By Oisín Wall
For many in London in 1968 there was a palpable sense that the world was on the brink of the ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds,’ as novelist and Situationist Alex Trocchi called it. Global politics were dominated by the suicidal logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, the anti-war movement was growing, France and Italy were in open revolt and across Britain squats and communes were experimenting with new ways of living. These were the heydays of the British counter-culture.
Through December 1967 and January 1968 a group of radicals met repeatedly in a Harley Street consulting room and a terraced house in Camden to plan the formation of an ‘Anti-University’. The group included the anti-psychiatrists R.D. Laing and David Cooper; veterans of the Free University of New York, Allen Krebs and Joe Berke; the feminist psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell; and the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. In February, 1968, the Anti-University of London opened its doors.
True to the style of the time, the Anti-University was a ‘campus university’. The ‘campus’ was at 49 Rivington Street in Shoreditch. Although the building is now a designer boutique and luxury apartments in a trendy and gentrified area, it was, at the time, a run-down building in a working class district. A BBC news report at the time joked that the hardest thing about getting into the Anti-University was finding its ‘unspectacular door’ – suggesting that it was best identified by locating the pub across the road from it, the still extant, if entirely gentrified, Bricklayers Arms. Inside the ‘campus’ was a series of seminar rooms, a common room and an office. Owned by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, its previous occupants were the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, who were very reluctant to leave when the Anti-University began moving in.
The Anti-University offered courses in a wide array of subjects including Black Power, by Obi Egbuna, the Nigerian-born chairman of the anti-racist United Coloured People’s Association; Politics: The Inter-Relationship between Crime, Government and Business, by Harvey Matusow the American communist-turned-FBI-informer-turned-hippy; and Dragons, by Francis Huxley the Cambridge-based anthropologist. Other faculty members included some of the great stars of the international counter-culture, including the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. The day-to-day running of the Anti-University was handled by a full time coordinator and a Committee of faculty members. Policy decisions were made by all interested members at a weekly ‘counteruniversity meeting.’ Initially the Anti-university thrived. By spring, 1968 their numbers had risen to three hundred students and fifty faculty.
The Anti-University saw itself as the centre of a radical counter-cultural network, it boasted close ties with the international Free University movement with connections to, for instance, the Free University of New York and the New Experimental College in Denmark. Moreover the Anti-University encouraged and cultivated ties with anti-institutions of every type including ‘anti-hospitals’, ‘anti-conferences’ and ‘anti-families’. In its promotional material Joe Berke described it as part of ‘the vanguard of large scale political resistance which in the West takes the form of cultural guerrilla warfare.’ It emerged from an apparent consensus, among many branches of the counter-cultural network, that through radical cultural activities and experiments a new society would emerge in which the ‘square’ state would become unnecessary and eventually wither away.
Ultimately the Rivington Street campus proved to be both a unifying and dividing factor for the members of the Anti-University. In August of 1968 the anti-University was forced to leave the campus because of their mounting arrears and unpaid bills. Framed by the committee as a transformation into a less hierarchically structured organisation, the Anti-University tried to establish itself without a campus. They attempted to continue holding classes in members’ flats and London’s pubs. In reality, without a campus to provide focus, the Anti-University destructured itself out of existence.
Oisín Wall is an historian and curator at University College Dublin working on the Wellcome funded project Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. His current research is on the ‘non-political’, ie. non-republication, prisoner rights movement in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. He recently published a monograph on the relationship between psychiatry and counter-culture in 1960s London, called The British Anti-Psychiatrists: from institutional psychiatry to the counter-culture, 1960-1971. His curatorial work includes a gallery about the history of the medicine and the collections at the Science Museum in London, called Journeys Through Medicine; and three years working on Medicine and Communities, one of the new permanent Medicine Galleries at the Science Museum that will open in 2019. @oisinwall
50 years after the tumultuous events of 1968, HWO were inundated with posts exploring aspects of that year and its legacy. The Remembering 1968 was shaped from these submissions, and includes: