Thoughts on the Inner Dialogue Between a CAT Therapist and Karl - I am not a marxist - Marx

Welch, L., 2004. Thoughts on the Inner Dialogue Between a CAT Therapist and Karl - I am not a marxist - Marx. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.24-26.

When the call for suggestions came last year, for some reason this title came to mind, expressing a wish to make public a long held personal debate that got occasional airings in less explicit form. The request for an abstract came later forcing me to give more substance to the title and when I came to preparing the workshop itself I felt alarmed at the task I had set myself! An hour and fifteen minutes felt very little time to engage an audience experientially and intellectually.

We started with an exercise which probably could have filled all the time. In pairs, the group discussed their earliest political/social memories, remembering that the political is personal. This led to accounts ranging from powerful memories of the Second World War, to reactions to the Vietnam War, the arrogance of a huntsman in a small English village, working class solidarity, the spurning of a Tory MP at the doorstep. I spoke of an early memory of my black nanny’s children being sent back to a farm 100 miles away after neighbours informed the police of this illicit activity in apartheid South Africa.

In psychotherapy assessment form I started my presentation with the question: What’s the problem? Readers of Reformulation will remember the statistics from previous articles which remain all too current.

The world is characterised by enormous wealth alongside grinding poverty and starvation:

The three richest billionaires’ assets exceed the yearly income of the 48 least developed countries. 225 individual billionaires’ assets equal the combined annual incomes of the poorest 47% of the world’s people (2.5 billion people).

The richest 20% of the world’s population has 78 times the income of the poorest 20%.

The gap in relative wealth is increasing.

In 1960 the richest 20% had 30 times the income of the poorest 20%. 89 poorest countries have lower per capita incomes now than a decade ago. 19 of them are poorer today than they were in 1960.

In America, between 1978 and 1998 the earnings of the country’s highest paid corporate executive rose from m to 6m, an 11,400% increase.

Free market economists blithely argue that the world is getting better, that wealth trickles down, but average figures on absolute wealth disguise the gap in relative wealth.

In the UK, between 1979 and 1995-7, average incomes after housing costs increased in real terms by 44%. The top tenth of households enjoyed a rise of 70%, while the bottom tenth suffered a cut of 9%.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, but useful to remember the cost of a solution:

“It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly billion a year. This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world.” (United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 1998 )

What is extraordinary about these figures is what little public debate there is for the ‘simple’ reform of increasing taxation for the very, very rich (or, even, ensuring they pay tax). Can it really be seen as paranoia that the absence of debate is an indication of the presence of the powerfully rich in what passes through the mouths of mainstream politicians and journalists? The personal nature of political discourse is made evident as a variety of emotional epithets of cynicism, envy and naivety are used to dismiss rational debate about what is surely among the most pressing issues of the day.

Rational debate about the power of the super-rich capitalist class cannot exist in a vacuum: the political position we adopt shapes what we are prepared to see as ‘rational’. This is particularly clear in relation to those of us who attempt to place ourselves on the ‘working class’ side of class relations with all the emotional value laden resonance that the term evokes. Perhaps the most refined expression of this, both theoretically and practically, is Marxism. However, the triumph of the Thatcherite ideology of free market economics (an ideology which first gained practical post WWII expression in Pinochet’s Chile), and its modernised New Labour variant, has successfully swamped the capacity of those on the centre left to give consideration to Marxism’s oppositional discourse. Emotional reactions to Marxism are especially powerful as it is arguably the most threatening discourse to those whose horizons remain solidly within existing social reality.

Coming from South Africa where the State had a powerful arsenal of laws and policemen to suppress communism (though even there a notional limit of 180 days was set for detention without trial, unlike British justice for state named terrorists), it was hard not to see radicalism only through the eyes of the liberal (but at least critical) Congregational Church I was brought up in. The shift towards Marxism came, for me, over a year long discussion with a mature student at the Polytechnic of the South Bank where I was studying in 1972. Feeling very much in the minority in white South Africa, I found my way into the minority Trotskyist formulation of Marxism, viewing the ‘existing socialism’ of Soviet Russia as the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition version of Christianity.

The varieties of Marxism, and the fervour with which many espouse them, leads all too easily to the dismissal as ‘religious’ of a vital method for understanding the world. An uncritical acceptance of, for example, Popper’s narrow view of science and rejection of Marx all too often leads to a reaction to Marxism that has as much knowledge of the subject matter as ardent psychoanalysts have of CBT and vice versa.

A brief account of Marxism cannot do justice to the subject but can perhaps outline some of the concepts worth exploring. There are parallels between the development of Marxism and CAT insofar as each has emerged out of a critique of existing theories. Marx developed a critique of the concepts of Scottish economics, German philosophy and French politics. His integration also reflects the tensions between the different strands.

An understanding of historical development of both social relations and of concepts is central to his method. Humans produce the conditions for their existence using the world as they find it and a key concept in understanding this historically is the mode of production, where Marx distinguishes between the level of its productive forces (raw materials, tools, machines, factories, accumulated goods etc) and who owns and controls the productive forces. The earliest social formations are tribal/’primitive’ societies leading to the emergence of the Class societies of Slavery, ‘Asiatic’ bureaucracy, Feudalism and then Capitalism. There is much debate about the nature of Soviet ‘socialism’ which early in the 1920’s provided a hope for an alternative to capitalism but, particularly with the collapse of Soviet Russia, has demonstrated it to be another brutal form of the primitive accumulation of capital.

Marx’s analysis of Capitalism starts with a critique of nineteenth century political economy and he argues in Capital that the fundamental unit is that of the commodities (drawing on Marx’s methodology, Vygotsky argues that a fundamental unit of psychology is word meaning). The commodity combines Use Value with Exchange Value, making possible commodity exchange. In Marx’s famous words from Capital:

Commodity exchange is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom because both buyer and seller of a commodity.. are determined only by their own free will; Equality because each enters into relations with the other as with a simple owner of commodities and they exchange equivalent with equivalent; Property because each disposes only of what is his and Bentham because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each.

Although Marx was not constructing a psychology there are moments in his analysis where he prefigures intersubjective accounts of psychology. For example, in the Grundrisse he argues that in the exchange relationship:

each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other’s need … each of them reaches beyond his own particular need. … Although individual A feels a need for the commodity of individual B, he does not appropriate it by force, nor vice versa, but rather they recognise one another reciprocally … as persons whose will penetrates their commodities

Neo-classical economics remain at the level of analysis of the exchange relationship and sees labour as being merely another commodity. The exchange between capitalist and worker appears like any other exchange. Marx distinguishes between labour in general and labour power, the ability to produce a use value. The exchange value of labour power is determined by the labour-time necessary for its production, including both the body and soul of the labourer and, through his or her family, the reproduction of the labourer. Labour power, in use, produces more value than is needed to maintain the labourer. So, for example, child labourers in Asia produce in 12 hours work a pair of Nike shoes selling for £120 for which they receive £1. If materials cost £10, marketing £50, Nike secures the surplus value created by the labourer of £59 (£120-£10-£50-£1=£59).

Class struggle then is the struggle over who owns and controls the surplus. The creation of the NHS led to an important shift in class relations where the importance of human needs outweighed those of the need for profit; the defeat of the miners in 1984 led to what the economist Michael Barrett-Brown has called a counter-revolution in British society, marking a shift away from a politics in which working class values were at least on the political agenda.

The value of Marx to today’s issues is in providing a historical perspective in his account that Capitalism creates the material conditions for its overthrow. Globalisation brings the world much closer together and creates the possibility of a new set of relationships between people. This possibility is based both on material conditions (a global economy, communications, the nature of modern production etc) but also on the awareness that the working class brings to it.

For a new form of society based on need, not profit, the working class have to overcome divisions and isolation and believe a new world is possible. While there is no purely psychological solution, the creation of individuals who are able to relate to each other across the narrow and confining barriers of nationalism, racism, sexism and the panoply of isms the human psyche is capable of, is a necessary though not sufficient part of changing social relations. Psychotherapy has an important role to play insofar as it enables individuals to use their capacities to the fullest extent and informs political discourse of the complexities of human change. At the same time massive political struggles, such as the miners’ strike, are also moments unleashing hitherto unconscious constraints on vital human abilities.

Vygotsky rightly warns against constructing a Marxist psychology from directly within Marxism. In his critique of developments in psychology within Soviet Russia in the 1920s he argues against

the system of Marxist psychology which is developing before our eyes. It is difficult to analyse, because it does not yet have its own methodology and attempts to find it ready-made in the haphazard psychological statements of the founders of Marxism, not to mention the fact that to find a ready-made formula of the mind in the writings of others would mean to demand “science before science itself.”

He goes on to say:

“Psychology is in need of its own Das Kapital - its own concepts of class, basis, value etc. - in which it might express, describe, and study its object”. From: The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology.

A suggestive train of analysis from psychotherapy to politics is to locate the concept of Reciprocal Roles within the dominant class relations within Capitalism. Simplistically put, the capitalist drives, controls, criticises the worker who is deferential, over-performing, rebellious or revolutionary. The worker in relation to other workers is either competitive or seeking solidarity. Controlled at work, the worker reproduces this dynamic at home, training his/her children to be prepared for the workplace. However, this may account for particular qualities of relationships in a specific social formation, but it leaves open the question of how relationships at the interpersonal level are constructed.

Psychology and politics have overlapping but different ‘objects’ to understand and it is important not to confuse expertise in one discipline as leading automatically to an imperious ‘knowledge’ in another. Whether or not the dialogue is between Marxism and psychotherapy there is a vital need for different disciplines of politics, psychology, sociology, economics, and the brain sciences to dialogue more actively with each other. This requires a seeking of connections, a respect for real differences and an ability to criticise unquestioned assumptions. An understanding of historical development is fundamental to the capacity to question; categories and concepts are the result of development, social, psychological and intellectual.

The task of envisioning a human world is deeply personally challenging, confronting us with powerful and potentially blinding emotions of rage at inhumanity, terror in the face of the enormity of the task, guilt at our inadequacy. Awareness that the world is not what our masters would have us think it is is a vital starting place as we at least allow ourselves to contemplate what needs to be done. Talking with others and being open to reading critiques of society strengthens and deepens this awareness. Perhaps from this, recognition of the fundamental nature of the problems can emerge, and sustained by the hope that change is possible (and the historical evidence for this), should opportunities present themselves, we may be ready to act and participate in social revision. Surely the uncertainties such a view holds are preferable to the smug self satisfaction that this world is the only possible world, or the overwhelmed acceptance of defeat in advance in the face of the powerful, or the insidiously disabling guilt that we should do more and therefore forget to even think critically.

Prize-winning Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy spoke at the closing session of the World Social Forum on 27 January 2003, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling — their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Lawrence Welch


Barratt Brown, M (2003) The Captive Party: How Labour was taken over by Capital Spokesman Books for Socialist Renewal

Fine, R (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt Routledge, London

Marx, K (1974) Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production Lawrence & Wishart, London

Vygotsky, L The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology. Obtainable from:

Wheen, F (2004) How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A short history of modern delusions Fourth Estate, London.

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Welch, L., 2004. Thoughts on the Inner Dialogue Between a CAT Therapist and Karl - I am not a marxist - Marx. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.24-26.

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