Nigel Collingwood

Politics and Bodies

Written c. 1978; for private circulation.

One of the concerns of Personal Politics is the effect of doing revolutionary politics upon the people so doing. This effect can be seen in various aspects of experience, perhaps the most obvious being that of personal relationships. However, another and complementary aspect is that of the bodily existence of the individuals concerned. If we concentrate on bodily existence, this is not, of course, to deny mental existence. But the question of ideology, and the way that prevailing ideologies pervade the thinking of revolutionaries, is already much discussed. If we follow Marx, we need to remember all the time that thinking is done by people with bodies, by people who feel. Moreover, we are committed to the exploration of Marx’s claim that social being determines consciousness, and social being is founded on economic being. In terms of individuals this means that we expect bodies not to be mere containers or carriers of minds, but to be in a dialectic relationship with minds: bodily awareness is the basis of all thinking.

If we look at the different ways in which people experience their bodies, and in which they hold and move them, we come upon what are often called personality differences. Here again there is a danger of forgetting the body, and imagining that we are dealing with some “psychological” area that is not physical, not bodily. There is, however, a tradition of looking at personality in a physical, material, way – a tradition that owes most to W Reich and has been developed (albeit in a regrettably individualistic way) by his pupil Alexander Lowen. The tradition also embraces Fritz Perls and the other founders of Gestalt therapy. It needs to get back to its earlier association, in the hands of Reich, with Marxism. This paper is a small effort in that direction.

Revolutionary politics is concerned with the movement from capitalism to socialism. Therefore before relating bodies to the movement itself, we need to relate them (a) to the starting point, namely advanced western capitalist society, and (b) to the goal, socialist existence in so far as we can imagine it.

Capitalism and bodies

Reich argues that capitalism requires working people to be submissive, and that this submissiveness is mainly achieved through the patriarchal family. In the family each new generation learns to suppress feelings (above all, sexual feelings) and hold them within tensed-up muscles. The result is a character which has pronounced masochistic qualities, but also a tendency to sadism and mystical longings. The latter he regards as displaced sexual longings. Essentially, then, people learn to submit first to their father and later to the paternal state. This pattern develops under capitalism, but comes to its fullest growth in fascism.

This is an epoch-making theoretical advance, bringing together as it does economic, social, psychological and physiological factors. Yet it is too general to account for the full range of the effects of capitalism in producing character (here I am using “character” in Reich's pejorative sense, to mean a neurotic distortion of spontaneous contact with reality). Reich would of course agree with this. He was experienced in analysing a variety of character structures, even though his own most original psychoanalytical study of character was concerned with masochism. True, there have been further attempts to understand fascism in terms of the masochistic character alone, but it is arguable (see Billig 1978) that they are lacking in explanatory power. Rather it is to be expected that a complex socio-economic structure such as capitalism will give rise to a variety of personality deformities or characters. However much capitalism may tend to produce uniformity, there are nevertheless a number of ways in which patriarchy, its typical form of family relationship, can be mediated in different families. The over-bearing father, for example, and self-effacing mother offer quite a different milieu to their children from that provided by the hen-pecked father and hectoring mother. The resulting characters can be classified variously. Here I follow Lowen's classification (see Lowen 1975), because of his strong emphasis on the bodily attributes of each character: schizoid, oral, psychopathic, masochistic and rigid. Putting it much too briefly, the respective parental contact is seen as cold, insufficient, seductive, smothering and sexually frustrating. However, it must never be forgotten that these are merely “ideal types”. In practice most people have elements of more than one of these characters. The aim is to understand, not to label.

Let us relate the five types of character more closely to the demands of life under modern capitalism. Everyone who copes at all with such a competitive society has some rigidity: a difficulty in being spontaneous, in letting go, which is experienced physically as a tension in the long muscles of the body. Sometimes, too, this character goes with compulsive neatness, tidiness and orderliness. Rigidity is required by capitalist society, so that people can be disciplined, punctual and able to do repetitive work. It is caused by capitalism not only through the habits engrained in the workplace, but much more importantly in the repressive atmosphere of the patriarchal family and its extension, the school.

The masochistic character is not so much the desire to suffer and be punished, as a complaining, whining submissiveness – covering up a lot of spite and feelings of superiority. The body is short, thick and muscular, somewhat gorilla-like, with a short neck (which relates to a pulling in of the head). The typical family pattern is of a passive father and a smothering mother, who crushes the spontaneity out of her child, specially over eating and defaecation. The advantages to the smooth running of capitalism of this submissive element are obvious. The system can contain a great deal of grumbling, when the grumbler is afraid of offering any stronger resistance – which to the masochist always seems to mean an explosion.

Perhaps the basic trait of the psychopathic character is an inability to trust. Instead the person must control and manipulate others, either by bullying them or by being seductive. The bullying psychopath has a disproportionately large upper half of the body. This element must be extremely useful in openly repressive societies, providing candidates for the police, the army, the prison officers, as well as prison inmates.

The oral element is related to a deprivation of love: a feeling of neediness, emptiness, with a tendency to dependency and depression. The body has poorly developed muscles, and tends to be thin for its height. Fallen arches are common. Orally inclined people often seek to compensate for having been not loved enough by giving a great deal or love: e.g. social workers, counsellors. Thus capitalism has a good supply of “caring people” to mollify the callousness of the system.

The schizoid element comes in where parental rejection leads to sheer loneliness and terror. The infant splits off its experience in various ways. Physically, there is a disconnectedness in the body; head from rest of body, or upper half from lower. Such people tend to withdraw into themselves, away from intimate relationships. They often compensate for this by developing intellectually. Capitalism needs its shy, brilliant “back-room” boys and girls.

To fulfil the requirements of a Marxist analysis, this set of connections between capitalism and different forms of emotional stunting needs to be differentiated in terms of class. Here I offer only a bare schema1 which could serve as the background for such an enquiry:

1. Production and distribution of goods is for the profit of a class.
2. This class seeks to strengthen its dominance by stunting the initiative, creativity and responsibility of the dominated class.
3. Although this is done by rules, by laws and by an education system imposed by this class, its dominance is much more thoroughly underpinned by the fact that these rules etc. are “internalized”, so that now the dominated class hear the rules not only from a rich variety of media (explicitly and implicitly) but also as repeated within in their own heads and bodies.
4. Because we learn most in the early months and years, the family is the main source of our stunting and of our taking it for granted. (It is also, of course, the main source of whatever positive qualities we have too – a point sometimes forgotten.)

Post-revolutionary society and bodies

What will it be like when capitalist competition has been replaced by an economy of sharing? It is notoriously difficult to speculate, and even more so in the area of bodily and emotional existence. It would be pleasant to think that once the material conditions of our emotional and physical stunting have been removed, the stunting will just “wither away”. But this is slipshod thinking. Stunting is already a kind of withering. No: engrained habits of suppressed feeling and deep-seated bodily tensions have been learned. The only way to avoid passing them on to future generations long after they have ceased to have any economic justification, is to learn how to express our feelings, how to loosen up our bodies.

One of the negative statements about a post-capitalist society that is often made is that “the family will be abolished”. Now if my argument is valid, such a statement must be both crude and misleading. Although the patriarchal family plays a crucial role in stunting us in appropriate ways, it also provides us with at least some contact, some love, without which children simply would not survive. To avoid stunting, what is needed is more contact, more love, not less. What evidence we have suggests that children, especially infants, require continuing relationships with a very few people if they are to build up a fundamental security. Unless some way of providing this other than by natural or surrogate parents can be found, the “abolition of the family” would result in a degree of schizoid and oral stunting that would make most contemporary people with these traits seem paragons of openness and independence.

Revolutionary politics and bodies now

Both we who aspire to be revolutionaries and those whom we hope to influence have been brought up under capitalism. We all suffer from a degree of emotional and physical stunting. Clearly, if we have a revolutionary outlook, we have already to some extent escaped from the grip of the ideologies which legitimise capitalism. Unfortunately this intellectual development, this ability to grasp some of the conflicts of the system at the macro or the micro level, does not of itself give rise to a corresponding emotional and physical development. The task: of working towards such development, insofar as it is feasible while the system remains, is a central task for personal politics. More and more activists are realising that their own ways of relating to others must begin to change, if they are not to be walking contradictious of their own beliefs. Sexism is a case in point, but one aim of this paper is to put this kind of issue into a broader framework. The two young people who, when asked if they had a relationship, replied “No, because relationships are not possible until after the revolution” were being pedantic, but they were aware of the problem – if a little pessimistic about its resolution.

Here I leave the relational aspects, extremely important though they are, in order to focus on the bodily feelings, the bodily existence, of individuals. Nevertheless we need to remember always that although the body is the one thing we have that is inalienably ours, it is in fact the product of a complex network of relationships, economic, emotional, and physical.

Above all, you need to know yourself. Find out your own ways of avoiding reality, especially of avoiding emotional reality. This could be understood as a suggestion that we all get ourselves psychoanalysed, let there are other ways of increasing self-knowledge, and some of them (coming from the Humanistic Psychology stable) emphasise the degree to which we can, after all, begin to take responsibility for what we do. Here is a useful point of contact with our political thinking. For is not “taking responsibility” one of our socialist catch-phrases, indeed one worn thin and badly in need of some new threads of meaning? It is not enough to assert our conviction that people can “take responsibility for their own lives”; we need to appreciate just how difficult this can be. So I would like to reflect on some of the ways in which our emotional and physical stunting can mar our ability to take responsibility.

To the extent that we are rigid, we shall be quite happy with the routine of political work. But our stiff upper lip may go along with an insensitivity to the feelings of others. Physically we will be well-proportioned, holding our head high. People may dislike our stubborn-ness, ambition and aggressive ways; they may be irritated at our inability to give in. Our commitment will have a ruthless quality – we may feel uncomfortable when socialism is spoken of in terms of sharing. For us, taking responsibility for ourselves would mean making sure we win every argument.

Insofar as we are masochistic, our political decisions will be coloured by our wish to please, our desire to be approved of. If the rigid type is good at winning arguments, the masochist is good at losing them. Physically we are likely to be muscle-bound, but our apparent strength conceals a good deal of anxiety. Though externally submissive, inside we have strong feelings of contempt for ourselves and others; this is where our tendency to sadism is bidden. Our voice will be nasal, whining. For us, taking responsibility for ourselves is difficult because we are caught between feeling superior to others, needing to please them, and despising them. Our habit is to assume that others are responsible, and to complain about them.

To the degree that our stunting is psychopathic, our basic experience of relationship is to be used. So we will relate to others by using them. The dangers of this in the political field are obvious. If we use our fellow revolutionaries, they may accept this for a time, perhaps seeing the political justification for it. When, however, they realise that we are using them to enhance our own sense of power, they will reject us. This realisation can be delayed, when the people used by the psychopath themselves have a marked strain of masochism. Maybe German disillusionment with Hitler after the war illustrates the point. Insofar as we are psychopathic, taking responsibility for our own lives will be coloured by our need to manipulate others: political power for us will be not a means, but an end in itself.

To the extent that we are oral personalities, we shall be lacking in independence, apt to get depressed. With our poorly developed muscles and our immature-looking bodies, our feelings will frequently be ones of emptiness and neediness. Although we may have our elated moods, we will be reluctant to strike out and get things done. We will expect things to come to us. Political activism will often seem a great effort. We may, however, get a lot of satisfaction out of caring for others. To take responsibility for our own lives will be seen as a heavy burden, a duty. The idea of standing on our own two feet is remote from us.

Insofar as we are schizoid, we shall be inclined to live in our heads, finding our bodies somewhat alien. Our first reaction to stress is to withdraw into ourselves. Contact with others tends to be frightening; it is safer to think. Others may catch a deadness in our eyes – a look of “go away”. We are likely to be interested in political theory rather than to engage in political action. We will write papers on personal politics. To take responsibility for our own lives suggests continuing in our isolation, rather than taking part in some communal effort.

If we know ourselves, we can at least be aware of our weak points. If we are conscious of rather marked stunting in some of the ways here described, we can consider whether some path to our development is available, even under capitalism. Perhaps consciousness-raising groups could take on matters of personality as well as those of attitude. Could not the party run such groups for the emotional and physical development of members, with the support of suitably experienced comrades?

To aim at removing emotional foibles, whether in the short term or in the long, can sometimes seem to entail a desire to have everybody the same. I hope that the concept of stunting will enable us to avoid such a mistake. It is no advantage for everyone to be differently malfunctioning. Emotional and physical stunting diminishes our repertoire of behaviour; we get stuck with just a few ways of responding to all situations. Only the emotionally mature have a wide range of responses. Only they have spontaneity – and spontaneity is at the heart of what we mean by socialist revolution.

1 based largely on Reich 1932


M Billig (1978), Fascists – a social psychological view of the National Front, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, London.
A Lowen (1975), Bioenergetics, Coward McCann & Geoghegan, N York.
W Reich (1942), The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 3rd ed. trans. Vincent R Carfagno, Farrar Straus & Giroux, N York.
W Reich, Sex-Pol: essays 1929–34, ed. Lee Baxandall, Vintage Books, N York.
W Reich (1942), The Function of the Orgasm, trans V R Carfagno, Pocket Books, N York.