst of energy in what was to be a precursor to the many fashionable alternative arts and political weeklies that exist today. For about a year, the FE was a lively and innovative weekly publication, both editorially and in its design.
Eat the Rich Gang
Soon, numerous internal contradictions began to crash in on the paper, and by 1975 it was almost terminal, deeply in debt to printers and suppliers, almost devoid of staff following several serious personality clashes, and dependent upon commercial advertising, including X-rated movies and cigarette ads, for revenue and salaries. The remnant of the staff printed a notice in the paper that they would soon close up shop unless they received an influx of new participants.
Several former staff members including me and some friends who had been reading and were deeply influenced by the writings of Detroiter Fredy Perlman, French theorists such as Jacques Camatte, Jean Baudrillard, and the Situationists, plus Dutch and Italian council and left communists, answered the call. Eleven of us who had constituted ourselves as the Eat the Rich Gang, undertook a number of projects in 1974 and 1975, including publishing Wildcat! (about an unauthorized Detroit strike; partially reprinted last issue) and The Irrational in Politics (an essay on Reichian politics) at the Detroit Printing Co-op. We also produced a number of Fifth Estate inserts based upon our new ideas, set up study groups to discuss them, and launched several radical pranks and sabotage against some odious targets.
When our group arrived at the Fifth Estate office, the three remaining staffers were less than enthusiastic about us rejoining the paper. But, by an 11-to-3 vote, we (the new staff) decided to become a monthly, to no longer accept ads (they were the voice of capital, we argued), and to stop paying salaries. The three holdovers from the old staff were horrified and left after a few issues.
Unlike those remainders of the sixties who devolved into dreary workerism or cynicism, we were enthusiastic about the ideas we had discovered and were happy to discard Marx, Lenin, political parties, unions, and all of the rest of what the left held dear.  In my estimation, the readiness on our part to adopt new and challenging analyses of what constituted revolutionary activity is what accounted for our remaining as one of the few newspapers to survive the 1960s.
Although the University of Michigan’s Labadie Collection of libertarian and radical materials describes us as the oldest continually publishing, English language, North American anarchist paper in American history,  when we set out on our present course in Summer 1975, we had no idea any anarchists had survived the 1930s, nor did we identify ourselves as such. We were quite surprised to discover a small, but thriving anarchist movement whose activity was primarily confined to publishing journals. We identified ourselves in our pages as ultra-lefts, council or left communists (always assuring those who might confuse the latter noun with the stalinist police states besotting the globe, that the only party we supported were the ones we sponsored as benefit performances to supplement the paper’s finances.)
We were soon contacted by a group of older Italian comrades who were the remaining participants of the 20s and 30s anarchist movement, with whom we established cordial and rewarding relationships. These stalwarts of another era have now almost all passed from the scene, but their memory as committed, militant, unswerving proponents of “The Ideal” remains with us as a model of resistance and vision.
Articles in the new monthly Fifth Estate were based on the ultra-left perspectives gleaned from our readings of Camatte, Baudrillard, the Situationists,
Wilhelm Reich, and obscure theoretical groups like the International Communist Current and others, whose texts we sold in our bookshop. We gave our little store the unfortunate name of Ammunition Books to indicate both militant opposition and arming oneself intellectually for the battle against capital. Ads in the paper for the books featured a .357 Magnum pistol. Also, our perspectives developed from exciting discussions hosted by Fredy and Lorraine Perlman at their home where we furiously debated and discussed ideas contained in the books and pamphlets published at a rapid pace by their publishing project, Black & Red. 6
We put forth ideas in the papers that horrified our former leftist comrades: we argued that national liberation movements rather than being agents for freedom were the manner by which capitalism was established in former colonial regions; that the function of unions was ultimately to defend the average selling price of labor and that unions themselves represented an historic defeat for humankind because they accepted the duality of labor and capital; that class struggle, rather than the mode in which workers confronted their bosses, was the manner capitalism advanced and modernized; that radical political parties were instruments of counter-revolution, particularly in Russia; that even radical organizations were “gangs within capital,” whose goal was to achieve the status of a “racket.” We ridiculed Stalinist leaders through both parody and analysis and declared all countries where they ruled as police states. All of which caused everyone from leftists to anarchists to denounce us for everything from being “counter-revolutionary” to (my favorite) “ideological purists.”
Although we began publishing these critiques in mid- to late-70s, we found ourselves defending them as late as 1988 when leaders of the soon-to-be Love & Rage anarcho-leftist organization attacked our critique of national liberation at a large anarchist gathering in Toronto. Their tragic/comic history into the 1990s seemed to verify most of what we charged.
Our detractors accused us of all sorts of political crimes and errors, many of which would have gained us a long stint in the gulag had the purveyors of the charges ever gained the power of the state which they sought. One older communist (who had been a murderous commissar with the Stalinist-dominated Abraham Lincoln Brigades in the late 1930s, and was a darling of the local left) bragged to us once about his activities when we confronted him about the counter-revolutionary role of the CP in Spain, “I killed more anarchists and trotskyists than fascists,” he shouted at us, as if to confirm our beliefs. Our continuing parodies of leftism led one socialist friend to dub us, “the Mad magazine of the left.” Rather than be insulted, we took it as a high compliment and even used it as an endorsement on a subscription solicitation.
Others declared our condemnation of everything within capitalism and criticism of the shibboleths of the left to be simple arrogance which had little to do with reality once our ideas left the pages of the paper. However, this rigor about what constitutes revolutionary theory and critique as a backdrop for practical activity was important then and is perhaps more so today as we work against the worst abuses of the empire. Also, this perceived arrogance occurred in a period of our relative isolation. We were a small collective of writers and activists trying to maintain coherence and relevance amidst a left which was drowning in workerism and reformism.
The appearance of these ultra-left ideas and our uncompromising, unyielding defense of them are essentially what allowed the Fifth Estate to survive in a period when almost all the other radical, underground papers of the sixties disappeared. At times, we may have asserted a greater certitude than was necessary and in a style we adopted, for better and for worse, from the French Situationists, whom we admired for their sharpness of critique and their absolutist approach to what constituted revolutionary activity, but ultimately it all served us well.
When we entered the world as activists, we maintained our critical rigor and a radical vision, but were also usually able to work amicably with those who didn’t share our extreme analysis and politics. When we were active in the environmental movements of the 1980s, against the nuclear power plants in Michigan, and against a poisonous waste incinerator that was scheduled for construction in the neighborhood where the Fifth Estate office was located, we made known our utter condemnation of industrialism, capital, and the state through tabloids we helped produce for the ecology groups without any objections.
At a 1988 rally against the proposed incinerator, one FE collective member gave a thoroughly radical, anti-industrial rave to an audience mainly comprised of people whose concern was ecological reform. As he finished, an older, liberal Democrat jumped to his feet, and yelled, “We’ve got to get a copy of this speech to every legislator in the state!” We didn’t know how to respond but were pleased he didn’t see our unusual ideas as objectionable.
However, in 1979, we had reached a low point of energy and ideas. The formal left had gone into almost complete eclipse (nothing we lamented), but we felt increasingly isolated after seeing our critiques going no further than our pages, and little of it translated into action. At one sad meeting, a staff member said, “Maybe we no longer have anything to say.” Somehow, that pulled me out of my ideological lethargy, and I wrote an intentionally long essay entitled, “On Having Nothing to Say,” stating that we could only maintain our humanity through rebellion, and that if “we had only momentarily lost our voice, we had better find it.”
We did, and as before it came in the form of new and exciting ideas. We began extending the traditional 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 us to the positions often characterized as anti-technology and anti-civilization, through which our writers began to investigate the origin of the state and its supporting institutions, the inherent bureaucratic nature of technology, and the deadly consequences of industrial society, as well as pre-state societies as a model of human association.
A New World in Our Hearts
It would be easy to question these past forty years as merely a “long, strange trip” that has accomplished little. The Leviathanic monsters of state and capital have only grown more destructive and seemingly less assailable during our tenure. However, it seems to me that the function of this paper, for both readers and the staff--that over the decades has involved hundreds of people--can’t be measured by solely concrete accomplishments, which like those of most rebels, appear meager until a final revolutionary victory has been achieved. Rather, it is the experience of reading, writing, and rebellion that has allowed us, as the Spanish comrades say, to keep the new world in our hearts.
What the older comrades called The Ideal is what permits us to maintain a spirit of hope and vision--and even joy--in a world to which it looks like the lights could go out at any minute. These forty years have been a continuum of our thoughts and ideas and the actions that sprung from them. Rather than constituting separate periods, the history of the FE has been a continuous challenge to all authority, manifested in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, along with the opening of thought patterns from psychedelics and music, the rigorous critiques of the 70s, the commitment to the wild we asserted in the 80s, combined often with DIY and queer sensibilities of the 90s. What we wrote was not only a reflection of our forty years of “supporting the cause of revolution everywhere,” but functioned as foundation documents for what we write and do today.
Hopefully, our work will provide a small part of the inspiration for rebels of the future who will triumph over the forces of greed, war, and destruction, allowing either us, or our rebellious heirs, to publish a paper filled mostly with pastoral poems, obscure musings, and wondrous art.
Dylan’s use of amplified instruments was very controversial at the time since he was considered a folk artist, not a rocker, who backed himself with only acoustic guitar and harmonica. When he began his second set at Detroit’s Masonic Temple with a full rock band including guitar great Mike Bloomfield, a portion of the audience began chanting, “We want Dylan,” and a handful walked out. Laconic as always, Dylan responded from the stage, “Who’d ya come to see?”
At some point in the 70s, our definite article, “the,” literally fell off the layout when we adopted our current masthead. This deletion caused the Post Office to list us as Fifth Estate which is now how many readers refer to us as well.
Many underground papers, including this one, had become dependent on ad revenue from record companies who correctly saw our publications as the best venue for tapping into the emerging youth culture. However, as mainstream media got “hipper,” and rock papers, such as Rolling Stone, became more corporate, the radical press was left high and dry with ads falling off to almost nothing.
In 1974, The Eat the Rich Gang helped organize a successful demonstration against an assemblage of Detroit’s wealthy and distributed a cookbook we had produced for the event entitled, “To Serve The Rich.” It contained recipes calling for human ingredients and included dining on Split Priest Soup, Rocky Mt. Oysters Rockefeller, a Hearst Patty, and others named after long gone politicians and corporate heads. A disdainful Marxist we knew advised us we’d have better spent our time on a pamphlet about socialism. “Socialism is about work,” he sternly reprimanded us. “I thought it was about ecstasy,” I said. “No,” he assured me. We took him at his word and looked elsewhere for a political philosophy.
What we were and when is hard to date. For the first ten years we printed everything from images of Che and Ho Chi Minh on our covers, to interviews with Murray Bookchin and the Living Theater, some of the first contemporary anarchists we ever had contact with. As indicated in our excerpts, we refused the label of anarchist into the late ‘70s, but always considered ourselves anti-authoritarian. After placing the phrase “An Anarchist Magazine of Ideas & Action” on our most recent edition, we have decided to drop “anarchist” in favor of the much broader designation of “Anti-Authoritarian,” which might take us out of the running completely.
As it is, The Match, run by the cantankerous and idiosyncratic Fred Woodworth, has been published in Tucson since 1969, maybe qualifying him for the longevity title. However, since his publication appears infrequently, it’s hard to say whether he should get the honors. Woodworth admirably refuses all modern technology, typesetting and hand printing his paper on antique equipment. He also refuses the Internet as well as bank checks, and has an enemies list longer than Nixon’s (which we’re on), so it’s hard to know whether or not he’s still kicking since he refuses to exchange publications with us. Another publication in the running is Benjamin Tucker’s anarchist journal Liberty, published with the subtitle, “The Mother, not the Daughter of Order,” that appeared from 1881 through 1908. Of course, we’re pikers compared to the anarchist foreign language press in the US, which included the Italian language L’Adunata dei Refrattari (1922 through 1971), and the Yiddish Freie Arbeiter Stimme (1890 through 1977).
Lorraine Perlman’s memoirs of Fredy, Having Little, Being Much (excerpted on page 40 of this issue and available in its entirety from our book service) is an excellent resource for an understanding of this period. Also, FE back issues contain the ideas which are the wellspring of our current publishing efforts and the original form is certainly superior to their being summarized here. Also, Bob Hippler’s essay, “Fast Times in the Motor city,” in Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, edited by Ken Wachsberger, is a good account of our first ten years.