Memories of the Congress

How the congress began.

JOE BERKE: ‘The congress was my idea. I talked about it with Laing. He thought that it was a good idea. Then we got David [Cooper] and Leon [Redler] involved. The congress was organised in the front room of 65A Belsize Park, the basement flat, where Laing lived with Jutta Werner. Jane Haynes was one of the secretaries; she was married to John Haynes, the photographer. …  Jutta did a lot of work, with typing and other things.’

‘The person I was most interested in was Stokely.’

MYRTLE BERMAN: ‘I attended very few of the formal sessions. As a South African exile with four kids, my husband (Monty) and I were working full-time with exacting jobs. I managed to slip in after work and mostly came in during discussion time. No one stood out, though the discussions were interesting and often around activism versus education and persuasion. … The person I was most interested in was Stokely. I can’t remember when Stokely and Miriam Makeba got married. Miriam had been or was married to our foster son Hugh Masekela but she may already have been involved with Stokely. So there was a personal link. My husband and I had been involved in an underground sabotage group in SA. I knew about Ronnie Laing because the daughter of close friends had worked for the family as a Nanny for several years. Her stories made him sound unstable and at times crazy. However we discussed his theories for many years. … On the Sunday of the Conference the son of good friends Alan Marcuson arrived with Murray Korngold who had given a paper or led a discussion and Alan had been so impressed that he told Murray he had to meet us and literally dragged him along. So we had Murray’s views which were interesting if not always flattering about content and organisation.’

‘A fantastic, eye-opening experience.’

ROGER GOTTLEIB: ’I had just finished my junior year abroad at LSE, and we had done the first major student action of the 60’s—taking over the university for several days. I had encountered my first really sophisticated political thinking in the English socialists and Trotskyists at LSE, and had been tossed out of the philosophy program for my own rather flamboyant public statements about how close-minded the (Karl) Popperites were. I had also taken a fair amount of LSD, knew Laing very slightly, and had written a paper on Marcuse’s Eros and Liberation. So I was ripe for what the conference had to offer. It was a fantastic, eye-opening experience. For one thing, you had a unique collection of 60s radical activists and thinkers, all in one place and in a compressed time frame. For another, it was as yet early enough in the period that cultural types like Laing and Ginsberg could engage with more traditional Marxists and social theorists like Marcuse, as well as black leaders like Stokely Carmichael.  I very much enjoyed all the plenary sessions, and even a gave talk of my own—a (very!) undergraduate philosophy paper keyed to subjectivity in perception based in psychedelic experiences and radical politics. A few things made the biggest impressions on me. First, even in my youthful immaturity, I could see how much male posturing was part of these “stars” of the movement. They preened, showed off, and had their egos on display. Their lack of self-consciousness about this bothered me. Second, at least from where I sat, people like Laing and Ginsberg, who had some resources from psychology and spirituality, had a kind of self-awareness about this that others like Goodman, Carmichael, or Sweezy did not. Third, I remember that after almost two weeks of speechifying and often intense disagreement, all of which embodied a fiercely rebellious attitude, everyone seemed to be in awe of the Germanic father figure Herbert Marcuse. I don’t really remember what he said, but I was struck by the kind of hushed awe that attended his lecture. The heavy German accent, the sense that he had seen it all and understood it better than us, the absolutely masculine style of presentation—that seemed to be something we all took as a model of intellectual leadership. It was a great moment in many ways—especially when someone unfurled a banner which read “The work of the conference is the conference—pass the joint!” Dozens of joints started to circulate and Marcuse, to vast cheers, took a puff! In retrospect, of course, and after my own lifetime of study and writing on these matters, I can see how much was missing. In particular, there was not a single female presence in the plenaries, nor, unless I missed it, any reference to sexism. Nor was there any serious account of the domination of nature or issues of sustainability. But no conference, movement or body of thought will answer all the questions. Tomorrow always brings new insights and new problems. Everyone there, whatever their limitations, biases, and foibles, was trying for something better. In the end, that’s what counts.’

Grandfather of the congress.

GUSTAVE METZGER: ‘I was never invited to attend. I heard about it. I went along as a private person without any kind of status. I knew Laing vaguely, and would say hello to him and the other anti-psychiatrists if I saw them. But it was an immense gathering. It was so big that you kind of passed people and if you said hello it was about as far as it could go. … I saw something of Marcuse. I’m sure that he appeared more than once on the platform. I would have seen him in the afternoon. There was no question that he was the power behind the event. And everyone recognised that including myself. He was so pleasant and so convincing.’

TREVOR PATEMAN: ‘I attended a couple of sessions – I don’t think I was free to attend more as I had a summer job at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. As I recall, I went to hear Allen Ginsberg and Stokely Carmichael – very new experiences for me, not least having to chant “Om……”  -  but I would have liked to hear Laing and Marcuse. Laing I heard later (1969 ish) at University College London – he arrived late and off his head and I was very disappointed. I recall that before the Congress I wrote to Marcuse (in my capacity as Chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club) asking him to come to Oxford if he was still going to be in England when our term started, but he was going home. It was around this time that undergraduates like me were reading One Dimensional Man and ‘Repressive Tolerance’ and it would have been a coup to get him to come to Oxford. I kept Marcuse’s letter for many years and may still have it – as also the black and white poster for the Dialectics of Liberation congress which used to hang on the wall of my student room.’

On Paul Goodman:

ROS KANE: ‘I went to some of the DoL., possibly all, I can’t remember now. I remember Paul Goodman in particular. He said how some tramp in New York (in the park I think?) had wanted to bugger him and he went along with it out of the goodness of his heart, as it were. He was generous to an amazing degree!! I don’t know why he told that story. I knew he had written good stuff about schooling. He died quite young. I was young (same age as Marshall Colman) and found the whole thing very exciting indeed. I remember nothing about the other speakers apart from their names. It felt like an important part of my youth. Exciting people and atmosphere. Great venue. Speakers challenging the status quo. Perhaps it contributed to my later work.’

‘When Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn’.

HOWARD SENZEL: ‘I was a student at the Institute for Policy studies in Washington DC in 1967. I was on my way to the London School of Economics to study with the great socialist scholar and historian of the labor party Ralph Miliband. When a poster arrived at the Institute announcing the Dialectics of Liberation, I took it and wrote back that I would be coming. … I arrived in London the day the Dialectics of Liberation began. I was 24 years old. I had never been out of the U.S. before. … The DL was filled with celebrities. Ronnie Laing was extremely nervous, almost twitchy, and delivered his lectures with great hesitation as if he was unsure. I had already read The Politics of Experience. David Cooper did not seem like a psychiatrist. I remember him saying, the woman holds her baby boy out of the fifth story window to prove that she loves him. She proves she loves him by not dropping him. He also said, it was perfectly normal to hear voices inside your head telling you what to do. Therapy can teach us not to obey them.

‘Gregory Bateson was there. Also Paul Goodman…. Allen Ginsberg arrived with William Burroughs and a third man. Burroughs wore a black raincoat and a black hat. Everyone noticed them when someone, who was leading a chant, had divided the audience into three groups, each one with a different phrase to chant and Ginsberg and Burroughs got up and moved to another section, presumably preferring the other chant.

‘The weather was wonderful. Sunny and warm. I had no idea that this was unusual for London. The roundhouse was very dusty. You could still see evidence of railroad tracks on the floor. There were always hundreds of people milling about. It became clear that many of them were patients of existential psychiatrists or psychiatrists themselves and it was very difficult to tell who was who. One of the patients who I came to know was called Joe Recort. He was from someplace in the north of England. He knew hundreds and hundreds of English accents. I also met Seymour King, a remarkable poet and a spiritual Englishman, a rare figure.

‘The lectures went on all day long. … After the speeches, things often got interesting as various members of the public grabbed the microphone, danced, sang or acted out. My strongest memory of the entire week was a red-haired American with a moustache and a strong Brooklyn accent shouting into the microphone, “When Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, I said fuck you to the entire capitalist system!” (O’Malley was a banker who was president of the Brooklyn baseball team which was the most profitable team in baseball, but which moved to Los Angeles in 1957 where even more money could be made, etc.) I was struck by someone saying something so American in England.’

The congress taped.

ROY BATTERSBY: ‘I was living with Ben Churchill, a good friend of Laing’s. … Ronnie’s old family house in North Finchley had been made over into another refuge [like Kingsley Hall] for young people, and Ben was running it and Ben, his wife Lesley, and I lived there and shared the house with anything between four and six young people. …When the Dialectics was being organised, Ben had one of those wonderful solid-as-a-rock tape recorders called a Revox, and we said we’d do the sound. So Ben and I spent the whole time, the whole length of the conference, recording it.’

Feminism: ‘The Congress stage was invaded by a group of six incensed woman.’

DAVID GALE:  ’An extraordinary event took place in the Roundhouse around that time. It may actually have been a part of the Congress, I can’t remember. I was reminded of it by the repeated comments of  a number of correspondents  on the site who note the utter absence of female voices throughout the Congress (there are a few female faces apparent in the footage of the audience on the YouTube clip “Dialectics of Liberation Preview”). As a patient of David Cooper back then, I had been urged to attend and went along on several occasions.

‘The following account provides some evidence of an active female presence but it should not be seen, however, as somehow compensating for the imbalance created by the strident, hectoring manner of many of the male speakers and their hecklers. The beginnings of such a reparation would not surface until the end of the decade.

‘Towards the end of the two week gathering, it having been eloquently if implicitly, established that the future, rather like the past, was male, the Congress stage was invaded by a group of six incensed women.  Without prefatory cries or rumblings from the floor, they jumped onto the platform – I can’t recall who was on it at the time – seized some hand mics and began to denounce the entire structure and organisation of the Congress. The women were not beautiful – something that, in the Summer of Love, men had come to expect of expressive females, and they had working class accents. They shouted, raged and swore at the audience, giving ground to no-one and, in fact, receiving very little audible reaction from a stunned crowd. The lack of local friction did not deter them in the least for they were, it quickly became apparent, not merely vexed by the maleness of this revolutionary occasion, they took it as absolutely typical of the whole, burgeoning late 60s revolutionary enterprise.  The Dialectics of Liberation Congress was just one more kick in the teeth, delivered by superstars in the blissfully unreflective male firmament of hot new radicalism.

‘The women held the stage for about fifteen minutes then walked out. I wish I could say I empathised with my sisters but I was, in fact, shocked and bewildered. I was too shy to have been a heckler or a contributor during the proceedings of the previous couple of weeks but I had yet to make thoughtful connections between my unease with certain styles of maleness and anything as weird as Women’s Liberation. Three years later, thanks in large part to the profound impact of Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” (1970), the men who shuffled out of the Roundhouse, muttering defensively and making jokes about mad, ugly chicks, were probably becoming more ruminative.’

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: ‘I went off on the overground train from Hackney to hear Ronnie Laing talk about the “institutionalized” violence of the asylum. Social control was being presented by anti-psychiatry as embedded within the texture of daily life, an idea which the women’s movement was later to adapt. But that night it was posed as the personal versus the politicos, and the long-haired supporters of Laing roamed restlessly around the back of the hall when it was the turn of Stokely Carmichael, the Civil Rights activist who was shifting from non-violence to black power, to speak. I can remember the crackling tension in the air and the scorn with which he dismissed a young white woman who questioned separatist politics from the audience. Without any conscious feminism, I recoiled angrily from his refusal to listen to her and his disdain of her political support.’ (excerpted from Rowbotham’s memoir, Promise of a Dream)

A stolen bike.

JEREMY HOLMES: ‘What do I remember about it? Certainly being a “runner” and driving Gregory Bateson from his hotel in Kensington to the Round House in my mini-van. Laing – all in black looking like a pop star; David Cooper giving a silly talk about the end of time. Being in some sort of breakout group and, as usual feeling upstaged and marginal compared with the fully fledged, LSD popping, long-haired, psychodelicised revolutionaries who had gathered there. Most of the time I went by bike and on one occasion had a prize essay on psychiatry in my saddle-bag, which was stolen with the bike. I put ads in all the local newsagents asking for the essay to be returned – they could keep the bike I said – but to no avail. I had to re-write the whole thing – a case study of a depressed man I had seen – and got the Bernard Hart prize anyway, despite the fact that it was no doubt packed with Laingianisms.’

‘You would probably wait a lifetime to see the same collection of people.’

DAVID TRIESMAN: ‘I shared a cottage with a couple of guys, one of whom had been a patient of Laing’s and he first introduced us. I later met the other psychiatrists associated with him in a house in Primrose Hill, and also saw a bit of Ronnie Laing in Belsize Park at his place. I met David Cooper in Primrose Hill, first in the Queen’s pub and then at the house they used as a practice almost next door. I ought to emphasise they interested me intellectually. I didn’t have any time for the drugs stuff and, happily, was never depressed! … I can’t recall any particular build up [to the congress] and certainly didn’t put up posters. I tended to think it would be one of the events with some potential politically to bring together various parts of the libertarian left with the more mainstream left – it seemed important to do so. I also felt it was likely the differences in the mainstream left would disrupt the process. Indeed, some of that happened. There was one meeting beforehand at LSE but I must be honest, I can’t remember what happened there. The person who talked to me about it all with the greatest enthusiasm was Michael Kustow and he introduced me to Carolee Schneemann. I always thought that MK had a great eye for “edgy” theatre and I was terminally bored with the agitprop stuff on the left. … I remember Roger Gottlieb being at the Roundhouse. …. Bateson was great. Ginsberg interesting and curious. I met him through David Widgery. Laing always interesting. …  Tariq [Ali] was simply theatrical and I thought a turn-off. I remember a break-out discussion with Peter Wollen on art and movies which, with interventions by Ben Brewster, was really interesting. … The atmosphere changed day to day. Some of it was fun, some a bore. … I guess there was always going to be a difference of style and content between the libertarians and the political activists, and between the Jerry Rubin “Do It” people and the budding Althusserians. Certainly it was true that a number of people were not interested in what anyone else was saying. Listening didn’t seem to be the best fun. I thought it was the most interesting part because you would probably wait a lifetime to see the same collection of people even if some of them were underwhelming in the flesh. … The congress was a very male event, but the fact that the libertarians and political people were together (with so much going on in the women’s movement elsewhere) probably did mean there was valuable things happening. Juliet Mitchell was either training or had just trained and she would have had another basis for evaluating some of the people there. I vaguely remember Sheila Rowbotham being there. I’m not sure what counts as raising consciousness, but if they say it raised their conscious a lot I’d be surprised.’

A run-in with Michael de Freitas, alias Michael Abdul Malik alias Michael X.

LEON REDLER: ‘I recall being called by Barclay’s Bank, which was on the corner of Wigmore and Wimpole streets … Stokely Carmichael had told me to give the money that was coming to him for his transportation to Michael X. And I said “okay”. And I wrote a cheque to Michael X. … It was a sizeable cheque to cover his transatlantic fare and some other expenses. And around this time Stokely was said to be giving talks at Hyde Park and elsewhere urging black people to kill white cops, and the Home Office, not surprisingly, was not amused … The riots [in the ghetto areas of Newark] were on the TV, and I get a call from Barclay’s Bank. … The voice said, “Is this Dr Redler?” I said, “Yes.” It was the manager, and he wanted to know whether I had any dealings with Michael de Frietas, which was his name. I said, “Why are you asking?” And he said, “Well, I am concerned; Mr de Frietas has been behaving in a threatening manner. You wrote a cheque for him, and it wasn’t crossed (those were the days of crossed cheques) and he wanted the money.” … I think they felt that Michael felt that it was because he was black he was not getting the money. Which is strange because he must have known about cheques … Well, Michael said to the manager something like, “If you don’t give me the money you’re going to hear from me; I’m not letting it drop here.” And because of what the people at the bank had seen on TV, they were frightened about that. … Then I called up Michael, and I said, “What’s this about?” And he said, “Yeah, they wouldn’t give me the money.” And I said, “What about the threats?” And he said, “I didn’t make any threats.” And I said, “I have my money in Notting Hill Gate, and if that’s the way they’re treating you I’m going to take my money out.”‘

‘Looking back it all seems pretty awful.’

MARSHALL COLMAN: ‘DoL was the apotheosis of sixties radicalism, combining academic Marxism (Marcuse), anti-psychiatry (Laing and Cooper), black power (Carmichael) and a few crazy artists (Schneemann and Metzger). Sartre couldn’t come but sent a message.  I liked the Provos and after the congress went to Amsterdam and hung out in the Vondelspark. It was huge fun.  The Women’s Liberation Movement (still with capital letters) was so new that, as far as I remember, there were few women on the platform.  What struck me at the time was how utterly irrelevant it was to ordinary people.  A man in a flat cap wandered in from Chalk Farm Road, was bewildered, ignored, and went out again.   But a few things trickled down: the Provos’ white bicycle scheme has now been adopted by Boris Johnson. … I was in a seminar with R.D.Laing when someone suggested that we may one day understand the biochemistry of mental illness.  Laing went purple with rage.  Now, of course, we are beginning to understand the biochemistry of mental illness. … Looking back it all seems pretty awful.’

The Roundhouse today: ‘A true portrait of what’s happened to London.’

IAIN SINCLAIR: ‘It’s very much what’s happened to London. … Now it’s made over into something that’s a cultural space, a non-space, where the history of the past is posters on the wall. … Security guards allow you into this bit or that bit. A rock concert may be coming along in the next five minutes. It’s depressing that the people who run it know nothing of the history of 1967. We went in there to ask if we could film, and one of the people pointed to this poster on the wall. It was all it was to them: a poster on the wall.’