Exactly fifty years ago, in July 1967, a group of scholars and activists gathered in London at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm for a now famous Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. It was a powerful moment, just a year before the worldwide revolutionary protests of 1968 (as well as the brief but intense experiment with self‑organised education and communal living known as the “AntiUniversity of London). The Congress lasted two hectic weeks and involved talks by eminent radicals (such as Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Goldmann, R.D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse), as well as many debates from the floor, roundtables and late‑night discussions. Ten of the addresses were edited by the radical psychiatrist and theorist of the anti‑psychiatry movement, David Cooper (who was originally trained in Cape Town and wrote the 1971 book, Psychiatry and Anti‑Psychiatry). This volume was initially released in 1968 and republished by Verso in 2015, titled The Dialectics of Liberation.
Rereading Cooper’s anthology today is politically and educationally challenging experience, as well as ‑‑‑ for me ‑‑‑ a personally emotional one. The latter because it was the era of my radicalization (as an adolescent organizer of protests against American militarism, a nascent but unaffiliated socialist, devoted to human rights’ causes, a local leader of an anti‑psychiatry group, and a student of social psychology at the University of Sussex’s School of African and Asian Studies). With regard to this personal dimension, the rereading of these ten essays induced a slight sense of nostalgia for the optimism of the late 1960s, but also a renewed sense of the importance of our commitment to the multidimensional issues of human liberation (perhaps even a slight antidote to the upsurge of cynicism that Peter Sloterdijk attempted analyze in his 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason). I will focus this commentary on an assessment of this politically and educationally challenging dimension.
Thinking about the fifty years that have passed since the Congress, what is striking is that the areas of much needed social, economic and cultural change that are least mentioned are those in which, arguably, most progress has been subsequently gained. All ten addresses are by men and neither feminism nor (despite the participation of Ginsberg and Paul Goodman) the liberation of the LGBTQI communities are mentioned. Yet these are areas in which some advances have been conspicuous. Also, environmentalism receives minimal attention at this Congress (Gregory Bateson’s address on cybernetics, ecology and the necessity of systemic perspectives may have seemed path-breaking back then, but now does not). Yet this is an area in which, even if humanity is still pervasively and profoundly ecocidal, some significant progress in the public’s awareness has been achieved.
The main foci of the Congress were: the escalating economic disparity been “haves” and “have‑not” (that is, on economic exploitation and cultural imperialism; individual and institutional racism; and the persecution of those designated insane, along with the ideological formation of those structures of our thinking that sustain oppression. Thus, in reviewing these contributions today our reading necessarily counters the notable tone of revolutionary optimism with our contemporary awareness of how little has changed, how much may have worsened. The call for ongoing struggle in those areas of the anthology’s interest is ably articulated in the essays by John Gerassi on “Imperialism and Revolution in America,” by Carmichael on “Black Power,” and by Marcuse on “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” as well as ‑‑‑ in a rather more personally educative mode ‑‑‑ by Goodman on the myths of “Objective Values,” and by Goldmann on “Criticism and Dogmatism in Literature.” In relation to the vision and mission of the Parkmore Institute, three particular aspects of the call for activism continue to seem strikingly relevant to our contemporary situation.
First, Gerassi noted how the Congress seemed divided between “those who are concerned with political matters and those who are primarily interested in psychological problems … liberation from physical oppression, from an outward enemy; and liberation from the psychological oppression of the environment.” He argues for the necessity of theoretically conjoining these definitional dimensions and for our commitment to the interlinking of activism in both. Indeed, he concludes his contribution by emphasizing how the beneficiaries of oppression are condemned to the “one‑dimensionality of their souls” and how they “must rebel too.”
Second, Paul Sweezy, in a contribution titled “The Future of Capitalism,” not only argues in detail how “capitalist development inevitably produced development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other” (which is a sophisticated thesis about how the practices of profit, accumulation and expansion, necessarily make the wealthy richer and the poor ever more desperate), but he also describes the fallacies of philanthropy. The latter argument is mostly presented in macroeconomic terms. He demonstrates with a convincing array of data that, with respect to foreign investment (think here of economic “aid” from the North Atlantic countries to those of what used to be dubbed the “third world”), “over any significant period of time the inflow from foreign investment” ‑‑‑ that is, the eventual economic gains enjoyed by the donor ‑‑‑ always exceeds “the outflow of capital by almost exactly 70 per cent.” Sweezy touches only lightly and indirectly on the ways in which this perspective affects our thinking about matters on the microeconomic level of community organizations, charities and private donor systems. However, this is a topic on which ‑‑‑ drawing on the insights of revolutionaries such as Paolo Freire, Enrique Dussel and others, who discuss the significance of what might be called “humanitarian activism” in a way that counters the structures of oppression, rather than perpetuating them in the longer term ‑‑‑ we have perhaps gained some greater clarity since the time of Sweezy’s more influential writings.
Third, the creative, free‑thinking Goodman offers us his incisive thinking about the role of education in social and personal change. His insights are, even fifty years later, relevant and even refreshing. He follows Gerassi, who warns how often “we go to a university and we are taught platitudes. We graduate … either to retreat, to cop out, or else to join into the system” of imperialism and oppression, “which will make us into one of those…” and here he used an idiosyncratic expression equivalent to “bricks in the wall” or “cogs in the machine.” Goodman follows this by cogently arguing “something that especially the young people don’t want to hear,” namely that “pure spirit, lively heart, courage, high aims are prerequisite but not sufficient” for radical social and personal change. He argues that, whereas most professionals today are “finks” (committed to the ideological and material reproduction of existing conditions of oppression) or “incompetent bureaucrats,” what is needed for radical social and personal change is indeed “autonomous responsible professionalism” (which he contrasts with the bureaucrats who simply “execute programmes handed down to them).
Goodman finishes his contribution to this interesting anthology by re‑articulating the proposal he made at the end of his brilliant 1962 book, The Community of Scholars. He suggests that what is needed for radical change is “the formation of a few tiny professional universities” that would, as he expresses it, “shock the big system.” He argues that what is required is a few committed Faculty and Students who want to be professional activists, educated and out there, in the field, working for social and personal change.
This indeed is the radical inspiration that the Parkmore Institute is designed to implement. It stands for authentic education that “breaks the mold.”
Barnaby B. Barratt, PhD, DHS, ABPP