Nigel Collingwood


Written 1982, for private circulation.

In People in Trouble (pp 67 ff.) Reich claims to bring Marx and Freud together. He argues that each system had a gap that needed to be filled by material from the other. Thus the sexual process led a pitiful existence within the Marxist system, under the misleading heading of “family development”. The work process in turn was relegated to an equally pitiful position in Freudian psychology, under the misleading headings of “sublimation” and “hunger drives” or “ego instincts”.

Reich maintains that work and sexuality have a common root in the biological energy of all living beings, whose...activity splits, in accordance with our energetic-functional method of thought, into work on the one hand and sexuality on the other (p.71).

Leaving aside what became for Reich the central question, namely the nature of this biological energy, I want to suggest that while the linking of sexuality and work is important so as to avoid a new dualism, it is possible and useful to broaden the scope of the synthesis by adding some insights from Fritz Perls. In particular I want to make use of his work on the relation between eating and acquiring knowledge. He argued in Ego, Hunger & Aggression (pp. 128-133, 192-199) and Gestalt Therapy (pp. 189-210) that both activities entail the destruction of the object before it can be assimilated. In eating, you . have to chew the food to a pulp; in cognitive activity you have to break down the subject-matter, pull it to pieces. After literal or metaphorical chewing the object becomes part of you, apart from the unwanted elements that are excreted. If this assimilation does not take place, you swallow the object whole, fail to digest it. The latter process Perls called introjection (thus using the Freudian term In a somewhat restricted sense).

It is worth noting that introjection in the learning process is more likely to occur when one is “learning that” something is the case, than when one is “learning how” to do something. It is easy to introject beliefs and opinions, whereas acquiring a skill does in a sense make the skill in the end a part of yourself. I shall argue later that even so a skill can become an introject in an important sense. But at the level of common sense it can already be seen that a bit of practical learning could be said to be introjected when it is acquired out of the context in which it makes sense. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is particularly true here.

We know that forced feeding is a prime cause of the submissiveness that goes with the masochistic character structure. As this character structure is relevant both to sexuality and to work (cf. Reich’s point about submissive workers being provided for capitalism, in The Mass Psycology of Fascism), it is worth asking whether introjection, and its positive correlate assimilation, can be seen as uniting all four of the basic human functions we have mentioned, namely sexuality, eating, learning and work? (Clearly learning and work are not as distinct from one another as from the other two.) I suggest the answer is, yes.

It is true that at first sight there is only an analogy between, say the assimilation that consists in eating and that which consists in learning. But the matter becomes clearer if we assume each person to have a number of boundaries (Perls calls them ego-boundaries), in different dimensions, within which the person can either assimilate, welcome, an entity from outside, or introject, be intruded by, that entity. By seeing them as different dimensions rather than as concentric circles, we can avoid the question as to which boundary is inner or outer. However, since it is hard to make diagrams in different dimensions I will for simplicity’s sake arbitrarily assume a concentric system, with the sexual boundary as the most intimate, next the eating boundary, next the learning one, and finally the one connected with work.

This concept of boundary will allow us to relate all the material, not just that which is to do with work, to Marx’s concept of alienation. In his MSS of 1844 Marx saw alienation as the way that the division of labour, and above all, large-scale industrial process caused the worker to be estranged from the product, the productive process and other people. He describes it in objective rather than subjective terms, while clearly implying that it represents a deficit in self-expression, and hence able to be experienced as a kind of suffering. If we can relate alienation to the psychological concept of introjection, this may throw some light on the nature of this suffering.

The sexual boundary

The form taken by assimilation across the sexual boundary (i.e. the boundary within which entities have a sexual interest and meaning to a person) is above all the acceptance of a partner in loving intercourse. Union, emotional and physical, approaches the total; each takes the other into themselves, as the boundaries temporarily melt. The “destructive” element of assimilation is present in so far as the ego’s holding-together in consciousness is let go, and autonomic processes take over. Reich’s concept of “orgastic potency” is relevant here; see The Function of the Orgasm.

The clearest case of introjection in this context would be rape. But the whole complex of sado-masochistic sexuality entails a refusal or inability to treat the partner as another whole person, and a preference for treating them as an object. In this sense the partner is not assimilated.

Whether failure to achieve assimilation is conceived as intrusion (rape) or as selective identification with the partner (sado-masochism), it can also be seen as contact, not with another whole human being, but with what is foreign and irrelevant. That is, it is also a case of estrangement, of alienation. It is interesting to recall that whereas in the 1844 MSS and later, Marx describes the lack of significant contact between worker and the product as “alienation” (thus stressing the absence of what he would call use-value for the worker in the object made), in Capital he tends to speak of “fetishism” (here pointing to the strange power products acquire when they become commodities, that is, again in his technical term, acquire exchange-value). Sexual fetishism is, of course, usually understood in terms of projection, but it can perhaps also be regarded as a case of introjection, in so far as the fetishised object crosses the boundary into the person’s area of sexual meaning and excitement, but only as a substitute for contact with the partner. The latter is, to that extent, received without contact, i.e. is introjected1. I will leave the interpretation of the fetishism of commodities in terms of introjection to the section on the “work boundary” below.

The eating boundary

Eating is the process from which Perls drew the analogy with acquiring knowledge. It is the easiest case, as far as seeing where and how the personal boundary is crossed; the boundary is the mouth. Also the failure to assimilate is clear, when for want of adequate chewing the digestive process is hampered.

The learning boundary

It is also easy to see learning as increasing the boundaries of one’s knowledge. The point to notice is the method of destruction, analogous to chewing. It is a breaking down of the material into components and then building it up again. In mastering a part in a play or a song, it is a question of breaking it down into short, manageable phrases. More importantly, in coping with new information, it is a matter of looking at it critically, to see whether it can be incorporated in our body of knowledge – or indeed whether it demands a major or minor shift inside that body in order to be accommodated. If accommodation is possible, the new knowledge will become a part of ourselves; the boundary will have been effectively crossed. As Aristotle said, “the mind becomes in a way all things”. Material received uncritically lies about in the mind, undigested, poorly, or not at all, coherent with the rest of its contents.

The relevant Marxist concept here is not alienation but ideology, which may be defined as the sum of the ways of thinking which the ruling class teaches and employs in order to give some meaning and justification to the irrationality of capitalism. Of course, elements of ideology can well be internally coherent with one another, but they do not cohere with the reality which the ideology has the function of denying or hiding. Ideology is so widely spread in populations, that it would be a mistake to link it without qualification to the submissiveness and compliance that go with the masochistic character structure. Yet the prevalence of at least a moderate degree of this character structure would provide a secure hook on which ideology could be attached. Certainly, it must be admitted that the content of ideology finds fertile soil in other structures; thus its nationalism and racism can be rooted easily in the paranoid structure, its moral passivity in the oral. But the sheer ability to swallow the ideological story without serious question needs to be recognised as introjection, for which the masochistic structure is the perfect seed-bed.

The work boundary

By the work boundary I mean an imaginary line drawn round the objects with which a worker is in contact through paid work, distinguishing them from other objects. We are concerned with the relation between objects within the boundary – above all, goods produced by the worker – and the person working.

As already mentioned, the central thrust of Marx’s thinking on alienation is that in industrial capitalist society the worker is estranged from the productive process, from the product and from other people. The reason Marx gives is not so much that the worker does not own the means of production, but that their control is in the hands of the capitalist. So the latter’s instructions2 are, in terms of introjection, the invasive, alien element, which by definition cannot be integrated into the expressive life of the worker, even if it is absorbed into the deferential exterior she or he learns to adopt. At the same time, the productive process and the product are necessarily outside the personal boundary – the boundary within which activity and products would be located, only if they sprang from the worker’s free self-expression. Such self-expression (currently possible mainly in the area of hobbies) is in fact a case of extending the personal boundary.

The deferential attitude is, of course, the point where the masochistic submissiveness is once again salient. It has been argued by Patrick Joyce (Work, Society and Politics, 1982) that it was the increasing mechanisation of the factories in the 19th century that led to the greater submissiveness of workers in England. Again, masochism is best seen as a catalyst to the process, rather than a necessary condition.

We can also consider the product from the viewpoint, not of the worker, but of its owner. As stated above, objects made for exchange, not for the producer’s use, are “commodities”, and Marx saw the power that the object then possesses as being similar to, and as irrational as, the power attributed to a primitive fetish. Hence “the fetishism of commodities”. This fetishism can be seen as introjection in the following way. If I possess a product as a commodity, it is within the area beyond my body which I experience as “mine”. But because I own it precisely as a commodity, for its exchange-value, I make no contact with its use-value. So as a useful product it is not related to my needs, but present to me as an alien object, an introject. Note the parallel with, sexual fetishism, where, as we saw, the introject is not the fetish, but the partner, in so far as the fetish precludes direct contact with the other person. To put it concretely, as a trader in commodities I cannot drink the coffee I have bought, as a sexual fetishist I cannot (fully) touch my partner.

If this argument is sound, the most interesting consequence for Marxism is that the psychological and bodily factors (i.e. character structure) involved in alienation at work, i.e. at the level of the relations of production, is the same as that which facilitates the acceptance of ideology, which is at the level of the superstructure.

Finally, it must be remembered that to keep introjects within oneself is not the only possible response. They can also be rejected, vomitted out, especially if the sense of disgust can be aroused. In the case of the manufacture of some commodities (for instance, drugs prohibited here but made for export to the Third World, or nuclear armaments), disgust need not be too hard to find. Ideological introjects are perhaps more insidious, and the task of counteracting their power, so strongly backed up by the media, is urgent.

Thus just as the diagnosis of alienation leads to the possiblity of a society where work has the character of self-expression, so the diagnosis of introjection leads to the possibility of regurgitation, and hence of a society where contact with reality is interesting, satisfying, and even exciting.

1 It is interesting to note that J Kovel, in A Complete Guide to Therapy writes of an interesting and as yet unworked-out relation between fetishization on the cultural scale and the sexual perversion bearing the same name (p. 358, footnote referring to p. 328). He thus points towards a parallel between sexual fetishism and the attribution of economic power to things, which Marx called the “fetishism of commodities”. It is generally agreed by Marxists that this phrase covers some of the same area that he previously tended to call alienation.

2 and, of course, what underlies them, his need for profit.


Kovel, J, A Complete Guide to Therapy, London, Penguin, 1978.
Marx, K, Early Writings, London, Penguin, 1975.
Perls, F S, Ego Hunger and Aggression, New York, Vintage Books, 1969.
Perls, F S, Hefferline, R F, & Goodman, P, Gestalt Therapy, London, Penguin, 1973.
Reich, W, People in Trouble, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976.
Reich, W, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, tr. Carfagno, V R, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.