Nigel Collingwood


In this article revolutionary theory is related to a theory of group behaviour. It is argued that the latter, with the help of the concept of alienation, can throw light on (a) capitalism as an essentially destructive system and (b) ways in which the revolutionary party can succeed or fail in achieving its objectives. In conclusion, some practical consequences are outlined. Written 1982, for private circulation.

It is of the essence of revolutionary party that it is aware of what it is doing. It makes its analysis of the current conjuncture of events; it calculates what is possible; it uses this knowledge in order to intervene.

But for this intervention to be effective, the party must also be aware of itself. It must be able to analyse the current conjuncture within itself.

The tools for the external analysis are a knowledge of revolutionary theory, and a knowledge of past and contemporary history.

The tools for the internal analysis are not so obvious. A great deal of heart-searching goes on, but it is not articulated by any clear theory or conceptual scheme. Perhaps it is assumed that the only available candidate for such a theory or scheme is the group dynamics of social psychology and systems theory – both of which are heavily used by schools of managerial study, and would seem to be hopelessly loaded with the values of the established ideology. How could skills which enable management to manipulate the workforce be of any use to a party committed to democracy both in its goal and in its own structure?

1. Creative and Destructive Groups

The work of Southgate and Randall1 is enough to raise the possibility that all the available thinking about group process need not be totally tainted. True, their work has been in the area of co-operative projects, not that of a revolutionary party. But at least at a theoretical level it has eliminated assumptions about organisation being necessarily hierarchical. Leadership is seen as something that can pass from person to person, with a different style of leadership being appropriate to various stages in the progress of a task. The findings of Bion2 – that groups tend to fall away from their tasks into one of several partly unconscious attitudes, which he called Basic Assumptions – are incorporated in a broader theory that sees falling into Basic Assumptions as the failure of the group to work through successive stages of its task.

Bion found that with the Basic Assumption of dependency, it is as if the group has met, not to work, but to find a leader who will ensure the group’s survival. With the Basic Assumption of fight-flight, it is as if the group has met, not to work, but to find something either to attack or to run away from. With the Basic Assumption of pairing, it is as if the group has met, not to work, but to produce a couple who will give birth, in the future, to what the group is hoping for. Randall and Southgate, taking perhaps a more optimistic line, see the Basic Assumptions as features of “destructive” groups, and counterpose them to the qualities they find in “creative” groups. They also add another ingredient: a theory of successive group phases, based on the orgasmic cycle as described by W Reich3: a creative cycle will move from nurturing, to energising, to the peak of its activity, to relaxation. Thus dependency is seen as the result of failing to complete the nurturing phase of activity; fight-flight/is the result of failure to complete the second, energising, phase; pairing is the result of failure at the phase of relaxation – where it is worth noting that Randall and Southgate stress the “messianic” aspect of pairing rather than its sexual side.

Certainly as Marxists we need to receive these findings critically. We must situate them historically, seeing them as descriptions of what happens in groups in capitalist society, not necessarily in other societies. We must ask questions about the class and background of the participants in the groups observed. However, because we ourselves are also living under capitalism, we cannot escape the possibility that our own groups may encounter the same problems. After all, it is generally recognised that individuals can internalise the oppression that they experience at work, or at being denied work, and so go on to oppress, for example, their sexual partners. Unfortunately, it does not follow from a person’s being committed to oppose capitalism as an oppressive system that they necessarily avoid this contradictory behaviour in their own life. If individual comrades can internalise oppression in this way, it is likely that they will have difficulty in taking part in a creative group, tending instead to influence it towards being a destructive one. Oppressive leadership therefore can occur in revolutionary groups; if tolerated by other members, it can result in the type of destructive group where the Basic Assumption of dependency is predominant. Nor does commitment to revolutionary politics of itself save a group from the forms of behaviour involved in the other Basic Assumptions; they too can be seen as oppressive, in as much as they hamper the group’s achievement of its goals.

Thus, since the task of revolutionaries is par excellence a co-operative one, there is much in Southgate and Randall that can be learned, digested and used, just as it stands. However, its impact is likely to be marginal, unless it can be brought into fruitful contact with Marxist theory and practice. I will now sketch an attempt to get this contact going.

2. Alienation and Groups

A starting-point is alienation. As is well known, in his 1844 Manuscripts Marx argues that in industrial society, and perhaps to a degree sin any society involving the division of labour, what people do, their action in the process of production, the things they make thereby, and other people whose interest in the productive process is in opposition to their own, are all alien to them. This assertion can stand only if it is counterposed, at least by implication, by another, namely that in some sense a non-alienated mode of being is possible. What would non-alienation be like? Since alienated activity is thought of as an inability for people to express themselves in their productive actions, in their products, and in their relationship with other people, non-alienation must be precisely an opportunity for self-expression.

Now, just as oppression (another aspect of the same process) can be internalised, so can alienation. Thus Marx writes: It (estranged labour) estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human essence4. Individuals become alienated from themselves. Aspects of the potentially expressive personality are repressed. Here we can see the link between alienation at work, as described by Marx, and alienation in a wider sense as observed by such people as therapists. In the latter case the estranging relationships are apt to occur most traumatically in the early phases of life, and the resulting splits can plague people for the rest of their lives – see, for instance, the work of F Perls (1973)5.

Moreover, internalised alienation can also occur within a group. It is, in fact, the process described by Randall and Southgate. A creative group will function in a way that is self-expressive, in that it achieves aims that are genuinely shared by the members (although they correctly allow for the private aims which individuals may consciously or unconsciously bring with them as well). Their work is their collective self-expression. But in a destructive group the members are estranged not only from their work but from one another. True, they may appear to “work”, but their product is by no means the self-expression of a cohesive group, but the resultant of the destructive forces that have split it. Thus dependency, fight-flight and pairing are all ways in which the group members become alienated from their true task and from one another. Admittedly, owing to the seductiveness of these Basic Assumptions, individuals under their spell may feel very close to some or other fellow members of the group. But they are in fact alienated from the aims which they initially shared or claimed to share, so that they are alienated from one another as workers. Thus if a group member becomes my confidante or my worshipped leader, I may feel that they are not at all alien to me; yet they are alien precisely in their role as fellow worker.

So far so good. Alienation, in the same broad sense that Marx employed, can occur in groups that aim to be co-operative, but which fail and thus become “destructive” in Randall and Southgate’s terms. More specifically, since the internalised oppression which can afflict revolutionary groups, boils down to the same pattern of failure and destructiveness, alienation can occur in revolutionary groups too. But we are still no nearer a revolutionary perspective. If co-operatives can the achieve self-expression within the capitalist system, clearly this is not the kind of self-expression implied by Marx. At best, it is a pre-revolutionary analogue, just as is the self-expression of the romantic artists whose ideals influenced Marx and still influence us.


3. Alienation and the Process of Production

Revolution is possible because of the mismatch between the relations of production and the forces of production. Our findings will only make contact with revolutionary theory if the underlying structure of the co-operative process can be shown to be valid also for the process of production itself. (Randall and Southgate hint at this application of their own thinking: the creative cycle is hindered if labour is sold, or people contribute it because they feel they ought to or have been coerced... 6.) To do this, it is useful to add one distinction to the Randall and Southgate scheme, the implications of which would become clearer if there was space here to include other processes, including that of sexual arousal – a process in fact used by Randall and Southgate in developing their model. The first phase, nurturing, is divisible into two: Nurturing I, acceptance, and Nurturing II, sustenance (the terms are taken from Frank Lake). Acceptance refers to the very being of the group, its assembly by dint of the members’ acceptance of one another and their common aims. Sustenance refers to the well-being of the group, the nourishment members give to one another to build cohesion and a’ spirit of co-operation.

With this refinement, we can outline the productive process:

Nurturing I: acceptance;
the group is aware of a need and assembles to meet it by productive activity;
Nurturing II: sustenance:
the group seeks the means whereby the production will take place: raw materials, tools, etc.
the tools are set up, the labour is divided as required;
the actual making of the product;
the group enjoys its product, or shares it with others.

Clearly this is not what happens under capitalism. Instead of Nurturing I, acceptance, there is a meeting between members of two classes, capital and labour, and the aim for the achievement of which the workers sell their labour-power is not to meet a need, but to produce a commodity. The analogy with the Basic Assumption of dependency is clear. Instead of Nurturing II, sustenance, the means of production are the property of the employer: workers have to accept whatever is provided. Again, dependency is the result.

In the setting up of the factory, i.e. the energising phase of the process, the subservience required in a smooth-running organisation masks the underlying conflict of interests. There is conflict and at the same time a withdrawal of excitement from what is going on, i.e. fight and flight. There is also the constant external battle against competitors.

At the stage of the peak, at first sight it may seem that the parallel breaks down. For the destructive group is one which fails to reach its peak, unless it be a peak of destructiveness, whereas capitalist production is, in its own terms, successful; commodities are produced. Yet commodity production, aiming as it does at exchange value, is socially destructive compared with the production for use and in accordance with need that would characterise a socialist society.

At the stage of relaxation the productive group breaks up, managers and workers alike wishing to leave the factory as quickly as possible. Both groups come under the influence of the media; the ideology is pumped out that the power to change society resides in the government, or the UN, anywhere but in the workers themselves. “Some time the recession will pass, unemployment will go away; meanwhile there’s the World Cup”. All this is, of course, a form of projection, and the analogue of pairing as understood in Randall and Southgate’s picture of the destructive group “relaxing” amidst its illusions about a wonderful future.

This analysis has in effect spelled out alienation, in Marx’s scope of the term, at (1) the level of the substructure, the forces of material production, where it takes the form of alienation from the means of production and the product; at (2) the level of the relations of production, where it takes the form of alienation from one’s fellow human beings in the opposite class; and (3) at the superstructural level of ideology, where it is a matter of alienation of thinking from what is going on, i.e. false consciousness. (The third level of alienation is not a usage that Marx employed, as far as I know.)

Thus it is possible to see the capitalist productive process as criticised by Marx, as having a structure similar to that of a “destructive” group as described by Randall and Southgate. You could argue that it is only an analogy, since the dependency (for instance) resulting from the selling of labour is objective, whereas the dependency in a destructive group is a Basic Assumption thought of as deriving from unconscious processes and therefore subjective. Yet even in the context of production there is the likelihood of the objective dependency leading to a subjective one, as when workers take a subservient role in society for grafted, and thus come to adopt subservient attitudes outside of work. If this did not occur in millions of cases, everyone would be on the way to being fully class-conscious, and the problems of a revolutionary party would be halved overnight!

Similarly, the objective conflict of interests between capital and labour has its subjective side too: the Marxist principle being to make the conflict of interests into a conflict of purposes, i.e. to bring the fight into the open – but only as a means to setting up a society where it is unnecessary.

4. Alienation and the Revolutionary Group

Thus alienation in the productive process can be fruitfully seen in terms of the destructive group as presented by Randall and Southgate; their argument does not apply only to the co-operative and community groups which they have studied. It remains to turn to the revolutionary group, the party. In what way can it too become destructive and so tainted by the very alienation it is bent on opposing?

For a revolutionary group is unique, in that not only has it to avoid alienation in its own activity, as being engaged in a notably co-operative process; it also has as its aim the removal of alienation from the productive process and from the society as a whole. Thus on a small time scale, the problems that arise can well be understood in the terms provided by Randall and Southgate. But in the longer time scale, all the separate activities such as selling papers, supporting pickets, union work, organising demos and public meetings, only have meaning insofar as they prepare the ground for revolutionary change itself. In a complex group like a party, the various phases will be going on at different and times and different places. Sometimes one will predominate, sometimes another. Social events represent acceptance; educational ones sustenance; support of strikes, energising. The peak will be the revolution itself. It will hardly be followed by a period of “relaxation” in the ordinary sense, but rather, as Marx remarked, by the beginning of human history properly understood. Yet the achievement of the party’s goal will be followed by an immense outburst of hitherto unused energy; the freeing of such energy is, in a real sense, a relaxation of tension. However, the direction of that energy into creative activity will depend on the preparatory work the party has performed, i.e. on how far the party itself has been a creative rather than a destructive group. Thus only insofar as the party has avoided alienation in its own inner working mill it be able to play its part in removing alienation from society at large.

If the party has become alienated at the nurturing phases, it will have lost co-operation, solidarity and democracy by falling back on the Basic Assumption of dependency: leaders will lead the led; understanding will be vested in the leaders, while the led will follow submissively. The very oppression we are attacking will have become internalised within the revolutionary group itself. The mutual acceptance of people who respect one another’s contribution will be replaced by an insistence on blind obedience to established leaders. Sustenance by means of education where the conditions for true learning have been set up, will be replaced by authoritarian educational processes: “I’m telling you; don’t think for yourself”.

If the party has become alienated at the energising phase, there will be feuds and rivalries, and sudden enthusiasm for tasks other than those the party has set itself.

If it has become alienated at the peak of activity itself, one possibility would perhaps be an abortive attempt at a revolution, badly timed and not properly prepared, not to meet the demands of the economic and political conjuncture but to solve some crisis in the party itself.

If it has become alienated at the relaxing phase, it will take off in fantasies about some future super-party which will do the work so that all that can be done now is to wait in awe.

The danger of this alienation within the party can be seen all the more clearly, when it is realised that the ease with which groups, including revolutionary parties, can fall back into these patterns of failure is partly due to elements in our characters which, if not caused by capitalism, are used by the system and help to keep it going. As I have argued elsewhere7, capitalism offers fertile ground to distortions, not only in ideas, but in our characters considered both at a psychological and at a physiological level. These distortions or stuntings are apt to thrive in destructive groups – not only the destructive groups of the productive process (see section 3 above), but also in revolutionary groups in so far as they take on a destructive quality. Take, for instance, the submissiveness that is encouraged by the need to sell one’s labour power. Although involvement in political struggles, strikes and so on, may draw on other, more assertive, areas of the personality and enable such person to move towards the revolutionary party, it does not follow that within the party that person will automatically cease to be submissive. For it is probable that people with this character structure deeply engrained, as well as those tending more to orality, will retain a valency, an aptitude, for the dependency type of alienation associated with following a leader; also, as suggested by Reich8, the submissive type can become an authoritarian leader in certain circumstances. Again, the fight-flight type of alienation offers comfortable roles for the psychopathic and schizoid elements in our characters. Finally, the pairing type of alienation connected with failure to achieve an appropriate relaxation phase calls on protective tendencies which are particularly noticeable in the paranoid personality.

To see how these character structures play their part in capitalist society is not to imply that they occur only in such a society. If they are some of the basic ways in which human beings can avoid and protect themselves against reality, then they are likely to be found in other social contexts as well. It is also important to resist the temptation to place so much stress on the oppressive power of capitalism to encourage these structures that we infer that they cannot be tackled at all until capitalism has been overthrown. On the contrary, just because they help to harness us so strongly to capitalism, they must be coped with strenuously; otherwise, our chances of overthrowing capitalism will be considerably diminished. Submissive people, dependent people are not likely to support a revolution with enthusiasm. By the same token, wherever destructive group practice, nourished by character structure, occurs in the party, it must be replaced as far as possible by creative practice. So these arguments lead to a point which we know in our bones anyhow: that a socialist revolution is both quite possible, and very difficulty to achieve.

5. Practical consequences.

This article has had the theoretical aim of improving communications across the frontier between Marxism and some of the findings of humanistic psychology. But the argument points to some important practical conclusions.

First, we now have the conceptual tools needed to grasp what can happen in the revolutionary party if groups within it lose their way or function at a low degree of effectiveness, in spite of making no obvious political mistakes. These tools must be made available to all members, through a training programme which takes full account not only of our need for information and political and economic understanding, but of our emotional needs that arise from the liberating yet frustrating experience of active revolutionary politics. A party that emphasises the fact that political enlightenment comes with political activity cannot afford to neglect the darker, less conscious, forces that can emerge as the activist is stretched to meet increasingly heavy commitments, and as enlightenment can too easily slide into routine.

Secondly, we can be sure that if we fail to make use of the available skills in the area of group behaviour, our opponents are unlikely to make the same mistake. Firms are spending money employing management consultants to train their staff in securing the co-operation – in our terms, the incorporation and capitulation – of their work forces. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of confusing a healthy contempt for the aims of such activity with an obscurantist refusal to acquire genuine expertise when it is to be had.

Thirdly, once the necessary training is under way, conscious efforts can begin to be made towards achieving an approximation to creative group practice at all levels of the party. This will not only enable us to develop a high level of mutual trust, so that difficult and demanding campaigns can be sustained without undue strain, but essential emotional education will have taken place so that the post-revolutionary period, when it comes, will be what it needs to be – an experience of group creativity involving every member of the human race.

1 Rosemary Randall and John Southgate, Co-operative and Community Group Dynamics, ... or your meetings needn’t be so appalling, (Illustrated by Frances Tomlinson), Barefoot Books, London 1980.
Rosemary Randall and John Southgate, Creative and Destructive Forces in Groups and Organisations, in Group Relations, the Bulletin of the Group Relations Training Association, June, 1981.
2 W R Bion, Experiences in Groups, Tavistock Publications, London, 1961.
3 W Reich, The Function of the Orgasm, 1940, translated Vincent R Carfagno Pocket Books, N.Y., 1973.
4 F Perls, The Gestalt Approach & Eyewitness to Therapy, Science and Behavior Books, California, 1973.
5 K Marx, Early Writings, translated Rodney Livingston and Gregor Benton, Penguin, London, 1975
6 Randall and Southgate, Co-operative and Community Group Dynamics, p. 21.
7 unpublished papers entitled Politics and Bodies and Class-consciousness and Bodies.
8 W Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, translated Vincent R Carfagno, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, N.Y., 1970.