Nigel Collingwood


No date: originally written for New Society but not published.

People keep telling us socialism is dead. State ownership has been tried and found wanting. Or it is still alive, but so tamed that the Labour Party will establish it by more welfare and a few adjustments to taxation. But there is a deeper meaning to socialism than state ownership of the means of production, let alone capitalism covered by a rose-leaf. Since it is a living idea, this deeper meaning can be grasped only if we both remain loyal to earlier formulations and seek new Insights in the light of what we now know.

At bottom, socialism is the project of building a world community on the basis of advanced technology and shared responsibility for one another’s needs. Since Marx, this has been seen in terms of both the abandonment of the profit motive and the control over production by the producers – control not granted by a state but taken by the producers. It is wishful thinking to rely on anything short of this. Critics of the command economy in existing so-called socialist countries will want to know how such a “socialism from below” will be different, and rightly so. But what is also needed is a critique, psychological as well as historical, not merely of private ownership, but of ownership as such.

For our whole sense of being who we are is bound up with what we own. When our identity was tribal, when our basic reality was “we” rather than “I”, we could identify with the tribe for our being, although no doubt tribal herds or lands were also important. But when more settled farming allowed the production of more than could be immediately consumed, a male class of owners emerged with something like our sense of individual personality, a sense of “I”. Women and slaves were owned, and so less likely to be recognised as persons. I have, therefore I am. Admittedly, the relation between legal and psychological identity is complex. Today the struggle for personhood is still being fought, but in so far as we have a sense of being individual persons it is still closely tied to what we own – a point well taken by the advertising industry. Even if we think we have got beyond that stage, and say “I am my own person”, our very language suggests a sense of self that is still founded on ownership, albeit ownership of oneself.

If I am what I own, then any threat to my property will be felt as a threat to myself; if my property is impinged upon, I will feel the impingement upon me. Now, most of us have had traumatic experiences in the womb and/or after birth, and the way we dealt with them is likely to have been this: we displaced what was bad to somewhere it could be rejected as “not-me”; in other words, we protected ourselves by excluding the other, the typical paranoid defence. Later threats to our existence will trigger the same defences. So if our sense of ourselves depends on ownership, anxiety about property will tend to have a paranoid quality; we will protect ourselves with a “them and us” attitude. Thus when the capitalist form of property, based on competitive accumulation and production for profit, results in a society split into classes, these classes both fulfil the function of buying and selling labour power and continually enact the paranoid scenario.

This scenario is worked out through further exclusions, as in racism, sexism and outright war. The cultural analogue is to be all right, Jack, passively watching images of violence on television. But the core experience is that not only our wellbeing but our very existence is at the expense of others. They have not, therefore I am.

Thus contrary to the shallow criticism that socialism makes a scapegoat of the capitalist, the true thrust of the socialist project is towards the elimination of scapegoating altogether. The revolutionary changes called for include not only a fundamental restructuring of economic life (here the ecological arguments become daily more compelling) but a corresponding change in our sense of identity. We have inherited a picture of the isolated self over against his rivals: “his” because individualism has been overwhelmingly patriarchal. The new vision of identity challenges exact delineation no less than does the new vision of economics. Yet in spite of the inadequacy of our pre-revolutionary language there are hints. The feminist contribution is crucial. There is a growing interest in emotional and spiritual maturity, through such disciplines as counselling, meditation, yoga and tai-chi. It is too easy to dismiss these as middle-class fads. They are reactions to the emptiness of even the comfortable side of the competitive divide. Individualism is still there, but ready to give way to a wonderful communality, as anyone who has taken part in successful group therapy knows. Perhaps the most reactionary factor is the inevitable tendency to make the spiritual quest into a commodity. However, co-counselling and self-help groups are attempts to circumvent this.

At first sight it may seem unlikely that the majority of the working class will ever be interested in emotional and spiritual revolution. But the same goes for social and economic revolution. Indeed both revolutions are implausible if seen in isolation from one another: the former would be a hypocritical icing of love on the competitive cake, the latter would be aborted by a paranoid selfishness unequal to the demands of solidarity. But together the two revolutions each make the other possible. Granted timing is crucial, and we are ready for neither yet. But a heartening sign could be seen in the miners’ strike, faulted though it was; the viability of pits was linked to the viability of communities. Many, especially women, found a new sense of themselves in the struggle. So the deep meaning of socialism is breaking through. It is a call to a new way of personal and political being – the only project exciting enough to wake us up from our futile fascination with passivity and violence. Maxims will not be hard to find. I’m not all right, Jack, if you aren’t. We give, therefore we are.