Nigel Collingwood

Towards Gestalt Politics

A constructive critique of some writings of David Wasdell

David Wasdell has produced an impressive account of social dynamics in terms of projection and allied paranoid-schizoid defences. This paper aims to supplement Wasdell’s analysis with an approach in terms of the Gestalt theory of modification of contact, developed by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. Projection, Introjection, Retroflection and Confluence are related to basic Marxist theory in an attempt to sketch a vocabulary that will apply equally to the interpersonal and to the socio-economic and political levels of reality. There are two practical conclusions. 1984, Connect Paper No. 5.

“I have known pleasure and peace. Yet now I am overwhelmed by pain and terror. I can only make sense of this dreadful confusion if I divide it into a perfectly good area and a completely bad area, and pretend to myself either that the bad area does not exist, or that it exists outside of me, somewhere else. Yet if I see it as outside of me, it terrifies me again”.

This is a bare summary, necessarily using words, of how, pre-verbally, we set up a paranoid-schizoid system of psychological defences. It is these defences against intolerable pain and anxiety that are seen as being at the root of the crisis in the world today by David Wasdell. He is the author of a number of papers (16-25) published by URCHIN (Unit for Research into Changing Institutions), which I wish to use as my starting-point. According to Wasdell we are unable to make political decisions based on reality because what we see is strongly coloured by our projections: our own nation may be seen as all good, another (e.g. Argentina or the USSR) as all bad; or in a religious context, we may see ourselves as all bad and the godhead as all good.

So far there is nothing new in this analysis. But Wasdell increases its scope by taking full account of recent work by such as Grof (7) and Lake (9) in the area of traumatic experiences before and during birth. Because such traumata, more or less severe, probably occur to nearly the whole of the population, Wasdell sees them as the key to an understanding of unrealistic behaviour in most individuals, groups and nations – indeed in the whole world; for this is a time when the planet’s “constriction”, due to population increase and scarcity of resources, echoes the constriction of the later phases of foetal life.

Thus these writings of Wasdell have a certain doom-laden atmosphere about them. Not that he is entirely pessimistic. For he holds that integration of the repressed pain and terror can be achieved through primal therapy, describing this briefly in the final section of one of his papers (24). However, the implication seems to be that unless such therapy can be successfully undertaken by the majority of the world’s population fairly soon, we will act out our fantasies in nuclear war.

I am writing this paper as one deeply impressed by Wasdell’s writing. (Perhaps as yet, to use terms I shall be explaining later, I have introjected them, rather than assimilated them.) His description of the painful process of moving from a position of support from religion to the riskier territory of re-owned projections resonates powerfully with my own steps along that journey. I too have been influenced by Frank Lake, both the Kleinian Lake represented by Clinical Theology (8) and the Grofian, “peri-natal”, Lake of Studies in Constricted Confusion (9).

On the other hand, in some respects my background and assumptions are very different from what I take to be those of Wasdell. As a counsellor and therapist I owe much to Gestalt therapy; as a political person, much to the Marxist tradition that is critical of Soviet as well as of western capitalism; and as someone striving to hold the personal and therapeutic in harness with the social and political, much to Wilhelm Reich. With these sympathies I want not so much to argue against Wasdell as to point to some gaps that I see in his position, and to suggest how they might be filled.


For in spite of his steady commitment to social as well as psychological change, he seems to have little to say that engages with work, and with the exploitative system under which work is done in any of our “advanced” societies; or with the massive assault on our thinking and feeling constantly mounted by the institutions and media of such societies. In Marxist terms, Wasdell leaves out alienation (except religious alienation) and ideology. Admittedly, his stress on the mechanism of projection (with its allies, splitting, idealisation, denial and introjection – in the Freudian sense, i.e. internalisation) does at one point bring him close to Marx’s thinking. For it allows him to write sympathetically, if with reservations, of Feuerbach’s critique of religious alienation, later adapted by Marx. His main reservation is that whereas Feuerbach saw us as projecting our good qualities and powers on to deities from, as it were, a false humility, Wasdell sees us as projecting them in idealised form in our defence against primal anxiety. Thus he gives an added depth to the Feuerbachian approach.

However, this is where I begin to make my constructive criticism. For in order to make sense of the colossal irrationality of our society, where being has been identified with competing, and well-being with winning, other defences and avoidances need to be taken into account. Here I want to suggest that in addition to projection we allow for the three other processes charted by Perls Hefferline and Goodman (12), namely Introjection, Retroflection and Confluence. (Hereafter I will use initial capitals for their concept of these three, and of Projection.) Only then can we integrate Wasdell’s insights into primal pain, and its effects upon individual and group behaviour, with the world as we know it, riven into competing classes and calling as much for structural, economic change as for change in psychological terms. Otherwise, in spite of intentions to the contrary – and I appreciate that Wasdell has such intentions – we shall remain confined within the Freudian agenda of making the unconscious conscious, and unable to confront the global, now dysfunctional, “game” of capitalism that also needs to be understood and dismantled.


Wasdell’s basic picture is of the foetus or neonate coping with anxiety from “impingement” upon her from without or within. To this must be added the picture of the organism, at any stage of development, assimilating the environment: that is, being in contact with it in order to meet its own needs; it ingests elements of the environment, destroying them in a process of chewing and digesting; it thus makes part of the material into itself and excretes the remainder. Failure to complete this process usually consists in swallowing the material whole, not digesting it but retaining it as alien matter. The simplest cure is by vomiting it. Such failed assimilation is in Perls’ terms Introjection (different from Freud’s introjection).

This assimilation-Introjection model is clearly complementary to Wasdell’s impingement model. For instance, the foetus ingesting “bad” material through the placenta will both need to cope with anxiety by such defences as Projection (here the Gestalt understanding of the term is basically the same as Wasdell’s) and find herself having to “swallow” material that is not going to be properly assimilated, i.e. Introjecting it. This example brings out the close relation of Introjection to forced-feeding. The foetus has no choice, but the young child being “made” to eat something unwelcome can either refuse it or swallow it. By swallowing it, the child defends herself against parental anger, but at the cost of laying down the basis of a masochistic character structure: a profound “No” under the cover of a deceptive submissiveness.

The case of forced-feeding will help us to connect Introjection with ideology and alienation. For in Marxist terms ideology is not just any system of ideas, but precisely those ideas that are dinned into us by the capitalist establishment in order to justify the ways of capital to man and woman, and indeed to make them appear natural and inevitable. The picture of

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate

must on no account be questioned. If it were, then contact might be made with the truth, that the game of exploitation (to use Eric Berne’s sense of “game”, roughly) is being played and could, given the technology we now have, be replaced by a non-exploitative, sharing society. So such contact must be avoided and precluded by all available devices of education and communication. In other words, criticism of the status quo must be prevented. Now, criticism is a chewing-up of ideas, destroying a given pattern in order not just to swallow them whole but to digest them. Thus in Perlsian terms, for ideology to do its work, it must be introjected.

The link with alienation is a little more complex. I have gone into it in a separate paper (3a). According to the analysis Marx made in 1844 (l0a), alienation is the process by which persons working for an employer under capitalism are estranged from their work, from their product and from other people. Estrangement occurs because they are not expressing themselves in what they do, but obeying the requirements of those who pay them. They are certainly engaging with the environment, but not so as to assimilate it to themselves (as they might do in the freer context of a hobby), but to the requirements of a market; their product is not for their own use or even primarily for the use of others; it is primarily for exchange as a commodity. It is true that any activity of making or producing brings elements of the environment within the boundaries of the makers, so as to become, if not parts of them and extensions of themselves, at least theirs in some sense. However, in the case of alienated work the environmental elements simultaneously cross the makers’ boundary and remain the property of, and more important, controlled by, the employer. There is no contact between these elements and the makers as self-expressive persons. Thus just as what might be called the internal assimilation of eating or reading has a counterpart in the Introjection that results from forced-feeding, so the external assimilation of making artefacts has a counterpart in the Introjection that results from forced-making. True, the analogy is not perfect, since internal Introjection is characterised by not chewing, not destroying, the Introject, whereas with external Introjection the actual work performed could be just as “destructive” in the required sense as would be an act of freely chosen making independent of capitalist investment, exploitation and so on. Yet in the external case contact is poor and perfunctory. Hence the essence of Introjection is present in both cases, since they both involve environmental elements coming within people’s boundaries, but not so as to become part of themselves.

Thus owing to the formal and informal education system and to the nature of work in capitalist society, Introjection is ubiquitous. How far it is felt as painful will probably be related to how far it resonates with early experiences (though no doubt other factors are relevant too), just as in Wasdell’s picture the degree to which the constriction of our global existence is laden with psychotic terror will depend on how painfully we experienced constriction at the time of our birth. Certainly there would seem to be prenatal traumata relevant to Introjection. Admittedly, the list of painful themes listed by Grof (7) is so extensive that almost any argument could find corroboration in it. Yet it is worth noting that among the phenomena in LSD sessions that he places under the First Basic Peri-natal Matrix are: unpleasant physical sensations (‘hang-over’… unpleasant tastes, disgust, feelings of being poisoned) (ibid. p 103). Perls’ approach to Introjection in his clients was often by means of “mobilizing disgust”.


Thus the Gestalt approach is beginning to offer insights that are complementary to Wasdell’s. Just as his model in basically Kleinian terms brings out the factors in our society that are specially relevant to the schizoid and paranoid character structures, so does the Gestalt balancing of Projection by Introjection bring out the factors most relevant to the masochistic character structure. Here Reich’s work, notably The Mass Psychology of Fascism, is much to the point. Similarly the next modification of contact to be considered, that of Retroflection, is very much in the territory of the oral character structure, with its tendency towards depression. For Retroflection means the direction of energy, not across the boundary with the environment, but back upon the organism itself. Such activity is, of course, usually referred to by the reflexive form: comforting oneself, blaming oneself. Depression has an important element of self-hatred, self-rejection and of anger and nagging against oneself. Retroflection occurs in groups when the members cease to attend to the task in hand and give way to mutual animosity and bickering. This is at least part of what Bion (2) means when he writes of the work group, i.e. the group in contact with reality, giving way to the group dominated by the Basic Assumption of Fight. In spite of a raising of voices and a rattling of sabres, the signs are not of strength but of powerlessness. Since cooperation is, or is felt to be, impossible, domination is tried instead. Now this is precisely what is happening in late capitalism. Production is no longer individual but social. It involves world-wide movements of raw materials and products. Yet instead of cooperating in the task of meeting human needs, we divide ourselves into the “two sides of industry”, one side dominating and exploiting the other. In other words, instead of making fruitful contact, we engage in Retroflection.

What is the emotional core of this move towards dominating and being dominated? Following a point made by Perls, that violence is the result of powerlessness, I suggest that the underlying motive is fear. The hoarder of wealth in a competitive society “has to” accumulate yet more for fear of being overtaken by competitors. Those who have only their labour-power to sell collude with their own exploitation for fear of unemployment. Both fears are ultimately fears of annihilation. For even if bankruptcy or unemployment do not result in actual death, the people concerned are reduced to nothing as far as contact with the productive process is concerned. This brings us to one of Wasdell’s main points (16), that the dynamics of primal constriction, not the dynamics analysed by Bion, come into play when the group is large and when a small group is threatened with extinction. A certain amount of work is appropriate to Basic Assumption fight/ flight.... Not so in foetal regression. Here the paranoia is total... there is no hope and possibility of work (op. cit. p. 59). I am suggesting that the Retroflective activity of class conflict under capitalism does achieve “a certain amount of work”, in that some needs are met even with production for profit; further, we take on roles within the institutionalised conflict as a defence against a fear of annihilation that is partly realistic, but can also resonate with foetal distress. However, it must be borne in mind that the conflict originated as a way of managing a relatively small surplus product. It is only when the surplus is large enough for all to participate in it that we can speak of the conflict as being Retroflective. The class war is now civil war. Indeed, all war is now civil war. Late capitalism generates not only economic competition for markets but also a military form, the arms race and numerous wars. Here Wasdell is correct (17) in seeing the relevance of paranoid, Projective dynamics at the foetal level. Yet with the advent of nuclear weapons, the fear of annihilation is more than ever a realistic one. The dreaded holocaust would be the ultimate Retroflection.


The last modification of contact noted in Gestalt therapy is perhaps the least easy to grasp: Confluence. The assumption is made, from Gestalt psychology, that for good contact with “reality the organism in contact needs to perceive something standing out against a background; otherwise all is confused and the environment “flows together” in Confluence. Some cases of Confluence are quite positively evaluated, for instance in going to sleep. There is also a positive sense in which the unborn child is confluent with the mother; indeed, the lack of a clear boundary lasts well into infancy. Only its lasting into adulthood is usually seen as pathological. However, when this fused-unity occurs in groups, the results can be catastrophic; for this see David L Smith’s distinction between “fusion-grouping” and “union-grouping” (14). On the other hand, if all belonging to groups resonates with the Confluence of the womb, then there can be a positive side to such a partial Confluence between oneself and other members of the group, in so far as the womb experience was good and nourishing. This consideration offers a balance to the somewhat pessimistic tone of Wasdell’s writings, owing to his tendency to stress memories that are painful and for that reason repressed. Mystical experience also sometimes has a Confluent quality, and whether or not Ken Wilber is right in denying that it has any connection with pre-personal experience (26), it is arguable that the Confluent bliss of ecstasy can have a value as a source of inspiration to people deeply involved in political activity; I have gone into this suggestion elsewhere (5).

Connections with character structure and group theory

I have already mentioned in passing the relevance of Projection to the schizoid and paranoid character structure, and of Introjection and Retroflection to masochism and orality respectively. Confluence would seem to play a part in the origin of both the schizoid and psychopathic structures. For parenting of a rejecting kind (with an element of seductiveness in the case of psychopathy) leaves the infant lacking in that experience of support and warmth needed if human beings are to stand out to them as a loving, loveable and lovely Gestalt against the rest of the environment: see Lowen (10). Elsewhere (3) I have used Reichian insights into the relation of psychopathology to politics to suggest that each character structure has an affinity for particular aspects both of the social structure of capitalism (Marx’s “relations of production”) and of the ideology built up to legitimate it. If these suggestions are valid, then the concept of character structure provides a bridge between the four modifications of contact and a variety of basic political attitudes. Again, Wasdell’s emphasis on attitudes for which the paranoid and schizoid positions have a peculiar valency can be balanced by others of a different emotional colour, and again the picture becomes more complete.

As we have already seen Wasdell argues (16) that the Bion model of group dynamics in terms of Basic Assumptions (dependency, fight/flight and pairing) is valid for elucidating the small group when its survival is not in question, but that his own primal model is needed for the large group, and small groups threatened with extinction. Nevertheless, there does seem to me to be some room for the Bion model in connection with political activity, especially when it is extended in the direction suggested by Randall and Southgate (15). For they see Bion’s constructs applying to the successive phases of the “destructive” group, while corresponding positive constructs mark the phases of the “creative” group. They themselves use this enlarged theory to throw light on the local politics of community and cooperative development. I have suggested further applications of it to the Marxist themes of the revolutionary party and of capitalist production itself (6). Certainly my suggestions are called in question by Wasdell’s point about the size of the group, except in so far as revolutionary activity and even industrial production tend to break down into fairly small groups. Yet we must remember that people under capitalism are not an amorphous crowd, but participate in an organised activity where “fight”, conflict, is institutionalised. Be that as it may, the modification theory is relevant wherever the Randall-Southgate model is exemplified. For the Basic Assumption of dependency, or better, the phase of dependency, clearly involves Introjection, as leaders are sought who will relieveothers of the effort of digesting and assimilating the problems to hand. That of fight involves Retroflection, at any rate where the object of attack is within the group. That of flight involves Confluence, as members fail to see one another or their task clearly against the background. That of pairing involves Projection, as they hand over their powers to some other, imaginary, super-group of the future. The phases of the creative group, on the other hand – nurturing, energising, peak and relaxation – are all marked by good contact with the task (thus being roughly equivalent to Bion’s work group), with one another, and by both internal and external assimilation, where appropriate.

Other aspects of the modification model

I have tried to present the modification model in such a way that Wasdell’s impressive development of the theory of Projection can be seen in a wider context – within a model that spans human experience and activity at all ages and all levels of interaction. Not that he ignores the wider context; see his article sketching a “Unified Field Theory” (16). The modification model offers at least a beginning of a common language, so that people talking about therapy and people talking about politics can see analogies and connections without always having to translate between mutually alien vocabularies. More important it may even offer a way of avoiding the twin blights of psychologism of the part of the therapists and a corresponding reduction of interpersonal and individual issues to politics on the part of the political people. For if it is to be of any use, it must be sufficiently broad to avoid reductionism, while sharp enough to avoid vacuity.

Wasdell speaks sometimes of reality-based activity as against activity rooted in fantasy. Similarly the modification model refers to contact with reality and to the quality of the contact. This raises the question as to whether reality is simply “there” to be inspected. A positive reply to this question seems to be implicit in the classical notion of “reality-testing”. Yet there is much to be said for the view that reality is socially constructed, mainly by the language we use in order to make sense of experience, as Berger and Luckmann have argued (1). By inheriting a language we inherit a particular way of seeing the world. Now this fits in well with Gestalt theory. Foreground and background are seen as constantly changing; language encourages us to put this in the foreground and that in the background. Does this mean that we have given up a naive realism only to fall into a thoroughgoing relativism? Not necessarily. For whether we attend to this and leave aside that, or vice versa, depends not on whim but on human needs. Although many needs are themselves socially created and are experienced only in a given social context (we need petrol if we have cars, not otherwise), the basic human needs for air, food, warmth, contact with other people and so on must be ret if we are to survive at all. I have suggested elsewhere (4) that Marx’s historical materialism is rooted in this fact. Politics is before anything else concerned with the quality of our contact with one another and with the environment in our efforts to meet these basic needs.

Therapy, politics and Marxism

Does it make sense, then, to speak of Gestalt politics? Not if it would mean a particular political strategy. For we have been all along making use not of the particularities and techniques of Gestalt therapy (which have inevitably been worked up in competition with other therapies) but of the general theory behind it, the modification model. So an approach to politics can rightly be said to have a Gestalt character if the same model can be shown to underlie it. Which approach, then? I would argue that the Marxist approach, properly understood and not as vulgarised by such state capitalist hierarchies as that of the USSR, is the only serious candidate. It alone consistently looks beneath the surface of events to what is really going on, that is, what is going on in terms of the basic needs and how we meet or fail to meet them. The analogy with any therapy, such as Gestalt, that owes much to Freud, is surely obvious.

Thus Gestalt politics is Marxist politics that takes personal and group therapy seriously. Because it sees individual and society as totally interdependent, it cannot envisage a revolutionary project that does not include both socio-economic and personal change. Fortunately in recent years the women’ s movement has made this less surprising as an aim. Consciousness of oppression, whether of sex, colour or age, has not to wait until after a revolution. It can begin first, indeed needs to begin first if anything like a Marxist revolution is to occur. Pioneering work in the UK has been done by such people as the Red Therapy group. But we need to go beyond a therapy compatible with and illuminated by Marxism to a political practice that is deepened by the insights of therapy.

It is to be hoped that Wasdell will in time offer us a critique of Marx. Meanwhile we must be content with his contention (19) that “one of the fundamental flaws in the Feuerbachian analysis (sc. of religion) is taken up by the Marxist position”. The flaw in question is Feuerbach’s inability to relate the phenomenon of projection of human qualities on to a deity to projection as a defence against primal anxiety. This inadequacy “formed the foundation for Marx’s displacement of the problem into the ideological/political arena”. It enabled Marx to ignore the inner needs that Feuerbach recognised as being at the heart of religion, and relate it solely to class-oppression and ultimately to modes of production. For Wasdell sees Marx as in defensive flight from his own inner alienation by projecting “it out on to society and ultimately on to the State” and reifying it there. Thus Marxism is for him a mere “manipulation of symptoms” without engagement with their causal dynamics, and ultimately “an illusion, an opium of the people”. Powerful words, which at least one Marxist is not ashamed to ponder. But there is a danger of psychologism. Granted Marx was not Freud, so that there has up to now been a psychologically-shaped gap in his approach. But this does not invalidate Marx’s perception of the legitimizing function of religion in capitalist society, nor his argument that the working-class can be emancipated by itself alone and thereby make possible a sharing, classless, society. All it does is to invite us to use our psychological insights in order to understand more fully the obstacles to achieving such a society. It makes us ask the questions that Reich (e.g. 13) was asking, and more recently Ollman (11). Let us hope that Wasdell will help us to answer some of them.

Practical conclusions

Theoretical elaboration is pointless unless it can be tested, in the crucible of practice. Two practical suggestions follow from the argument that this paper has outlined.

First, centres need to be set up where research, education and training can be done on therapeutic and political change, with equal stress on both dimensions. It follows from the assumptions here made that the therapy will be of a humanistic kind, and the politics of an enlightened Marxist kind. If the modification model is valid, its use in such a context might be useful towards creating a bridge of language, so as to reduce the danger of anti-social individualism suspected by some to exist to humanistic psychology, and that of totalitarianism suspected by others in Marxism. Just because it applies at every level, the model will be available to foster radical education in forming human community.

Second, members of revolutionary groups need to be able to increase their awareness of their own and the group’s process, so that pathological avoidances can be noticed, unlearned and increasingly replaced by sensitive contact. For this purpose co-counselling methods will perhaps be most useful, in so far as they can be safely developed to take into their scope pre- and peri-natal material. For Wasdell has done so much to clarify the importance of this material and its relevance to political reality and fantasy, that its position on any serious agenda for education in revolutionary politics must from now on be beyond dispute.

Nigel Collingwood, July 1984

(1) Berger, P & Luckmann, T, The Social Construction of Reality, London, Penguin, 1967.
(2) Bion, W, Experiences in Groups, London, Tavistock, 1961.
(3) Collingwood, N, Class-Consciousness & Bodies, duplicated, ‘79.
(3a) ditto, Alienation & Introjection, duplicated, 1982.
(4) ditto, Political Grounding, Connect Paper No 3, 1983.
(5) ditto, Ecstasy & Politics, Self and Society, XII, 2-3.
(6) ditto, Party & Alienation, duplicated, 1982.
(7) Grof, S, Realms of the Human Unconscious, London, Souvenir, ‘79.
(8) Lake, F, Clinical Theology, London, Darton Longman & Todd, 1966.
(9) ditto, Studies in Constricted Confusion, Nottingham, Clinical Theology Association, no date.
(10) Lowen, A, Bio-energetics, N York, Coward McCann & Geoghegan, 1975.
(10a) Marx, K, Early Writings, London, Penguin, 1975.
(11) Ollman, B, Social & Sexual Revolution, London, Pluto, 1979.
(12) Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, Gestalt Therapy, N.Y., Delta, ‘51.
(13) Reich, W, People in Trouble, N.Y., Farrar Straus & Giroux, ‘76.
(14) Smith, D, On Groups, Pt I, in Energy & Character, XI, 3.
(15) Southgate, J, & Randall, R, Cooperative & Community Group Dynamics, London, Barefoot Books, 1980
(16) Wasdell, D, Towards a Unified Field Theory of Human Behaviour in Energy & Character, XIII, 2, 1982.
(17) ditto, The Dynamics of Disarmament, URCHIN, no date. *

(18-25) all published by URCHIN:

(18) Anxiety Defences Pt.II.
(19) The Matrix of Religion.
(20) Perinatal Matrices.
(21) Foundations of Psychosocial Analysis.
(22) Innate Defences.
(23) The Matrix of Christianity.
(24) Functional Religion as a Social defence Mechanism.
(25) The Matrix of Defence.

(26) Wilber, K, Eye to Eye, N York, Anchor Books, 1983.

* URCHIN: Unit for Research into Changing Institutions, 115 Poplar High Street, London, E14 0AE.