Radical Histories of Psychedelics

Hallam Roffey | 11 April 2023

Modern History | British History | Cultural History | History of Science

Mainstream interest in psychedelic drugs has continued to rise in recent years, with compounds like LSD, psilocybin, and DMT receiving scientific reappraisal, and popular interest in Indigenous plant medicines like Ayahuasca growing. An increasing number of clinics in North America and Europe now offer a range of psychedelic-assisted therapies and research into these drugs is yielding promising results. Clinicians, therapists and researchers are celebrating this ‘Renaissance’ after decades of ‘lost progress’ following the post-1960s war on drugs.

Historical inquiries into psychedelic science have dominated the scholarship. However, Expanding Mindscapes: Global Histories of Psychedelics, an upcoming edited collection, offers ‘a longer and more diverse array of histories that take psychedelics beyond the realms of science and medicine and embed them in cultural phenomena’.

As journalist and researcher David Knickles has observed, the 1960s is often portrayed as the decade where psychedelics ‘got out of hand’, their ‘escape from the lab’ being retrospectively assessed as the death knell for their promising potential in medical, therapeutic, and psychiatric contexts. It is a narrative that overlooks those advocates of the psychedelic experience who have continued to recognise and promote the healing potential of psychedelics far beyond individualised medicine.

Take Bill ‘Ubi’ Dwyer, an Irishman born in 1933 who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1950s where he discovered anarchism. A popular orator, he moved to Sydney in 1966, sold LSD to finance anarchist projects, and called for an ‘unceasing battle against authority’ in his 1968 pamphlet Anarchy Now! Deported in 1969 for dealing acid, he continued his activism in London through the Freedom Press publishing house and, interested by the subversive potential of free music festivals, was a founder of the Windsor Free Festival in 1972.

Inspired by an LSD symposium at the US embassy in Dublin in 1970, Dwyer organised his own Acid Symposium at London’s Conway Hall in April 1971 with the goal of launching a ‘Head Liberation Front’ (‘Head’ being a popular term for users of psychedelics) that would promote communal living, cooperatives, and ‘enlightenment of public opinion on the subject of psychedelic drugs’. 

Dwyer had been encouraging debate over drugs in radical publications and that same month Anarchy magazine released ‘The Acid Issue’, exploring the place of psychedelics in the struggle for radical liberation and revolution. Some contributors to the issue attacked the superficiality of ‘Acid Fairyland’ and the irresponsible escapism of drug use. Dwyer, though, argued psychedelics were ‘deconditioning’ tools which could break conditioning to authority, inhibitions and taboos. 

Arrested in January 1972 with 1,400 tabs of LSD, Dwyer wrote in Anarchy and Freedom that he would fight the case on the basis that his selling of LSD was a matter of conscience. He believed the catalysing effects of LSD would greatly assist many people in ridding themselves ‘of selfishness and the various million inhibitions bestowed upon us by an authoritarian, moralistic society’ and lead to a rejection of rat-race materialism and a desire for mutual aid. Dwyer emphasised he was uninterested in profit but lived on a commune where the ambition was the growth of communes. 

When he addressed a jury in 1973 – and in the context of a broader post-war trend away from deference and confidence in authority in the UK – Dwyer spoke about his early questioning of the justice of a society based on Christian principles, an ‘old society’ riddled with sexual guilt and low self-worth. It was through LSD that he ‘began to learn that tenderness and kindness to others was the prerequisite to any useful social action’.

Dwyer’s testimony might appear to reflect a basic utopian naivety. But he was convinced that the society in which he lived inhibited true appreciation of the ‘splendour and beauty’ of oneself and others and that LSD could be one route to ‘self-discovery and an awareness of one’s own dignity, sovereignty and sacredness’, offering a partial antidote to the cruelty pervading society’s pursuit of growth and profit.

Dwyer was arrested again in 1974 and 1975 for ignoring a High Court order preventing him from organising the Windsor Free Festival. In 1978, he evaded the police for two weeks by disguising himself as a priest before moving back to Southern Ireland where he remained for the rest of his life. He stood in local elections for his own Justice Party, organised a campaign to legalise cannabis, and he died in 2001. 

Throughout his activist life, Dwyer demonstrated a profound belief in the politically subversive possibilities of psychedelic drugs. In this, of course, he was not alone. In 1970, for example, an anarchist commune was established in the Broomhall suburb of Sheffield in which LSD was used to infuse communards with a ‘militant anti-materialism’ and became central to their emphasis on ‘total cultural transformation, via transformation of everyday life.’ 

More recently, similar ideas have been explored by the political theorist Jeremy Gilbert and the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher through the lenses of ‘acid socialism’ and ‘acid communism’. These are based on the idea that ‘psychologically profound experiences – including the use of psychedelic drugs – should be used to galvanise anticapitalist movements’. 

Activists like Dwyer are part of a whole legacy of radical actors who have taken seriously the ‘hippie’ notion that the liberation of the mind from capitalism must go hand in hand with political organisation and direct action. Centering these accounts goes some way to counteracting the dominance of discussions focusing on the individual medicinal properties of psychedelics. From the 1960s, these individuals employed psychedelics in their efforts to form alternative and experimental societies to the one they perceived to be characterised by bourgeois Christian values, the spectre of nuclear war, the ascendency of capital, and a ceaseless fixation on economic growth. They represented and championed a vital optimism for the possibility of radical change, as many continue to do today.

Hallam Roffey has recently completed his PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey.

Further Reading

Hallam Roffey, ‘Psychedelics, Political Radicalism, and Transnational Acid-Anarchism in the 1970s’ in Erika Dyck and Chris Elcoock (eds), Expanding Mindscapes: Global Histories of Psychedelics (MIT Press, 2023).

Dave Lee, “Life at No 4 Havelock Square,” Our Broomhall (website), March 9, 2021, https://www.ourbroomhall.org.uk/content/latest-contributions/life-4-havelock-square-memories-anarchist-commune.

Emma Stamm, “Turn On, Tune In, Rise Up,” Commune, September 7, 2019, https://communemag.com/turn-on-tune-in-rise-up/

Tony Boraman, Rabble Rousers and Merry Pranksters: A History of Anarchism in Aotearoa / New Zealand from the Mid-1950s to the Early 1980s (Christchurch: Katipo Books and Irrecuperable Books, 2008), 18–19.

David Nickles, “The Dire Need for Systemic Critique Within Psychedelic Communities,” Chacruna (September 17, 2018), https://chacruna.net/dire-need-systemic-critique-within-psychedelics-communities