On the third floor of a worn old building on West 17th Street in New York the Liberation News Service continues to survive. Still an alternative news agency, still committed to "collective work, political action and the Movement," LNS makes us wonder what ever happened to the '60s.
We cannot decide whether there was too much ideology then or too little, whether we were too intellectual or too immature, whether we were romantically seduced by a mood and by visions of political action or whether we were for a while truly alert and eager for commitment and struggle. And historical analysis seems to do little to satisfy our memories.
Journalist Henry Fairlie says they were merely self-indulgent years of personal theater which only seemed to have a public concern.Author Joan Didion writes that it was a peculiar and inward time, when we thought the world could be reinvested, and "no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring."
Harvard sociologist David Riesman thinks "the vogue of expressivity [ encouraged] the belief that creativity was self-sustaining and only harmed by critical judgment," and author Renata Adler explains that it was a decade which thought only in terms of final solutions and victories and which proved that radicalism leans comfortably upon the system.
Yet here at the Liberation News Service is a small group of people who have not spent the '70s refuting the '60s. College students disenchanted with the US Student Press Associaation established LNS in Washington in 1967, the year of the peace march on the Pentagon. By 1968, the year of the student strike at Columbia, LNS had a branch office in New York and was gaining strength as the link among underground papers. It offered information not only to "the movement" but to the national media about the movement.
Instead of a newspaper, LNS publishes a weekly "news packet" of national and international stories, photographs, graphics, and political cartoons subscribed to by college papers, service groups, and underground and neighborhood papers. The LNS staff prepares the packet and not only gathers the news and covers the events but sometimes participates in what it covers -- from demonstrating with antiwar protesters at Fort Dix, to living with striking auto workers in Detroit and rubber workers in Akron, to walking the picket lines with coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky.
As early as 1969, LNS was writing about Africa and the turmoil of guerrilla wars with foreign involvements. Traveling with a group of guerrillas, they covered the assassination of Amil Carcabral in January, 1973. Stories about Iran, Eritrea, South America, Korea, and labor and women's issues are followed with regularity and continuity.
In addition, the staff works closely with the small community newspapers of Argentinean exiles and Eritrean students in New York City. It has also begun setting type, for itself and for others, in Spanish as well as in English, as an added source of income.
Income is derived from subscriptions to the news packet ($240 a year) and from some private funds, foundations, and church bodies. These sources have diminished, however, without the political focus of Vietnam to galvanize support. Vietnam made all the difference between the '60s and '70s.
LNS has had its full share of rifts and divergences (see Ray Mungo's "Famous Long Ago, My Life and Hard Times With the Liberation New Service," a history of the organization written in the style of Holden Caufield). Yet it still aims to be "a news agency to the dispossessed." For this small association of eight to 15 people, the commitments of the '60s endure by maintaining loyalties to particular communities of people.
By believing itself to be a conscientious evaluator of world events and a serious service organization, LNS has managed to keep its ties with small "struggle" groups, despite an admittedly scattered "movement" and an absence of the clear focus of the Vietnam war. Rather than search for large-scale "radical perfectionism," LNS has realized that "true social change can only be small-scale, nurtured at the grass roots," in the words of a recent book of case studies on social change in the '60s and '70s -- a difficult path to follow when surrounded by indifference to such change.
Were the '60s heroic in any sense or were they merely a time for symbolic anger and seriousness? LNS thinks they were heroic but finds the heroism to have been finally self-deluded, for activists of the '60s did not take themselves and their effectiveness seriously enoughm -- the very opposite conclusion most retrospective observers of the '60s reach.
The Liberation News Service persists in being serious and in making the questions and obligations associated with the '60s continue to merit attention. Its future tasks include increased service to non-commercial radio and perhaps the writing of "an accurate history of the antiwar movement."
What ever happened to the '60s? It may be that the more important question is, where would we be without them?