Category Archives: Radical Psychology

Whither the Family?

Whither the Family?

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

Karl Marx. Theses on Feuerbach, IV


Mode of Production, Social Relations and Control

Engels writes, in his preface to the first edition of the The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that…

according to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This again, is of a twofold character: on the one side the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other. The lower the development of labour and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develops those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written (F.E. emphasis) history. [1]

In class societies, the means of production are owned and/or controlled by the ruling classes/castes of these societies. In ancient societies, by a slave-owning and landowning nobility (vast areas of land were actually owned by the state powers in Antiquity, especially in Asia) and in the medieval period by an investitured and infeudated aristocracy which, strictly speaking, in Europe, did not actually ‘own’ the land but rather exerted ‘control’ over its use and exploitation (in fief) as a tenanted nobility which subinfeudated the land to its vassals. The Crown in European feudalism owned most of the land. The Crown ‘distributed’ land by means of a process of investiture and subinfeudation which carried with it binding duties (especially military service) and obligations (fealty) with accompanying rights according to the specificity of the nature of the relationship between the different classes and orders. In the manorial unit, the serf and villein held land from the ‘lord’ or suzerain in return for labour and other services but these obligations also carried with them certain rights such as the right of vassals to protection by their liege-lord.  In the modern epoch, of course, the capitalist class owns everything from land, industry, finance, the means of distribution and of exchange. The old distinction between capitalist (profit) and landowner (rent) has become agglomerated with the development of capitalism. Both profit and rent are, of course, realised forms of surplus value.

Through their ownership and/or control of the means of production and distribution, the capitalist class controls the social process of the realisation of the material means of life. This ownership and control becomes institutionalised in the form of its state power which becomes the state power of capital, articulating the interests of the capitalist ruling class. In this epoch, the rule of capital becomes backed up by assorted systems and forms of ideology, especially its print and broadcasting media, serving to maintain the grip of ownership of the capitalist class on the means of production and distribution.

In pre-class tribal societies – based on the communal ownership of the land and mediated by an egalitarian access to the fruits of nature and of human labour – the forms of social control that were necessary were a product of, and reflected, the need to maintain the social cohesion of a people in its collective struggle against nature or other hostile communities. These forms of social control existed in order to facilitate the survival and propagation of a community as a whole; to defend the material interests of the whole community against any natural or human encroachments that threatened its welfare.

The rise of private property and class societies completely transforms the essential character and functions of these antecedent tribal forms of social control. Whilst appearing to represent the ‘general interest’, in essence, the forms of social control in bourgeois society really function to guard the particular interests of its ruling class and, of course, the various and sundry castes that serve its interests. The reality of the class rule of the bourgeoisie becomes presented as a social consensus. The interests of the ruling class are presented as the interests of the whole of society. The ‘general’, ‘social’, ‘public’ or ‘national’ interest becomes expressed in the ‘rule of law’ which serves to mask the reality of class rule by dressing it up in a veil of legalistic and ideological forms. An apparent and ideologically and morally-enforced consensus hides the real class nature of social relations based on the rule of capital and enables the capitalist ruling class to legitimise its reign and embody it politically in the form of the state power.

Ideology developed historically, partially at least, for this purpose. The forms of solidarity ideology of tribal, primitive communistic societies become altered in both content and form with the development of ideologies which correspond to the rise of class societies and express the material appropriation or control of the means of production by a given ruling class or caste respectively.

The historical development of the productive forces in agriculture, the attendant growth in the productivity of labour and the production of a surplus by the labouring producers formed the ground for the genesis of contradictions in earlier pre-class societies and their fragementation into castes and opposed classes. Ideological changes take place in the course of the struggle of a caste or class for social power and hegemony based on its control and/or appropriation and ownership of the means of production. Incidentally, it is entirely possible for a ruling stratum to socially control without actually owning the means of production. This took place not only in ancient formations where a priestly caste controlled but did not actually own the means of production (e.g. in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and the other great river valley civilisations of the ancient world) but also in the modern age where a controlling bureaucratic caste administered production in the Soviet system but did not actually own it.

These forms of ‘non-ownership’ control were associated with certain privileges and rights which were not available to the rest of the populus. Such castes were not classes (if we employ the criteria of ownership and non-ownership to determine ‘class’) in that they did not ‘own’ and could not wilfully dispose of the means of production as they so wished. The ability and right to alienate property is a hallmark of ownership. Where this right to alienate does not exist, it implies either non-ownership (which does not exclude ‘control’) or extreme restrictions on the disposability of property as with the feudal aristocracy in medieval England, France and elsewhere.

The origination and evolution of bourgeois society modified the forms of social control so that they corresponded to and represented the interests of the capitalist class in the ascendant or in power. In lands with a history of feudalism, this implied and necessitated a transformation of the state power and the forms of ideology. But primarily – and this is of fundamental importance – the mechanism of social control of the ‘first order’ becomes the capital relation itself. When this relation moved from being simply a social relation of circulation to one embracing both production and circulation, then the control parameters of its operation became historically dominant. It became established ‘organically’ in society as the controlling relation of the whole social metabolism. In England, this period dates approximately from the commencement of the 16th century under the Tudors but, of course, the pre-conditions were prepared long before that period. In relation to capital’s function as the ‘first order’ mechanism of social control, the state power itself stands as an indispensable and serving ‘second order’ mechanism.

From this period in England, we see the progressively emerging and pivotal role of the family in the capitalist order. The monogamous family increasingly becomes…

the social institution for the perpetuation of private ownership of property, and in particular of capital (Engels). It is, for capitalism, the unit for reproduction of the most important commodity of all, labour-power, i.e., for the continued existence of a propertyless proletariat, of the essential class system.

However, today, in the epoch of capital’s structural crisis…

….as the principal mode of transmission of values and norms to effect control of the younger generation, it is surely collapsing, which is ‘dangerous’ (hence the solemn pronouncements of government ministers and church pontiffs).

(Cliff Slaughter, Bonfire of the Certainties – The Second Human Revolution. Chapter 8, Part (a) Crisis of the Modern Family., p.90. Publisher :, 2012)

In England, the ideological and political conflict between capital and the remnants of the old feudal order becomes expressed in the struggle between different forms of Christianity, Catholicism articulating the interests of the feudal remnants of church and nobility and Protestantism the aspirations of the rising, young revolutionary bourgeoisie. Protestantism is deployed to challenge and sweep away the old forms of social control represented by these remnants which correspond to outmoded social relations.

In challenging these old forms of established social control, ideology is utilised to facilitate the destruction of outmoded social relations and thereby facilitate the transition to different class relations where new forms of social control become established and legitimised by the now dominant or coming-to-dominate ideological forms. In Tudor England, capital in circulation had reached a sufficient position of strength to force itself into complete dominance in agricultural production which the Tudor dissolution of the Monasteries augmented. Once it had captured the realms of circulation and agriculture, the historical stage was set for the final break up of the Guild system and its replacement with manufacture and later the mechanisation of production itself in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The draconian legislation and punishments we see in Tudor England were instrumental in establishing the control and dominance of capital over a population which historically had become accustomed to not labouring for large parts of the year with Roman Catholic saints’ (‘holy days’) holidays, etc. Labour-power itself had to be completely transformed into a commodity at the service of capital at any time of the year. The ideology of the Protestant Work Ethic dates from this period. It was forced into the consciousness of the English people with murder, hangings, massacres, whip and hot branding irons. It was necessary for the revolutionary bourgeoisie to stamp and legitimise the rule of capital. By this time, the state power was already doing the bidding of capital and its new class of owners. To labour throughout the whole year and breed the next generation of labourers for capital facilitated the increasingly important role of the family in this developing system of exploitation. The traditional Catholic social customs which were more suited to a bygone feudal age had to be eradicated. Reformation and persecutions were the political instruments which the rising bourgeoisie used to realise these ends in order to compliment capital’s growing control of the whole social landscape.

Ideological conflict and its role in social control therefore reflects the fragmentation of society into opposed communities or classes and the ever-present possibility of social conflict or warfare. Forms of social control – mediated by ideology –  therefore operate in order to serve the interests of particular communities or classes. In class societies, they serve to guard the interests of the dominant class and, in so doing, perpetuate the class antagonisms of a given society. However, when a class is in the ascendant historically and is struggling for power, the forms of control which it develops can be used in the overthrow of the old order and therefore of the old mechanisms of social control. Social control can therefore maintain the perpetuation of social antagonisms or, according to the different socio-historical needs and conditions of life of contending classes, create the conditions for their transcendence. We can clearly see this if we study the historical development of English society from the beginning of the 15th to the end of the 17th century.

When we investigate the systems of control found in class societies, the proposition that forms of social control predate class society may appear to be unfounded. For, after all, were not the earliest human societies based on common, tribal ownership; on an egalitarian association and a common access to the fruits of nature and human labour? These early primitive communistic societies  – without class structure and class relations – have often been conceptualised as being without forms of social control. The Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries tended to purvey this impression in contrast to the control and misery of the existence of the proletariat in the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the time. However, the primitive character of the relationship of humanity to nature at this early stage of development actually necessitated social consensus amongst a people or peoples. Intrinsic to this consensus were forms of social control which furthered the social cohesion of communities in their daily struggle to survive. Consensus was arrived at by means of the popular democracy of these communities [2]. It is only later, in class societies, that social control becomes institutionalised in the form of the state which embodies and maintains the interests of a ruling class in opposition to those of the subjugated class or classes.

The systems of social control under capitalism inevitably condition the structure and psychosocial character of interpersonal relationships. In their role as a means of social subjugation – which arises directly from the coercive, oppressive nature of capitalist social relations –  they function to maintain the socio-economic dependence of the producer proletarian class within social relations and conditions of exploitation. Such relations continue to characterise society until the conditions are established which render such forms of social control unnecessary. The family itself is an important component in the system of social control found in capitalist society. It existence as a ‘social unit’ for the production and reproduction of labour-power (variable capital in the process of the production of capital) simultaneously makes it an indispensable component for capital. And today, of course, not simply as a source of value-producing labour but also as a ‘consumerist’ source and outlet for the market realisation of this value.

The Family and Human Personality

The state power of capital is a violent power, explicitly or implicitly. Threat is indwelling in its very nature as the defender and facilitator of capital. Its control over society is always and continously referenced back and inextricably connected to the capital relation itself as the primary mechanism of control over people’s lives. Intrinsic to this control is capital’s relationship to the nuclear family which is an exploitative relationship. Because it is exploitative and violent, the possibility remains latent within the family itself as one mechanism and means through which the proletariat becomes motivated to move against capital and its state power. We must not neglect this. The predicaments and dilemmas within which capital places people within their family context can be potentially explosive on a wider social scale.

Hence, resistance to such exploitative relations may actually arise out of the situation in which proletarian families have been ‘cornered’ by capital itself. The life of the exploited class becomes conditional on a coerced subservience to capital mediated by its various forms of social control. The drama of all this actually plays out in the psychosocial dynamics of the nuclear family itself. The nuclear family is vital for capital but this relationship between capital and the family contains embryonically posited within it the actual offensive against the capital relation itself. And this can become very rapidly actualised as capital’s structural crisis worsens. Unemployment, homelessness, debt, penury, etc, specifically illustrate the explosive capacity imminent in capital’s exploitative relationship with the nuclear family.

It is through such ‘second order’ mechanisms of capital, of course, that fear itself can be used as a means of control. However, these mechanisms of control can only be employed, and can only be effective, within definite social parameters, i.e. only under very specific, definite historical conditions. Beyond a certain point of social development, the needs of the exploited can only be realised on the condition of the destruction of those social relations which are maintained and perpetuated by such forms of social control. The conflict here between the needs and interests of opposed classes becomes expressed in the form of the dynamic conflict between the imposition of and resistance to systems and mechanisms of social control. The nuclear family here is caught in the middle of this contradictory movement. On the one hand, it seeks to maintain and consolidate itself in a crisis and endeavours to take the ‘line of least resistance’. On the other, the crisis itself impels it towards struggle against the source of this crisis and this always risks the danger of the dissolution of the family. The dilemma it finds itself in is to accept the detrimental effects of the crisis upon itself and yet strive to maintain itself. Or, the other alternative, to move against capital-in-crisis whilst, at the same time inviting and heightening the risk of break up and dissolution. In the end, as capital’s crisis matures beyond a certain point, the latter alternative is the only possible one.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels shows that the origin and historical development of the family in its different forms – out of the primaeval hunter-gatherer relationships of human prehistory – is inextricably connected with the rise and evolution of private property out of the original forms of common ownership. The inner conflicts which develop historically within the different forms of the family are reciprocally related to the origination and evolution of private property in its different and succeeding forms.

Engels – influenced by the researches and investigations of Lewis Henry Morgan in his writings, especially his magnum opus Ancient Society – traces the origins of the monogamous family in previous forms of the family, reaching its latest nuclear form in bourgeois society.

Today we can see that the nuclear family is starting to deform and break up under the impact of the unfolding structural crisis of capital and the crisis-effects and contradictions which is it generating within bourgeois society as a whole. Even now, people are experimenting with new kinds of relationships, human groupings and communities. This is not novel, of course, but is becoming more prevalent as bourgeois society continues on its trajectory of decay and breakdown  The psychosocial conflicts within the nuclear family are both a contributing part of, and reflect, the wider social crisis of present day society.

The family – in its very earliest forms – foreshadows the rise of private property and – in its later forms – is an intrinsic, organic part of the different social systems based on private property. The transformation of the means of production and distribution into the common property of the whole of society creates the social conditions for the complete dissolution or, at least, the revolutionisation of ‘family’ relationships beyond their currently recognised structure and state in bourgeois society.

The rearing of children within the structure of the nuclear family takes place within an environment of self-enclosed, inward looking, relationships. The dynamic of the family itself exists as a discrete unit in the continuum of social structures and relations. It constitutes, and is constituted as, a medium and means for the reproduction and rearing of human beings and their introduction and ‘socialisation’ into the relations of bourgeois society. This effectively means it serves as a social incubator for the production and reproduction of labour-power to service the needs of capital and its various agencies. In serving these functions, it emerges and evolves as an organic, intrinsic part of bourgeois society, both refracting and functioning to perpetuate its social relations.

Thus the capitalist order needs the nuclear family as the cellular unit of society. However, capital in the so-called ‘overdeveloped’ countries has other ‘needs’ – to have millions of women available as cheap and easily ‘casualised’, exploitable labour, to destroy the optimism and hope of youth through the ruthless, predatory and immoral manipulation of the consumer market, to create enormous problems of ‘affording’ care for the elderly, who constitute an ever-growing proportion of the population, to ignore morality where it interferes with sales. These and many other ‘needs’ systematically undermine the nuclear family as a coherent structure.

First; the family inevitably finds itself at the focus of all the problems of ‘overdevelopment’ and its pathological results, and yet it is the cellular unit where the subsistence of the bearers of labour-power and its reproduction must take place, thus it is structurally necessary to capital, despite the fact that capital at its latest stage must undermine it. And second; the family and its future are necessarily at the centre of that necessary historical change which we have characterised as the ‘human revolution’.

(Slaughter, C. Bonfire of the Certainties, Chapter 8, The Human Revolution..and the Modern Family, Part (a) Crisis of the Modern Family, p.90)

Any consideration of the future of the family compels us to address questions of child development in bourgeois society and beyond. The life of the child in the family and its wider life in society make up the two sides of its life as a whole which are not separate but interpenetrate in these distinct aspects. Implicitly posited in this relation of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are the ambiguities or even conflicts between its private conditions of life and its wider social conditions of life.

In bourgeois society, the initial and informative period of psychosocial development of the child is centred in the family i.e. within the relationships of the social arena where its physical and other needs are met or not met accordingly. This is not to ignore or neglect its life outside of the family. However, generally speaking, the nuclear family, at the earliest stages of child development, is the psychosocial medium within which children form their earliest, most significant psychological attachments and dependencies. The establishment, interplay and development of these ‘attachments’ and ‘dependencies’ form the psychosocial content of the inner relationships of the nuclear family within which children’s needs are supposedly identified and realised.

The socio-economic conditions which prevail in capitalist society necessitate, maintain and encourage the continuation of the inner relationships of the nuclear family, containing their contradictions within its determinate boundaries and conditions. However, at the same time, these socio-economic conditions – in the course of their development – create the basis for the introduction and cultivation of antagonisms within the family which point towards its disintegration. Bourgeois socio-economic relations therefore assert and exert these contradictory influences on the nuclear family. The family is not separate from these influences and conditions but is an intrinsic part of them, interrelated and organically moving with and within them.

The differences between the ‘public’ life of the individual within society and the ‘private’ life within the exclusive coterie of the nuclear family is one which can only continue to subsist under the conditions of alienation of bourgeois society. This separation (fragmentation) between the ‘private world’ of the individual and the individual’s ‘public world’ in society is a function of the rise and evolution of private property itself and is not something inherently human. It reaches its highest form of expression in the course of the development of the capitalist mode of production. Marx noted this, in the 1840s, within the context of the division of labour and in relation to occupation when he wrote that…

Individuals have always proceeded from themselves but of course from themselves within their given historical conditions and relations, not from the “pure” individual in the sense of the ideologists. But in the course of historical development, and previously through the fact that within the division of labour social relations inevitably take on an independent existence, there appears a cleavage in the life of each individual, insofar as it is personal and insofar as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it. [4]

This social ‘cleavage in the life of each individual’ is reflected in the conflict between the public and private psychology of the individual, this psychological contrast corresponding to the ‘cleavage’ in the social being of each individual. The conflict takes the form of the psychosocial relationship between the public ‘persona’ of the individual on the one hand (embracing occupational/professional relationships, etc) and the inner ‘egoism’ of the private world of thought and feeling of the same individual on the other hand. This antagonism between the private and public sides of human individuality reaches its most antagonistic point of development in the human relationships of bourgeois society i.e. where the social relations of this society actually necessitate the development, cultivation and perpetuation of this antagonism which serves to fragment the personality of the individual in his or her psychosocial relationships. The psychosocial aspects of alienation become deeply embedded within the human personality itself and the relationships of people with each other and themselves. The continuously repeated daily nightmare of conscious existence in bourgeois society for which only our transitory pleasures and pain-alleviating sleep offer some degree of respite.

The dissolution of the nuclear family in classless society will mean and ensure that the rearing and genuine socialisation of children takes place on an entirely different (and indeed opposite) social foundation to the impoverished one we find mediating the existence of bourgeois society.

Children are reared within the social conditions, and through the social relationships, of the commune. This communal process serves  – in its actual ontological character  –  to resolve and abolish the conflict between the private and public sides of the life of the individual. Children become the children of the whole commune – are reared by the whole community – as the psychosocial relationships which characterise the internal structure of the nuclear family of bourgeois society start to disappear.

In the socialist society which follows capitalism, the monogamous family will no longer be required as the reproductive framework for the commodity labour-power or the inheritance of private property. Production will be the production of use-values by free individuals as participants in the working of the ‘social brain’. How these individuals will be reared and formed will be an entirely new question, to be taken up by free men and women.

(Slaughter, C. Bonfire of the Certainties, Chapter 8, part (b), p.91. From the first ‘human revolution’ to the second. Publisher :

A possible implication of this communal process of rearing children will be that biological parents will cease to have the same psychosocial significance which they have for ‘their’ children which they have reared within the monogamous nuclear family in bourgeois society. Each child in the commune naturally has biological parentage but every adult becomes the social parent (guardian) of each and every child and, accordingly, every child becomes ‘the child’ of every parenting adult. If we consider the onward, unfolding development of such human relations, this implies that the very notions of ‘parent’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘son’ ‘daughter’, etc – which express the social relationships of the nuclear family in bourgeois society – will start to vanish and be replaced by a universal state of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’.

Child-adult relationships become transformed in the commune where biological parentage does not have, or confer, any special, exclusive social role or privilege upon these adults. The child is reared by the whole commune and grows to maturity without any notions of ‘my’ ‘family’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘brother’, etc, which characterised the family structure in previous societies. In a certain sense, all adults become the fathers and mothers of the children of the commune (and therefore all children become the ‘sons and daughters’ of these adults in the commune) and all children become the ‘brothers and sisters’ of each other. But the universality of the transformed relations implies that nobody will be identified as ‘my mother’ ‘my son’, ‘my father’, etc. The narrow, exclusive, alienating mode of rearing children in bourgeois society becomes superseded in the life of the commune.

The development of children into adults becomes a function of the life of the commune as a whole and not a function of the narrow and stifling confines of the nuclear family of bourgeois society. Marx points out that…

the ability of children to develop depends on the development of their parents and that all this crippling under existing social relations has arisen historically, and in the same way can be abolished again in the course of historical development. Even naturally evolved differences within the species, such as racial differences, etc,…can and must be abolished in the course of historical development. [5]

….‘the ability of children to develop depends on the development of their parents’. The social development and psychology of children is a most sensitive indicator of the general character of the social relations of the epoch. Marx asks, in the final paragraph of the Introduction to the Grundrisse, ‘Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children?’

The internal relations, dependencies and attachments found operating within the bourgeois nuclear family –  which bind children to this narrow and confining mode of development – start to become obsolete as humanity begins to create and re-create a communal mode of life for itself developing on the basis of its own self-reproducing foundations.

As do all those notions and affectations which are intrinsically associated with this existence within the nuclear family. The establishment of a communist life on its own self-created, evolving foundations and the constant reproduction and evolution of this mode of human life in continuously deeper and higher forms serves to dissolve the psychosocial ‘bonds’ (‘family ties’) of the nuclear family. Primarily, in the commune and commencing from birth, the needs of human individuals – which become historically created needs – become unconditionally guaranteed (‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’) and, as such, attainable and realisable outside the traditional confines and conditions of the bourgeois nuclear family.

The maturation of children in the commune outside the relations of the nuclear family will facilitate a higher degree of personal independence and realisation as ‘social individuals’ than can ever possibly exist in bourgeois society. This is in accord with the higher forms of human freedom that necessarily result from the establishment and development of communist relations. The fears and mentalities that are associated with the possible or actual non-attainment of needs – food, shelter, clothing, etc – in capitalist society will inevitably disappear and this will, further, serve to dissolve the traditional ties of the nuclear family. The psychosocial relationships of the nuclear family – which grow out of the necessity to satisfy human needs under the conditions of exploitation of capitalist society – become historically unnecessary and gradually disappear in the onward evolution of classless society. It will, accordingly, be only within the commune that each individual has….

the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc, personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association. [6]

In the commune, the identification, cultivation, refinement, development and realisation of the comprehensive historically-created needs of human beings become socially and unconditionally guaranteed. This unconditional, ontologically-existent, guarantee arises from the actual nature of human relationships in the commune. It is neither a question of wilful disposition nor of ‘good faith’ or intention.

The exploitation and forms of social control of capitalist society vanish and, accordingly, all those forms of human behaviour, characteristics of interpersonal behaviour, modes of thinking and ideology which are the outcome of, and correspond to, these forms of exploitation and control in capitalist society.

In the transition to a global, stateless, classless society, the forms of human consciousness corresponding to this period of transition will, inevitably, continue to reflect a disappearing connection to and with bourgeois society and especially with the alienation characteristic of this dying society. This will merely illustrate that society – in this transitional phase – has not yet completely disentangled itself from the various legacies of bourgeois society as a historic formation.

So long as the historical umbilical cord connecting human society to the legacies of bourgeois society – and the human memory of them – has not been completely severed, then human society will not have re-founded and re-developed itself as an association of free human beings and freely associated human beings. At such a stage, the legacies of the relations of bourgeois society would continue to exert their influence, partially binding humanity – and even psychologically to a certain degree –  to the forms of social antagonism of the past.  Accordingly, under these conditions, the thinking, feeling, behaviour and interpersonal relationships of people would continue to be conditioned by the legacies of the exploitative relations of the dying capitalist society until the new society firmly and irreversibly establishes itself and starts to evolve on the basis of its own self-created foundations.

Interpersonal relationships in capitalist society are conditioned by the character of its exploitative social relations. Even the psychologically-internalised character of the relationship which people have with ‘themselves’, their ‘self-relation’, is conditioned by their relationships with others and vice versa. Marx writes that..

Dissatisfaction with oneself is either dissatisfaction with oneself within the framework of a definite condition which determines the whole personality e.g. dissatisfaction with oneself as a worker, or it is moral dissatisfaction. In the first case, therefore, it is simultaneously and mainly dissatisfaction with the existing relations; in the second case – an ideological expression of these relations themselves, which does not at all go beyond them, but belongs wholly to them. [3]

The individual ‘self’ is a specific ‘ensemble of the prevailing social relations’ which are themselves a product of human historical development. Even the forms of psychological self-evaluation and the characteristics of individual personality are socio-historically grounded, formed and evolved.

The human personality in its many expresssions is a historical creation which is both the outcome of pre-societal natural history and human social development. It is the outcome of this whole, this totality of development over many millions of years. However, the keynotes of the human personality of the epoch of capital, its fundamental orienting content, structures and relations arise out of the social being of the individual in this age of capital, an age of social oppression, exploitation, subjection and subordination. Individuals are an active social product of this epoch of capital-in-crisis which is conditioning and developing the content and character of the specific human personality types of the age.

The psychology of interpersonal relationships in the epoch of capital is becoming increasingly brutal. Since we are all participants in this system, do we appreciate how brutalised people have already become or are becoming in their interpersonal relationships with each other? And, moreover and most disturbingly, in their relations the wonderful, majestic creations of nature? A crass, brutal individualism ‘assaults’ us everyday and a kind of insidious, nihilistic hedonism seems to be suffocating every aspect of human culture and interpersonal relations. All this is becoming expressed in the most disturbing, gut-wrenching and nightmarish forms as capital’s structural crisis broadens and deepens.

Nature’s creation is being subjected to the most horrendous and cruel forms of torture, pillage and annihilations. Personal gratification and the mad rush for ‘pleasure’ presents itself as the pre-occupation of the age at the expense of anything and everything. All this arises organically out of a society in crisis whilst being a feeble attempt, at the same time, to blunt its edge.

In everyday life, an undercurrent of brutality flows – taking a multitude of forms – intrinsic to which is viewing and ‘appropriating’ or ‘cultivating’ people as mere objects for use, mere objects of utility to serve pre-calculated ends. This has, like a plague, invaded every aspect of human life and relationships and is encouraged by the capitalist media. This raises a very important question, a paradox. The epoch of capital-in-crisis is generating all this in people’s relationships and this motivates us to oppose its rule. However, at the same time, by totally corrupting human relationships, it actually hinders the capacity to end this epoch of capital. Within the historical framework of the global transition from and beyond the capital order, we need to consider how people can actually drive this transition forward, to transcend the epoch of capital, as the human creations of this epoch and, simultaneously, as the creators of the new society. The transition is the active transcendence, the overcoming of the effects of the age of capital on people by these self-same people who are its creations.

In other words, the exploitative character of capitalism finds its psychological correlates and expression in the life, personality and interpersonal relationships of human individuals in this class society. The life and relationships of the individual reflect, embody and personify the exploitative character of these relations and, indeed, are an intrinisic, contributing part and aspect of these relations. In the course of their development, individuals tend to replicate and exhibit – in transmuted, often highly convoluted and distorted, personalised forms – the social content and characteristics of the determinations and features of bourgeois relations. Thus, for example, its coercive, oppressive and violent social relations tend to engender interpersonal relationships which are mediated by these characteristics and yet may undoubtedly give rise to antithetical aspects of them in the human personality. The men and women of bourgeois society are its products but they are its humanly active and thinking products which contains all the possibility of opposition to bourgeois society not simply on the political level but also in people’s interpersonal relationships.

The life of society as a whole dominates and permeates the life and interpersonal relationships of the individual but not, of course, deterministically.  Bourgeois society – which is, nevertheless, most definitely a class society – is a complex system of relationships which, taken as a whole, is qualitatively distinct from a mere summation of its socially-acting individual human parts. The human personality of each individual is formed and develops within this complex network of relationships and reflects them in both its structures, conceptual content and emotional mediations. But it does not ‘reflect’ them passively or ‘mechanically’  but rather can articulate them humanly, actively, ethically, in opposition to the alienation of capitalist relations.

The dissolution of the class relations of bourgeois society constitutes the ground and pre-condition for the emergence of the higher classless human relationships and personality in the commune. In the commune, the comprehensive needs of human beings become socially and unconditionally guaranteed. This itself arises out of the ontological nature of human relationships in the commune. ‘Activity’ itself becomes established as a ‘vital need’. The oppression and exploitation of previous class societies comes to an end and with them also those characteristic forms of behaviour in individuals and in their interpersonal relationships which are the product of and correspond to these antecedent relations.

The state power of capital, of course, is the political guarantor of the exploitation of labour by capital. Herein lies its historic role in the imposition of systems and forms of coercion and control. The state power of capital is the consummate political expression and embodiment of the coercion and control which safeguards the rule of capital. This is its class nature representing and articulating the interests of the class of capitalists; the owners of capital. Its very existence is therefore the direct political expression of the antagonism between capital and its historic structural antagonist which is labour.

Historically, the state comes into being as the expression of the emergence and growth of class antagonisms and, accordingly, must disappear with the dissolution of the final historic form of these antagonisms between capital and labour. The state – in whatever form – always represents the interests of a ruling caste or class. The first forms of the state arose as the primaeval forms of communism in tribal societies were supplanted by the first class societies. These first forms of the state therefore become necessary as these tribal societies were superseded with the differentiation of society into opposed classes. Where there are no class or caste interests to defend, the state is rendered historically unnecessary. The character of social relations in the commune no longer gives rise to or necessitates the existence of a state power hovering above society as an alien body.

Lenin used the existence or non-existence of the state as a criterion for the existence or non-existence of the freedom prevailing in the commune.Thus, he writes, somewhat formally, that…

so long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.

(State and Revolution. Progress, Moscow, 1969. p.87)

We say ‘formally’ because ‘freedom’ is not, as such, an absolute state to be reached once and for all but rather more a state of being for humanity to continuously expand to wider horizons and deepen to more profound states of existence, once the fundamental pre-conditions for such a development have been established in a classless, stateless, global communal human life.

The very notion of freedom cannot exist in such a society. When the state perishes, notions of freedom vanish with it. The hankering after ‘freedom’ is itself the product of enslavement. A truly free human being is not capable of having and cultivating concepts of freedom. They are the creations of the unfree within the various forms of enslavement. Accordingly, a truly free human being cannot have any awareness of ‘being free’. Communist humanity will see itself as ‘free’ no more than it will see itself as ‘communist’. ‘Communism’ is for the enslaved. Those of the ‘true realm of freedom’ have no need of it.

As with notions of freedom, family and commune, the very notion of property itself disappears with the negation of private ownership and the emergence and onward development of social relations based upon common ownership. If everything belongs to the whole of society and to every single human being, then there is no ‘ownership’ as such and no conception to correspond to it or to actually describe it. Marx writes that..

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another.

(Capital. Volume 3. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1974. p.776)

Those human characteristics which are intrinsically associated with the rule of private property will disappear. Human relationships become free of their psychosocial presence and effects.


Notes and References

[1] Engels, F. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Preface to the First Edition. (Penguin, 1985) pp.35-36

[2] For example, see the work and studies of Lewis Henry Morgan in his book Ancient Society amongst the indigenous American Iroquois.

[3] Marx. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1976) p.378

[4] Marx. The German Ideology. p.78

[5] Marx. Ibid.,  p.425

[6] Marx. Ibid., p.78


Shaun May

March 2016 (revised)


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Filed under communism, Marxist Theory of Human Personality, Psychology, Radical Psychology, realm of freedom, social relations

On the Dialectical Structure of Dilemmas

On the Dialectical Structure of Dilemmas

Psychology by no means holds the “secret” of human affairs, simply because this “secret” is not of a psychological order.

Georges Politzer [1]

In over 100 cases where we have studied the actual circumstances around the social event when one person comes to be regarded as schizophrenic, it seems to us that without exception the experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation. In his life situation the person has come to feel that he is in an untenable situation. He cannot make a move, or make no move, without being beset by contradictory and paradoxical pressures and demands, pushes and pulls, both internally, from himself, and externally, from those around him. He is, as it were, in a position of checkmate.

R D Laing [2]

Dilemmas result when people seek to psychosocially accommodate mutually incompatible alternatives presented to them in their lives. Each alternative in the dilemma contains both a desirable and an undesirable side to it, operating as a structured relationship of opposed alternatives mediated by choice. The  presentation of a choice to be made is intrinsic to dilemma and results from the condition that opposed, inwardly self-contradictory alternatives are presented under the compulsion of having to make a choice between one alternative or the other or, thirdly, to psychologically live with the dilemma as a continuously operative psychosocial relation.

It is the conflicting character of socio-cultural conditions and relations (intra-relational between different aspects of the same culture or inter-relational between aspects of different cultures), mediated by various factors including the ideological, which determines both the conceptual content of the thinking which animates the dilemma and the actual psychodialectical structure of the dilemma itself. The compulsive nature of these conditions and relations tends to move the individual to choose one of the two alternatives in a dilemma situation. We will see later how some (not all) dilemmas can be manipulated by attaching conditions to their actual ontology in the act of producing ‘counter-dilemmas’, etc.  More on this later.

Let us endeavour to fathom the universal dynamic of the dilemma. In order to do this, we must look at a continuously shifting paradoxical structure.

We have presented dilemma in this study as a choice between mutually opposed alternatives in which each alternative contains both a desirable and undesirable side to it. In choosing one alternative over the other, both its desirable and undesirable sides are embraced whilst this choice simultaneously excludes the opposed alternative with its desirable and undesirable sides. Therefore, this process of inclusion is simultaneously a process of exclusion and vice versa. Inclusion of the desirable side of one alternative (and hence its undesirable side as well) simultaneously negates (excludes) both sides of the opposed alternative.

In dilemma, the subjective condition prevails where the individual (or even group, collective, movement, etc) seeks to embrace the desirable sides of the opposed alternatives whilst, at the same time, excluding the undesirable sides of both alternatives. But the desirable and undesirable sides are inseparably and necessarily bound together in each alternative. The exclusion of the undesirable side of one alternative necessarily involves the exclusion of the desirable side of the same alternative because they are inextricably bound together. In choosing one alternative over the other, rejection of both the desirable and undesirable sides of the other alternative is posited.

Their necessary connection means that the exclusion or inclusion of one side of an alternative must mean the simultaneous exclusion or inclusion of the other side of the same alternative. Therefore, in being compelled to choose one alternative over the other, a desirable side of one alternative is accepted at the expense of excluding the desirable side of the opposed alternative. The ‘ideal desire’ of realising the desirable sides of both alternatives (whilst rejecting the undesirable sides in both alternatives) is negated (fragmented). The ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides within each alternative are inextricably bound together that to opt for an ‘positive’ necessarily carries its ‘negative’ along with it in the chosen alternative.

The choosing of one alternative is necessarily and simultaneously the rejection of the opposed alternative and thus only the partial, one-sided, satisfaction of the original desire. The unity of the opposed alternatives in the psychological structuring of dilemma means that the resolution of the dilemma can only take place by the exclusion of both the desirable and undesirable sides of one alternative in choosing the desirable and undesirable sides of the other alternative. In choosing one alternative, the opposed alternative is automatically excluded in both its ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects.

This can be illustrated in the case of ‘love dilemmas’. Probably the classic example here is found in Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. The ongoing feud between the Montagues and Capulets forms the social basis for the  origination of the lovers’ dilemma. Both lovers, in embracing each other, are simultaneously rejecting their own bloodline and raising the antipathy of both their own and the other’s families. The dilemma is presented as a choice between lover and family in which the acceptance of one is the rejection of the other and vice versa. In the structure described above, each lover is presented with two conflicting alternatives each of which contains a desirable and undesirable side. One alternative is that if I maintain my love for the other, this must mean dissociation from the house of my family. The other alternative is that if I am to remain on good terms with my family, I must put aside my love for the other. The ideal, of course, is to be with family and lover. But the actual social relations of feud and vendetta between the families is the social basis for the exclusion of this ideal. What is fully desired is excluded by the character of the relations between the different houses.

In the play, the major factor was the eternal feud and vendetta between the two families of the lovers so that each lover, in embracing each other, was simultaneously seen as rejecting their bloodline. Each lover wanted to remain true to their family whilst embracing one of the enemy family. One alternative posed the choice that in order to remain true to your family you had to reject your lover. The other alternative posed the choice that in remaining with your lover you were rejecting your own bloodline. We find other dilemmas in Shakespeare, e.g. the one faced by Coriolanus. Shakespeare – beloved by Marx – was a (if not ‘the’) master in depicting the dilemma situation.

In the act of making a choice, the whole structure of the specific dilemma is only transcended, is superseded, only by choosing one alternative which simultaneously excludes the other. If no choice is actually made, the dilemma remains operative in the mind as manifestation of specific social condition. There are, however, ways of manipulating some dilemmas which we shall investigate later, some of which may be politically useful. The dilemma which Jesus is presented with in the New Testament on the question of paying taxes to Caesar is instructive in this regard. However, with some dilemmas – because of the recalcitrant and immovable character of their conditions – the choice is really one of either/or. In Romeo and Juliet, of course, the deaths of the lovers arises out of a series of misperceptions and the ensuing ‘tragedy of errors’. Their deaths resolve their dilemma and simultaneously end the feud beween the conflicting houses of Montague and Capulet.

An example of an either/or situation is the dilemma presented to the leading character in the William Styron novel, Sophie’s Choice. This demonstrates that the actual nature of the dilemma, and the response to it, is conditioned by the specific social circumstances in which people are located. Sophie Zawistowska is taken to Auschwitz with her two chidren and is forced by a camp doctor to choose which of her two children is to be gassed and which is to remain with her in the camp. She chooses to sacrifice her daughter. After release from Auschwitz, the decision determines the trajectory of the rest of her grief-stricken life which ends in suicide. Zawistowska was forced to choose one alternative which temporarily preserved the life of her son whilst simultaneously sending her daughter to her death. If we love, we feel the pain of loss. Grief. If we hate, loss itself can come as a relief from the conflicts and stress of hatred.

In the dialectical complexity of unresolved dilemma (resolved dilemma ceases to be a dilemma), the vacillations between the two alternatives means that the rejection of any one side of one alternative always produces the opposite emotion to its acceptance and vice versa. Thus, in the course of the vacillations of unresolved dilemma, conflicting emotions are being played out in their intrinsic relationship to each other. Each is always becoming transformed into the other and vice versa. This is inherent in the paradoxical psychodynamics of dilemma itself.

A continuous vacillation between emotional states takes place which is the product of the moving content of the thinking in dilemma structuring itself in its dialectical form, in its contradictory (paradoxical) psychological form. Thus a desirable side to one alternative in the dilemma can serve as both a source of conflicting emotions depending on whether or not it is a side of the alternative which has been chosen or rejected. This must also apply to the undesirable side of a chosen or rejected alternative.

The choosing of one alternative means that the acceptance of its desirable side is the rejection of the desirable side of the opposed alternative. The acceptance of the undesirable side of the chosen alternative simultaneous with the rejection of the undesirable side of the opposed alternative serves to posit at the same time conflicting mediations in emotional state. This is precisely why people state that they are ‘torn between alternatives’ or ‘on the horns of a dilemma’ when they are in dilemma and why ‘love dilemmas’ are the most painful of all to live.

Shakespeare, of course, knew this in his Romeo and Juliet. And, undoubtedly, it has been known for as long as people have lived in a state of antagonism with each other over periods of thousands of years in different societies. This constant unity and transformation of different and opposed emotional states into each other in the course of the vacillations of unresolved dilemmas arises out of the psychodynamic structure of dilemma itself as engendered by its conceptual-emotional content. But this itself arises out of the specific character of the social relations confronting and mediating which constitute the ontological ground of the dilemma itself. Hence, it is to the prevailing socio-cultural relations and conditions that we must look in order the identify the roots of the manyfroms of dilemma which mediate people’s lives. They constitute the socio-cultural ontological ground for the psychogenesis of the dilemma itself. We can formally illustrate the structure and dynamics of dilemmas by the diagram given below.


Dilemma Structure


Alternative 1 (A1)                 v                         Alternative 2 (A2)

(D1)   v   (UD1)                                                (D2)   v  (UD2)




Choice is A2 : A1 is rejected/ A2 is accepted


(D1) : loss (emotion x)  (UD1) : reaffirmation (emotion –x)                           


(D2) : reaffirmation (emotion –x) (UD2) : loss (emotion x)




Choice is A1: A1 is accepted/ A2 is rejected


(D1) : reaffirmation (emotion –x) (UD1) : loss (emotion x)                            


(D2) : loss (emotion x) (UD2) : reaffirmation (emotion –x)




D = desirable side to alternative


UD = undesirable side to alternative




The resolution of the dilemma must therefore posit an emotional state which contains contradictory elements or sides to it. Sophie Zawistowska is destroyed by the choice she is forced to make but she continues in the novel to seek to save her son by attempting to find him a place in the Nazi Lebensborn programme by prostituting herself (itself another dilemma) to the camp commandant in whose house she is working as a stenographer.

Dilemma is the direct, subjective, choice-mediated, psychosocial experience of the movement of specfic forms of living paradox itself within the psyche of the human individual. It is the given social contradictions – which individuals face and of which they are an active part –  which are both the cause of the psychogenesis of dilemmas and the ground on which individuals choose in order to pass beyond them. Such contradictions in the present epoch tend to preclude the simultaneous realisation of the desirable sides of the opposed alternatives without their undesirable sides, i.e. to bring the desirable sides (D1 and D2) to realisation together whilst negating the undesirable sides (UD1 and UD2) of the opposed alternatives in the dilemma. If D1 and D2 can be realised in the absence of UD1 and UD2 then a dilemma is not operative. Then the individual can ‘have their cake and eat it’ and no dilemma is operative.

Dilemmas are a psychological manifestation of specifically antagonistic relations and conditions and of their impact and dominating power in the life and interpersonal relationships of the individual, group, social movement, etc. This confrontation with a choice of opposed but equally undesirable alternatives arises out of the contradictory nature of the social conditions and relations under and through which the individual, etc, lives and which dominates their mode of social life. The totality of these conditions and relations can mediated by, for example, religious and other ideologies, political outlooks, personal beliefs, irrational conceptions, inter-cultural conflicts, etc.

Anybody familiar with the New Testament will know that Christ is presented with the question of paying taxes to Caesar. ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar?’ is the question posed. The question was what nowadays we would call a ‘trick question’ intended for entrapment. It is the sort of question a Fox News (or even a BBC) journalist might put to a left-wing activist. If his says ‘Yes’ then he raises the wrath of the ‘taxpayer’ and the Sanhedrin and if he says ‘No’ then it is the Roman tax-gatherers he displeases. His answer was to ask for a Roman coin and show it to the questioner with a replying question : “Whose head is on this coin?” to which the questioner replied “Caesar’s”. Christ follows up with “then give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. [3]

This way of addressing the dilemma is a form of manipulation of the question itself rather than answering the posed question directly. In essence, Christ instructs people to pay their taxes to the Roman authority. He then directs the questioner to seek consolation in God. Pay your taxes then seek ye the kingdom of God for consolation. The questioner, nevertheless, goes away out of pocket whether or not he finds the glorious kingdom.

But what is Christ himself actually doing here on a thinking level when he is confronted by the question? Some would have simply answered ‘Yes’ and got stoned by the multitude whilst some would have answered ‘No’ and got arrested later by a Roman cohort for sedition. Christ conditions and qualifies his response (advocating a specific choice : pay your taxes to Caesar) with a parallel response which answers a question which has not actually been posed. Implicit in the question is, of course, another question : Is not paying taxes to Caesar contrary to the pharasaic law, against the laws of God and supportive of the Roman occupation?  In order to alter the subjective dilemma-status for himself, (i.e. the attempt by the questioner to place him in a dilemma) he actually qualifies his answer to the asked question with another answer to the implicitly unasked question which thereby addresses the other side of the attempt to place him in a dilemma : “and render unto God what is God’s”.

The answer was really two answers to two questions (one asked and the other implied but explicitly unposed) concealed as one answer to one question. The appearance is that he gives one answer to one question but this ignores the fact that his response contains an answer to a second unposed question which stops him from stumbling into the path of the stone-throwers. He conditions and qualifies his answer (within one and the same answer) with the answer from an unasked question. He shifts the terms of the original question so as to avoid falling into the trap actually set.

A wag of the time might have retorted : “So we still have to fork out money to Caesar regardless of our devotions?” To which his answer could only have been “Yes”. Accept the oppressions and imposed sufferings of the world and seek ye the comfort and consolation of the kingdom of the Father within. Barabbas was more of a realist than Christ. [Greek Barabbas, from Aramaic barabba, “son of the father,” or “son of the master.” In Hebrew, ben abh.] [4]. Like Spartacus a century earlier, he (and the Jewish insurrectionists in general throughout the period of Roman rule) recognised that an oppressive, tyrannical power can only be overcome in a direct military struggle against it. And not by a personal or social accommodation to that power by seeking ‘immersion’ and martyrdom within the ‘Kingdom of God’. Christianity itself only survived because it was, in the long term, historically adaptable to the political requirements of the Roman state of late antiquity. Those movements which were insurrectionary in nature were always eradicated by the Roman state. However, once established, Christianity itself later becomes reformable, adaptable and deployable as an ideological weapon of struggle against feudal tyranny in order to facilitate the development of capitalism and the interests of the rising class of capitalists. The English Reformation in the 1530s, Anabaptism in Germany, Cromwell, etc.

Strangely, and across the ages, this ‘qualificatory’ approach to dilemma situations may well become useful in revolutionary politics. The state power of capital presents a rising revolutionary movement with the ultimatum which it poses for the consumption of so-called ‘public opinion’, for reactionary or impressionable elements in the population : Are you to make the transition to the new society peacefully, by “democracy”, or by force of arms? It is the usual hypocrisy of the wretched, rancid morality of the capitalist class which historically deployed violence in its rise and has always resorted to it in order to maintain its rule.

What do we do? If we say “peacefully” then this opens us to an almost binding contract with a violent state power which is only too willing – at the most suitable time for itself – to drown an opposing movement in blood. If we say “by force of arms”, they will, with all the usual humbug and hypocrisy, appeal to ‘public opinion’ and reactionary elements, and accuse such a movement of “terrorism”, “spreading anarchy” and all the rest. They are seeking to place a revolutionary movement in a dilemma. Like our questioner did with Christ. But like Christ, we think before we speak.

Of course, we say peacefully but only on condition that the state power of capital permits us such a peaceful transition. If this state power goes to war against us, then we would have no other option but to mobilise for war against this state power (which would be dismantled anyway in the course of any unlikely peaceful transition). The implicit condition of the question (either a yes or a no answer) has been altered by attaching a condition to the question in the form of another question which we are asking ourselves, namely : Will the state power of capital permit us a peaceful transition to the new socialist society? In this way, the attempt to impose the dilemma –  by a power hovering threateningly above our class –  is rendered ineffective (it ceases to be a dilemma) because of a conditioning question which has been attached to it by the revolutionary class. The imposed dilemma arises out of the rule of an alien, dominating power bearing down on the revolution. It can only be opposed with a counter-dilemma thrown back at this power : Are you to permit us a peaceful transition or are you to deploy violence and war against us? If you permit us a peaceful transition, then stand aside whilst we dismantle you. But if you go to war against us, we assert the historical right of self-defence and a counter-mobilisation on a military footing. We invert your wretched morality and throw it back at you in your face, whilst preparing in advance for your response.

Yes, we want a peaceful transition. Nobody wants death and destruction. But if you mobilise for war against us, we will build a revolutionary army of social defence which will, necessarily, become a machine of a general social, political and military offensive on all fronts. That is why we must always prepare in words and deeds for that very likely manoeuvre. That must be our default position ; namely the state power of capital is a violent power always prepared to mobilise for war to crush any movement which aims to put an end to the rule of capital over humanity. A dilemma ceases to be a dilemma as soon as a condition is attached to it which deprives it of its power of vacillation and contradiction over its recipient.

The dilemmas which people or organisations, etc, face are as numberless as pebbles on a beach. The late, eminent Physicist Richard Feynman was appointed to investigate the Challenger rocket disaster in 1986. The outcome of the inquiry found that the rubber sealing ‘O’ rings on a rocket booster failed which allowed hot gases and flames under pressure to escape and disrupt an adjacent fuel tank with the catastrophic consequences which were observed by millions across the globe. In the course of the inquiry, Feynman identified a ‘disconnect’ in the liaison between NASA managers and engineers observing that…

Every time we talked to higher level managers, they kept saying they didn’t know anything about the problems below them. We’re getting this kind of thing again in the Iran-Contra hearings, but at the time, this kind of situation was new to me : either the guys at the top didn’t know, in which case they should have known, or they did know, in which case they’re lying to us. [5] 

Feynman exposed either the incompetence or the mendacity of the NASA management. Faced with the unremitting determination and scientific rationalism of an expert bongo-playing Physicist, they didn’t really stand a chance. If they had admitted their knowledge that the sealing rings were potentially fatal in cold temperatures, they simultaneously revealed their incompetence for not acting on that knowledge. And if they concealed this knowledge or simply forgot about it – and this was to be later revealed – this also demonstrated an incompetence which later led directly to the deaths of the Challenger crew in the catastrophic explosion. Feynman placed NASA managers in a recalcitrant, non-negotiable dilemma.

Shakespeare was the master of the understanding and depiction of the dilemma situation. The characters in his plays are often steeped in and agonised by dilemma in one form or another : Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Mark Antony, Brutus, Hamlet (Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows…), etc. Here are a couple of examples. Macbeth was faced with the problem of dealing with Banquo after Duncan’s murder. If he permitted him to live, he remained a threat to displace him. In order to hold onto power, he had to eliminate Banquo as a potential threat. and thereby raised the opposition of Banquo’s allies. Coriolanus, rejected by his own city of Rome, goes to war against it on behalf of its enemy, the Volscians. As he prepares to destroy the city that rejected him, he is confronted by his mother not to destroy Rome. Here is the moment of dilemma for Coriolanus. If he destroys the city, he will forever live in the damnation of family and city. But if he spares it, he returns to the Volscians as a traitor. In opting for the latter choice, he invites his own downfall at the hands of Aufidius and the Volscians. Coriolanus is executed for betrayal. Caught in a dilemma between Rome and the Volscians, he makes a choice and faces the consequences. It is the sort of dilemma which a soldier would face if ordered to assault a city within which his cherished friends and beloved family reside. This is one of the major reasons why the Roman legions were posted on military duty to regions far away from their regions of recruitment. Hispanic and African legions in Britain, for example or legions recruited amongst the Britons stationed on the Danube.

The work of Laing and Esterson [6] in the 1960s and 70s gave us an insight into the sorts of dilemmas people face within the family structure itself. And how these contradictions can become the source of the diagnosis of so-called ‘mental illness’ and ‘Schizophrenia’.

In all dilemmas faced by the revolutionary movement against capital, the guiding baseline is the class interests of the proletariat and the future of humanity. What must be done will be done, regardless of the nature of the consequences for the enemy and its state power. The power of revolution must be asserted by all means possible and necessary and consolidated over the historic interests of capital. The revolutionary movement is determined in its perspectives and activity in its relationship to capital and its state powers. However, only in so far as the aim is their dissolution and irreversible defeat. In this way, the movement develops and elaborates its growing power against these ruling powers in order to undermine and weaken them and prepare the overthrow of the state power of capital and the transcendence of the global epoch of capital.Those dilemmas which become posited as a result these power relations are faced and fought out in the interests of the revolution to put an end to the current epoch.       

We can see that the dilemmas faced by people in their daily lives are microcosms of the contradictions of the bourgeois epoch containing suspended within itself the legacies of past ages. The tendencies of development of human society beyond this epoch can only point towards an age in which not only the dilemmas of the present age but dilemma as structure in the human personality as a whole becomes subject to transcendence as human relations become more integrated and the contradictions and legacies of previous class societies become resolved.

Dilemma in human beings only arises under social conditions and relations where human culture remains characterised by a multiplicity of determinate internal social differentiations and conflicts. We can see this illustrated by the examples given above which have various social mediations constituting their animating ground : family, class, religious, inter-cultural, hierarchical power, state terror, etc. Dilemma, accordingly, is not in its root origination, a function of the neurology of the brain itself but is history’s social creation reflecting and indicating the world of humanity caught in internal social contradictions with itself.

Animals do not experience the conflicts in the conditions of their natural existence as dilemma. Rather they ‘experience’ their response to such conditions as a simple alternation in behaviour according to the immediate demand placed on them. If an animal is subjected to two opposing forces at the same time, it will deploy all its inherent and learned behavioural resources and mechanisms to oppose both forces alternatively or simultaneously. There is no dilemma but merely a confrontation with the immediacy of the situation so that their behavioura response varies with and according to the changing immediate demands placed on them and to which they must necessarily respond immediately.

The natural mode of life of animals and that of the ancestral primates of humanity is and was, respectively, without dilemma. Dilemmas are features of human existence which arise with the emergence of human relationships out of the dilemma-free natural mode of life of ancestral primates. The conflicts and contradictions in human society – economic, social, political, cultural, ideological, religious, etc – constitute the historical ground for the psychogenesis of dilemmas.

Dilemmas as psychosocial structure is not an eternal feature of human existence. In the course of the transition to and evolution of global classless society, cultural differences will tend to become superseded and become integrated into a culturally richer, multifaceted single human culture without the class, cultural, economic, sub-racial, etc, divisions of class societies. Thus, in this higher singularity of human culture, the social conditions and relations which have historically given rise to dilemmas will tend towards supersedence and resolution.

It will be the identification, refinement and cultivation of the real needs of human beings in socialist society (as opposed to the ‘artificial’ needs generated by capitalist commodity society) – and the further development of the social and other conditions required to meet those needs – which will facilitate the emergence of psychosocial relations which are free of all forms of dilemma. Thenceforth  human life will cease to be characterised by one long, drawn-out series of dilemmas.

In other words, the dilemma structure in the human psyche is not an eternal structure. It is not the product of the neurology of the brain per se but rather a product of the contradictions of social and cultural relations which human beings face everyday in their lives today and have faced historically in ages past. Dilemma is not an intrinsic part of some nebulous, eternal ‘human nature’. When we inspect the specific content, relations and character of any dilemma, we can see that it would be resolvable under different, more favourable conditions which are truly worthy of people’s humanity. When human society has become globally integrated as a classless society, embracing within itself the synthesis of many different cultures into one singular, intensely rich human culture, the very social and cultural grounds and conditions for the psychogenesis of dilemma will start to vanish. Men and women will live their lives free of dilemma. It will revolutionise the human personality itself as a whole beyond that currently recognisable in the epoch of capital. 

Notes and References

[1] Politzer, G., Critique of the Foundations of Psychology. Paris, Editions Sociales, 1928. p.170

[2] R.D. Laing., (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Penguin Books, pp. 94-95

[3] Matthew 22 : 15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away.

see also  Mark 12 : 13-17;  Luke 20 : 20-26


[5] “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” – Further Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard P Feynman as told by Ralph Leighton., Afterthoughts, p.213.  Penguin Books, 2007. 

[6] Laing, R.D. and Esterson, A (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Penguin Books.

Laing, R.D. (1970) Knots. London: Penguin

Laing, R.D. (1971) The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock Publications.


Shaun May

March 2016 (revised)

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Filed under Crtical Psychology, Marxist Philosophy of Mind, Marxist Theory of Human Personality, Psychology, Radical Psychology

From a Notebook on Psychology (Part 1)

From a Notebook on Psychology (Part 1)


It is very clear that social relationships and the psychology of people are related. The areas of Social Psychology and Critical Psychology have plenty to say about this relationship. For example, if whole populations are subjected to oppression and terror in one form or another, this profoundly affects the psychology of the present adult and younger generation growing up under such conditions. We only have to look at what is happening to children in Syria at the moment as the civil war continues. If coercion and compulsion on threat of sanction are the order of the day, then this must have psychological effects such as anxiety, fear, depression, etc. If a person’s employment enables him or her to feed family and keep home, body and soul together, then the lurking threat of redundancy or dismissal must engender fear in the life of that person because the realisation of such a threat must mean the destruction of the structure of that person’s life or, at least, its complete alteration and disruption. It introduces conditions which carry the possibility of personal catastophe and the overturn of a previously stable and relatively secure personal existence. This is the same with domesticated animals such as pets, for example. A pet which is constantly abused and subject to cruelty will develop different behavioural patterns to the same pet which is fed, watered, medicated when sick and generally shown human care and affection. A child growing up in an abusive household will undergo a markedly different psychological development to one reared in a caring and nurturing environment involving a focus on the child’s individual human interests. The examples are too numerous to mention.

The “psychological” is a legitimate historical category but only in its relationship to the category of the “social”. It is not legitimate in isolation from this latter category.For example, the “psychopathic” personality is not the creation of the biological malfunctioning of the brain in the way a diabetic is the creation of a dysfunctional pancreas or a blind person of a defunct retina. The “psychopath” or child killer is an individualised creation of the society into which he is born and has developed. He has been created on the ground and within the social conditions of his own personal experience in this society.

The character of the prevailing and dominant social relations constitutes the foundation upon which the human psychologies of a given culture develops. However, the human mind has and must have – in its discreteness – its own laws of development which do not simply ‘reflect’ social development and also are not absolutely identical with this development Within their unity – the interrelation between society and mind (their interdependence) – subsists the discreteness of each.

In the sense that thought itself cannot take place without the organ of the brain, matter itself must be a material pre-condition for thought. And production itself furnishes the nutrients to feed the body and its various organs. Of course, the human brain itself is also, partly, a product of socio-historical development i.e. the brain itself has developed materially (plasticity) in the course of, and as a product of, the historical development of human society. However, in that it is the conceptual content of thought that ‘constitutes’ the ‘substance’ of the mind, it is the character of social relations that forms the basis and conditions for its origination and development:

socio-historical shifts not only introduce new content into the mental world of human beings; they also create new forms of activity and new structures of cognitive functioning. They advance human consciousness to new levels.

[Luria, A.R. Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations.(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976) p.163]


The awareness of the animal primates ancestors of humanity was a non-conscious awareness in contrast to the awareness of humanity which is a conscious awareness. This conscious awareness incorporates (supersedes) within itself the awareness of the animal ancestor as a unity of instinctual and learning capacities. This unity is raised (ascends to a higher stage) to the level of consciousness in humanity, with the emergence of beings possessing a conscious awareness.

If I state that I am conscious of this object in front of me, this conscious awareness of this object also involves the psychic mediation (psychological, neuropsychological, etc) of processes of which I am not conscious, of which I am unconscious. Therefore, conscious awareness simultaneously involves the mediation of these processes which are my unconscious. If I look at the object in front of me, its shape, colour, its texture, temperature, when I handle it, etc, I am drawing on mental powers which are a unity of the conscious and the unconscious. I am using my mind (which involves the physiology of the brain) and therefore this active process must necessarily involve indispensably contributing unconscious aspects.

The unconscious is expressed within and mediated by the conscious (otherwise it would not be the unconscious as such) but does not, in itself, originate entirely within the field of consciousness. In the dialectical moments of mediation of each by the other (intermediation) is expressed their mutual identity and distinction. The origination of human conscious awareness itself simultaneously gives rise to the human unconscious itself. It creates it and in the course of this creation establishes a relation with it so that they intermediate each other. But this human unconscious is created out of the instinctual material furnished by humanity’s primate ancestors and, therefore, cannot be simply the child of human conscious awareness. It contains elements of the pre-human sublated within itself but elevated into the human mind as a totality.

The human mind, accordingly, must have arisen and evolved, as a whole and as a unity of the unconscious and the conscious. This is what “consciousness” is in the complete sense and meaning of the word. It is a fully integrated form of awareness in the life of the human being. But, paradoxically, “consciousness”, as this integrated totality, is ontologically more complex than that of the “conscious” alone as the phenomenological expression of “consciousness” in the totality of its life-process. [“Consciousness” with an upper case ‘C’ and the “conscious” with a lower case ‘c’. We may also use the term “Mind” interchangeably for “Consciousness”]

The different aspects of Mind must be considered in their relation to each other i.e. they must be considered dialectically. In this way, the nature and function of each aspect is understood as being a part of, and intrinsic to, the life of the whole. Each aspect, function and facility affects and mediates the activities of all the others, constituting a unified whole which is higher than a mere aggregation of parts.

The origination of humanity is the process of an aware yet non-conscious primate becoming conscious of itself and of Nature. This process – which we may refer to as sapienisation – is a transition between the mode of life of the non-consciously aware animal primate and that of the earliest modes of human existence as a consciously aware existence. This transition brings with it – in sublated form – this form of awareness of the animal primate ancestry. It transcends this “animal awareness” only by preserving and re-positing aspects of it in a higher conscious form. For example, the hunger, thirst, energy, sex drive, etc, of the animal are transformed in this transition process of becoming human. They become human drives but they maintain a relationship with their animal ancestry in the course of their supersedence (sublation) i.e. insofar as aspects of these human drives which resemble those in our animal ancestors are carried over and preserved in the negation. An operative example of this is the ‘fight or flight mechanism’ inherited from our animal ancestors which, taken in its isolated abstraction, is many millions of years old, passed from generation to generation, from species to species and so preserved as advantageous for succeeding species in the course of evolution. Today passed down and operative in the various forms of human fear and anxiety.

Consciousness itself, as distinguished from the simple awareness of animals, is a social product of the human brain embracing and incorporating within itself an awareness of the ‘self’ involving the capacity to reflect. Reflection – i.e. thought consciously monitoring the progress of its own conceptual content – is an exclusive property of the human mind which is not found in animals or in higher primates. Animals are aware but non-conscious natural beings and do not possess this capacity to reflect. When an animal encounters its image in a mirror by chance it merely sees the image of its own physicality, itself as an object which it does recognise as ‘itself’. When a human being looks into a mirror it observes not only a physicality but also the ‘me’ or ‘I’. For the animal there is no ‘I’ to which this physicality is intrinsic. ‘I-ness’ is a function of the reflective capacities of human beings. This, of course, is not to assert that all animals do not possess sensitivity or awareness of their surroundings and that they orientate their behaviour according to their changing relationship to their surrounding conditions of life.


The mind is a complex synthesis of the social and the biological. Human thinking is a social product of the brain. If the neurology of the brain becomes diseased, degenerated or disordered, this can affect the capacity to think (e.g. Alzheimer’s Disorder). But the actual animating conceptual content of human thought is social in its origin. The brain does not produce political conceptions, for example, by a process of neurochemical secretion in an analogous way to the stomach producing acid or the liver producing bile. In a analogous way, to adopt a mechanistic example, the mirror does not produce the image by generating it out of its own materiality. Without the mirror there is no image, of course, but the the actual image in the mirror is dependent on the existence of the object reflected external to it. If the mirror is concave or convex, the image in the mirror will be a distorted reflection of the object.

Again, there is no emotion or feeling without its registration by the brain and body. ‘I’ ‘feel’ my anger or joy only insofar as I am a living material being with brain, nervous sytem, blood, organs, etc. But anger, pain (unlust), joy, etc, are not simply neurological products. They involve the mediation of thought, either conscious or sub-conscious. If I am elated because x and not y has happened, this involves and implicates the rumination of thinking, anticipation, even worry within my thinking. Examples are too numerous to give.

But does this link human emotion to the history of social relations? An obvious example of this is the feelings of jealousy and resentment in the interrelations between the sexes. This man ‘steals’ the wife of another man who is so enraged with jealousy, etc, and plans to kill them both? But in a different society where these monogamous relationships are transcended and the human mind has become accommodated to unconditional polygamy and the open character of sexual relations, what becomes of such emotions as jealousy? Are such emotions the passing attributes of a historically-conditioned human psyche? Are they subject to alteration and negation as these social relations change? So the woman takes different men (or women) to her bed and there is no jealousy, resentment or hostility mediating the changing relations?

It appears, therefore, that certain human emotions only arise with the emergence of definite social relationships and institutions. Thus, the emotion of envy/jealousy only comes into being with and accompanies the psychological interdependencies and acquisitiveness (‘possession’) of interpersonal relationships which are a social product of the rise of private property and the changing forms of the family corresponding to the evolution of private property.
Human behaviour – mediated by mental life – can only be comprehensively and scientifically understood on a socio-historical basis, within a socio-historical perspective. Implicitly, the conception that there is some nebulous, eternal psychological ‘human nature’ destined to characterise human beings in, at and for all places and all times must be considered untenable.

Moreover, we need to consider whether or not, at a physiological level in the brain, emotional states are correlated with definite neurological states. That rage and joy are associated with different neurological states of the brain. [I dare say that this has already been observed or even studied by the neuroscientists]. The subject individually registers anger or joy, for example, as a state of feeling. I “feel” angry, I “feel” happy, etc. The most fundamental question that radical psychology must address concerns the nature and quality of the emotional life of the human individual i.e. humans as ‘feeling’ beings. Feeling as the eternal focal point around which the nature and quality of the subjective life of the individual revolves. If I am suffering a terminal, malignant sadness, what does this say about the character of the social relations through and within which I am living my life? And this psychological state comes into relation with, and becomes manifest in, my behaviour, in my interpersonal relationships, in my perception and evaluation of self and others. Engels writes that..

How real people behave and did behave depends and always did depend on the historical conditions under which they lived

[Engels. From the Preparatory Writings for Anti-Duhring. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) p. 605.]

The implication here is one of altering forms of human behaviour as ‘historical conditions under which people live’ change and become transformed. And hence the alteration of their psychology in the course of human beings altering their lives and creating new modes of living, higher ‘historical conditions’ more worthy of their humanity? So that the different forms of human behaviour and psychologies can only be understood relative to established and evolving socio-historical conditions and therefore not conceived as fixed and unalterable. The forms of human behaviour and psychology in any society therefore reflecting the prevailing socio-historical conditions and their dominance in the life of the individual.


Vygotsky proposes that in the psychological development of children…

Any function in the child’s cultural development appears on the stage twice, on two planes, first on the social plane and then on the psychological; first between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions.

[Vygotsky, L.S. Development of Higher Mental Functions. Psychological Research in the U.S.S.R. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966) pp. 44-45]

The psychological development of the individual involves the psychological assimilation of the actual social relationships and modes of behaviour ‘between human individuals’. These ‘actual relations….underlie all the higher functions’.

However, the mind is not simply a passive reflection of social relations but is a most active element in the development of these relations. Vygotsky’s proposal implies that the ‘inner dialogues’ of thinking are intrapsychological transpositions and transformations of the dialogues and social interactions between individuals. These interactions are psychologically internalised in the form of ‘inner dialogues’ thereby reflecting the social structure and content of the actual relations between human individuals.

Shaun May

December 2014

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Filed under Crtical Psychology, Luria, Marx, Marxist Philosophy of Mind, Origins and Evolution of Consciousness, Radical Psychology, Vygotsky