Science and the Marxist movement: The legacy of Freud
On the occasion of the recent bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, the ICC published several articles about this great scientist and his theory of the evolution of species. These articles are an aspect of something that has always been present in the workers' movement: an interest in scientific questions, which is expressed at the highest level in the revolutionary theory of the proletariat, marxism. Marxism developed a critique of the idealist and religious views of human society and history which predominated in feudal and capitalist society but which also impregnated the socialist theories which marked the first steps of the workers' movement at the beginning of the 19th century. Against the latter, marxism saw as one of its first priorities the need to base the perspective of the future society, which would deliver humanity from exploitation, oppression and all the scourges which have afflicted it for millennia, not on the realisation of the abstract principles of equality and justice but on a material necessity flowing from the actual evolution of human history, and of nature, which is driven in the last instance by material forces and not by spiritual ones. This is why the workers' movement, beginning with Marx and Engels themselves, always paid particular attention to science.
Science appeared well before the beginning of the workers' movement and the working class itself. We can even say that the latter was only able to develop on a broad scale thanks to the progress of science, which was one of the preconditions for the rise of capitalism, the mode of production based on the exploitation of the proletariat. In this sense, the bourgeoisie is the first class in history which had an ineluctable need for science to ensure its own development and to affirm its own power over society. By appealing to science it was able to break the grip of religion which was the basic ideological instrument for the defence and justification of feudal society. But even more than this, science was the underpinning of the mastery of the technology of production and transport, which was a precondition for the expansion of capitalism. When the latter had reached its high point, bringing into being the force which the Communist Manifesto called its "gravedigger", the modern proletariat, the bourgeoisie turned back towards religion and the mystical visions of society which had the great merit of justifying a social order founded on exploitation and oppression, In doing so, while it continued to promote and finance all the research needed to guarantee its profits, to increase the productivity of labour power and improve the effectiveness of its military forces, it moved away from the scientific approach when it came to understanding how human society works.
It fell to the proletariat, in its struggle against capitalism and for its overthrow, to take up the flame of scientific understanding abandoned by the bourgeoisie. This is what it did in the mid-19th century by opposing the apologetics which had taken the place of the study of the economy, ie the skeleton of society, and putting forward a critical and revolutionary approach to this subject, a necessarily scientific vision, expressed for example in Karl Marx's Capital. This is why the revolutionary organisations of the proletariat have the responsibility of encouraging an interest in scientific knowledge and research, notably in the areas which relate to human society, to the human being and the psyche, domains where the ruling class has an interest in cultivating obscurantism. This does not mean that to be part of a communist organisation it is necessary to have studied science, to be capable of defending Darwin's theory or to resolve second degree equations. The bases for joining our organisation are contained in the platform which every militant has to agree with and has a responsibility to defend. Similarly, on a whole series of questions, for example the analysis we make of this or that aspect of the international situation, the organisation has to have a position which is expressed, generally speaking, in resolutions adopted by our congresses or by plenary meetings of our central organ. In these cases, it is not obligatory for each militant to agree with such statements of position. The simple fact that these resolutions are adopted after discussion and vote means that there can perfectly well be different points of view, which, if they persist and are sufficiently developed, can be expressed publicly in our press, as we can see with the debate on the economic basis of the boom that followed the second world war.
With regard to questions that deal with cultural matters
(film criticism, for example) or scientific issues, not only do they not need
to have the agreement of every militant (as is the case with the platform) but
in general they cannot be seen as representing the position of the
organisation, as is the case for resolutions adopted by congresses. Thus, like
the articles we published on Darwin, the article that follows, written on the
occasion of the 70th anniversary of the death of Sigmund Freud, does
not express the view of the ICC as such. It should be seen as a contribution to
a discussion involving not only militants of the ICC who may or may not agree
with its content, but also those outside our organisation. It is part of a
rubric of the International Review
that the ICC aims to make as lively as possible and which has the aim of giving
an account of reflections and discussion touching on cultural and scientific
questions. In this sense, it constitutes an appeal for contributions which may
express a different point of view from the one expressed in this article.
Freud's legacyOn 23 September 1939, Sigmund Freud died in the Hampstead house that is now the London Freud Museum. A few weeks before the Second World War had broken out. There is a story that the dying Freud, either listening a radio debate or responding to a question from his grandson (versions vary), answered the burning question "Will this be the last war?" with the laconic "At any rate, it will be my last war".
Freud had been exiled from his home and practice in Vienna soon after Nazi thugs entered his apartment and arrested his daughter Anna Freud, who was released soon afterwards. Freud faced persecution from the Nazi power installed after the "Anschluss" between Germany and Austria not only because he was a Jew, but also because he was the founding figure of psychoanalysis, condemned by the regime as an example of "degenerate Jewish thought": Freud's works, alongside those of Marx, Einstein, Kafka, Thomas Mann and others, had the honour of being among the first to be consigned to the flames in the orgy of book-burning in1933.
But the Nazis were not alone in their hatred for Freud. Their fair-ground mirror image, the Stalinists, had also decided that Freud's theories needed to be denounced from the pulpits of the state. Just as the triumph of Stalinism had put an end to all experimentation in art, education and other areas of social life, so it resulted in a witch-hunt against the followers of psychoanalysis within the Soviet Union, in particular those who saw Freud's theories as being compatible with marxism. The early Soviet power had taken a very different attitude. Even though the Bolsheviks were by no means monolithic in their approach to this question, a number of leading Bolsheviks, including Lunarcharsky, Bukharin and Trotsky himself, were sympathetic to the aims and methods of psychoanalysis; as a result, the Russian branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association was the first in the world to obtain backing and funding from a state. During this period, one of the main focuses of the branch was the setting up of an "Orphans' School" devoted to bringing up and treating children who had been traumatised by the loss of parents in the civil war. Freud himself took a lively interest in these experiments: he was particularly curious about how the various efforts to bring up children on a communal basis, rather than within the tyrannical confines of the nuclear family, would impact on the Oedipus complex, which he had identified as a central issue in the individual's psychological history. Meanwhile, Bolsheviks like Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, Tatiana Rosenthal and M A Reisner made contributions to psychoanalytical theory and explored its relationship with historical materialism.
All this came to an end as the Stalinist bureaucracy fortified its grip over the state. Freud's ideas were increasingly denounced as petty bourgeois, decadent and above all idealist, while the more mechanistic approach of Pavlov and his theory of the "conditioned reflex" were favoured as an example of materialist psychology. In the later 20s there was a formidable growth of vicious anti-Freudian texts written by mouthpieces of the regime, a series of "defections" by former supporters of Freud like Aron Zalkind, even hysterical attacks on the "loose morality" crassly associated with Freudian ideas as part of a more general "Thermidor in the Family" (Trotsky's phrase).
Stalinism's final victory over "Freudism" was consecrated at the Congress on Human Behaviour in 1930, particularly in the speech by Zalkind, who poured scorn on the entire Freudian approach and argued that its views on human behaviour were entirely incompatible with the needs of "socialist construction": "How can we use the Freudian conception of man for socialist construction? We need a socially 'open' man who is easily collectivised, and quickly and profoundly transformed in his behaviour - a man capable of being a steady, conscious and independent person, politically and ideologically well-trained..." We know full well what this kind of "transformation" and "training" really meant: breaking the human personality and the resistance of labour in the service of state capital and its remorseless Five Year Plans. In this vision, there was clearly no place for the subtleties and complexities of psychoanalysis, which might be used to show that Stalinist "socialism" had cured none of humanity's ills. And of course, the fact that psychoanalysis had enjoyed a certain measure of support from the now-exiled Trotsky was milked to the maximum in the ideological offensive against Freud's theories.
And in the "democratic" world?
But what of the representatives of capitalism's democratic camp? Didn't Roosevelt's America bring pressure to bear in getting Freud and his immediate family out of Vienna, and didn't Britain provide the eminent Professor Doctor Freud with a comfortable home? Didn't psychoanalysis in the west, and above all in the USA, become a new kind of orthodox psychological church, and certainly a profitable one for many of its practitioners? As it happens, the reaction to Freud's theories among the scientists and intellectuals in the democracies has always been very mixed, with veneration, fascination and respect being liberally mixed with outrage, resistance and scorn. But in the years that followed Freud's death, there have been two major trends in the reception of psychoanalytical theory: on the one hand, a tendency among many of its own spokesmen and practitioners to water down some of its most subversive implications (such as the idea that present-day civilisation is necessarily founded on the repression of humanity's deepest instincts) in favour of a more pragmatic, revisionist approach more likely to find social and political acceptance from that very same civilisation; and, on the other hand, among a number of philosophers, psychologists of rival schools, and more or less commercially successful authors, a growing rejection of the entire corpus of Freudian ideas as subjective, unverifiable, and basically unscientific. The dominant trends in modern psychology (there have been exceptions, such as the ideas of "neuro-psychoanalysis" which have re-examined Freud's model of the psyche in terms of what we now understand about the structure of the brain) have abandoned Freud's journey along the "royal road to the unconscious", his insistence on exploring the meaning of dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue and other insubstantial wraiths, in favour of studying more observable and measurable phenomena: the external, physiological manifestations of mental states, and the concrete forms of behaviour among humans, rats and other animals observed in laboratory conditions. In psychotherapy, the welfare state, keen to reduce the potentially enormous costs incurred in the treatment of growing pandemic of stress, neurosis and plain old insanity engendered by the present social system, favours quick-fix solutions like "Cognitive Behaviour Therapy" over the efforts of psychoanalysis to penetrate to the deep roots of individual neuroses. Above all, and this is especially true in the last couple of decades, we have seen a veritable torrent of books and articles which have tried to cast Freud as a lying charlatan, a fraud who doctored his evidence, a tyrant towards his followers, a hypocrite and (why not?) a pervert. This onslaught has more than a passing resemblance to the anti-Marx campaign launched after the collapse of so-called "Communism" at the end of the 80s, and just as the latter campaign gave rise to its Black Book of Communism, so we have now been treated to a Black Book of Psychoanalysis which devotes no less than 830 pages to its search for dirt on Freud and the psychoanalytical movement.
Marxism and the unconscious
Hostility to psychoanalysis didn't surprise Freud: in general, it confirmed to him that he was hitting the right target. After all, why would he be popular for pointing out that civilisation (at least as presently constituted) was so antithetical to man's instincts, and for dealing a wounding, further blow to man's "naïve self-love" as he put it?
"But in thus emphasising the unconscious in mental life we have conjured up the most evil spirits of criticism against psychoanalysis, Do not be surprised at this, and do not suppose that the resistance to us rests only on the understandable difficulty of the unconscious or the relative inaccessibility of the experiences which provide evidence of it. Its source, I think, lies deeper. In the course of centuries the naïve self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, though something similar had already been asserted by Alexandrian science. The second blow fell when biological research destroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-evaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, though not without the most violent contemporary opposition. But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind".
For marxists, however, it should come as no shock to be told that man's conscious life is - or has been hitherto - dominated by unconscious motivations. The marxist concept of ideology (which in its view encompasses all forms of social consciousness prior to the emergence of the class consciousness of the proletariat) is firmly predicated on exactly such a notion.
"Every ideology ... once it has arisen develops in connection with the given concept-material, and develops this material further; otherwise it would cease to be ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws. That the material life-conditions of the persons inside whose heads this thought process goes on in the last resort determine the course of this process remains of necessity unknown to these persons, for otherwise there would be an end to all ideology."
Marxism thus recognises that up till now man's consciousness of his real position in the world has been inhibited or distorted by factors of which he is unaware; that social life as hitherto constituted has created fundamental blockages in man's mental processes. A clear example of this would be the historic inability of the bourgeoisie to envisage a higher form of society than capitalism, since this would imply its own demise. This is what Lukacs called a "class conditioned unconsciousness". And the question can also be approached from the standpoint of Marx's theory of alienation: alienated man is man estranged from his fellow man, from nature, and from himself, whereas communism will overcome this estrangement and man will be fully conscious of himself.
Trotsky defends psychoanalysis
Of all the marxists of the 20th century, it is perhaps Trotsky who has been most committed to opening a dialogue with the theories of Freud, which he had initially encountered during his stay in Vienna in 1908. While still involved in the Soviet state, but increasingly marginalised, Trotsky insisted that Freud's approach to psychology was essentially materialist. He was opposed to any particular school of psychology being adopted as the "official" line of state or party, but called instead for an open and wide-ranging debate. In Culture and Socialism, written in 1925-6, Trotsky weighs up the different approaches of the Pavlovian and Freudian schools and outlines what he thinks should be the party's attitude to these questions:
"Marxist criticism in science must be not only vigilant but also prudent, otherwise it can degenerate into mere sycophancy...Take psychology even. Pavlov's reflexology proceeds entirely along the paths of dialectical materialism. It conclusively breaks down the wall between physiology and psychology. The simplest reflex is physiological, but a system of reflexes gives us ‘consciousness'. The accumulation of physiological quantity gives a new ‘psychological' quality. The method of Pavlov's school is experimental and painstaking. Generalisations are won step by step: from the saliva of dogs to poetry, that is, to the mental mechanics of poetry, not its social content - though the paths that bring us to poetry have as yet not been revealed.
"The school of the Viennese psychoanalyst Freud proceeds in a different way. It assumes in advance that the driving force of the most complex and delicate of psychic processes is a physiological need. In this general sense it is materialistic, if you leave aside the question whether it does not assign too big a place to the sexual factor at the expense of others, for this is already a dispute within the frontiers of materialism. But the psychoanalyst does not approach problems of consciousness experimentally, going from the lowest phenomena to the highest, from the simple reflex to the complex reflex; instead, he attempts to take all these intermediate stages in one jump, from above downwards, from the religious myth, the lyrical poem, or the dream, straight to the physiological basis of the psyche.
"The idealists tell us that the psyche is an independent entity, that the ‘soul' is a bottomless well. Both Pavlov and Freud think that the bottom of the ‘soul' is physiology. But Pavlov, like a diver, descends to the bottom and laboriously investigates the well from there upwards, while Freud stands over the well and with a penetrating gaze tries to pierce its ever-shifting and troubled waters and to make out or guess the shape of the things down below. Pavlov's method is experimental; Freud's is conjecture, sometimes fantastic conjecture. The attempt to declare psychoanalysis ‘incompatible' with Marxism and simply turn one's back on Freudianism is too simple, or, more accurately, too simplistic. But we are in any case not obliged to accept Freudianism. It is a working hypothesis that can produce and undoubtedly does produce deductions and conjectures that proceed along the liens of materialist psychology. The experimental procedure in due course will provide the tests for these conjectures. But we have no grounds and no right to a ban upon the other procedures which, even though it may be less reliable, yet tries to anticipate the conclusions to which the experimental procedure is advancing only very slowly".
In fact, Trotsky very quickly began to question Pavlov's somewhat mechanistic approach, which tends to reduce conscious activity to the famous "conditioned reflex". In a speech given shortly after the publication of the above text, Trotsky wondered whether we could indeed arrive at knowledge of the sources of human poetry by studying the saliva of dogs. And in his subsequent reflections on psychoanalysis contained in these "philosophical notebooks" compiled in exile, his emphasis is much more on the need to understand that recognising the relative autonomy of the psyche, while conflicting with a mechanistic version of materialism, is perfectly compatible with a more dialectical vision of materialism:
"It is well known that there is an entire school of psychiatry (psychoanalysis, Freud) which in practise completely removes itself from physiology, basing itself upon the inner determinism of psychic phenomena, such as they are. Some critics therefore accuse the Freudian school of idealism....But by itself the method of psychoanalysis, taking as its point of departure ‘the autonomy' of psychological phenomena, in no way contradicts materialism. Quite the contrary, it is precisely dialectical materialism that prompts us to the idea that the psyche could not even be formed unless it played an autonomous, that is, within certain limits, an independent role in the life of the individual and the species.
"All the same, we approach here some kind of crucial point, a break in the gradualness, a transition from quantity into quality: the psyche, arising from matter, is ‘freed' from the determinism of matter, can independently - by its own laws - influence matter".
Trotsky is arguing here that there is a real convergence between marxism and psychoanalysis. For both, consciousness, or rather the whole of the psyche, is a material product of the real movement of nature, and not some force squatting outside the world; it is the product of unconscious processes which precede and determine it. But it in turn becomes an active factor that to a certain extent takes on its own dynamic, and which, most importantly, is capable of acting on and transforming the unconscious. This is the only basis for an approach which makes man something more than the creature of objective circumstances, and renders him capable of changing the world around him.
And here we come to what is perhaps the most important conclusion that Trotsky draws from his investigation into Freud's theories. Freud, we recall, had argued that the principal blow that psychoanalysis had dealt to man's "naïve self-love" was its confirmation that the ego is not master of the house, that to a large extent its view of and approach to the world is conditioned by instinctual forces which have been repressed into the unconscious. Freud did, on one or two occasions, allow himself to envisage a society which had overcome the endless struggle against material scarcity and therefore would no longer have to impose this repression on its members. But on the whole, his outlook remained cautiously pessimistic, seeing no social avenue that could lead to such a society. Trotsky, as a revolutionary, was obliged to raise the possibility of a fully conscious humanity that had indeed become master of its own house. Indeed, for Trotsky, the freeing of mankind from the domination of the unconscious becomes the central project of communist society:
"Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo Sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho‑physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the socialist organisation of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub‑soil. Is it not self‑evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?"
Evidently, Trotsky is looking very far into the communist future in this passage. The priority of mankind in the earlier phases of communism will surely be concerned with those layers of the unconscious where the origins of neurosis and mental suffering can be tracked down, while the goal of achieving control over even more basic physiological processes raises further questions which are beyond the scope of this essay, and which in any case are most likely to be posed in a more advanced level of communist culture.
Communists today may or may not agree with many of Freud's ideas. But we must certainly react with extreme distrust towards the current campaigns against Freud and stand by the open-minded approach which Trotsky advocated. At the very least it must be admitted that as long as we live in world where mankind's "evil passions" can still explode with terrifying force; where sexual relations between human beings, whether brutally held in check by mediaeval ideologies or cheapened and prostituted in the global marketplace, continue to be a source of untold human misery; where for the vast majority of mankind the creative powers of the mind remain largely buried and inaccessible - then the problems posed by Sigmund Freud must not only remain as relevant today as when they were first raised, but their resolution will surely be an irreplaceable element in the construction of a truly human society.
. See Anton Pannekoek's "Darwinism and Marxism" in International Review n° 137 and no. 138 as well as the articles "Darwin and the workers' movement ", "On the book The Darwin Effect: A materialist conception of the origins of morals and civilisation " and "Social Darwinism, a reactionary ideology of capitalism " on ICC online.
. The following words from Lenin, reported by Clara Zetkin in "Reminiscences of Lenin", 1924, show that the Bolsheviks did not have a unilateral approach towards Freud's theories - even if it seems that Lenin's criticisms were directed more at the defenders of these theories than at the theories themselves :"The situation In Germany itself calls for the greatest unity of all proletarian revolutionary forces, so that they can repel the counter-revolution which is pushing on. But active Communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage ‘past, present and future'. They consider it their most important task to enlighten working women on these questions. It is said that a pamphlet on the sex question written by a Communist authoress from Vienna enjoys the greatest popularity. What rot that booklet is! The workers read what is right in it long ago in Bebel. Only not in the tedious, cut-and-dried form found in the pamphlet but in the form of gripping agitation that strikes out at bourgeois society. The mention of Freud's hypotheses is designed to give the pamphlet a scientific veneer, but it is so much bungling by an amateur. Freud's theory has now become a fad. I mistrust sex theories expounded in articles, treatises, pamphlets, etc. in short, the theories dealt with in that specific literature which sprouts so luxuriantly on the dung heap of bourgeois society. I mistrust those who are always absorbed in the sex problems, the way an Indian saint is absorbed In the contemplation of his navel.
"It seems to me that this superabundance of sex theories, which for the most part are mere hypotheses, and often quite arbitrary ones, stems from a personal need. It springs from the desire to justify one's own abnormal or excessive sex life before bourgeois morality and to plead for tolerance towards oneself. This veiled respect for bourgeois morality is as repugnant to me as rooting about in all that bears on sex. No matter how rebellious and revolutionary it may be made to appear, it is in the final analysis thoroughly bourgeois. Intellectuals and others like them are particularly keen on this. There is no room for it in the Party, among the class-conscious, fighting proletariat."
. Quoted in Miller, Freud and the Bolsheviks, Yale, 1998, p 102.
. We should however point out that we are not concerned in this article to make judgments on the therapeutic effectiveness of Freud's approach. We are hardly qualified to do so, and in any case there is no mechanical link between the practical application of Freudian therapy and the theory of mind that lies behind it - not least because the "cure" for neurosis in a society which constantly engenders it must ultimately lie at the social rather than the individual level. It is the fundamentals of Freud's theory of mind that we are considering here, and it is above all these fundamentals that we see as a real heritage for the workers' movement.
. Le Livre Noir de la Psychoanalyse. The Black Book of Psychoanalysis: To Live, Think and Feel Better Without Freud Catharine Meyer, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Jean Cottraux, Didier Pleux & Jacques Van Rillaer (Ed). Paris, France: Les Arènes. 2005.
. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Lecture 18, "Fixation to traumas - the unconscious". 1917.
. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886.
. History and Class Consciousness.
. See Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935, Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, translated and introduced by Philip Pomper, New York 1998, p 49.
. Culture and Socialism, p. 106.
. Contrary to the oft-repeated cliché that Freud "reduced everything to sex", he made it clear that "the motive of human society is in the last instance an economic one; since it does not possess enough provisions to keep its members alive unless they work, it must restrict the number of its members and divert their energies from sexual activities to work. It is faced, in short, by the eternal, primeval exigencies of life, which are with us to this day" (Introductory Lectures, Lecture 20, "The sexual life of human beings"). In other words; repression is the product of human social organisations dominated by material scarcity. In another passage, this time from The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud showed an understanding of the class nature of "civilised" society and even permitted himself in passing to envisage a stage beyond it: "If a culture has not gone beyond a point at which the satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another - and this is the case in all present-day cultures - it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share...The hostility of these classes to civilisation is so obvious that it has caused the more latent hostility of the social strata who are better provided for to be overlooked. It goes without saying that a civilisation which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence" (Chapter 2). Thus the present order not only has "no prospect of a lasting existence", but there could perhaps be a culture that has "gone beyond a point" at which class divisions (and, by implication, the hitherto existing mechanisms of mental repression) might become superfluous.
. Literature and Revolution, 1924.