Nigel Collingwood


Written c. 1981; for private circulation.

It has been an advance to extend politics to include the sexual, to realise that there is exploitation and oppression not just between capital and labour, but also between man and woman, between the hetero- and the homo-sexual. The transition to the new outlook has been difficult, since it not only challenges our own personal lives very directly, but raises awkward theoretical questions about the relationship between the two sorts of oppression. Similar complexities arise out of the inclusion of racial oppression within our sphere of concern.

Perhaps the type of solution that is most likely to be comfortable at first sight to many of us is one where the economic oppression is seen as primary, and sexual and racial oppression as somehow derived from it. In the last analysis the substructure of the forces of production is determinant.... Sigh of relief. Marx was right all along. Historical materialism rules O.K.

I am going to suggest that this is far too simple a solution. Not only is it reductionist in tendency, inso-far as the extraordinary power of sexual and racial oppression is simply attributed to the intensity of economic exploitation, but it renders us blind to any insights that may be gleaned from the behavioural sciences. The insight I want to make use of here is that human experience, behaviour and motivation are centred less in the brain than in the body as a whole, so that there is now a basis for a psychological materialism to match historical materialism; moreover, the same bodies whose needs generate economic activity themselves respond to the alienation which this activity now causes. Just as objective alienation was seen in detail and quantified when Marx developed the theory of Surplus Value, so subjective alienation can now be seen in more detail, even if it cannot yet, or possibly ever, be quantified.

If this claim seems strange, it is because we have got ourselves into thinking and acting as if the only materiality were the materiality of productive forces. Now it is easy to see how Marx and Engels came to emphasise this aspect of materialism. They were escaping from Hegel, while still leaning heavily on what they had learnt from him. They were escaping from the notion that history makes sense as the expression of a series of ideas. They replaced this by making sense of history in terms of the physical processes by which people meet their physical needs, and in terms of the social groupings (classes) which these processes require. But they retained the basic position that humanity can only be understood as a process, i.e. historically. What is less obvious is that they retained also a tacit assumption of Hegel’s, of most of his predecessors, that the materiality of human beings is just there, not to be considered in theory and practice, except perhaps in controversy with those who believe in an immaterial soul animating the body. In short, bodies were taken for granted.

It was not really as simple as that, of course. Marx and Engels became much interested in Darwinism, and the way in which material conditions were seen to influence the development of species of animal. But the materiality of contemporary people was still outside the range of discussion. The only exception to this was the materiality of man as producer, since Marx saw conscious production as the distinguishing feature of humanity. However, as always when something is understood by means of a specific difference1, there was a tendency to stress the distinguishing qualities and to take for granted the properties shared with other members of the larger group (genus). So, since all animals are bodily creatures, the bodiliness of human beings is allowed to fade into the background. True, the concept of a productive animal is less liable to lead towards a dualism of mind and body than is that of a rational animal. But the bodiliness of human beings is so obvious that there seemed no point in drawing attention to it.

Now when attention is not given to a facet of reality, the interesting details are not noticed. So the ways in which people differed physically were simply ignored; for all useful purposes people appeared to be “the same”. Hence the crucial importance of Reich, who discovered that people alienated, or in psychological language rendered neurotic, by the relationships of capitalist society, carried relatively permanent scars in the form of not only psychological patterns adopted to avoid bad experiences (“character armour”), but of chronic tensions in the musculature which could be seen, and in particular, felt, by the discerning observer: “muscular armour”. The body could no longer be regarded as the neutral, as it were “mass-produced”, carrier of the all-important brain, but was a sensitive organism deeply enmeshed in the constricting nets of capitalism, and indeed of other socio-economic systems too.

There is no place here to elaborate on Reich’s work; it is the topic of other meetings at this event. Anyone interested in the stress I am putting on the bodily aspects of Reich’s theory may care to look at my article Class-consciousness and Bodies. But it is important to notice how Reich emphasises sexuality in his account. Out-Freuding Freud, for him all neurosis is the damming up of sexual energy, and the goal of all therapy is the release of this energy in “orgastic potency”. This piece of reductionism was probably inevitable at the time, if Reich was to steer psychoanalysis back to the focus on the physical which originally marked Freud’s own outlook. But it has certainly helped to produce the situation at the present time, when the bodiliness of human beings is recognised by the SWP and those who go along with us, but almost exclusively in the context of sexuality. Sexual politics is at last taken seriously, but this has meant that everything is forced into the single straitjacket of sexual oppression, rather as in an earlier period economic oppression had to be the hold-all into which everything wrong with humanity had to be dumped. Thus abortion is protected by the overtly bodily slogan of “a woman’s right to her own body”, but the main argument seems to be about sexual oppression. (Certainly the race issue focuses obviously enough on bodily colour, but there is reductionism going on here again if the whole question of racial antagonism is seen as nothing but an aspect of economic oppression.)

However, if sexual oppression has been overworked as an explanatory category, it is not easy to choose among possible alternative routes to a broader view of human bodiliness. One possibility would be to look at the current largely bourgeois movement, centred in California but with many interesting offshoots elsewhere including London, for a humanistic psychology and a holistic view of human being. Granted their individualism and the Utopian quality of any forays they make towards social questions, we can still ask, as Marxists might ask of the movements of Owen and Fourier, whether there might still be something of value in their work? I am told that a party in Honduras that is quite close to ours in political outlook regularly uses group activities derived from this humanistic movement in their meetings, as a way of breaking down habits of reserve and highly “censored” communication. Some of us in the party have been making much more tentative moves in a similar direction. However, another approach is possible: by considering different phases of human development. Readers of Bertell Ollman’s Social and Sexual Revolution will recall a brief but intriguing passage where he outlines (not too successfully) a holistic understanding of problems of puberty and adolescence in our society. Here I offer some reflections on the very extreme ends of our existence: birth and death.

The stereotyped Marxist reaction to such a proposal would be that these events are simply part of “nature”. But a more careful look at them will reveal a wide variety of ways of both understanding and experiencing them even among extant cultures.

The most notable feature about birth in late capitalist countries such as our own is its having become a medical matter. It is routine for mothers to give birth in a hospital, and to have the process “assisted” by a number of medical and surgical interventions. In some maternity hospitals induction is the rule, with the surprising result that births always take place at times most convenient for the staff. Now it is easy here to bring out the economic factors: the insidious power of the firms producing drugs and technical resources, and the pressure on the NHS to cut expenditure. These are important factors and are already enough to bring the birth industry within the perspective of a revolutionary party. Yet to confine attention to this objective level is to fall into the error of taking human bodies seriously only as things to be manipulated – precisely what many unnecessarily induced mothers highlight when they complain of being “treated like blocks of flesh”. Of course you can sidestep the issue with another stereotyped move, by pointing out that the mothers most likely to make an articulate complaint are the middleclass ones, and that the plea for more home births is bourgeois because working-class families have not got sufficiently large and well-equipped homes to accommodate them. But the challenge to current practice mounted by Charles Leboyer deserves a better hearing than this.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of the harmful effects of harsh and manipulative obstetrics is that from the reports from therapists who have tried to help people whose entry into the world has been too painful to be forgotten or forgiven. There is increasing evidence that many phobias originate in this experience. Indeed the evidence is also mounting for the hypothesis that inter-uterine experiences, even from early in the pregnancy, can have lasting effects, good and bad. It is typical of the objective approach to these matters current today that attention is paid to the physical effects of expectant mothers’ smoking upon their offspring, but not to the emotional effects of her being unhappy or anxious, and thus unable to provide them with a welcoming and benign experience. And yet here is an area crying out for a holistic Marxist analysis, which will take account of the economic, social, familial and medical pressures on pregnant women and on their unborn babies. The emotional stunting to which Reich drew attention goes back to stages of development well before the earliest that he could appreciate. Capitalist society can afford to neglect this, since it needs physically viable persons to run its system, not emotionally strong and assertive ones. Revolutionaries must give it due attention, since any factor that reduces the effectiveness, resilience and militancy of the working-class is going to weaken the revolutionary project.

A somewhat different focus on this can be gained, if we bring in the work of Alexander Lowen, a patient and later a pupil of Reich’s. He holds firmly on to the principle, that bodily changes are as much part of character structure as are psychological ones, and has developed an appropriate method of therapy. Relinquishing (as nearly all therapeutic pioneers have done since Reich) the exclusive concern with sexuality as the core area of all neurosis, he has noticed five types of character, each with is own kind of bodily stunting and muscular holding, and each linked) to a different kind of parenting. These are: the schizoid character (cold parenting); the oral (insufficient parenting); the psychopathic (seductive parenting); the masochistic (smothering parents); and the rigid (sexually frustrating parents). Of course, these are only “ideal types”; most people have elements of more than one of these characters.

Lowen’s account offers many insights into the question of how the experiences of early childhood can influence us towards accepting a conformist, apolitical, falsely-conscious set of attitudes and values. But what of the nine months in the womb? The emotionally cold mother, who is going to reject or ignore her child after it is born, and so incline the infant to a schizoid response, is already cold and indifferent to her unborn child. Is she likely to be providing an unwelcoming experience to the foetus? Research into the work of therapists whose clients work at the stage before birth is needed to answer this question. A similar question arises in the case of the mother (or mother-figure) who is unable to give enough to her recently born child, and is thus putting her into a position where an oral character structure will develop. Of course, it may be that external circumstances, specially economic ones, may be what mainly prevent her from giving adequate love and nourishment. But even so, these external circumstances would normally be present during pregnancy too, so that she could well be a typically tired and harassed expectant mother, unable to provide the foetus with a truly benign environment. (It is worth noting that Indian helping agencies have been unwilling to take on board insights from western therapists because of the latter’s failure to understand the importance of tranquillity to an expectant mother.) If the mother is smoking heavily to help her “nerves”, her child is likely, as is well known, to be undersized.

It is probably premature to speculate on the effects on the foetus of having a mother with marked psychopathic or masochistic traits. But the rigid character, which is partially present in just about everyone who has to cope with late capitalist society, would seem likely to be connected with the high degree of tension, and inability to “let go”, which marks so many births in our society, and which has led to the teaching of relaxation and “natural birth” methods as a conscious reaction. As is to be expected, the commonest way of overcoming this problem is by surgical and anaesthetic intervention, the latter resulting in the baby’s first experience of life outside the womb being in a state of drugged stupefaction.

Thus the mother’s psychological and physical state, both at transient and relatively permanent levels, is likely to play an important part in determining the basic expectations and character of her offspring. This is how the pressures and alienations of late capitalism are mediated to the unborn and being-born infant, just as the same pressures and alienations are mediated to the growing infant and child by the character and behaviour of the family, of whatever style, within which it is brought up.

It would be useful here to devote equal space to the effects of the same character structures on sexuality. But many of the central points will, I expect, be covered in the sessions on Reich. Enough here to say (a) that full sexual release is possible only when the whole body can participate in the letting-go of orgasm, and that the tensions and blocks to the flow of energy in the body stunted by character structure are bound to inhibit this release; (b) that each character structure has a limiting effect on the ways in which a person relate at an interpersonal level, with all sorts of avoidances and collusions occurring as a result.

If birth is too easily dismissed on the grounds of its being part of nature, surely death is so totally a part of nature that there can be no point in even starting a discussion of it. Yet just because death is the beginning of the body’s final dissolution, and is, unless we a have a religious belief in immortality, resurrection or reincarnation, the end of our individual experience, it is a touchstone of our understanding of the body, of the person as a bodily being.

First, the process of dying. Just as with being born, there is intense pressure on many people to endure yet more medical interventions when death is already imminent. Again the body seems to be conceived of as a machine, to be kept ticking over as long as possible, irrespective of the interests or desires of the person whose body it is.

Secondly, can Marxists attach any meaning to the fact of death? Hitherto, it has usually been a function of religion to attach a meaning to death, putting it into a frame of reference constituted by thee set of religious beliefs. Marxists have tended to overlook this, because Marx’s strictures on religion were on its ability to pacify the downtrodden with hopes of future glory. The glory was after death, of course, but it was religion’s compensation for an alienated life that was at issue, not its proffered compensation for the fact of death itself. In other words, attention to religion as the “sigh of the oppressed creature” has blocked off attention to it as the “sigh of the dying creature”. Thus whereas Marxists can say to the religious that there is no need to project your powers on to an omnipotent god, because you (eventually) will be able to save yourselves, there is no similar message in respect of death, where the mechanism of religion is not so much projection as denial. In the former case it makes sense to demand “the removal of the conditions which made the illusions necessary”; in the latter, this is not a current option – although it is intriguing to note that at the very end of Eros & Civilisation Marcuse remarks that death, after the changes in consciousness that revolution would render possible, would be a necessity against which the unrepressed energy of mankind will protest, against which it will wage its greatest struggle (Sphere Books edition, 1969, p 187).

There is not any obvious help over this question of the meaning to be attached to death in the work of Reich and Lowen on character structure. Certainly, it is not too difficult to speculate on the likely attitudes to death and dying corresponding to each character. People of a markedly schizoid type, newer having identified themselves with their bodies, but having rather experienced the body as a possession or habitation, have perhaps always harboured a sense of desolation, deadness and possibly even a longing to be dead, and may therefore be expected to be the least reluctant to face the actual experience of dying; the oral character, with its tendency to depression is also able at times to want to die, though I would expect such a person to be afraid of the loneliness of dying; the masochist – I don’t know; the psychopathic character will presumably find it difficult to imagine the effect of his death on friends and relations: an isolated death, therefore? the rigid type can be expected to be reluctant to let herself go into death, to accept death when it is inevitable.

Thus there are many scars from our earliest experiences which can colour our feelings about death. If we take seriously the work of those who offer rebirthing therapy, we can add that these scars include buried memories of death-like experiences (e.g. feelings of being poisoned, or of disintegration through being crushed); and whereas some of these appear to be due to features of the mother’s emotional life, others seem due to the physical facts of the human embryo’s life, it simply is a tight fit in there towards the end of the nine months.

However, not only are these suggestions either speculative or based on very recent work, they hover around an embarrassing gap: for if the approach of Reich and Lowen (and indeed that of Marx and Engels) is one of affirming life, whatever can be the appropriate definition of a good or healthy attitude to death? Granted there is much “health” in the instinctive recoil from death which we share with most animals. But what of an attitude to death in so far as it is ultimately inevitable? We can question, in the company of Marcuse, even that inevitability. But if we accept that death is, at least for us alive today, inevitable, then all I can say for myself is that I am impressed by those who say that they are ready to let their concatenation of atoms and molecules return to the common stock from which other living things may be built up.

A less personal approach to an answer can be made by looking at the implications of what Marx has to say about human sociality, and in particular, about human sociality after the revolution. For then, he argues, the full interdependence and mutuality of people will at last be experienced. Thus in the 1844 MSS: Communism ... is the complete restoration of man to himself as social, i.e. human, being (Penguin ed. p 348); with the supersession of private property... Need and enjoyment have therefore lost their egoistic nature (p 352). We can now fill in that speculation with the insight that this experienced interdependence will be made possible not only by the “transparent” social relations (pace Althusser) then available, but by the fact that people will have had fewer of the traumatic experiences before and during birth and during infancy, which make death so hard to anticipate rationally. At a more conscious level, there will no longer be the sense of wasted time and opportunities, the sense of “You could have been more” (as Joannie Mitchell used to sing) – more of a sense of individual fulfilment within a fulfilled society.

For ourselves today we can only aspire to such an attitude in the mode of expectation, hope, and a realisation that (to the extent that we have) we have fought for the cause. That is why the martyr’s death is the one most obviously meaningful for revolutionaries to contemplate. Not only does it represent the revolutionary’s bravery against reactionary powers; it makes sense in the perspective of revolutionary hope and in no other.

I admit the speculative quality of much of the above, and I realise that often my own prejudices and quirks of character will have influenced what I have said, and will need balancing by those of others. But my main aim has been to suggest that the link between individual experience, pleasure, pain, hopes, fears, and the socio-economic factors normally considered by Marxists is the human body. It remains to attempt to state this in a way that will relate it more clearly to the central theory of Marxism.

Under capitalism, labour is necessarily alienated and alienating, and must be represented by the value of its product (Capital I, 80). This implies that people’s relationships are necessarily coloured by value, by property; they relate to one another as possessors and controllers, or as needing to possess and control but unable to do so. Can we fill in this statement so as to understand how this effect on relationships works out in psychological and physical terms? Marx offers the broad declaration: for all the physical and spiritual senses, therefore, the sense of having, which is the simple alienation of all these senses, has been substituted (MEGA III, 118-119). But it is the work of Reich and Lowen, and of the birth therapists, which points to the more detailed picture: showing how relationships are affected not simply by our living within capitalism or even having been educated within it (in the sense of acquiring its ideology), but by our very early, usually preverbal, experiences. Not all of this psychological and physical damage can be attributed to capitalism, at any rate as regards the foetal state. But since the character structure discovered by Reich and Lowen is related to the quality of parenting, the nuclear family, as the “natural” family under capitalism, is where we must locate its origins. Thus the family is not merely where we learn the values of capitalism, and of our class within capitalism, it is inhere we acquire our fundamental psychological and physical attitudes to the world. Our performance within capitalist society is affected by our character structure, whether as passive supporters of the system or as active challengers of it (see my Class-consciousness and Bodies). Even the seemingly neutral phenomena of birth and death can be seen not to be exempt from this, once we have begun to give full value to the sensitivity of the body.

Now the concept that has come to be used most frequently in this connection is “internalised oppression”. The danger of this concept is that it appears to take far granted a non-oppressed line of development which would “naturally” occur, were it not for the oppression at first administered externally and later continuing internally. What is going on in this type of thinking is a hidden analogy with the organic world. A tree is grown along wires, and eventually stays in the shape determined by the wires, even after their removal; the underlying contrast is with the unhampered growth of a tree in the wild. In the context of human beings this organic analogy is misleading. It tends to undervalue the part learning plays in the development of unalienated activity as much as in that of alienated activity. In other words, it brings us heavily on the “nature” side of the nature/nurture debate. Moreover, if it leads to a political naivety about the effects of a “release” of hitherto oppressed energies, it smacks dangerously of spontaneism.

However, if we follow Reich and the others and stress the bodily component of whatever we regard as “psychological”, we can locate internalised oppression within the chemical and physiological structure of different individuals. There is still the danger of an organic analogy, and I admit that a word I often use for character structure – “stunting” – clearly suggests an organic picture, and encourages one to think of the possibility of the alternative of free, uninhibited growth. But perhaps we can correct this by insisting that character structure results in an avoiding of experience. Then the elimination of character structure simply makes it possible for a person to have contact with the experience they have missed; they still need to concentrate, to apply their energies to act creatively. So after the revolution there can be no “natural” or “spontaneous” progress; it will be as Marx realised, the beginning of history – not the beginning of a new stage in mere human evolution.

A second advantage of this way of putting things is that it puts flesh on the bones of Marxist materialism. Of course Marx’s was never a crass materialism, but a dialectical one, putting a stress on the material forces of production as an essential element in the process of human history. He was not against ideas, but against being blinded by them so as to miss concrete reality. The more we respect the physical component in our emotional response to life under capitalism, the less danger will there be of being misled by poses, or by claims that all that is needed is a change of heart.

What I am saying then is that the body whose material needs are fulfilled by the labour of society is also the feeling, touching, touched, tense, relaxed, stunted, released body which we each have and are. Of course a fully developed bodily life will be possible for all only after the revolution, just as with full sexual and racial equality. But just as sexual and racial attitudes need attention now, if the revolution is ever to get off the ground, so the body as the seat of feeling and the vehicle of tenderness and of resistance and militancy, must be given its due place, along with clear thinking, at the centre of revolutionary theory and practice.

1 i.e., to use Marx’s term, our “species being”.