Erich Fromm 1966

Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Reality

First published: in Tagebuch. Monatshefte für Kultur, Politik, Wirtschaft, Band 21 (No. 9, 1966), pp. 5-6;
Translated: by Florian Nadge;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

During the last 35 years, I have written many works, in which — under different aspects — I tried to explain that there are not only points where Marxism and psychoanalysis overlap but that there is also an intrinsic interdependency between the two. This means, I do not only believe that a synthesis is possible but also an existential necessity.

Freud and Marx have in common that both — the first contrary to pre-Marxist sociology, the second contrary to earlier psychology — are concerned not as much with superficial phenomena as rather with driving forces, which act in certain directions and with varying intensity, and evoke phenomena that are changing and temporary.

Psychoanalysis is the only scientific form of psychology, as Marxism is the only scientific form of sociology. Only these two systems allow us to understand the hidden driving forces behind the phenomena and to predict what happens to an individual in a certain society when, under certain conditions, the acting forces evoke phenomena that seem to be exactly the opposite of what they actually are. In the field of individual psychology as well as in sociology, non-dynamic thinking is surprised when deeply effecting, existential transformations occur, while dynamic thinking, which recognizes forces that remain invisible from the surface, is able to predict probable transformations.

This does not mean that Marx or Freud were absolute determinists. I believe, that from a philosophical perspective their position partially overlaps with that of Spinoza, who said that man would not be free if he was determined by forces acting behind his back and defining his fate. For Spinoza this thought is a central problem of ethics; for Marx it is the core of class consciousness and revolutionary action. For Freud this thought plays a major role in the conscious realization of subconscious conflicts in which his therapy based. It might be interesting to note, that already Rosa Luxemburg used the concept of subconsciousness; admittedly in the sense of blindly acting historical forces and not, as Freud did, for subconscious psychic forces.

However, Freud’s and Marx’s theories have a common element in the assumption that man is driven by forces. Realization and awareness of these will lead to liberation, even though only within the boundaries set by society and human nature.

I would like to add that Freud’s system was developed under the influence of 19. century mechanistic materialism, a philosophy that Marx had already overcome. As a result, Freud described man as an isolated mechanism driven by mere physiological needs. If we want to adjust psychoanalysis to the needs of social research, we need to break this narrow framework of mechanistic materialism and transport Freud into the framework of humanistic philosophy of history. Then, the primary focus is no longer only on man’s drives, in which his development differs the least from the animal — but about man’s relationship with the world.

Here, the most significant difference between Marx and Freud becomes apparent. For Freud, man is, as mentioned, an isolated being that needs other human beings only to satisfy certain physiological needs. That means, Freud’s concept of man is that of a bourgeois involved in the commodities market. Marx designed a very different concept of man as a complete being who needs the world and whose passions lie in man’s potential energy to achieve man’s goals.

I believe, that psychoanalysis, when modified in the described sense, can be quite useful for the explanation of different phenomena, for which Marxist philosophy has so far not fully developed an analysis. These are the forms of freely evolving human energy for the purposes and needs of a certain social structure. I consider the social character as an essential element of the social situation and at the same time as a bond between economic structure of a society and its concepts. The human energy is a productive force like all natural forces. It is, however, an energy which does not act as a pure natural force, but always in a certain social form and structure which I call — in a dynamic sense — social character.

I further believe, that one can psychoanalytically explain — and that in great detail — how the process to determine social consciousness unfolds, how social categories determine man’s consciousness, how the social filter works, and why certain elements reach the conscious and others are banned from it. This implies, that there is not only a social consciousness, but also a social subconsciousness, which covers everything that is contrary to the structure of a given society. Society is not simply satisfied when man does not do what he is not supposed to do, but society also demands that he will neither think what he is not supposed to think; because the thought is the key to the action.

Psychoanalysis thus needs a revision by means of Marxist concepts, but also Marxism needs the addition of psychological concepts, because otherwise one would discuss man, who is the major theme of the Marxist thought, only in abstract-philosophical terms.

The Problem of Alienation

Alienation is a good example for the necessity to join dynamic psychology (or humanistic psychology, which are synonyms) and Marxist thinking. Already the prophets of the Old Testament faced the problem of alienation in the context of idolatry. Here, this concept emphasizes that these idols are mere things, man’s creation. If man worships things, then he is lost and becomes himself a thing. I believe, that industrial production emphasizes this alienation even more since man creates such gigantic organizations and products that he feels weak and powerless when facing them and rather submits than that he attempts to rule them. There is no clearer and more striking symbol of alienation than nuclear arms. Not only are they made by man’s hand but are also the result of man’s ingenious thinking. Nonetheless, it is these weapons that represent the most serious threat to the existence of mankind itself.

This is precisely what Marx had in mind when he said that things and circumstances put themselves above and against man; or as the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “things are in the saddle. And ride mankind”.

However, also psychological mechanisms come here into play. If we really want to understand what alienation is then we may not consider this term only in an abstract-philosophical manner but we(?) also have to see what happens to the alienated individual in an empirical and psychological manner: in what way he feels weak and powerless, what fears he endures and what kind of safety he finds in worshiping forces that become the more powerful the more helpless he feels. One can of course describe all this in philosophical terms. I am, however, afraid that there are limits to this. If we are not able to describe alienation psychologically and cannot experience what it means, then it becomes itself an alienated concept.

Psychoanalysis and Art

Psychoanalysis is very closely related to phenomena of art. But what is psychoanalysis actually concerned with? Ultimately, it aims to recognize what is really real contrary to what commonsense misleadingly considers to be real. Most of what is real is not conscious and most of what forms the content of our consciousness is mere fiction. When, for example, the analysis focuses on dreams, it deals with dream consciousness, which is all that what has been banned from waking consciousness because it did not pass the social filter. In sleep, man is both more intelligent and more irrational than when awake. We can, for example, see that many people are remarkable creative in their dreams; they dream small, great, and often very original dramas. However, the same people have, when awake, only the most profane thoughts.

This leads to the conclusion that “man knows much of what he does not know”. Social adaption makes man blind towards numerous facts, which he actually senses but of which he is not fully conscious. Furthermore, it seems apparent that man is more creative than society allows him to be. He is also more radical. Society’s interest does not lie in man’s free development. But in all past and current forms of society, the interest is simply to make man as useful and available as possible and to exploit his energy to the maximum for the purposes of the society.

Humanistic psychoanalysis, a revision of Freudian psychoanalysis, which is rather concerned with the totality of human experience than only with strivings and drives, can clearly show that in all past and current societies man has been only partially awake, and that the larger part of what he consciously thinks is fiction, given to him by society, not only as a component of unavoidable oppression but also positively as ideology.

Art has the same function. Its task is to get through to the reality. A great painter or a great dramatist is able to show us what is “really real” and not simply what is conventional, acceptable or pleasant. One could probably say that great artists have always been society’s court jesters, which were permitted to tell mankind the truth. And telling the truth means seeing the reality, not being blind. In history, art’s function was to keep mankind from slipping into total sleep and being constantly subjected to fictions of his consciousness. Great dramas and artworks always show that a reality exists, of which man is not consciously aware, which he can, however, experience — for minutes or whole hours — through the artist’s eyes.

If Hamlet had gone to a psychoanalyst, he would have said: my stepfather is a decent man and also my mother is without flaw, but still I have a bad feeling. The fact that his mother and stepfather are murderers is so inconceivable that it could not penetrate his consciousness. But only the ghost, the spirit of his father, can convince Hamlet that his suspicion is justified. Here, we face the paradox that an individual has to act in a mad way to see the entire truth, which is from the viewpoint of the so called commonsense improbable.

If Josef K. from Kafka’s “Process” had gone to a psychiatrist, he would have said: I am fine, I have a good job, lead a normal sex life. But last night, I had a dream which disturbs me. Then he would have told him what Kafka describes in the “Trial”. But what Kafka writes in his novel is Josef K’s reality. Josef K. is a normal individual who — exactly because he is “normal” — can not see the truth. And Kafka is actually such a great artist because he does show us the anatomy, the reality of this “normal” individual, who is actually very sick. The focus here is set on the pathology of normality.

What the psychoanalyst shares with the artist is that he sees every individual as the hero of the drama; whether this concerns a so called interesting individual is irrelevant. Every individual is a drama’s hero. He is an intelligent being, who was thrown into the world, and in conflicts with frightening forces and obstacles he tries to bring sense to his life. This attempt has usually a dramatic outcome. In the entire history, man has mostly been a dramatic hero. This hero is however interesting, not because he has this or that complex, but because he represents a specific human drama. The psychoanalyst is not an artist or dramatist, he is no Shakespeare, but he has to have the eyes of a dramatist to be able to conceive the reality of man. In what a great artist universally depicts, the analyst has to see what is “really real” in man.