The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town

From the Archive: Agitate! Educate! Organise! The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town

Originally published in the Alternative Strategies issue of Line


When a seventy year old Hamish Henderson sang Freedom Come All Ye at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990 , it was the ultimate folk-song cabaret. Here, after all, was the man who’s co-founding of the School of Scottish Studies in 1951 had kick-started the Scottish folk revival, and here was singing the song he’d penned that many believe to be Scotland’s real national anthem (with a small n, for Henderson was nothing if not internationalist in outlook). Henderson sang it too in his own slightly cracked tones not as part of some officially sanctioned flagship event for Glasgow’s status as European City of Culture that year, but for a low-level grassroots initiative that brought together art and activism in an event that would prove to be of huge trickle-down significance.

The Self-Determination and Power event was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne. Also involved were Variant, then a glossy magazine containing provocations from Stewart Home, Pete Horobin’s Dundee-based Data Attic and others; West Coast literary magazine, Here and Now magazine, the radical-based Clydeside Press, and the Scotia  bar, then a hub for free-thinking dissent down by the river just across from the Gorbals.

Self-Determination and Power had been set up in part as a reaction to Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, which was seen by many as a cynical attempt to put gloss on what already existed. All the bodies behind it were key thinkers in radical thought that had little truck with political parties and was more to do with a spirit of punk and hippy-inspired DIY. Edinburgh Review had become a major platform for this, as, too a lesser extent, had Scottish Child. The crossovers with the Free University, however, were crucial.

In the days before the internet, such networks required a lot of envelope-licking and paper folding, and, leaf through its pages of contact lists, and it was clearly a disparate body. Artists, activists, anarchists and academics were all here, as were curators, musicians, novelists and poets, some well-known, others not so much. Some of the most familiar were novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, both figures championed by Edinburgh review under Kravitz. Kelman in particular was an auto-didact who captured a working-class voice that would go on to influence the likes of Irvine Welsh and others published by Kevin Williamson’s lit-zine Rebel Inc a few years later in Edinburgh.

Kelman too was instrumental in getting no less a figure than Noam Chomsky to be key speaker at Self-Determination and Power. This was a major coup. As a linguist, philosopher and radical agitator who could use the words ‘anarchism’ and ‘enlightenment’ together without histrionics, Chomsky was not only the quietest of figureheads for the none-aligned left, but of his American homeland he remains so rationally critical of. In Glasgow Chomsky spoke calmly but passionately as he would on a much bigger platform at Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall sixteen years later.

It was in this very room in Edinburgh, it should be noted,  where the famed international drama conference of 1963 when In Memory of Big Ed, an intervention led by artists Mark and Joan Boyle with dramatist Charles Marowitz, Ken Dewey and Charles Lewson and involving a naked female performer, made front page news.

But in 1990 in the Pearce Institute, Govan, Chomsky didn’t need such accoutrements to court and captivate the 330 in attendance. According to an article on the blog, City Strolls, titled Coffee With The Riff-Raff, in his two keynote speeches, Chomsky somewhat tellingly ‘disparages nationalism, the exercise of political power by leaders who do not answer to citizens, instruments of social control and isolationism such as television, and the collusion of media in the process of oppression and the spreading of lies.’

Self-Determination and Power, then, with all its break-out groups, plenary sessions and film and audio documentation, was itself something of a Happening. It was too that rarest of alliances; a place where politics, art and activism could co-exist without the flag-waving populist embarrassment of Red Wedge, the Labour Party supporting package tour of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Neil Kinnock that would quietly disband once Kinnock lost yet another Westminster General Election.


For someone who’d left school at fifteen with ideas above their station in terms of what was expected of them anyway, and who, eventually, went on later than most to further education, being exposed to and taking part in the Self-Determination and Power event was a kind of rites of passage and a wake-up call. 

Not that there hadn’t been other epiphanies, from record shops and bookshops and art galleries and performance spaces and the early days of Channel Four and the revelatory epistles of Scritti Politti, who deconstructed the love song with Marxist theory and wrote pop tributes to Jacques Derrida, and seized the means of production before turning glossy pop entryists.  All this stuff took me off-syllabus and into all the left-field ephemera in the library at college and pretty much everywhere else besides. But, and perhaps for the first time, the Self-Determination and Power event wasn’t just about ideas. It was about hearing those ideas out loud, ideas about art and politics and philosophy and poetry that weren’t readily available to those expected to unblinkingly and unthinkingly follow the school-work-good-and-useful-citizen route.

It was a series of ever enlightening little glimpses through the bullshit fog of misinformation and into something that questioned and confounded and confused with its lateral leaps into the unknown. It contextualised and challenged and embraced the contradictions. It wasn’t three R’s simplification or some ill-informed and out-of-touch public school-boy prime-ministerial platitudinising about ‘education, education, education.’. It wasn ‘t about well-meaning but ultimately vapid box-ticking notions of social inclusion and access. Like Beatie Bryant, the country girl heroine of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play, Roots, it wasn’t about regurgitating hand-me-down information because it sounded right. Blust to all that. This was about finding a voice.


Free University Glasgow had been ‘established’, as Malcolm Dickson, one of the prime movers behind the Self-Determination and Power event, wrote in Justified Sinners, Ross Birrell and Alec Finlay’s impressive ‘archaeology of Scottish Counter Culture (1960-2000), published by Finlay’s Pocketbooks imprint in 2002 between 1987-91 ‘in recognition of the potential in cultural activity to push things along and make connections between people. It was about braking down isolation and people linking up with one another.’

What this meant, according to Dickson, was a series of meetings in flats, houses, galleries and other spaces on such topics as ‘Joseph Beuys, Paolo Freire, the German Green Movement, computers in the workplace, art and class.’ Two larger public meetings also took place; a seminar on Culture and Politics in 1987, and a Scratch Parliament in 1988. The spirit was of a grassroots sharing of ideas that seized, if not the means of production, then certainly the theoretical keys to those means.

The first name mentioned by Dickson, of course, was crucial to Free University Glasgow. It was Joseph Beuys, after all, who had founded the Free international University in Dusseldorf in 1973 as ‘an organisational place of research, work and communication’. A loose ad hoc network of Free Universities developed, stuttered, faded from view and were occasionally reborn in Amsterdam, Munich and across Europe and beyond. Beuys’ much documented visits to Edinburgh, initially with the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970 and the nexus of activities that sprang from it could also be seen as a form of spreading the Free University virus.


Rewind two years before the Self-Determination and Power event to late 1988, and, in a large but packed to capacity church in the centre of Edinburgh, a small but wizened old man is speaking in barely a whisper to the hushed crowd hanging on his every word. The man is Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire, another key thinker discussed by Free University Glasgow, and, like Beuys, a radical in that much overused word’s broadest sense.

Freire’s 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argued that, as their is no such thing as education systems controlled by those in power, who use it as a tool to keep that power, then those oppressed by that power must effectively educate themselves in other ways in order to be liberated from it. Freire’s notion of ‘fundamental democratisation’ and of not treating students as passive recipients of knowledge by rote, but as co-educators, was a form of self-determination by any other name.

Freire’s theories were a direct influence in Edinburgh on the setting up of the Adult Learning Project  (ALP). Set up in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected as Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, as a community resource to explore notions of self-hood through a variety of projects in the Gorgie-Dalry district. These included projects on family, school, national identity, health and parenting, and in form and structure were subjective and experiential. A full history of ALP and Freire’s influence can be found in the expanded 2011 edition of Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland, by Gerry and Colin Kirkwood, and originally published in 1989.

Yet, if Beuys and Freire were talismans turned accidental gurus of cultural self-determination, the seeds of Self-Determination and Power were planted a lot earlier.


The person who took me to see Paolo Freire was a man called George Byatt. George was a Glasgow-born playwright, whose dramatic poem, The Clyde Is Red, which was a part revolutionary, part holy piece about how the people of Glasgow learnt to walk on water, had won a Prix Italia award for its BBC radio adaptation in 1988. George was an unholy trinity of Glasgow Catholicism, Marxism and Buddhism, all mixed up in a strident stew of anarcho-syndicalism. In short, he was a believer. 

George had written for television in the 1960s and 1970s, but had some kind of wake-up call that had made him start writing for the stage. In 1972 George worked as press officer on the great Northern Welly-Boot Show, which Tom McGrath had done the music for and John Byrne the design. Three great playwrights to be, all doing different jobs. Loosely based on the Clydeside shipyard protests in Govan, The great Northern Welly-Boot Show was a riot of grassroots popular theatre forms and techniques that would inspire 7:84 writer and director to create The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil a year later. The Great Northern Welly-Boot Show would also go on to make Billy Connolly, himself a former Govan shipyard worker, a star.

George introduced a co-operative way of working into the Welly-Boot Show company that he would later hone in his own company, Theatre PkF (Peace-keeping Force). This was based on a none-hierarchical idea of discussion, which, depending on how George told it, he’d discovered in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, through Native American culture, or at Sandhurst.

With PkF, and with Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which he co-founded, George would hold discussions after every performance. He called this the second act of the play, and, just as he wouldn’t work with directors, these discussions would work, not with a chairperson hosting a panel of experts behind a table on a stage that immediately set up an us and them situation, but with a facilitator. This facilitator would then move to each audience member, by now gathered in a circle, in turn, and allow them to say as much or as little as they liked without interruption. If someone didn’t wish to speak, they said pass and moved on to the next person in the circle.

It was a wonderful if somewhat time-consuming ideal of participation and inclusiveness as opposed to being talked down to, although of course, George, who would be facilitating, invariably dominated the discussion. But then, out of anyone there, he probably had the most to say.

You never hear George being talked up as some iconic figure of the left the way you do with some people. The way George operated pissed off the powers that be, and you can sort of understand why. He’d worked out his own way if doing things with PkF that didn’t fit in with the status quo. Other writers and theatre companies didn’t fit in either, but they somehow managed to give the appearance that they had. George didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t, and it’s a crime his plays are never done anymore. Some say he was his own worst enemy, but he taught me a lot. 


By the time the Self-Determination and Power event was set up, Glasgow had long had an oppositionist outlook aesthetically and politically, from poets Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the old Third Eye Centre, now the site of the CCA, where original director Tom McGrath introduced the city to Miles Davis, Ivor Cutler and Sun Ra, and where, in 1984, the New Image Glasgow exhibition of painters introduced the world to the audacious romances of Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Stephen Conroy. More recent initiatives included the committee-run Transmission Gallery, which could be said to have set the template for much of the DIY visual art activity that exists in Glasgow and Edinburgh today. Networks were loose and based around the social.

It was the Third Eye, however, as Glasgow’s first multiple art form space, that was the catalyst, and it was McGrath who made it all happen. McGrath was a crucial figure in counter-cultural activity, not just in Glasgow, but in Edinburgh where his plays were performed at the Traverse, and in London, where he’d edited Peace News and underground bible International Times, or IT before falling foul of a heroin addiction and decamping back to Glasgow to clean up.

Key figures during McGrath’s 1960s years were two fellow Glaswegians; novelist Alexander Trocchi and psychiatrist R.D.Laing. Trocchi was a loose affiliate of the Beat Generation who, after leaving Glasgow University, had decamped to Paris, where he published Samuel Beckett and Henry miller in literary magazine, Merlin. Surviving financially by writing pornographic novels under a pseudonynom, his first novel, Young Adam, was published in 1957, and in 1960, a second, the similarly biblically titled Cain’s Book, followed. By that time Trocchi had acquired a heroin addiction, become involved with the Lettrist International and the Situationist International and had moved to America.

In 1962, the same year he appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Conference organised by publisher John Calder, Trocchi published what amounted to a call to arms, first in New Satire Review, then in Internationale Situationiste and City Lights Journal. A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds. This became Trocchi’s precursor to Project Sigma, a grand utopian scheme of a global network of artists and intellectuals who would enable a shift in consciousness via a ‘spontaneous university’, as Trocchi wrote in his actual manifesto, sigma: A Tactical Blueprint, in 1963, an ‘experimental laboratory’, where art and life were inseparable.

Key figures of the counter-culture such as William Burroughs, R.D. Laing, writer and artist Jeff Nuttall and sound poet Bob Cobbing all signed up to Sigma, exchanging missives and manifestos by post. If such ideas were picked up later on by the London Anti-University, Laing’s Kingsley Hall project for the radical treatment of schizophrenia between 1965 and 1970, and fellow anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation at London’s Roundhouse in 1967, nothing concrete came of project Sigma itself. But then, maybe that was the point.

Because, when Trocchi spoke of an ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds,’ he was predicting the internet just as much as Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village had done in the Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, also published, incidentally, in 1962.

Put Project Sigma into a Google search, today, however, and top of the list is an organisation offering masterclasses in business management and sustainable development. This probably isn’t what Trocchi had in mind. McLuhan, on the other hand, might understand.