Maurice Brinton

"Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis"


Published: in Solidarity, VII, 3 (1972)
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren

Socialist Reproduction are to be congratulated for popularizing this little-known text of Wilhelm Reich's which appeared simultaneously, in 1929, in Unter dem Banner des Marxismus (the theoretical journal of the German Communist Party) and in its Russian equivalent Pod Znameniem Marxisma.[1] It is a symptom of the void in both psychoanalytic and meaningful radical literature today that we have to thread our way back for more than four decades to find a sensible discussion of these interesting matters.

Unlike previous texts of Reich's to which we have referred in either the review of What is Class Consciousness? or the pamphlet The Irrational in Politics, "Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis" is of no immediate relevance to an understanding of human needs or of the founts of human action. It is something very different: an attempt by Reich to reply to some of his critics (in both the psychoanalytic and Marxist movements).

It is important to situate the text in the Germany of the late twenties. In 1929 Reich's break with Freud was on the horizon, its roots clearly understood. Personal relations with Freud, however were not as yet embittered. The break with the Stalinists was also in the offing. Relations were bitter but had not as yet been traced back to their ideological source. In 1929 Reich is walking two tightropes. He uses Freud to argue against Freud and the Freudians - and Marx to argue against the Marxists. It is a difficult endeavour, as we have learned from our own experience.

Reich starts by pointing out (rightly in my opinion) that most of those on the left who were criticizing Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxism were doing so on the basis of an inadequate knowledge of either - or both. He sought to define the proper object of psychoanalysis as "the study of the psychological life of man in society", an "auxiliary to sociology", "a form of social psychology". He defined limits for the discipline. He freely admits that the Marxists are right when they reproach certain representatives of the psychoanalytic school with attempting to explain what cannot be explained by that method. But, he points out "they are wrong when they identity the method with those who apply it ... and blame the method for their mistakes".

Both psychoanalysis and Marxism are seen by Reich as "science" (psychoanalysis as the science of psychological phenomena and Marxism of social phenomena) and by implication as unarguably valid. That the categories and values of science might themselves be products of historical evolution is barely envisaged. In this whole approach Reich is echoing the "scientific" ethos of the epoch, which had its roots in the rise of the bourgeoisie and its drive to control and dominate nature, rather than to live in harmony with it.

Reich vigorously defends psychoanalysis against the charge of being idealist. To the indictment that it arose "during the decadence of a decaying bourgeoisie" he retorts that Marxism did too. "So what?", he rightly asks. He dismisses those who crudely attack all knowledge as "bourgeois knowledge". "A culture", he points out, "is not uniform like a bushel of peas ... the beginnings of a new social order germinate in the womb of the old ... by no means everything that has been created by bourgeois hands in the bourgeois period is of inferior value and useless to the society of the future". Reich attacks the simplistic mechanical materialism of those who would claim that psychological phenomena as such do not exist, that "only objective facts which can be measured and weighed are true, not the subjective ones". He sees this as an understandable but nevertheless misguided reaction against the Platonic idealism still dominating bourgeois philosophy. He demolishes Vogt's once popular thesis that "thought is a secretion of the brain, in the same way that urine is a secretion of the kidney". To dispose of this nonsense Reich calls Marx to his rescue, the Marx of the Theses on Feuerbach, the Marx who wrote that it was not good enough to say that "changed men were the products of ... changed upbringing" because this forgot "that it is men that change circumstances". Psychological activity, Reich correctly insists, has a material reality and is a force in history that only the most short-sighted would deny.

There is no reason, Reich argues, why psychoanalysis should not have a materialist basis. He boldly plunges the Freudian categories and concepts into the reality of the class society around them. "The reality principle as it exists today", he writes, "is a principle of our society". Adaptation to this reality is a conservative demand. "The reality principle of the capitalist era imposes upon the proletarian a maximum limitation of his needs, while appealing to religious values such as modesty and humility ... the ruling class has a reality principle which serves the perpetuation of its power. If the proletarian is brought up to accept this reality principle - if it is presented to him as absolutely valid, e.g. in the name of culture, this means an affirmation of the proletarian's exploitation and of capitalist society as a whole". Reich submits other Freudian categories to the same kind of historical and sociological critique, while seeking to retain their essence. The "unconscious" too, he points out, may acquire new symbols in an era of technological change. Zeppelins, in dreams, could assume the same sexual significance as snakes.

Having argued, more or less convincingly, that there can be - and in fact that there is - a materialist basis to psychoanalysis and that the subject requires no roots in metaphysical morality, Reich goes on to try and show that psychoanalysis is also dialectical. And here he comes unstuck. Like Lysenko and his genetics, Reich has to "tidy up" the rich reality of his insights (not to mention Freud's) to make them fit into a ludicrous mould of "unity of opposites", "transformations of quantity into quality" and "negations of the negation", all drawn straight from the simplistic pages of old pop Engels's Dialectics of Nature. Paul Mattick laid this particular ghost a number of years ago and it is sad to see Socialist Reproduction resurrect it without comment. Those pages are certainly the Achilles' heel of the whole essay. For all his protestations that psychoanalysis is an empirically verifiable set of propositions, Reich shows that he is nevertheless caught in a methodological trap of his own making ... and that he is not really an unhappy prisoner. Someday, someone should write about the anal-eroticism of the system-makers, from Marx and Darwin, via Trotsky, to Reich. Why did they all suffer badly from piles?

Reich finally discusses the sociological position of psychoanalysis. He is here on firmer soil. Like Marxism, psychoanalysis is a product of the capitalist era. It is a reaction to that era's ideological superstructure, the cultural and moral conditions of modern man in society. Reich brilliantly analyses the ambivalent relations to sexuality of the nascent bourgeoisie and the role of the Church during the bourgeois revolutions. The bourgeoisie now had to barricade itself against "the people" by moral laws of its own. Double standards of sexual morality emerged, well analyzed in other of Reich's writings. "Just as Marxism", Reich concludes, "was sociologically the expression of man becoming conscious of the laws of economics and of the exploitation of a majority by a minority, so psychoanalysis is the expression of man becoming conscious of the social repression of sex".

In lines of great lucidity, but already seeded with that bitterness that was later to consume him, Reich even foresees the frenetic commercial exploitation of a debased psychoanalysis. Capitalism rots everything. "The capitalist mode of existence was strangling psychoanalysis, both from the outside and the inside". "In bourgeois society psychoanalysis was condemned to sterility, if to nothing worse, as an auxiliary science to the science of education in general". Psychoanalytic education would only come to fruition with the social revolution. Psychoanalytic educators who believed otherwise were living in a fool's paradise. "Society is stronger than the endeavours of its individual members". They would "suffer the same fate as the priest who visited an unbelieving insurance agent on his death bed, hoping to convert him, but in the end went home with an insurance policy".

The pamphlet is well produced. There is a good introduction, marred only by the fatuous statement that "through the twenties ... Leninism in the hands of Stalin was rapidly becoming transformed into the ideological litany of the new managerial class that was being established throughout Russia". Alas, Leninism was not "becoming" anything. It had been just that for many a year - certainly since October and probably from much earlier. Whether we discuss Lenin's views on sex (see The Irrational in Politics) or his views on the virtues of "one man management" (see The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control) the clues are there for those who can read them.



[1] Wilhelm Reich, Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (London: Socialist Reproduction, 1972).


Last updated on: 8.15.2009