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A brief history of the journal Our Generation

Posted by Rose Black on

The following is a history of the journal Our Generation written by Dimitrios Roussopoulos:

Imagine the height of the cold war between the two super-powers. Imagine massive nuclear disarmament movements in several countries, bringing thousands of people onto the streets demanding that sanity prevail and that humanity be brought back from the brink of annihilation.

There were many information bulletins, popular newspapers produced by the movement, and the founding editorial group which I invited together were in agreement what was needed was a journal which analyzed the deeper causes of the arms race, and the deeper solutions. Thus we founded in Montreal, what turned out to be a remarkable periodical and which gained an international recognition and circulation. By the time it ceased publication it had undergone a number of changes in orientation and focus. By January 1994, when its last issue was published with Volume 24, No. 2. The journal had 3158 subscribers, and a circulation of another 1800 odd in bookstores in several countries.

The original title of the journal, when it was founded in 1961, was Our Generation against Nuclear War. The first issue, with a preface by Bertrand Russell included some seminal essays. One thousand copies were printed, and within weeks another thousand had to be reprinted to meet the demand. In the heat of a large nuclear disarmament movement in Canada and in the middle of the Cold War between the two superpower blocs, United States and the Soviet Union, the editors of the new journal set out with a purpose devoted to the research, theory and review of the issues surrounding the challenge of world peace. We sought to present alternative solutions to human conflict, eliminating war as a way of life. In our statement of purpose we quoted William James: “What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent to war; something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proven itself to be incompatible”. The statement went on to add, “This must be the ethic of Our Generation, the goal, if our lives are to be meaningful. To this direction our journal is dedicated. It requires a re-examination of our present social structures, our thoughts, our economic interaction, and our ethics”. We published informative and analytical material that aimed to generate and enrich the politics of protest against war. The quarterly journal began making a significant contribution to the peace movement, and as subscriptions rolled in.

By July 1963, we noted that the new peace movement had exhausted the traditional means of protest, and consequently we began publishing essays that both reflected and encouraged the politics of resistance. The campaign for nuclear disarmament was analyzed as a social movement in the tradition of previous such movements. How its goals were to be achieved became as important to Our Generation as the objectives themselves. During that same year, the editors clearly questioned the possibility of classical insurrectionary methods of change and determined that those methods should be excluded from use in our type of society. Thus two issues of the journal were thus devoted to a study of revolutionary non-violence as both a philosophy of change and as a means of movement building that would assure that all power rests with its democratic grassroots.

By 1966, the journal turned its attention to the politics and shape of institutional change. Social change was put on the agenda by the student new left. Participatory democracy was the thrust of the social change agenda which questioned the traditional class analysis of the old left and open an investigation of new agents of change and how we were to move toward a classless and warless world in a society of advanced capitalism. Of continued interest to us was the ongoing assessment of ‘the new movement and its theory of organisation’ – which constituted a supplement in the journal in a 1968 issue. The supplement was a response to C.George Benello’s important study based on libertarian sociology of organisation, “Wasteland Culture: notes on structure, restructuring and strategy for social change.”

In the spring of 1969, the journal published a substantial critique of social democracy having distanced itself from the Marxist old left in previous issues. The alternative perspective advanced was the concept and political programme of an Extra-Parliamentary Opposition which was both congruence for movements for radical social change and a critique of liberal or parliamentary democracy. The fall 1971 issue began with the publication of a number of articles on the city and urbanization which attempted to also place the new politics of the 60s within the developed framework of community organising and its own geopolitical space. In this same issue of the journal we published Murray Bookchin’s seminal essay “Toward a liberatory technology”, which gave grounding to calls for decentralization in highly industrial societies.

In the years that followed, an ongoing analysis of structural and material trends in our society were studied and the results published alongside a critical assessment of new social movements such as the women’s liberation and ecology movements. During this entire history the journal had as an underlying motive, how we were all to avoid international conflict, most especially a third world war. This search continued to make us examine root causes, a radical impulse dominated as we sought to understand how fundamental change takes place, and what kind of movement was thus required.

The readership over these years of Our Generation gradually changed, although many stayed the course and gave strong support to the enterprise. Our evolution was noted with interest, especially by those with State power in Canada, but also by various spy agencies elsewhere.

One manifestation of this was shown on June 15, 1971, when the Solicitor-General of Canada, Jean-Pierre Goyer, wrote a worried letter to his Cabinet colleagues. He referred to a report from the Canadian security service warning him about the dangers of an extra-parliamentary opposition which seeks the ‘creation of counter or parallel institutions within society but opposed to it and to the electoral process.’ The letter noted that the source of this radical theory of politics was the journal Our Generation.

What Mr.Goyer was worried about was the existence of social movements that were not only critical of representative or parliamentary democracy and the attached political parties, but that offered a different kind of society, one that was authentically anchored in local, decentralized communities constituting a participatory democracy. This kind of social and political arrangement would not only challenge all centralization of political and economic power but would encourage population intervention in areas considered the exclusive prerogative of the State.

Every social and political revolution since 1789 had both a democratic and libertarian component at its heart. Pushing up from the grassroots were social movements which were not satisfied with the people being ‘represented only’ with periodic elections simply giving consent and attributing the State a legitimacy. These grassroots social forces sought direct involvement in the decision-making process without mediation. They sought to control the politics of everyday life through communal and workplace self-management. In a word, they sought direct democracy, not one filtered by representatives. This kind of radical democracy, giving people a sense of place and popular power has always worried politicians of the right, centre or left on the political spectrum and certainly worried a liberal like Mr.Goyer, and the State security agencies.

The 1960s was thus a decade which also reflected this ‘democratic/libertarian’ tension. Our reflection on this tension in all instance of social change was first manifested when we examined foreign and defence policies two of the most restricted and closely guarded domains of the central State. During the early part of the 1960s, the reflection was further refined by such political philosophers as Hannah Arendt, author of the important study, ‘On Revolution’. In this work she suggested that the natural outgrowth of revolutions has been the localist council system of self-government as the most authentic expression of popular objectives; that these communal forms may provide the pattern for a new kind of politics based on the power of cooperation between local units, and so freedom is ensured. Arendt, who had become well-known for her studies on totalitarianism, pointed out that the council, the organ of participation, has been totally neglected by political parties, the organ of representation par excellence, including those of the left, which historically developed almost at the same time. ‘On Revolution’ developed a radical theory based on historical evidence to parliamentary politics. The two main organizational ideas were direct democracy at the local level, and federation of these local assemblies at the regional and inter-regional levels of administration. For the editors of the journal this also meant that a country’s external relations with other countries were not the reflections of a central State’s self-interest, but rather those values and policies that pre-occupied the citizenry. Liberal democracy promoted formal political institutions that promote a formal, consenting and passive form of democracy. Invariably this encourages both apathy and cynicism. A democracy of citizen participation in the decision-making process on the other hand, seeks new social forms of local and community control through which the powerless can act and determine social and public policy. Unconsciously, the generation of the 1960s, and those that followed were groping in this direction as many of them discovered the works of Arendt, Murray Bookchin, Paul Goodman, George Woodcock, and others. We slowly turned out attention to this libertarian tradition.

This demand for democratization and participation ran counter to Marxism, Marxism-Leninism in all its forms. Here the demand had also cultural manifestations, and so appeared larger than life. In May 1975, the Trilateral Commission’s Report of the Trilateral Task Force on Governability of Democracies was made public. Several features of the original unpublished version of this Report are noteworthy. Pessimism and authoritarianism pervade the document, especially Prof. Samuel P.Harrington’s section on America, called “the democratic surge of the 1960s: a challenge of all existing authority systems”. As more people became involved in public affairs, according to Harrington, their disappointment was inevitable, given the unresponsiveness of certain political institutions. The result was a rapid decline in the belief that the State and its supporting agencies were neutral. There was also an accompanying disenchantment with political parties. The Report concluded that if the system was to correct itself, this “excess of democracy” must be reduced. It argued for an emphasis on the fact that the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are limited”. Since the functioning of the system requires “some measure of apathy and non-involvement” active citizens and groups should be cooled out.

The recommendations included: more economic planning because an increase in average income encourages political apathy; stronger political leadership (read centralization of political power); government aid to political parties and financing of elections; restrictions on the freedom of the press, e.g. “…there is also the need to assure to the government the right and the ability to withhold information at the source”; cutbacks in education because the democratization of educations has raised expectations; alienation attacked at its roots, therefore “a more active intervention in the area of work”. Experiences in the co-management of the workplace are rejected in favour of State aid for experimentation with new forms of work organisation. (In 1980, Black Rose Books published, ‘Trilateralism – The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management’ edited by Holly Sklar).

During the 1970s, notwithstanding the attempt of the mass media to convince us that the movement was dead, women founded the women’s liberation movement, environmentalists founded the ecology movement, and citizen groups sprang up in various urban centres to fight not only for better housing and green spaces, but to save and renovate entire neighbourhoods, as well as demanding community control in a number of forms. Among the more radical of these movements the question of social change, decentralization of power and citizen participation in decision-making, entered the popular discourse again.

The early 1980s witnessed a renewed and much more powerful peace movement. Initiated by the politics of protest, it moved into the politics of resistance in several countries, notably Britain and West Germany. Once again, this social movement, often a point of convergence for the movement(s) of the 1960s and 1970s faced the inflexibility of the nuclear State(s), and began not only to questioning the legitimacy of the system but also to act outside the parliamentary order through the use of civil disobedience. It is no coincidence that in Britain, the birthplace of parliamentary or liberal democracy, we saw civil disobedience again used widely, this time in the form of blockades and peace camps surrounding military bases. These direct actions, largely organised by women, used new methods of resistance which inspired people across the planet. Alongside this campaign we also saw a consciousness which moved more toward the politics of institutional change, which in turn blended into local socialism – that is a form of socialism favouring a re-definition of the city and the major question of urbanisation that faces citizens, including ecology, war and peace. It is also no mere coincidence that in West Germany, a society with a highly authoritarian past, a massive anti-nuclear movement arose in the 1970s which began in the countryside and which stressed the importance of regionalization and decentralization, and which moved from the politics of protest and resistance to that of institutional change as embodied by the Greens who combined ecology, feminism, and pacifism. In these situations, class-based insurrectionism, led by vanguard political parties, were shunned. What also marked the peace movement of the 1980s was a rigorous politics of non-alignment, distancing themselves from both the US and the Soviet Union. As such, an unprecedented interested in this approach to the Cold War and military rivalry began sprouting in Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and even in the Soviet Union itself. The dynamism of the new European Nuclear Disarmament movement which denounced both the Cruise and Pershing missiles of the West and the SS20s of the East, established contacts across borders which lead to all sorts of actions.

Almost all of these and related ideas had a basis in history and were in one way or another part of a libertarian socialist or anarchist tradition. It was the renewed purpose of Our Generation to help make this movement self-conscious of its theoretical and practical past, present and future potential. It took some time to determine this self-conscious role for the journal.

By March 1984, Our Generation as it was constituted had exhausted itself. When rumours began circulating that the journal had ‘folded’, many people expressed ‘shock’ and ‘disappointment’. Other immediately communicated to the editors, that the journal must continue. We were told that given the very tense international situation which reflected relations at an all time low, the emergence of an organised Right-wing counter-offensive in both Britain, USA and Canada, and a disquieting confusions in the anti-authoritarian movement on the one hand and an urgent need to engage and clarify the perspectives of the new social movements of the 1980s, we were encouraged to continue the journal.

Having consulted widely, soliciting opinions on what we could and should undertake in the form of a renewed project, it became apparent that what was desired and needed with an international focus and circulation was a periodical with an explicit libertarian socialist and anarchist perspective. The renewed Our Generation was to be a continuation of the best of what the journal was in its past, with a view a maturing further.

The ‘new’ Our Generation continued to publish social analysis and critique. Some of the widely welcomed and widely circulated articles produced by the journal during its history have been those offering a radical Left or libertarian Marxist analysis.

The radical stance informing its content would now be recast, by the editors and other writers, along explicit libertarian socialist and anarchist lines. The journal continued to develop a critique of Marxist analytic categories and authoritarian Marxist politics while now presenting as an alternative both anarchist theory and the practice of social self-management.

A forum was provided for the elaboration of a contemporary anarchist theory, and analyses of social and political movements and their issues which expressed the élan of communitarian self-determination. In a world of societies more heavily burdened than ever with centralized, monolithic States, with exploitation and domination so intertwined, this approach was considered more valid and pertinent than ever.

Our Generation reserved a special place for material which sharpened and refined socio-political analysis from this critical theoretical framework. The aim was to outline a theory and practice through critical analysis, to practice; that is, towards the building of a warless and classless society of self-determining communities comprising of communally roots and autonomous individuals enjoying freedom.

Our Generation became an independent semi-annual journal, published every March and September. It ceased publication in January 1994, with Volume 24, Number 2.
From 1961 to 1965, the journal was named Our Generation Against Nuclear War, its founding title, Volume 1; Number 1 was published, in the autumn of 1961. With Volume 3, Number 4 the journal was named Our Generation which was published in May 1966. With this issue the journal, from being a peace research publication embraced the emergent youth New Left. It continued on this exploration until April 1985, when as Our Generation, it became ‘an independent semi-annual journal dealing with the theory and practice of contemporary anarchism and libertarian socialism’. As such it continued until Volume 24, No 2, published in January 1994.

Re-reading the many editorials, articles and reviews in the published issues of Our Generation still make for fascinating and informative reading.

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