Dave Widgery

Underground Press

(February 1972)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, pp.3-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the last few months OZ celebrated its 5th birthday. Time Out and IT both clocked up their 100th issue and Ink, an OZ offshoot, managed to recover from an appalling start and stabilised itself as a fortnightly newspaper. Enough to keep Lord Gnome worried and Inspector Luff on tiptoes. The underground press in Britain gives every impression of being here to stay, dispensing, through a haze of debts, a probable weekly total of 50,000 copies to young people in British cities. And under the rigors of Mr Heath’s England, the underground’s enthusiasm for dope and disorder is, at last, shaping into some more appropriate politics.

Since the first issue of International Times in 1966 (founded by Americans ‘bored with Marxism’) there has been little doubt about the underground press’s ability to shock parents, excite the kids and abuse the bourgeoisie. The papers disgusted the social-democratic patriarchs of the New Statesman who called them ‘crude anti-socialist beatnikery’ no less than the Acting Chairman of the House Anti-American Activities Committee, Joe Pool, who felt, fairly accurately, that the underground papers were out ‘to encourage depravity and irresponsibility and nurture a breakdown in the continued capacity of the Government to conduct an orderly and constitutional society’. In a period when the socialist left adopted a carefully unemotional tone, emphasised the material situation and adopted tabloid design and Fleet St language to argue their revolutionary case, the underground press delighted in its virtually incoherent rhetoric, stressed consciousness and turned their newspapers into multicoloured montages. Rather than inform and organise, the early underground papers were out to shriek defiance at the world of parents, school and work and bask in an alternative world of fun and dreams. The underground press didn’t say what you thought, but it did somehow express how you feel.

The British underground papers actually emerged through a network established between the older underground of the small poetry magazines and the travelling poetry readers of the late ’fifties. The early IT had an English and rather literary flavour and its politics, like those of previous bohemian journals, were violently moral and determinedly unorganised. Anything more than the exchange of information and the raising of consciousness smacked of Bolshevik tyranny, the search was as much inward for revelation as outwards into politics. The colliding move towards both mysticism and socialism was an obsessional theme of the early underground and was clearly juxtaposed in the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Conference. The socialist left’s enthusiasm in 1968 was to lap mildly around the underground but almost as an optional extra to their own euphoria over the ‘Summer of Love’. The erotic reformism of All you need is Love which got hippy editors from Helsinki to Michigan pasting up flowers and bubbles was to tarnish fast. But the underground press would still talk with a straight face about the alternative society implying that its experiments in new ways of living offered a blueprint for capitalism with a human face. Apparently, the problems of poverty and production were over and what was needed was to recover playfulness as a way of living and abolish protestant enthusiasm for work and chastity.

In fact the Utopian experiments were fairly few, the underground’s ‘sexual liberation’ was blatantly phallic and at the expense of women, and the rigours of the market (whether in clothes, music or posters) continually crushed the attempts at producers collectives. Behind the successful hippy co-op stood either a longhaired accountant, a private income or simply a desperately low standard of living. As an almost symmetrical opposite of the crude-Marxist dismissal of the possibility of any cultural alternative while capitalism existed, the Tory hippy saw nothing but the this-sideness of the revolution in the here and now. Preparation, organisation, propaganda were all bullshitting evasions. While underground can take credit for returning to politics the revolutionary concerns of the Surrealists and the left-Freudians which post-war Marxism has somewhere managed to lose, it was often at the expense of any recognition whatsoever of class. The attempt to connect the politics of experience to the world of class and empire was too often simply a sleight of hand. Ronald Laing, that most canny of underground ideologues, could merely juxtapose schizophrenia and the bombing of North Vietnam, it has taken woman’s liberation as a movement and a theory to actually tease out the connections between sex, family and class within capitalism.

Even the much vaunted community organisations, whether openly radical, like Street Aid, informative like Bit or openly reformist like Release did little more than clear up the Underground’s own mess, a task for which the Home Office is entirely grateful.

Finally all that was left was the music which middle-class London art students had adopted from the American urban black and synthesized into a weirdly defiant electric music. The cosy communism of the folk coteries engulfed by rock music which could draw half a million kids to one field in Britain and keep them there for a week of fine sounds from the bands and hippy platitudes from the promoter. It was these kids who accepted the attitudes which had once been the private property of a London avant-garde. It was these kids who naturally looked to the underground press for some of the answers so long suppressed by Fleet Street. The papers differed in their replies. OZ dazzled with its eclecticism, took Lenin seriously one week, flying saucers seriously the next. IT became political in a most formal and unhelpful way, publishing tracts on the Black Panthers, adopting a pig killing prose without the rudiments of a strategy to back up the verbal attacks on the police and affecting an imported rhetoric which imprisoned rather than explained. Frendz, based in the heart of Notting Hill reluctantly begun to jettison the good vibrations and demanded that the freaks defined themselves as an oppressed community and begin to fight back to realise their desires.

But basically they all faced the same problem. The revolution of consciousness which the underground press had preached in 1968 had, in a warped way, succeeded. Underground music, once slipped on surreptitiously by late night DJs had become top ten orthodoxy, long hair and velvet trousers were worn by ex-skinheads, the cannabis laws were widely disregarded. The underground’s demand for a new Jerusalem was marketed as commodities to a new and affluent audience, the Utopia had wound up as so much brisk merchandising. But instead of admitting there might be something wrong with the ideas, the underground press, if they bothered at all, explained it in terms of personal ambition, bad dope or just general failure to get it together, while at the same moment making their own attempt to transform themselves from a cultural elite to a political vanguard. Without ever quite mentioning it the underground had changed from a total critique of capitalism to an oppressed minority only still with the stereo headphones and cheque book in the back pocket. Fortunately for all concerned Edward Heath turned what had been mainly self-dramatising hippy paranoia into fact. The most flamboyantly right wing government for decades was thirsty for scapegoats, long-haired dope-smoking hippies were an obvious target. Friend, which makes a point of a studied flippancy, insisted that the victory for Heath was the most important single fact for the underground in 1970. IT prophetically warned that heads would ‘be the skin across the law and order tom-tom’ and Richard Neville pointed out that while there may only be half an inch between Labour and the Tories ‘it’s in that half inch we survive’. As OZ followed The Little Red Book to the Old Bailey and the Mangrove 9 followed Ian Purdy and Jake Prescott into the witness box the underground press increasingly turned from republishing the distant thoughts of Eldridge Cleaver to a more active solidarity with the people of Notting Hill and Holloway. Politicos begun to appear more often in editorial collectives. In Notting Hill at least, an area with a tradition of official, semi-official and revolutionary community organising and a high density of hippies, claimants and black workers, some of the rhetoric about community actually took on some meaning.

Friend has responded to the law and order campaign with some devastatingly insolent attacks on the legal system from The Lord Chief Justice down to the unfortunate PC Pully and has given confidence to black and white defendants to fight back and win in the courts. And as the rate of inflation makes it impossible for even the most inventive hippy to live without either a job or a watertight Social Security claim, more material about trade unionism and the Claimants Union is finding its way into the paper.

Time Out the most ambitious and commercially successful of the London papers deftly balances its weekly entertainment guide with conscientious radical news and consumer features. Like any financially successful underground paper it embodies an obvious contradiction. Its weekly coverage of sexual liberation and anti-authoritarian experiments is the product of a hierarchical male-dominated set. Its indictments of consumer capitalism are sandwiched between sexist ads for the latest youth culture movie hustled by its tough talking advertising department. Time Out is now actually rich enough to allow its writers time to produce more than simple slogans and it will be interesting to watch in which direction its prosperous anarchism develops. The paper has many of the elements which has led the American rock newspaper into its deeply reactionary success; a shrewd eye for the youth market, scale enough to start laying down terms to its distributors (always an underground problem), a charming but ruthless managing director and an appetite for diversification. OZ, the paterfamilias of the English underground, remains what a letter writer to the Times fairly accurately described as ‘an inchoate outpouring from a potion of primitive Marxism, Maoism and anarchism liberally laced with phallic phantasies’. This eclectic stew has been the secret of OZ’s commercial success and political weakness and its recent issues have tended to rely on the visual possibilities allowed by its elaborate printing methods. The series of trials and the subsequent books, films and Hollywood musicals have made OZ the most famous and easily saleable of the underground properties but its editors don’t yet seem to have recovered any real sense of direction.

INK was begun as a weekly news offshoot of OZ with the declared aim of deepening the radicalism of OZ and weighed down with Fleet Street and publishing ‘talent’. Now having got through three entire editorial teams, it is probably the most interesting of the underground papers to IS readers. Edited by politicos, it consciously aims to explore the political arguments between the underground and the left and sees the need to build actual connections with the real movement, especially with gay and womans liberation and the Claimants Unions. Despite a taste for what it believes to be devastating quips at the expense of IS, Ink is serious about politics without losing the flair of an earlier stage of the underground, it reads rather like the Black Dwarf minus the IMG. IT continues to shuffle on, long past its prime but still produced and read by underground veterans. [1] IT makes a vague attempt to organise White Panther branches of cultural revolutionaries, three just about exist, with titles of a grandeur (Minister Of Information is the name for the branch secretary) which makes some of our Trotskyist comrades look positively self-effacing. And probably most important are the constantly changing local papers from Hackney’s openly communist People’s Paper run by young trade-unionists to Barnsley’s banned and harried Styng. All the papers doing valuable local stirring and usually to the left and openly suspicious of the national underground press. The way the underground press develops will to some extent reflect the general developments in British politics. But the passion and creative energy of the underground would be a very valuable addition to the revolutionary left’s journalism.



1. IT has since changed its format.


Last updated on 19.10.2006