Reflections on the Occasion of Dimitri Roussopoulos’ 70th Birthday and Public Intellectuals

Friday 9 June 2006, by Andrea LEVY

Some years ago, Russell Jacoby wrote a book called The Last Intellectuals in which he lamented the waning of the tradition of the public intellectual: that breed of intellectual who addresses himself “with vigor and clarity” to an educated lay audience and fosters a critical perspective on social reality which serves to “enrich public life.” Public intellectuals indeed constitute an endangered species, but fortunately they are far from extinct. When I think of the figure of the public intellectual in the North American context many names come to mind: Neil Postman, Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith (all regrettably of recent passing), Noam Chomsky, David Suzuki, Naomi Klein... And our own Dimitri Roussopoulos exemplifies what it means to be a public intellectual. Forgive me the blasphemy of quoting Karl Marx at an anarchist’s birthday party, but it has rarely been said so pithily: “Philosophers have only ever interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.”

At a time, in the 1960s, when many progressive thinkers ensconced themselves in the university, where the ambit of their influence was increasingly limited to liberal arts students and academic specialists, Dimitri carried on the tradition of the public intellectual. He created avenues for dissenting writers and academics to speak to a broader public through the remarkable institutions of Black Rose Books and Our Generation. But he also acted in the world to extraordinary effect, often against the tide of conventional thinking, building organizations, community institutions, popular forums for the airing of ideas, and even political parties.

When I first encountered Dimitri, he was at work on the organization of a non-aligned peace movement in Montreal and across Canada, following the Western European example — and rightly convinced that the credibility of the peace movement would be jeopardized if it remained silent in the matter of the Soviet contribution to the arms race and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It took courage and, as Dimitri himself characterized it recently, a “thick hide” to persevere in face of often blistering criticism. Montreal’s peace movement was more robust and had an undeniably greater impact for that effort, and the human chain of 60,000 Montrealers that was formed between the Soviet and American consulates on October 20, 1984, to protest the deployment of Cruise, Pershing II and SS-20 intermediate range missiles in Europe was an unforgettable symbolic highpoint for the movement.

Of course, by the 1980s when I first met him, Dimitri was already a veteran peace activist. And from the many conversations I have had with him since, I know that it was his revulsion at the destructive folly of war that drew him into political life in the first place. His convictions were tested during the protests against the Vietnam War in the 60s, at which time he engaged in civil disobedience and was arrested and jailed for his troubles. And during that period he played an important role in building the peace movement and the movement for nuclear disarmament in Québec and Canada.
Remember that the journal Our Generation, which Dimitri founded in 1961, and which continued publication for more than three decades, first saw print as Our Generation Against Nuclear War.

Dimitri is a macher in the best sense of that Yiddish word; he has an amazing ability to bring people together to make things happen. Think of the organizations and institutions he has created or in which he played a pivotal role over the years: the Milton Park housing project; the Black Rose Books publishing house, and later its French-language counterpart, Les éditions Éco-société; the journal Our Generation and its French language counterpart, Noir et Rouge, the Coalition Québecoise pour le désarmement et la paix; the Sociéte de développement communautaire de Montréal; the libertarian newspaper La Nuit and the community newspaper Place Publique; Ecology Montreal, North America’s first municipal Green party; and the Urban Ecology Centre, among others. What an extraordinary legacy - and he’s not done by a long shot, as those of us participating in his current plans and projects can attest!

Of course, he has not worked alone; he has had many valued collaborators and co-conspirators, most notably his life partner, the indomitable Lucia Kowaluk a powerhouse in her own right, and his gifted and steadfast partner at Black Rose, Linda Barton. But Dimitri has been the guiding spirit behind many of these important initiatives; it is his imagination and determination that have ensured their fruition. He has inspired, stimulated, galvanized - and, yes, sometimes also provoked and put out - his comrades and colleagues. But speaking above all for myself, I can say that he has often ended by imparting some of his energy and confidence.

Dimitri is a doer but he is also a thinker. In his many books, essays, articles, and public speaking engagements over the years he has contributed to animating the discussion among radicals, progressives and liberals about strategies for peace and disarmament, about the State and democracy, about the ecological crisis, about avenues for social change, and, in particular, about the urban question. It is foremost in his vision of the city that Dimitri’s theory and practice come together. For him, the city is the privileged site of social action. Long before it became the watchword of Green parties, Dimitri was thinking globally and acting locally, fostering a dynamic conception of local citizenship and community. And although he travels extensively and maintains close working relationships with individuals and movements throughout North America and Europe, he is most fundamentally a Montrealer, He has dedicated much of his time to enhancing the quality of life in our city and enriching its political culture. And he has been perhaps most ardent in his efforts to defend his own neighbourhood, Milton Park, from the onslaught of speculators — facing down bulldozers in the process, and once again assuming the adverse consequences of defying civil authority.

Most recently Dimitri has contributed to advancing the idea of local citizenship by working to make his dream of the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities a reality. That initiative, like so many others, is informed by Dimitri’s enduring commitment to an ideal of participatory democracy - an ideal that extends as far back historically as ancient Athens and was nourished as recently as the 1960s by the praxis of the early New Left.

If he has mellowed some with regard to ways and means, Dimitri has remained unwavering in his belief that people should exercise unmediated control over their neighbourhoods and cities. Whatever can contribute to diversifying our political choices, encouraging political participation and putting more decision-making power in the hands of citizens, Dimitri has worked to promote it: from neighbourhood councils to proportional representation. It’s an ongoing project, and we can certainly argue endlessly about how much progress has actually been made, but there’s no doubt that where many others, grown jaded and cynical, have abandoned ship, Dimitri has stayed the course.

I think this stems in part from his confidence in the creative powers of humankind. His political engagement and his faith in the prospects for democracy and peace are rooted in a deep appreciation of what life can be at its best: a joyous cultivation of the powers of the mind and the senses, and of artistic achievement. Dimitri has a great appetite for life and, as I imagine most of you have experienced, he shares it with his friends: his love of music, and film and theatre, of food and wine, of travel and nature.
Dimitri’s desire to create a better world is in proportion to his passion for living richly and creatively. In the prologue to his autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote that “the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be.” I think this capture’s something of what drives Dimitri, his conviction that, in the absence of war, repression and privation, human existence can be a continuing process of personal and collective discovery and enlargement.

Sadly, all the gains made by the forces of peace and progress that have brought that potential within closer reach in the last 50 years — at least in the overprivileged western world — are being eroded by the tide of neoliberalism and its tyranny of the market, and by the shortsightedness of those who not only care nothing about social justice but deny the environmental crisis that imperils the very future of humanity and of all the non-human species with which we share our fragile planet. Democracy, peace, ecology - these values that Dimitri has championed for half a century now require an ever more spirited defence, and we are fortunate that Dimitri will continue to be a vital part of this momentous struggle.

One day several years ago I mentioned to Dimitri that I was going to the McGill book fair, and he remarked rather dismissively “Oh, you won’t find anything very interesting there.” He ate his words, however, when I returned triumphantly from that book sale with a copy of the very first issue of Our Generation, which I count among my treasured possessions. And it is fitting that I should close with a few words from C. Wright Mills that were cited in that issue and that remain entirely relevant:

“Is it not precisely the task of the intellectual, the scholar, the student, to confront complications? To sort out insistent issues in such a way as to open them up for the work of reason - and so for action at strategic points of intervention? Is it not our task continually to make the new Beginning?”

Many of us here have grown quite a bit older; perhaps a little wiser and less certain of our capacity to change the world — but still deeply committed to the ideals of peace, justice, and democracy. And this we share with our friend Mr. Roussopoulos. So here’s to Dimitri, to a life well lived so far, and to new beginnings.

Andrea Levy Ph.D. is a historian whose thesis on Andre Gorz won the highest academic awards.

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