The Dialectics of Liberation - Roundhouse - Celebrating 50 Years


15 – 30 July 1967

It was the idea of anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing to call together some of the Western world’s most radical thinkers to assemble at the Roundhouse to discuss the ills of the world. The conference was called The Dialectics of Liberation: Towards a Demystification of Violence.

The cast-list was stellar, but eclectic – poet Allen Ginsberg; Emmett Grogan, co-founder of the San Francisco Diggers; Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael; anthropologist and proto-ecologist Gregory Bateson; Paul Goodman, author of ‘Growing Up Absurd’; Leopold Kohr, author of ‘The Breakdown of Nations’, who coined the phrase ‘small is beautiful’; and German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, author of ‘One Dimensional Man’. The Living Theatre’s Julian Beck was there too. All came to Chalk Farm for two weeks in July 1967. The Social Deviants, a proto-punk Underground band, provided the music.

RD Laing at the Dialectics of Liberation conference

RD Laing at the Dialectics of Liberation conference, July 1967

The Dialectics of Liberation by Graham Keen is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

A later book on the conference, edited by David Cooper, described it as “a unique expression of the politics of modern dissent, in which existential psychiatrists, Marxist intellectuals, anarchists and political leaders met to discuss… the key social issues of the next decade. In exploring the roots of violence in society the speakers analysed personal alienation, repression and student revolution. They then turned to the problems of liberation – of physical and cultural ‘guerrilla warfare’ to free man from mystification, from the blind destruction of his environment, and from the inhumanity which he projects onto his opponents in family situations, in wars and in racial conflict. The aim of the congress was to create a genuine revolutionary consciousness by fusing ideology and action on the levels of the individual and of mass society.”

Carmichael raised the roof with a fierce advocacy of Black Power and a call for a new way of fighting individual and institutional racism. Ginsberg began his talk on ‘Consciousness and Practical Action’ with a quote from William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express. The proceedings were recorded; but Ginsberg’s piece was so shocking that a woman in the vinyl pressing plant was taken ill. Bateson used his time to warn about the impending hazards of a ‘greenhouse’ effect on the world’s climate. Reporting on the conference, one commentator wrote, “I doubt if Centre 42 will see as much real creativity in 10 years as we saw in these two weeks…”

See Peter Davis’ pictures from the event.