Nigel Collingwood


Written 1989, for private circulation.


There has been a tendency for people with a grasp of psychotherapy to see all political activity as a way of avoiding the confusion, anger and fear within. Only the disturbed, on this view, could want or sustain political power. Some support for such a position might be found in the writings of Fromm (1973), with his concept of the necrophilous personality, instances of which he studied in the case of Hitler, and Dixon (1987), who finds psychopathy in the characters of Goering, Iddi Amin and Nixon. If these are extreme cases, it remains possible to argue that positions of power in modern society, whether the power is governmental or in business, require a ruthlessness and single-minded toughness that is far too close to the aggressive end of the spectrum for health or happiness.

A more complex speculation is offered by de Mause (1982). According to his view, political leaders pick up the dynamics of birth trauma generally present in the population, and project them on to an external enemy (see also Grof, 1985). This suggestion is promising in that it sees political reality as an interaction between two pathologies, that of the leaders and that of the led. Yet the emphasis on the role of leaders (e.g. deMause’s work on the presidencies of Carter and Reagan) still tends to imply the passivity of the rest of the people.

What, then, of people who “go in for politics” at, for example, local or county level, or are active in their local party? Here the suggestion seems to be not so much that they are psychopathic as that they are irrevocably caught up in a paranoid perspective which has to have an enemy, and feeds on the classic split between us-good and them-bad.

I will argue that there is some truth in these descriptions of political “types”. However, the thing to notice is their underlying assumption about the nature of politics. It is taken for granted that political activity is something in which only a small sector of the population take any real part. Everyone else is not-political, or in the case of deMause-Grof position, no more than passively political. Indeed it is quite a common boast that one is “non-political”, as if that implied freedom from some rather immature narrowness of outlook, almost some contamination.

Against that assumption I will argue that modern life is so complex, everyone so dependent on others in so many ways, that to opt out of political responsibility is a form of psychological denial. J Macy (1983) has vividly characterised the “psychic numbing” which can blind us to such specific threats as nuclear or ecological catastrophe. But there is no reason to exclude from such an understanding the whole gamut of politcal pressures, global, national and local, under which we all live. Macy has herself broadened the scope of her response well beyond her original concern with the threat of nuclear war. The reasons why we blot out the reality of the multiple dangers and disasters of our time – whether of nuclear war, nuclear power, starvation or genocide – must be many, but one is certainly not that we are insufficiently informed on these matters by the media. We may be ill-informed, but it is precisely the quantity of information, above all in the form of an invasion of our living-rooms by scenes of unspeakable (yet viewable) horror, that leads to overload and a sense of powerlessness. If I can do nothing about this tide of pain and terror, then indeed it is understandable to want to forget, to be someone who, in one of the most telling phrases of our time, “doesn’t want to know”. But such a clamp on our awareness, kept on indefinitely, can only hamper our sense of reality, severely limiting that contact which Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) see as the stuff of human life.

Thus I seem to be suggesting that both political activity and political inactivity are, at least in many cases, symptoms of some kind of psychopathology.

Yet I also want to assert that genuine political activity is not only a healthy response to our situation, but actually health-giving, or therapeutic. My claim will be that the only stance that is not collusive with our neuroses is one that is not collusive with the external forces that nourish them, in other words one that is in radical yet constructive opposition to the current socio-economic system.

A case in point is that of the agoraphobic miner’s wife, reported in Changes in an article by S Aitken (1985). Marsha Marshall, married to a miner, had suffered from agoraphobia for eight years. However, when she heard that her husband, a picket, had been arrested, she changed overnight and became extremely active in the cause of the strike, travelling, taking part in meetings and appearing on TV. Her symptoms disappeared. When the strike was over, there were signs of a relapse, but at the time of the report it was only partial. Now it is arguable that the amelioration could have occurred in any circumstance where someone hitherto agoraphobic be more or less forced by events or rather by concern for those they love, to overcome the anxiety and get on with what needs to be done. On such a view it just happened that what needed to be done in this instance was intense political actxvity. But it is sufficient for my argument that such activity proved to be a valid form of commitment and was apparently therapeutic in its effect. Moreover, the case needs to be seen in the context of the powerful energy released by the strike in the lives of many other members of miners’ families.

However, the relation of politics to pathology needs to be explored in much greater depth. The next chapter is an attempt to compress an account of a four-level model of individual and social being into a few pages. (A fuller account will, I hope, appear in due course.) After that I will use the model in order to throw light on questions raised in the foregoing paragraphs.


Introduction: the purpose of the model

People concerned with therapy tend to look down on politics as an attempt to avoid inner distress and conflict by projecting it all on to the society outside.

People concerned with politics tend to look down on therapy as an attempt to avoid social distress and conflict by reducing it all to the inner experience of the individual.

Both are mistaken, because both are partial. They both distort the relationship between individual and society by seeing them as somehow separate. Yet all we know are individuals-in-society – a complex web from which individual and society are abstracted. People are what they are through their relationships with one another.

Some of these relationships are face to face ones; others are relationships between large groups of people, so that on this scale we are aware not of the individuals but of their ways of grouping together – their structures. It is a matter of focussing now on individuals, now on large groups and structures. But it is important always to remember the other focus each time we adopt the one. There is not individual life and social life. Life is lived individually and socially all the time. Even the hermit understands the meaning of hermit life in terms of an essentially social medium, namely language.

Nature divides society into women and men. We ourselves have divided it into two classes, the owners and controllers of the means to life on the one hand, those who sell their labour power to the former on the other. The precise mode of selling labour power varies from e.g. peasant societies with capital accumulation by feudal lords to modern industrial societies where workers are employed either by private firms or by the state. We have become accustomed to two forms of the modern variety: western “market” capitalism and eastern state capitalism, but these are currently coming to resemble one another more and more.

Marx (1844; 1975) used the word “alienation” to characterise the effects of this division upon people. They are estranged from their work, from other people, and in an important sense from themselves. They do no express themselves in their work but simply perform tasks set by the employer; they cannot see themselves in their work (hobbies making a useful comparison here); they see one another through a distorting lens which enlarges some as employers, diminishes others as workers.

Note that alienation so understood concerns the wellbeing of the people concerned. It does not depend upon, though it is likely to be exacerbated by, the level of poverty or wealth of the members of each class.

However, there is another level of alienation where being itself is at stake. This is the point where human beings confront death. All living creatures die, but as mankind gradually separated itself from the environment, new attitudes to death appeared, as is indicated by burial customs. K Wilber (1981a) has suggested that a crucial change occurred when hunting gave way to farming. The hunter looks to survive from hunt to hunt, the farmer from harvest to harvest. Another crucial change was from tribal organisation, where the survival of the group is what gives meaning to the non-survival of the individual, to family groupings and more recently the relatively independent individual. The corresponding life-styles and cultures can all be seen as ways of dealing with death – partly giving it meaning within a religious understanding, partly denying it by creating artefacts that will outlast their creators.

Awareness of death can well be described as an alienation, since it is that awareness that overshadows all our efforts to be at home in the world. (Wilber catches this skilfully with the image of “the skull grinning in at the feast”.) Since it concerns our very being, it can be called primary alienation, whereas Marxist alienation, concerned with well-being, can be called secondary alienation. As poverty approaches starvation, the two tend to coincide.

We have approached these concepts by taking the social focus. But they have their analogies when we focus on the individual. F Lake (1966) saw the cycle of human growth as starting with acceptance, followed by sustenance. Acceptance is concerned with the issues of being, since the infant only exists in relation to the mother (and father): not to be accepted is ultimately to die; to experience the terror of prolonged separation or neglect is to fear death and yet to long for it. This is the seedbed for splitting and the twin defences against transmarginal stress: hysterical and schizoid. Clearly here is primary alienation. Sustenance on the other hand is concerned with wellbeing and the quality of physical and emotional nourishment: the good or bad breast, the loving or rejecting face. This is at any rate one basis for the paranoid position. Here is secondary alienation. Recent advances in the understanding of pre- and peri-natal life (see Lake op cit, Grof op cit, D Wasdell) suggest that the same issues arise at the earliest possible stages, including implantation, and certainly in the last trimester before birth. If we remain fixed in a given defensive position, there develops the alienated psychological and physical stance that W Reich (1950) called “character structure”. Alienation develops from being an experience to becoming an attitude, a habit.

Having noticed two types of alienation while taking each focus, individual and social, we are now in a position to look more closely at how human beings are structured, individually and socially. I find that we need to take account of four levels of being, at each of which our civilisation shows signs of massive alienation of one type or the other.

Individual focus: embryological layers

Among many possible ways of understanding the complex unity of the individual human being I adopt that based on the development of the embryo. D Boadella’s work is central here (1976, 1987). Successively are formed the ectoderm (skin, sense organs, nervous system, brain), endoderm (alimentary and respiratory systems) and mesoderm (skeletal and cardio-vascular systems). An even earlier place may be allotted to the aura, forming an energy field of “morphoderm”; going beyond Boadella here I suggest that experience at this level is pre-personal, knows no boundaries; I characterise it as “opening”.

In the prenatal stages, and the earliest post natal ones, the issues of existence (acceptance) and nourishment (sustenance) are closely linked, specially at crucial times such as implantation and when the foetus is tightly constricted and crushed (Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrices II and III). In the latter case what is happening is a severe restriction of oxygen supplies and indeed a possibility of near-annihilation (see Wasdell, 1987: In fact we emerge into life in a paranoid position feeling that we haven’t got enough). Such traumata, as well as the post-natal ones charted by Lake (1966) are clearly examples of primary alienation. For beyond “the margin of tolerance” the issue is one of life or death. These traumata are dealt typically through organ-systems deriving from the ectoderm; paranoid, schizoid and hysterical defences are brought into play, which can become hardened into the corresponding character structures.1

Later traumata (often based upon earlier ones, of course, in the manner described by Grof (1985) in terms of COEX (condensed experiences) systems), tend to be concerned with wellbeing rather than being itself, and are thus examples of secondary alienation. These include any milder (“pre-marginal”) stress of the oral phase and the traumata of the anal phase, dealt with by organs deriving from the endodermal layer: oral and anal defences giving rise to the depressive position (connected with A Lowen’s (1975) oral character structure), and the psychopathic, masochistic and obsessional-compulsive character structures.

Finally the traumata of a sexual kind are dealt with through organs deriving from the nesodermal layer, defences about compliance and non-compliance leading to rigid character structures. Alienation here, at first sight only secondary, can well become primary, as in cases of sexual abuse experienced as transmarginal.

The healthy child or adult is able to use all three embryologically derived systems in a harmonious way, the ectodermal organs providing for internal and external communication, the endodermal ones providing for assimilation (literally of food, metaphorically of persons, since loving, welcoming feelings are centred in the diaphragm and belly – the Old Testament’s “bowels of mercy”), the mesodermal ones providing support from the environment by standing and moving (essentially the functions of “grounding” as understood by Lowen, op cit) and going out assertively and creatively into the environment. I call these three levels respectively the representational, the relational and the foundational. I am not clear how far spiritual or mystical experience is adequately accounted for by locating it in the representational level, or whether a separate level, corresponding to the morphoderm, is required. In order to distinguish this mode of being from that of communicating in the everyday sense, I suggest the term “opening” to bring out the transcendence of boundaries characteristic of this type of experience (see Wilber, 1981b)

Social focus: structural layers

A change of focus to the social aspect reveals a parallel set of levels, the fourth one being no less speculative than in the case of the individual focus. On the foundational level there are what Marx calls the forces of material production (or “material forces of production”) ; these are the means, human and material, whereby society is grounded in the environment; in their alienated form (secondary: alienation) they are designed for the production of goods for profit rather than need, and tend to misuse the environment. At the relational level there are the social relations which in our society are again in an alienated form, with a ruling and a ruled class as required by the capitalist mode of production. At the representational level there is the vast web of ideas and language whereby we socially construct our reality (see P Berger and T Luckmann 1966); the alienated aspect of this – its being distorted in order to legitimise the inequalities of the class system – is characterised by Marx as ideology. The interesting question arises whether there is a social counterpart to the individual experience of “opening”. A possible candidate might be when a group of people get totally involved in, entranced by, some religious event. There is also the case of political rallies, such as Hitler’s, where people become, as it were, “fused” with a leader (see D L Smith, 1980).

The model assembled

Thus we now have the following model, combining both foci.

Level   Way of being Individual focus Social focus
embryological derivation alienated form   alienated form
IV pre- and transpersonal opening (?morphoderm)   religious unification political “fusion”
III representational communicating ectoderm hysterical, schizoid paranoid character structures symbolization ideology
II relational assimilating endoderm paranoid & oral; psychopathic, masochistic & obsessional-compulsive c.s. social relations class conflict
I foundational supportive mesoderm rigid character structures forces of production production for profit, misuse of environ’t

Note, first, that there is no explicit place in the model for unconscious processes, nor for the ego. This is consonant with a view that any process can be unconscious, whether physical, emotional or mental. Consciousness moves about like a spotlight in a darkened room. I follow Perls et al (1951) in regarding the ego as arising at the point where contact is made somewhere on the boundary between the person and the environment: “the self is the contact-boundary at work”.

Note, secondly, that the levels interact with one another in many ways, but there is a sense in which the lower levels condition (i.e. provide limits for the development of) the higher ones. This is to follow the “guiding thread” of Marx and Engels (see Marx 1859; 1975). An obvious example is that philosophical discussion or profound research are not possible in a hunting and gathering society, all of whose members are engaged in a continual battle for survival, whereas these things are possible where the mode of production can support a leisured class. (On the other hand the hunters and gatherers may acquire a detailed first-hand knowledge of animals and plants that eludes the individual researcher, who is necessarily a specialist.)

Note, thirdly, that the usefulness of the model can be illustrated by considering problems concerning paranoid attitudes to war. Starting with individual paranoia the investigator can move across to symbolising in its alienated form, where one might locate group fantasies, spread partly through the media. There is a danger in such speculation that one forgets the reality. For instance not only is there irrational fear as between nuclear powers, but also the actual manufacture and deployment of bombs: “There really is a threat of nuclear war!” (see BAC Report, 1988). The model can help one to avoid such forgetfulness by moving from symbolising down to forces of production. In fact one factor in the development of the model was to bring out the material basis of human being, social and individual.


Political activity is concerned with maintaining or changing the social structures which underly the process whereby a society meets or fails to meet is needs. There are differences of opinion as to how far change in this sense is possible or desirable. Here it is best for me to come clean about my own position. I take a revolutionary socialist position, fundamentally on the grounds that the capitalist system of production for profit is outmoded as well as extremely damaging to the members of both the classes it requires for its existence. Not only does it cause secondary alienation, but it also encourages primary alienation inasmuch as it requires both ever increasing material consumption and increasing divergences between rich and poor, postponing the death of the former and hastening that of the latter without giving any meaning to postponement or hastening, or to death itself. (This is true whether the hastening is due to war or to undernourishment and preventable disease). This double alienation is pathogenic, the effects showing up as neurotic character structures (see Lowen 1975) which are partly caused by the system (time and energy not being available for the “taking care” that would make much therapy unnecessary – see D Smail , 1987), and subtly anchor the system in minds and bodies, as people internalise their oppression. Hence I am for radical change, to replace production for profit by production for need, so that life has enough meaning for death also to be given a place.

It follows from this position that politics will either be for such change or against it. I will now look in turn at the conservative, the reformist and the revolutionary positions.

The conservative position

hose who oppose such change tend to argue that it may perhaps be desirable, but it is simply not possible. There is usually an appeal to “human nature”, taken to be essentially fixed as selfish and greedy. But the four level model sees people as alienated, and thus in principle capable of “dis-alienating” themselves, i.e. finding ways of expressing themselves in their work and other activity. Greed and selfishness are examples of alienated social relations, and the model sees them as changeable, though conditioned by ideology (representational level) and by the foundational level.

Thus opponents of socio-economic change must give the following meesage to members of society: “Be your class, surrender to the structures”. This is so, even if some measure of class mobility is tolerated or even encouraged. How, then, is alienation to be dealt with? Palliatives are available: alcohol, other druges, TV, sport, music – anything that can help us to forget, for a time, what is happening to us, how estranged we are. Even therapy itself can be seen as a more ambitious palliative, though any genuine therapy will in fact result in a sounder grasp of reality, less need for self-deception and false consciousness. Where the pain of alienation is urgent, particularly that of primary alienation,there can also be a flight into religion. This is where Marx’s critique of religion must be faulted, however. For he sees religion as the sigh of the oppressed creature (1844; 1975), i.e. as relief only of secondary alienation, whereas it is a response also and perhaps mainly to primary alienation. As to the meaning and function of religion, the model raises these questions: is it a combination of myth (stories we tell ourselves that complete the ges-talt, the meaning of human existence, but go beyond the evidence), i.e. elements of the representational level, and transpersonal experience? Further, since the model carries a progression from earlier to later stages of development, from pre-personal to ocular2 (ectoderm systems), then to oral and anal (endoderm systems), and then to genital (mesoderm systems), is transpersonal experience some kind of recovery of very early fusion with the mother, or is it something qualitatively different (contrast here Wilber (1980 and 1983) and Grof (1985) with Wasdell (1985))?

I would like to digress further about religion. The model encourages a sharp distinction between transpersonal experience and myth, even though the two come together in religion. One myth carried by many religions involves immortality or resurrection: some kind of denial of death. Now it is arguable that this denial is connected with pre- and peri-natal traumata such that there is a splitting off of the bad experience and an idealisation of the good, so that the infant longs for the now idealised oceanic experience in the earlier stages of womb-life; in later life this can be half-recovered as a longing for a lost Eden or for a future heaven. If this is at least part of the truth, it is worth asking whether the need to split our internal reality at the transpersonal and symbolizing levels has not its counterpart at the relational level in the splitting of society into classes. Class society would then be an acting out of a shared internal split. This would not be necessarily to undermine the Marxist analysis in terms of modes of production (at the foundational level), but it would suggest that such an entrenched social pattern may be overdetermined by factors from different levels. What it also suggests is that the socialist project of a classless society is more difficult to achieve than traditional Marxism would expect.

Parallel to the suggestion that class society mirrors a psychological split is deMause’s theory that war is an acting out of the struggles to survive that occur at Basic Perinatal Matrix III (the process of birth itself): “Groups go to war in order to overcome the helplessness and terror of being trapped in the birth canal” (1982). Conservative politics lead to the wars of capitalism, where nations fight to increase or defend their markets and sources of raw materials.

Thus in terms of the model the conservative position
(a) encourages the split between individual and society, promoting individualism as against social fairness, and even allowing the Prime Minister to say that there is no such thing as society;
(b) at the pre-personal and transpersonal level it provides for the acting out of primal trauma through the encouragement of the class system, and through wars either fought at the cost of millions of lives or fantasised through the media, the issues here being mainly those of primary alienation (as we have seen, this point is speculative);
(c) at the representational level it supports an ideology according to which only the market system works;
(d) at the relational level the class differences are enacted, while the individual prototype is the type-A personality, the ruthless entrepreneur;
(e) at the foundational level production is subject to booms and slumps with the resulting undertainty and anxiety; the stress on consumption as enjoyable is a way of denying death, many palliatives being produced as commodities.

This adds up to a thorough investment in primary and secondary alienation, and needs to be recognised as pathological and pathogenic.

The reformist position

This is the position of those who hold that the structures of capitalism can be dismantled through legal, and in this country, parliamentary means. The revolutionary criticism of this position is that it assumes that parliament is sovereign and holds real power, being able to enact whatever it likes, whereas in fact power lies with the business, legal and military establishments. When a policy that seriously threatens capitalism is enacted, as in Chile under Allende, parliament is powerless against the real holders of power, who then simply annihilated Allende and his party. For a brief critical discussion of the reformist fallacy see, for instance, Callinicos (1983). From the standpoint of this model, too much credence was given in Chile to the possibility of change at the representational level – a revolution on paper – at the expense of a realisation of the coercive power of the state, once the ideology is threatened; the social relationship of armies set against unarmed civilians (relational level).

In spite of an adherence to socialism (whether sincere and practical as in the case of Allende, or virtually meaningless as in the case of Kinnock) the reformist position is, in terms of the model, ultimately on the side of alienation; for it cannot deliver socialism, and as the vain hope of achieving it through parliament inclines it ever more, if unevenly, towards the conservative position, it ceases even to want to deliver it. It is thus reducible to conservatism, and in the end equally pathological and pathogenic.

The revolutionary position

Here the change required has to be seen at all levels. Marxism to date has had little to say about the transpersonal level, or about the other levels taken in the individual focus. Nevertheless, the unconscious side of human life has been somewhat recognised thanks to the movements against the oppression of women, blacks and gays (there is not much awareness as yet of the oppression of children). The model suggests that the overthrow of capitalism is a massive operation entailing not only the dismantling of the state as one of its main organs but also the healing of the interpersonal and intra-personal wounds resulting from the internalisation of millennia of social oppression. (For the process of internalising, see Collingwood (1986)). Socialism involves the individual-in-society (equally, society-consisting-of-individuals) at the foundational, relational and representational levels. In so far as it carries its own myth of a golden age to come, I suggest that it it is also involved in resonances from the transpersonal level – perhaps of oceanic bliss in the womb, an idealised private Eden to justify and buoy up hopes of an idealised social New Jerusalem. Relucantly I must admit that my argument points to this being a case of primary alienation, albeit on the positive (life-affirming) side. Maybe we just cannot do without such myths and visions.

Because the socialist position entails every person being explicitly part of society with shared information and responsibility, the healing of the individual-social split is part of the project. Yet a frequent criticism of revolutionary socialist groups is that they are intolerant of genuine discussion and naive in face of the paranoid dynamics that can easily pervade any organisation, especially one with extremely high aims and plenty of other groups to despise (e.g. other left wing groups or trade union leaders). The model could provide much food for thought here, since it relates the social alienation that is the usual theme of socialist analysis to individual alienation. A serious programme of education and, where necessary, suitable therapy (co-counselling has a great deal to offer here) could lead to a much deeper appreciation of secondary alienation and an awareness of the issues of primary alienation.

In fact the model suggests that so long as revolutionary socialism retains its enormous blind spot about individual alienation, which unless recognised and corrected must afflict members of socialist groups, it cannot deliver a revolutionary process that is sufficiently thorough and profound to succeed. Again,;only if this alienation is treated can socialists offer one another the full, trusting support at the relational level that the project requires.

Yet with that proviso the project offers hope: the oppressed can dedicate themselves to overthrowing their oppression. Such a commitment is itself therapeutic, since it takes people out out of their powerlessness into a shared activity, as in the case of Marsha Marshall. Joining with others in dealing with the alienation, primary as well as secondary, that stems from capitalism is the only healthy way of living while the system lasts.

At the foundational level the aim is to replace production for profit by production for need, i.e. the ending of secondary alienation at the level of the forces of production. The aim is that the environment becomes, as it were, an extension of our own foundations; in the words of Marx (1858; 1971) Man therefore becomes able ... to conceive of nature (involving also practical control over it) as his own real body.

At the relational level the aim is a sororal and fraternal society untrammelled by class. In Trotsky’s words: Socialism, if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed; friendship without envy and intrigue; love without base calculation. (Reference lost.)

At the representational level the aim is to transcend ideology and allow honest contact.

At the pre- and trans-personal level the aim is to accept this type of experience without re-enacting its negative, death-entranced side through primary alienation at the other three levels.

Such a programme is almost overwhelming in its scope. Yet if it is understood at a “good enough” pitch, rather than at an idealising one, it offers a grounded hope that has little need of palliatives. It is therapeutic because it involves a genuine facing of problems and a cooperative effort to meet them. It gives a chance to life, and leaves room for the acceptance, regretful perhaps but not embittered, of death.

1 Tentatively I take the view, contra Wilber, that pre- and trans-personal experience are organically related, the latter being a recovery or development of the former but in a much more complex organism. See Collingwood (1984) and Wilber (1983). For critiques of Wilber see Wasdell (1985) and M Washburn (1988).

2 i.e. where the significant contact is from eye to eye.


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