Mindfulness is limited

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Alongside his generous comments on my book Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress, Stephen Tollyfield points to what he sees as a “notable omission” in the book — any reference to mindfulness (February SR).

He suggests that what the omission reflects is a materialist disdain for what he calls the “spiritual dimension of life”.

If by this, Stephen means a belief in the existence of a divine entity which exists outside of history, then he is right. As Marxists we believe that material, not divine, forces created the universe, that evolution, not God, led to the development of human beings and that the world we live in today is the product of human activity, not the working out of God’s plan.

If, however, Stephen is suggesting that Marxists are only concerned with people’s material needs (food, drink, sex, etc) and are not also concerned with their emotional and psychological needs, their creative possibilities, with “human flourishing” in all its glorious aspects, then he could not be more wrong.

In fact a central argument of my book is that it is precisely these needs and these possibilities for development that suffer most under the pressures of neoliberal capitalism, one reason for the current epidemic of mental distress.

Small wonder then that many people seek an escape from these pressures in mindfulness, sometimes described as “secular Buddhism”. It may not be an answer to the horrors of global capitalism but there is indeed evidence that mindfulness, and meditation more generally, are beneficial for mental health.

As Stephen recognises, however, whatever the merits of such individual responses, collective action against capitalism is necessary if we are ever to overcome alienation and regain control of our lives.

As summed up by SWP founder Tony Cliff in an article written in 1987, “The greatest achievement of the Russian Revolution was not the mass strikes, not even the Soviets. The greatest and most marvellous thing was the spiritual growth of Russian workers. Powerlessness does not give the opportunity for such growth.”