The cornerstone of the Marxist theory of history (materialist conception) concerns itself with the basic economic needs of humanity. It contends that the process and context of humankind’s procurement of the means of life is the basis of all cultural activity. The means and mode of production make everything else possible and so their historical context defines any given culture. This is also the case for all living creatures since life itself depends on the synthesis of energy (food and light) – whether or not other species have ‘cultures’ is debatable. However it is indisputable that life depends on the procurement of energy and so, therefore, must posses some mechanism to make this possible. I do not speak here of locomotion or cultivation but of the basic biological system that distinguishes between, and recognises, external and internal stimuli. We eat because we are hungry, sleep because we are tired and react when we are in pain etc. All life, then, is motivated by, and reacts continuously to, stimuli. This is obviously why humanity engages in economic activity and so it can therefore be considered a rational social endeavour. But could it be that sometimes to successfully respond to two different stimuli is impossible because they are mutually incompatible? And is this, in some part, responsible for irrational human behaviour?
The observation of some other species makes these behavioural contradictions obvious. Reacting to the sexual stimulus (desire) puts many species in direct conflict with the individual’s need to avoid pain and death. Spiders and some insects quite often die at the ‘hands’ of their mates after sex. Many mammals have to fight to secure a mate risking injury and sometimes death. Human desire is no less powerful than the need for food and shelter. How, then, does this stimuli affect the other biological needs that motivate economic activity and so define history and politics? Does it sometimes come into direct confrontation with them as it does in other species? Marx himself had nothing to say on this subject but some have believed that human sexuality lies at the root of irrational human behaviour. How else are we to explain why his theory of history is so successful in all areas except the most important one – the prediction of a socialist revolution?
Before we are ready to know whether reacting to mutually exclusive stimuli does indeed sometimes lead to irrational behaviour in humans we need to define a successful response. If we examine three human activities like eating, sex and work, is there a shared behavioural response that indicates success? After a good meal contentment is felt because the stimulus (hunger) is removed and a kind of ‘stasis’ is temporarily achieved. After orgasm there is a similar cessation of tension. When work has fulfilled its purpose and been received by others as appropriate and competent then the tiredness is pleasurable. All of these states of mind share a contentment and emotional calm. If this condition were indeed defined by an absence of stimuli then logically death (or at least its psychological approximation) would seem to be the goal of life. In some way might it be the longing of the animate entity to return to its inanimate origins? Perhaps sentience itself exists to continually recreate the illusion of death for the organism to thrive? A paradox worthy of any Zen masters’ attention. Now let us look at what happens when there is a failure to deal successfully with powerful stimuli.
Human sexuality is always complex. The child’s relationship with its parents is paradoxical from the start. It needs the mother to satisfy the stimuli for feeding and safety. We know that it also has sensual (infantile sexual) needs as well. When this is expressed in inappropriate behaviour a conflict with the parent is created (because of the moral and educational values of the adult). The child then experiences contradictory needs and is unable to deal successfully with stimuli. The resulting frustration can lead to emotional tantrums and destructive behaviour. For anyone to thrive in an authoritarian culture such as ours he or she has to learn to suppress the sexual instincts. However as we have seen these stimuli are as strong as the need to survive and can never be destroyed. They can be deflected (sublimated) by other activities such as sport, art or politics but very often the infantile need for destruction survives as well. Could it be that this urge to destroy is an unconscious reflection of the desire for the death that the successful reaction to stimuli approximates, but which has been denied to the individual?
We have seen that the result of a successful reaction to stimuli is a quiet mind free of tension. If this is unobtainable, say because of the meaningless alienated labour that capitalism demands, then the tension just keeps building. All of the energy that should be used to deal with stimuli finds no focus or outlet and instead fuels frustration and anger. Such negative energy can express itself in conditions such as depression, obsession and violence. All of these can be interpreted as other ways of simulating death. Depression deprives the victim of the motivation for any action. Obsessive behaviour clings to the quest of the unobtainable so avoiding meaningful activity. An act of violence symbolises the destruction of life. A religious or political ideology can sometimes use this destructive energy by focusing hatred on the ‘other’. Xenophobia, nationalism, racism, sectarianism, militarism and the hatred of the weak are all present in reactionary political theories. The ‘other’ is blamed for the inadequacies within the hater’s life. This is because the contradictions of the capitalist system are not recognised but internalised. Your therapist, priest and parents will tell you that your unhappiness is all your own fault. You need to change, not the system – that’s just an impossible dream.
Socialist consciousness recognises the system for what it really is; the inhuman exploitation of man by man, which causes alienation between and within all mankind. No organism can survive without simulating death. Life can only cope with the unending stream of stimuli by ‘realising’ this. Marx’s theory of history was not wrong but incomplete. The dynamic of social change, the creator of the dialectical forces, is not only the mode of production and the class struggle it generates but life and death itself. Liberation and freedom (the life force) depend on their antithesis – death.