The 'Espresso Underground' Fights The System
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July 6, 1961, Vol. VI, No. 37
By Peter Gessner
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Some 200 recruits for the "espresso underground" jammed a small East Village coffee shop last Tuesday evening to participate in a session on combat tactics to be used against the mighty triad of "Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Washington, D.C."
Les Deux Megots, on East 7th Street, became for one evening a crammed nerve center of huddled groups of coffee-sipping partisans. The undergroundlings sat for nearly four hours in a stifling atmosphere debating the program of their "revolution."
The strategy huddle of dissidents was the second and last program, until September, in Ed Finkelberg's "Talk-Out" series. A talk-out is a roving discussion engaged in by a group of people. It moves from one coffee house to another, and resembles, in form, a vagabond mixture of a radical Quaker meeting and a hip "Open End" show. Visitors to these gatherings are encouraged to join in.
"The Art of Protesting," the announced topic of Tuesday's talk out, turned quickly into an anecdotal session on "How to Beat 'The System.'" Before the discussion was thrown open to the rank and file, several professional protesters spoke briefly on the necessity of beating The System -- the quasi-mystical Kafka-like enemy -- by a kind of undercurrent of revolution. Tuli Kupferberg, bearded poet and publisher of Birth, Paul Krassner, Reich-minded editor of The Realist, Robert Wilson, jazz columnist, and Harold Humes, novelist and already scarred leader of the good fight on the coffee-house and folk-singing fronts, were among the participants who stirred enthusiasm for the developing underground.
Although the general drift (and there was plenty) of the talk seemed to be in favor of direct action on all fronts against The System, the predictable and traditional splits that tend to occur whenever revolutionaries get together were in abundant evidence through the long hot evening.
Leading the ultra-tactical wing of the guerilla warriors, novelist Humes spoke for continual warfare on a practical level. "In order to beat The System," he said, "you have to understand it. The System is a collective mind, and collective minds are always incompetent." He urged members of the underground to bore from within and use the frailties of The System. "If you are angry with something Wagner did, call Gerosa's office," he advised.
During the open-discussion period, Voice columnist John Wilcock managed to align himself with the farthest-out fringe of the enemies of The System. In another context his views might be compared to Trotsky's concept of the "permanent revolution." We're always at war with The System," Wilcock intoned from a side table. "For example, if you get an IBM card in the mail, punch some more holes in it before you send it back. You only have to be bugged by something and then you fight back like hell."
Some hard-line revolutionaries and a representative of the Committee for Non-Vioent Action argued for collective organized action as opposed to undirected, anarchistic one-man revolutions. A minority expressed concern for "moral means, as well as moral ends."
By the close of the evening, however, the deviationists of the right who advocated petitions, committees, and ads in the New York Times appeared to be politically in left field. The technique of one-man insurrection against The System seemed to please the group best. There were two noncommital exceptions in the form of concerned-looking young men at a back table who read the Herald Tribune throughout the frenzy. Someone suggested they were Fire Department inspectors.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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