Joe Berke, the congress and radical education

“The Dialectics Conference was an attempt to gain a meta- perspective about war and violence using, in particular, the tools and insights of psychoanlysis. The organizers hoped that their ideas would engage and inter-relate with the views of the invited scholars, activists and participants at the Conference, and in an informal and non-academic format. To some extent this happened. But many of the discussions followed old patterns and cliches. Our goals were too high. We did not effect significant social change. But many micro social experiments, especially in psychiatry, have continued 50 years after the Dialectics took place.” – Joseph Berke

The congress on the dialectics of liberation begins and ends with two words: radical education. Most commentators forget this, as they assume that it was inspired solely by anti-psychiatry. But, in fact, without Joe Berke’s interest in radical education there wouldn’t have been a congress at all, and without the congress there would not have been a (London) anti-university.

The purpose of this brief article is to look at what the phrase ‘radical education’ meant in the 1960s, and then to relate that concept to the congress.

The phrase ‘radical education’ was not often defined critically during the 1960s, though its meaning was pretty clear to those in favour of it. Briefly, it denoted a cluster of attitudes, positive as well as negative.

Radical educators were for anarchism or Marxism, for freedom of choice, for young people, for civil rights, for the Cuban revolution, for avant-garde art, for the free expression of sexuality and for creativity and spontaneity. They were against capitalism, against bureaucracy, against authority, against an over-reliance on technology, against the Bomb, against the war in Vietnam and against the established universities which they saw as lacking intellectual and social integrity.

Joe Berke’s involvement with radical education began at medical school in late 1962 or 1963, at the same time as he was writing poetry and hanging around with libertarian mad caps like Tuli Kupferberg and Allen Ginsberg. Like many students in those days, radicalised by injustice and poverty (not their own), he found his teachers (though not all of them) arrogant and authoritarian, and their teachings (though not all of them) either wrong-headed or just plain irrelevant.

His own speciality, psychiatry, was, he claims, taught as if it was a type of natural science, like chemistry or physics, with a labelling system, and with little attention paid to the ‘totality’ of patients’ experiences. Not surprisingly, therefore, he became particularly attracted to ideas coming from outside the higher educational mainstream, which seemed to offer meaningful alternatives.

Two certainly major influences upon him at this time were the anarchist writers Paul Goodman and Alexander Trocchi, though there must have been many others besides, not least young people themselves who were becoming increasingly radical. In 1962, Goodman published a small book which was very influential indeed entitled The Community of Scholars. At the heart of Goodman’s book was the idea that the spread of an ‘administrative mentality’ amongst teachers and students was destroying American higher education, enforcing a ‘false harmony’ which fragmented and paralysed criticism. This was Berke’s experience too. Goodman ‘s solution was for scholars and students to simply pack their bags and start their own universities. They had done this very successfully before, he noted, most particularly at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, in 1933. And they could do it again. ‘[That] school lasted nearly twenty-five years and then, like a little magazine, folded. Its spirit survives.’

As for Trocchi, he influenced Berke via his Project Sigma, which consistent with his Situationist International past, was nothing less than an attempt to revolutionise contemporary existence. Like Berke, Trocchi was a friend of Laing, enrolling him and David Cooper and numerous other supporters in an ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds’, with the object of seizing the ‘grids of expression,’ which is to say, the media and the other forms of mental production.

‘Invisible Insurrection of a million Minds’ was the title of his Sigma Portfolio, No.2, of 1964. We know that Berke read that work for soon enough he set himself up as one of Trocchi’s New York representatives, and the two corresponded and met together in Trocchi’s native Glasgow. At the heart of Trocchi’s manifesto was the call for a ‘spontaneous university’. ‘The cultural possibilities of this movement are immense and the time is ripe’, he wrote. ‘The world is awfully near the brink of disaster.  …  we should have no difficulty in recognising the spontaneous university as the possible detonator of the invisible insurrection.’

One of the first post-fifties free universities was the Free University of New York (FUNY), and Berke was involved with that too as an organiser and a teacher. There is a letter from him to Laing, written during the spring of 1965, in which he says ‘Am starting university in NY this summer’; as simple as that, with no supplementary explanation, but by which he undoubtedly refers to the founding of FUNY.

There is no questioning FUNY’s educational radicalism. In a manifesto, also of 1965, the authors write of the ‘intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the American educational establishment’ and of its ‘dispassionate and studied dullness.’

‘The Free University of New York is necessary because in our conception, American universities have been reduced to institutions of intellectual servitude. Students have been systematically dehumanised, deemed incompetent to regulate their own lives, sexually, politically and academically. They are treated like raw material to be processed for the university’s clients – business, government, and military bureaucracies. Teachers, underpaid and constantly subject to investigation and purge, have been relegated to the position of servant-intellectuals, required for regular promotion, to propagate points of view in harmony with the military and industrial leadership of our society.’

FUNY opened in a loft building close to the Lower East Side in early July, offering twenty-five courses, and enrolling two hundred and ten students. As Berke wrote in an article for Britain’s Peace News, during October 1965, ‘Preference was given to those courses or people who could not appear at an “establishment” university. Attention had to be paid to [FUNY’s] radical, educational and political position.’

When he moved to the UK during September 1965 to live at Kingsley Hall, Berke moved quickly to set up a London version, ‘FUL’, positing it too as a ‘lever of change’ which, combined with FUNY and other free universities, would counteract the West’s ‘corrupt, decadent, immoral, unstable and insane’ civilisation. ‘On another level, one can see the formation of a brotherhood, in the sense of the Jesuits or of Castalia, Herman Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” [,] or Alex Trocchi’s Project Sigma,’ he added in the same Peace News article, thus continuing to draw on Trocchi’s incantatory idea of a ‘spontaneous university.’

FUL did not succeed, however. In Jeff Nuttal’s words, it fell victim to the ‘yawning gaps existing between the English Underground, the English left-wing liberals, and [Berke’s] “professionally” defensive colleagues in the Philadelphia Foundation (sic)’. This was a hit at Cooper and Laing and the other members of the Philadelphia Association, who refused at that time to go along with Berke’s plan to use Kingsley Hall for his weekend lectures.

Nonetheless, a spark was lit, and when a year or so later, Berke came up with another, similar, idea, Cooper and Laing jumped at the plan, seeing it as a further development of their anti-psychiatric interests. Berke began planning for the congress during the late spring or early summer of 1966, at about the same time as he moved out of Kingsley Hall and into his own flat facing Primrose Hill, a part of London which would long have radical educational and anti-psychiatric associations.  One of the first times we hear of it, is in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, in which he mentions the recent foundation of the Institute of Phenomenological Studies (IPS).

This was a curious body. Laing’s son, Adrian, who knew Cooper very well, describes it in his life of his father as a ‘sort of trading name’ for the four founding ‘organisers’ of the congress (and when, on a recent occasion, I mentioned it to Berke, he laughed). It therefore seems not to have had much in the way of a tangible existence.

Nonetheless, it was and would remain the public face of the congress. When, for instance, Berke’s American colleague Leon Redler wrote to Stokely Carmichael, the, increasingly radical, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in a letter of October 1966, inviting him to attend the congress, he mentioned it as representing an ‘extension’ of the foursome’s work in ‘seeking to demystify communication in families of schizophrenics, and in so doing to seek to liberate those imprisoned in such nexes’.

Berke carried forward FUNY’s educational imperatives into the congress by marshalling a similar mixture of ‘politicos’ and ‘culture wizards’, the former ‘SUPER-LEFT with a vengeance.’ Many of the politicos were veterans of the May 2 Movement, which had been formed to spearhead students’ fight against United States involvement in Vietnam, and they brought to the congress a fundamentalist and extremely aggressive anti-Americanism.

This was particularly evident in the presentations given by the anthropologist Jules Henry and the political scientist John Gerassi (himself a teacher at  FUNY) , but in fact it pervaded almost all of the congress, usually unmasked, but sometimes in the occluded form of ‘anti-modernity’:

As the flyer for the congress, a joint effort by Berke, Cooper and Redler, puts it in a direct nod to Henry: ‘In total context, culture is against us, education enslaves us, technology kills us. We must confront this. We must destroy our vested illusions as to who, what, where we are. We must combat our pretended ignorance as to what goes on and our consequent non-reaction to what we refuse to know. … We shall meet in London on the basis of a wide range of expert knowledge. The dialectics of liberation begin with the clarification of our present condition.’

Of course, violence and liberation from violence were the main topics at the congress, but these too was given a radical educational spin, as speaker after speaker, both from the platform and from the floor, drew their audiences around to the radical educationalists’ New Left agenda. It was, for instance, always the white man’s violence that was condemned, almost never the black man’s. Thus, Stokely Carmichael damned the west for a multiplicity of sins, whilst ignoring Africa’s own role in fomenting its parlous and unstable condition.

On the more positive side, like FUNY the congress too spilled out into houses and pubs, privileging spontaneity over regimentation, making education relevant and fun, and breaking down costly and unnecessary barriers between teachers and students. As Berke wrote of the event, some months after its completion: ‘The [Round house] was occupied 24+ hours a day for sixteen days by hordes of people meeting, talking, fucking, fighting, flipping, eating and doing nothing, but all trying to find some way to “make it” with each other and together seek ways out of what they saw to be a common predicament – the horrors of contemporary existence.’

Radical education began as a revolt against bureaucracy and the conformity of late fifties and early sixties universities.  Students were treated with contempt by an ignorant and conservative technocratic ‘elite’, who viewed them as ‘raw material to be processed for the university’s clients – business, government, and military bureaucracies.’ The very word ‘education’ was banalised. Universities were drained of their ‘intellectual vigour’; ‘exuberance and excitement’ were destroyed. What remained was a ‘dispassionate and studied dullness, a facade of scholarly activity concealing an internal emptiness and cynicism, a dusty-dry search for permissible truth’ which pleased ‘none but the administrator and the ambitious.’

Today, higher education is even more bureaucratised. Students are over-regulated and over-assessed. They are offered degrees, not the benefits of wisdom. Once again, they are to be fitted for an ever-more inhospitable workplace. The question therefore arises: does radical education have anything to say to students today? If it has, it would not be the first time that recent history has thrown up a radical and exciting possibility.

By Martin Levy