Diving Deep Into Radical Thought During the Hippie Era

The following is an excerpt from the new book In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea by Danny Goldberg (on sale June 6, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Akashic Books:

In July 1967, at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, there was a two weeklong conference portentously called Congress on Dialectics of Liberation. Originally conceived by therapists known as “anti-psychiatrists,” such as R.D. Laing, to discuss issues like treatment of schizophrenia, the mission of the Congress morphed into  "A unique gathering to demystify violence in all its forms" and became London’s major intellectual counter-culture conclave of the decade.

Most of the speakers were the big radical academic brains of the Western World at the time. Among them was Paul Goodman, then fifty-eight years old, and Herbert Marcuse almost seventy, a German socialist and political theorist who had emigrated to the U.S., and was the ideological idol of radicals around the world, including American rebels Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis. (In Revolution For The Hell Of It Hoffman writes that Marcuse smoked hash at the conference but it is possible this was wishful thinking).

The organizers of the Congress were old-school intellectual radicals.  Goodman had developed a disdainful attitude toward much of the youth culture. He lamented the hippies’ apparent lack of respect for expertise and criticized what he perceived as an obsession with "inner" experiences. "I knew that I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions to which I was sympathetic, but I now saw that we had to deal with a religious crisis of the magnitude of the Reformation in the fifteen hundreds."

Other old lefties worried that a stoner departure from rational thought could make the movement susceptible to dark social movements. British playwright Arnold Wesker, one of the founders of the Roundhouse Theatre and an anti-nuclear activist, had referred to hippies as "pretty little fascists."

To many in the counter-culture, these criticisms were akin to those of folk music purists who had freaked out when Bob Dylan "went electric," and who sympathized with what C. Wright Mills was referring to when he skewered "crackpot realism." San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph J. Gleason who became one of the founders of Rolling Stone Magazine mocked many in the old left as “prisoners of logic.”

There would be no rock and roll, tabs of acid at or nudity at The Congress but in a nod to the burgeoning youth culture, a panel consisting of Emmett Grogan, Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg was on the last day of the Congress.

Grogan wore a work shirt, corduroy pants and wooden beads around his neck and gave a fiery oration, which ended with the statement, "History will judge the movement not according to the swine we have removed or imprisoned but according to whether the revolution has succeeded in returning the power to the people."  Grogan was rewarded with a standing ovation after which he revealed that the words had been an English translation of a speech Adolf Hitler had given to the Reichstag in 1937.  The point was to sensitize the radical audience into the moral emptiness of much of what passed for revolutionary rhetoric.

Carmichael had stepped down as leader of SNCC but remained affiliated with the organization and he had been named "Honorary Prime Minister" of the newly formed Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. He was dressed in a gold suit and wore dark glasses.  Immediately prior to the panel, Ginsberg had introduced Carmichael to Grogan but the Digger had just shot some heroin, which perhaps was why refused to shake the civil rights leader’s hand. Carmichael was infuriated at the slight as he walked onto the stage but he had long ago learned how to channel hurt feelings into effective public speaking.

He spoke so powerfully that Ginsberg would refer to him admiringly as "a young shaman." Carmichael referred to urban riots as "rebellions, or guerilla warfare," and rhetorically aligned America’s racial struggles with movements by people of color in Africa and other parts of the Third World. He lamented the recent death of Che Guevera and insisted "revolutionaries of the world (must) redouble their decision to fight on to the final defeat of imperialism."

Carmichael ended his remarks by expressing contempt for the "flower power" of young white hippies.  This ephemeral "tactic," he felt, had absolutely no effect on reducing violence against black people nor in stopping the war in Vietnam. The audience of intellectuals gave him a standing ovation. There was already an attitude on the part of a lot of the old left that hippies were a self-indulgent movement of "haves," that had far too little compassion for the "have-nots."

Ginsberg had just spent several weeks in Rapello, with the eighty-two year old Ezra Pound who at that point in his life was in a state of melancholia and often went weeks without uttering a word. Even with such an idol, Ginsberg was an evangelist for youth culture. He played his idol the Sgt. Peppers album, Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Before he left Italy, Pound had spoken to and embraced Ginsberg.

The day before the Congress commenced Ginsberg had done the Hare Krishna chant at a rally to legalize marijuana in London’s Hyde Park attended by five thousand British heads.  Early in the Congress Allen sung a musical melody he had written to an English translation done by Shunryu Suzuki of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

Grogan, who was a withering critic of most hip celebrities made an exception for Ginsberg calling him "the kind of good person that is hard to find." For additional moral support Ginsberg brought William Burroughs as a guest. Burroughs was the author of the novel Naked Lunch, which had enough Beat gravitas that the Beatles had included him in the montage on their new album cover. He didn’t speak but wandered conspicuously about, taking in the proceedings, but rarely removing his black raincoat and black hat as if he might get fed up and leave at any moment.

This panel was to be Ginsberg’s last chance to communicate with this particular gathering of intellectuals and he had promised not to chant. He began by respectfully challenging Carmichael’s depiction of hippies. "The best experience I have had has been with the younger people in America, and some few of my own generation who have had to confront the mass hallucination, or mode of consciousness, into which we were born, and had some kind of mental breakthrough which clarified not only the nature of our own identity, but also the nature of others identities, as being the same as our own."

Younger people! That was the key energy of the moment. Beats like Allen and left-wingers and black nationalists had been against both racism and materialism in decades past but things were different because of this vast new generation. Unlike older radical intellectuals at the Congress, Allen was embracing them. Ginsberg seemed to be saying the same dominant culture that oppressed black people had stifled many young whites. The room was silent. Carmichael peered at him through his dark glasses. What possible connection was there between the "inner" worlds supposedly opened up by LSD that Ginsberg was so enraptured by and the moral nightmare of racism and other forms of oppression?  Ginsberg continued, "That is not, necessarily, to preclude our taking detached action within the situation."

Action! But Allen was not referring to confrontations with police. "The most detached action that I have seen taken within the situation is the use of LSD by the younger people, for the purpose of demystifying their own consciousness and arriving at some sort of universe, where they are sitting with flowers, ourselves."

The poet acknowledged that attempts by the hippie culture were experimental thus far. "We have very small community groups, in San Francisco and in New York, beginning to leave the money-wheel, and also beginning to leave the hallucination-wheel of the media, beginning to form small co-operatives, tribal units, societies, of their own."

He turned to Carmichael and continued, "The reason the hippies have taken on these beads, appurtenances, music of shamanistic groups, of ecstatic trance-state types, is because they are beginning to explore, for the first time, the universe of consciousness of other cultures beside their own" Some clusters of hippies were even "beginning to move in on authority with those weapons which have been called ‘flower power,’ being euphemistic for a simple, calm, tranquil equilibrium, non-violent, as far as possible, as far as the self can be controlled, so that it can relate to other selves in disguise, including the police."

Including the police! Carmichael had sarcastically said he would have more respect for flowers if they had had any effect on the Newark police who had, in recent days, brutally quashed the riots in their city.  This was exactly the sort of language that drove him crazy about the hippies.

“Mr. Ginsberg, I don’t know much about the hippie movement, but I would like to beg to differ with you. I think the reason most of them are hippies today is because they are confused little kids who have run away from their home and who will return to their culture within a year or two.”

Ginsberg answered, “There’s no culture to return to." Carmichael replied indignantly "Before I find my individual self, I must find my group culture." The poet responded with a rueful smile "We don’t have a viable group culture either, so we’re in the same boat, in that sense." Carmichael nodded respectfully. Ginsberg had been confined to an insane asylum as a young man for several months. Whatever he thought about hippies writ large Carmichael knew that this particular poet was for real.  

But the black leader had another point to make. Nothing the hippies had done had reduced white on black violence. Ginsberg was quick to answer: "Nothing anyone had done, not hippies, nor the black power movement has reduced such violence so far." So which approach was actually more "realistic"?

Ginsberg’s quiet point seemed consistent with Grogan’s earlier dramatic put-on. The word "revolution" had an intoxicating sound and angry tones could temporarily be cathartic, but what did it really mean if people’s day-to-day lives became worse in their wake?

The establishment was not charmed by the earnestness of the exchange. British authorities were terrified that American race riots would spread to black sections of the UK such as Brixton or Notting Hill As things turned out, British blacks did not riot that summer but when tapes of Carmichael’s remarks were made public the next month, he was banned from re-entering the United Kingdom.

There were a couple of other significant moments that the Congress is remembered for. On the last day, six British women jumped onto the stage at the Roundhouse and bitterly complained about the inherent sexism of the meetings. Out of twenty-two speakers only two were female and even they had been placed in secondary sessions. More effective struggles by women of the left to avoid such absurd disparities were soon to come.

Ginsberg’s favorite speaker was British anthropologist Gregory Bateson who conducted a seminar called "Ecological Destruction by Technology."  Bateson introduced his theory of the effect of pollution on increasing the temperature of earth’s atmosphere. Shortly thereafter Ginsberg told an interviewer "you keep the heat up and the fog gathers up and pretty soon you have a cloud over the sky and you have the greenhouse effect and the earth will heat up and melt the poles and the poles will melt and drown cities." This was one of the first times that the concept of “global warming” was discussed outside of scientific circles.

Despite all of the brainpower assembled at The Congress it did not encompass everything thing that was going on in the minds of the counter-culture. The very next month the Beatles made front-page news by meeting with a man who had very different ideas about how enlightened human beings should use their minds.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea by Danny Goldberg (on sale June 6, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Akashic Books.


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