Two years ago some smart leftists here put together an event called the Battle of Ideas, and the mix of provocative themes, well-run panels and competent speakers worked out well. I was invited to speak at a couple of sessions in the third Battle at the end of October and was happy to find its organizers threading a sane course past the rocks on which left-organized confabs usually founder: viz., endless mastication of the obvious, marked disinclination to address any new ideas, overblown preachments to the converted. In fact, on the surface at least, this didn’t seem like a particularly “left” affair, which probably explains why that weekend a thousand people were milling around the Royal College of Art, next to the Albert Hall.
Waiting for my first panel (“Digital Commons: Does New Technology Add Up to a New Sphere?” My answer: no), I thought back forty years to what these days would be called a signature ’60s event, namely, the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held over two weeks in July 1967 in a magnificent railway repair shed known as the Roundhouse, built in the 1840s in north London. There was nothing circular about those proceedings. It was full-tilt forward to revolution, personal and political.
The Congress was convened by radical psychiatrists led by R.D. Laing and David Cooper. They believed that the violence done to what they saw as those socially victimized persons termed “schizophrenic” or “mad” had common features with America’s imperial violence, at that time being unleashed on revolutionary Vietnam. The affair featured big names and big themes: Herbert Marcuse, Paul Sweezy, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson.
The night before his address I cooked dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Marcuse on behalf of the New Left Review editorial committee. Marcuse was sharing lodgings with Goodman and denounced the latter’s habit of leaving the bathroom door open as he stood in his underwear, brushing his teeth, “flirting his buttocks.” Marcuse twitched his behind in parody of the licentious author of Growing Up Absurd as, slightly shocked, our group waited to continue with probing questions about the Frankfurt School. “Too much civilization, not enough Eros,” Mrs. Marcuse muttered wryly.
Next day Marcuse admonished the large crowd, many of whom had taken up permanent residence in the Roundhouse, “We have been too ashamed, understandably ashamed, to insist on the integral, radical features of a socialist society…. If this qualitative difference today appears as utopian, as idealistic, as metaphysical, this is precisely the form in which these radical features must appear if…socialism is indeed…the leap into the realm of freedom–a total rupture.”