Sensuous materialism: emotion and the left

We must make a new world in which a new kind of human being can be born, but how?

Max Farrar
2 April 2019, 9.47am
Flickr/Martin Fisch. CC BY 2.0.

Leeds in 1974. Half a dozen disconsolate men arrive at our house with their sleeping bags and a position paper called ‘Men In Crisis.’ Some are black, some white, some upper-middle class and others working class; their paper explains their common plight - all their wives and girlfriends have left them, either to become lesbians, or to work even harder in the Women’s Liberation Movement, or both. They knew it was their fault.

The group was attending the first UK conference of ‘Men Against Sexism,’ and three of them were staying in our big old house in the inner city. We knew that London, their home, was in sexual and political turmoil, taking down doors and banning monogamy. As members of ‘Leeds Libertarians’ we were sympathetic.

Looking back, it’s easy to send us up, and the Swedish film Together does so affectionately, showing a man wearing my cheesecloth shirt and lecturing people on his own utopian dreams of how collective life should be. Michèle Roberts’ memoir Paper Houses spends many pages, some uplifting, some troubling, in houses like ours, full of men and women in their twenties fervent in their desire to live the same revolution in their personal lives that they were trying to build ‘out there.’ In Roberts’ book we see women who were transforming their emotions and their relationships while most of the men were falling by the wayside.

Leeds Libertarians was a hotbed of debate about political campaigns - Claimants Unions, Troops Out of Ireland, Chile Solidarity, anti-racism and anti-fascism - always infused by the critical voices of its members in the women’s and gay liberation movements. Many of us attempted collective childcare arrangements and emotions ran high. One of our communal households once had a banner outside their previous house that read “Hey, hey, straight or gay, try it once the other way.”

The old-school anarchists had left the Libertarians when we voted to change our language from ‘Chairman’ to ‘Chairperson.’ No surprise that they were men. One or two women left when they became ‘political lesbians.’ Some of the men, including me, realised that we’d better wake up and change our ways of being, so we formed a Men’s Group. But that wasn’t enough, and in 1975 a few of us left to join ‘Big Flame,’ a revolutionary socialist and feminist organisation that took social struggle as seriously as economic struggle.

Now I’m co-writing a book about Big Flame and re-reading the acres of print we produced while we were active. I marvel that we saw so clearly that there could not be a revolution without women’s liberation, that male power had to be systematically unpicked, that a major source of fascism was authoritarian family life led by would-be patriarchs, that personal life was as important a field of struggle as the factory, that children had rights, that the nuclear family was not the best forum for their growth, and that we had to infuse politics with music and pleasure and art.

For people so young and inexperienced, with so few children of our own and so much time on our hands for sex, we were right to realise that our emotional lives must not be bracketed off from our public lives. But is today any different? In my view the left hasn’t made much progress since the 1970s in its thinking about how to bridge the emotional and political worlds - in building an ‘emotional politics’ to explain the febrile times of populism we are witnessing worldwide and underpin radical, progressive alternatives which are just as powerful. Where can we find the roots of such a politics?

Big Flame was a tiny organisation which drew on Marx and, in its early phase, the Italian Marxists who are loosely grouped today under the label of ‘autonomists.’ Our starting point was the daily life of the working class in factories, schools, hospitals, offices and neighbourhoods. But we also understood from Marx that all life, and all reality, was to be understood as “sensuous human activity or practice.” Marx’s followers took the human practice of labour in pursuit of a wage as the building block for their praxis, but his choice of ‘sensuous’ has never been properly followed up. ‘Sensuous’ means ‘of the senses,’ and it implies gratification achieved through our perception of the people and things that surround us.

Sensuous experiences are felt emotionally and, at their height, ‘somatically,’ i.e. in our bodies, sometimes viscerally. There is nothing we do at home or at work, in politics or activism, that isn’t sensuous. So why is this dimension of life bracketed off from so much of left politics? Activists should pay as much attention to the emotional dimensions of life as they do to the material context in which people live and struggle. All humans are fleshly, subjective and active makers of their own material lives. If the left abandoned its commitment to materialism as the philosophy that examines the underpinning economic structures of life, it would abandon socialism. But if it could evolve a philosophy of ‘sensuous materialism’ it could pin its hopes to a mast constructed not just of wood but also of love. How so?

There has long been a strand in the left that looks beyond economics. For example, in 1892 William Morris called for a socialism that promotes “art, research…pleasure.” Art and pleasure are sensuous and emotional activities. Socialism, for Morris, was not “mere amelioration of the condition of certain groups of labour, necessarily at the expense of others.” He didn’t want a leveling process “till we are all sharing in a poor life, stripped of energy, without art, research or pleasure.”

When Marxists like Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse began to read Freud they quickly saw that analysing unconscious processes could augment our critique, not only of fascism but of capitalism in general. Fromm’s The Art of Loving has probably been forgotten by most Marxists, yet the search for love dominates social life. As mental ill-health, particularly among the young, becomes a headline issue, we are witnessing a growing critique of how capitalism makes many of us feel: anxious, out of control, manic and (in my case at least) sometimes hysterical. Love is the longed for and perhaps imaginary antidote, yet leftists don’t usually see it as a political issue.

Freudian thought helps us explain the intense fear and loathing of the Other that drives right-wing populist movements, but we should also look to ourselves. Leftists are not immune to fear and loathing - often of each other - and close attention to Freud's notion of the narcissism of small differences might well improve life inside the cauldron of the left.

In Big Flame, I began to think like this because there were so many second-wave feminists in and around our group. They were the inheritors of the socialism of Morris and Edward Carpenter, and the feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and the pioneering women novelists. They channeled Simone de Beauvoir. They set out their ambition for a socialism in which emotional life flourished alongside material improvements. Sheila Rowbotham, for example, wrote this in 1969 as she thought out-loud about the future we were trying to make (cited by Tariq Ali in his autobiography):

“There will be thousand of millions of women people to discover, touch and become, who will understand you when you say we must make a new world in which we do not meet each other as exploiters and used objects. Where we love one another and into which a new kind of human being can be born.”

Feminists have never separated the economic and the emotional. They made us recognise that cleaning house and looking after children was emotional and physical work that we had to share. Later, in 1977, when Rowbotham reviewed a book from 1934 called Sex and Revolution, she noted that the author “reduces the relationship [of caring for children] to a task of mere economic production with emotion and feeling somehow detached from the material needs of the child.”

Even now, as men increasingly see how much we benefit emotionally from loving and caring for children, Rowbotham’s point still has force. Economics still dominates contemporary politics. We need a new philosophy to help us change this. In an era that commodifies every inch of our bodies and every flight of our sensuality, a socialism that is as alert to sensuousness as it is to selling could help to produce a better political praxis, based on a more profound sense of what life is actually about.

This type of thinking is all around us. Lynne Segal, a founder of the UK’s Women’s Liberation Movement who later joined Big Flame, says that her book Radical Happiness takes up her recurrent theme of “our attachment to life.” What promotes our well-being is “having friends and contacts; it’s making life meaningful, together with others. Confronting the ubiquitous neoliberal rationality endorsing only individual competitiveness - individual or corporate - we need to hold on to alternative ways of connecting with each other.”

Life, Segal argues, is made meaningful when humans form bonds with one another that are not polluted by neoliberal rationality. It goes without saying that these bonds are emotionally charged, and that these emotions need analysing and working on.

Today, the necessity for a politics that places meaningful, sensual, emotionally empathic and egalitarian relationships at its centre is much clearer. Sensuous materialism is a philosophy that, by placing equal weight on the emotional and the economic dimensions of social life, can provide an underpinning for a viable radical politics for our times. We have what we need to guide a fully humanised analysis of the way we live and of the material and psychological structures that shape us. We should use it to provoke transformational activity in all dimensions of life.

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