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The New International, August 1946


Robert Stiler

The Politics of Psychoanalysis

The Political Implications of Freudian Psychoanalysis


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 6, August 1946, pp. 176–179.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


From the time of the Russian Revolution until the advent of Hitler in 1933, the influence of Marxist thought on intellectuals, scientists and the professional middle class as a whole, grew to surprising proportions.

Hardly a science, art, or profession existed that did not have its Marxist adherents. The Russian Revolution placed capitalism on trial and many a middle class intellectual took the witness stand against it.

The rise of Hitler to power, the defeat of the Spanish working class, and the shocking Moscow Trials, reverberating throughout the world, produced a reaction of defeat and pessimism. The intellectual, not rooted in either of the decisive classes in society, whose economic and consequently psychological moorings are weak, whose ambivalence causes him to vacillate his allegiance, was the first to flee under the combined blows of the bourgeoisie and Stalinism.

With the Moscow Trials, Stalin placed socialism on trial. And from then until the beginning of World War II the very same intellectuals who in the earlier period testified against capitalism were now found in the witness box decrying socialism. These were “the intellectuals in retreat,” whom Shachtman and Burnham so aptly described and analysed, and whose ranks the latter joined at the outbreak of the war. Almost all of them are now in the camp of the bourgeoisie trying to conceal their “sinful” past with a smokescreen of abuse and vilification of the Marxist movement. The retreat of the intellectuals which began with the Moscow Trials developed into a complete rout with the coming of the war.

The relatively weak ties of the intellectual to the working class make him more susceptible to the effects of its defeats. He does not have the recuperative power of the proletarian. The chaotic capitalist world imposes a sense of insecurity upon him and he is constantly driven to seek a weltanschauung which will “explain” the chaos and give him a sorely needed security in the sense of understanding the march of history.

The shock of the war, the defeats of the working class, for which Stalinism is in the main responsible, and his own inherent class weakness resulted in the flight of the younger middle class intellectual out of the camp of Marxism, searching for a new answer.

The obvious one – already at hand, mass produced – was religion. But religion could not do the job. It lacked the two basic prerequisites for security today. It was not “scientific” and it was not “materialistic.” Due to the impact of Marxism , both of these characteristics are necessary for any kind of t outlook which attempts to explain the world crisis today. Marxism possessed both these qualities but, according to the too easily defeated allies of the working class, had completely failed. What was needed was something new. Something that possessed the best qualities of Marxism, its scientific and materialistic basis, yet could offer some balm to their moral conscience suffering severe shock as a result of the war. Man’s nature, they felt, was responsible for the world crisis. They needed a materialistic scientific explanation of human nature, and they discovered it in – psychoanalysis!

The Goodman Tendency

We find crystallizing around the magazine Politics a new school of younger middle class intellectuals who, using psychoanalysis as a guide, are reexamining politics and history and have wound up in Utopia. The theoretical leader of this school is Paul Goodman whose psychoanalysis of politics is summed up in two articles, “The Political Meaning of Some Recent Revisions of Freud” in the July 1945 issue of Politics, and “Revolution, Sociolatry and War,” in the December 1945 issue.

According to Goodman “three different theories of neurosis directly imply three different political philosophies.” From Freud’s theory flows the “psychology of the post-revolution.”

The theory of Wm. Reich implies the “psychology of the revolution.” And the theory of Horney-Fromm corresponds to the “ideal of the industrial status-quo.”

The psychological discoveries of Freud have left an indelible imprint upon our knowledge of mental processes. He opened the whole world of the unconscious and devised an effective method for examining it. He was the first to demonstrate that psychic processes are determined and not accidental. His contribution to the understanding of the human mind from these two points of view must be regarded as milestones in human history.

The Marxist movement would do well to supplement its knowledge of the laws of historic development with the best in this comparatively new science of psychoanalysis. But psychoanalysis is a complex and intricate subject. It is not our intention to make a thorough and exhaustive analysis, but to make at least the beginnings of an attempt to fill a need that has long existed in our movement. It is our hope to stimulate a fresh and enlightening discussion on the relationship of Marxism to the various schools of psychoanalysis.

It is for this reason we wish to subject the three currently prevailing schools of psychoanalysis to Marxist examination. At the same time it will afford us an opportunity to answer those middle class intellectuals who are attempting to replace Marxism with psychoanalysis in the field of politics. We will answer the psychoanalysis of politics with a critique of the politics of psychoanalysis.

The Freudian Theory

From the time of the Philosophers of the Enlightenment human nature has been explained as a result of the combination of hereditary or constitutional and environmental factors. What is important for this study, however, is what are regarded as constitutional and environmental factors and how they are related to and influence each other. It is just this examination of the relation between environmental and biological elements in the formation of human nature which leads us to the essential dichotomy between the Freudian and Marxian theories of the development of human history and culture and to two basically opposed political philosophies.

Freudian psychoanalysis is based on the premises that there exists throughout history an unchanging, universal group of instincts which are constantly seeking gratification. The ego, which is that part of the id modified by the influence the external world has had on it, is sorely beset by three violent forces acting upon it. It is faced with the problem of dealing simultaneously with the harsh demands of the external world, the super-ego, and the id. When the ego is too weak to do the job, neurosis is the result. Essentially the theory boils down to a conflict between the absolute, immutable, unchanging instincts and the environment in which the ego plays the role of arbitrator.

On the basis of this construction, three different theories of therapy suggest themselves. The first is, to give the patient sufficient courage to live in such a manner as to satisfy all the demands of the instincts, then mental conflict would be eliminated. Since deprivation of instinctual gratification by environmental forces is at the core of every neurosis, if the patient were able to defy environment and gratify the demands of the instincts, mental health would be assured.

The second theory is to strengthen the ego so that it is in e a position to organize a balance of power between the instincts and environment and thus establish harmony.

And the third theory is to change the environment so as a to be more in harmony with instinctual demands. We will discuss each of these theories in turn.

The Theory of “Free Living”

Freud rejected completely the idea that giving the instincts a free hand would cure or prevent neurosis. He says:

It is out of the question that part of the analytic treatment should consist of advice to “live freely” – if for no other reason because we ourselves tell you that a stubborn conflict is going on in the patient between libidinal desires and sexual repression between sensual and ascetic tendencies. This conflict is not resolved by helping one side to win a victory over the other. It is true, we see that in neurotics asceticism has gained the day; the result of which is that the suppressed sexual impulses have found a vent for themselves in the symptoms. If we were to make victory possible to the sensual side instead, the disregarded forces representing sexuality would have to indemnify themselves by symptoms.[1]

In relation to children, Freud says:

The child has to learn to control its instincts. To grant its complete freedom, so that it obeys all its impulses without any restriction is impossible ... it would do serious damage to the children themselves ... partly at the time and partly during subsequent years.[2]

So we see, according to Freudian theory, environment cannot not be defied. It is impossible to cure or prevent neurosis by providing the means for complete freedom in instinctual gratification. It would do serious damage to the child to help it develop the capacity to satisfy his instinctual needs with complete freedom.

Wm. Reich has revised this very aspect of Freudian psychoanalysis. By reducing all the instincts to one, the sexual, and relegating to secondary importance the anti-social, perverse characteristics attributed to it by Freud, Reich arrives at the conclusion that instinctual gratification is the only way to mental health, and, that people who have the courage to defy environment to gratify their instincts inevitably seek to make a revolutionary change in society.

However, Goodman clings tenaciously to Freud, accepting Reich’s revisions only insofar as they place a greater emphasis on the “natural,” “healthy,” characteristics of the sexual instinct. He still accepts Freud’s concept of the instincts. “Reich gives a picture of the instinctual life which it seems to me is excessively simple and Rousseauian,” he says. But by his acceptance of the Freudian instinctual picture, particularly the highly controversial death instinct, Goodman places himself in a hopeless contradiction, for he fails then, to eliminate the real and valid objection that Freud made to “free living,” i.e., that the “forces repressing sexuality would have to indemnify themselves by symptoms.” These forces get their energy from the death instinct. By doing away with the death instinct, Reich at least establishes some sort of consistency for his case. Goodman, however, has no need of consistency. If instinctual gratification is the road to mental health, it must be true of all instincts, the death instinct as well as the life instinct. But if the need to completely satisfy a death instinct remains, what sense is there in speaking of giving free rein to the need for instinctual gratification as a means of establishing mental health?

The Freudian Theory of Therapy

The second theory, that of helping the ego to establish harmony between the demands of the instincts and those of the environment is the only possible solution on the basis of a consistent application of the whole Freudian schemata of the mental personality. The therapeutical efforts of Freudian analysis are aimed at strengthening the ego to the point where it can establish harmony between the demands of the instincts and the environment, or more precisely, the existing social order!

“Analysis is a re-education,” Freud says. And what does this re-education consist of? “Education has ... to steer its way between the Scylla of giving the instincts free play and the Charybdis of frustrating them ... It is a matter of finding out how much one may forbid, at which times and by what methods.”

In the beginning of his article in the July 1945 issue of Politics Goodman quotes Dr. Franz Alexander, director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, as follows: “The goal of psychotherapy is to increase the ego’s efficiency in fulfilling its task of finding such gratification for a person’s subjective needs (the id – R.S.) as is in harmony with the standard and ideals of the person (super-ego – R.S.) and with existing conditions (reality – R.S.).”

“Is it possible to draw any other conclusion from this,” says Goodman, “than that the goal of therapy is the smooth running of the social machine as it exists? What a fantastic proposal, when a society creates emotional tensions, to reorient not the society but the people!”

Fantastic indeed! We are glad to hear Goodman say this. But does not Goodman know that Dr. Alexander was repeating Freud almost verbatim? Here is what Freud says, “... goaded on by the id, hemmed in by the super-ego, and rebuffed by reality, the ego struggles to cope with its economic task of reducing the forces and influences which work in it and upon it to some kind of harmony” (italics mine – R.S.). The “fantastic proposal” is originally Freud’s, not Alexander’s.

The political implications of this theory are clear. It can serve no other objective purpose than that of a prop of dying capitalism. In this sense Freudian therapeutic theory is completely reactionary and can have nothing in common with Marxism. Its psychological dynamism that of strengthening the reactionary element in society.

Goodman maintains that in the Freudian theory “there is no question of harmony but of enlightened choice and if need be struggle.” Here Goodman is repeating an argument that even many misguided Marxists often repeat in their entirely commendable efforts to implement Marxism with a greater knowledge of psychology. What is generally understood by this argument is that Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis does not attempt to get the patient to adapt himself to existing society. He is given a free choice. He can decide to struggle against the social order if he so desires.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to substantiate this in Freudian literature. In fact the opposite view is expressed very clearly. Freud himself says:

When the patient has to fight out the normal conflict with the resistances which we have discovered in him by analysis, he requires a powerful propelling force to influence him towards the decision we aim at, leading to recovery. Otherwise it might happen that he would decide for a repetition of the previous outcome, and allow that which had been raised into consciousness to slip back again under repression. The outcome of this struggle is not decided by his intellectual insight – (italics mine, R.S.) it is neither strong enough nor free enough to accomplish such a thing – but solely by his relationship to the physician. In so far as his transference bears the positive sign, it clothes the physician with authority, transforms itself into faith in his findings and in his views.[3]

It can clearly be seen from this that it is not a question of “enlightened choice,” since the patient’s intellectual insight is “neither strong enough nor free enough for such a thing.” It depends a great deal on the patient s “faith” in the analyst’s views, which is established through the transference situation. As for the question of struggle, it is evident that the struggle is between a return to his previous neurotic state or an acceptance of the analyst’s solution. Such a concept eliminates the possibility of a struggle against the existing social order, unless the analyst presents revolutions as a solution, and this Freud expressly forbids!

Changing the Environment

Freud was very much opposed to making revolutionaries out of his patients, and as a method of prophylaxis to make revolutionaries out of children. He wrote:

“... if, it is argued, one is convinced of the shortcomings of our present-day social arrangements, one cannot think it right to give them the added support of this psychoanalytical education of ours. We must place before it another and a higher aim, one which is emancipated from the social standards that are dominant today. I do not feel, however, that this argument is valid. It is demanding more of analysis than its functions can justify . . . Psychoanalytic education will be assuming an unwarranted responsibility if it sets out to make its pupils into revolutionaries ... I should go so far as to say that revolutionary children are not desirable from any point of view.[4]

What other conclusion could Freud possibly come to? The primitive, anti-social character of man’s instincts requires control, no matter what the form of society. In the final analysis, man’s immutable human nature is responsible for the chaos and ruin of the world today.

“It is not the business of the analyst to decide between parties,” says Freud. Marxists know only too well the political implications of such “scientific impartiality.” It is neither scientific nor impartial but serves the specific purpose of maintaining the existing social order.

Freud was not silent on Marxism, though he admittedly understood very little about it. One cannot help smiling at the following quotation which exposes so clearly his confusion about Marxian theory: “Some of the propositions in Marx’s theory seem strange to me, such as that the evolution of forms of society is a process of natural history, or that the changes in social stratification proceed from one another in the manner of dialectical process. I am by no means certain that I understand these statements rightly; moreover, they do not sound ‘materialistic’ but like traces of the obscure Hegelian philosophy under the influence of which Marx at one time passed.”[5] Freud does not understand that it is precisely the dialectical nature of Marxian theory which resembles Hegel’s philosophy and that Marx’s materialism is exactly the point at which Hegelian philosophy had no influence on Marx.

Freud was certain that the “Bolshevist experiment” in Russia had failed “from within.” He analysed it as follows: “It (bolshevism) moves elsewhere the instinctual barriers, which are essential in any society; it directs outward the aggressive . tendencies, which threaten every human community, and finds its support in the hostility of the poor against the rich, and of the hitherto powerless against the former holders of power. But such an alteration in human nature is very improbable.”[6] (Italics mine – R. S.) Man’s nature, then, according to Freud, is responsible for Stalinism, and Stalinism is simply the triumph of man’s nature over Bolshevist theory, and no matter what the society, no matter what type of community exists, the necessary instinctual barriers lead it to chaos and ruin!

Is it any wonder, then, that the middle class intellectual clings to the apron strings of the Freudian theory (with revisions, of course) and repeats the solemn chant that the Russian Revolution failed “from within.”

The Freudian Weltanschauung

Freud prided himself on his “scientific weltanschauung,” which was nothing more than the mechanistic scientific methods characteristic of the nineteenth century bourgeois scientists. He rejected the dialectic completely. His philosophy, his science and his politics all followed the same pattern. Freud repeatedly remarked on the similarity between his views and Schopenhauer’s. His outlook was pessimistic in every field. Happiness to Freud was an illusion. “The goal of all life is death,” and “The inanimate was there before the animate,”[7] he was fond of repeating. His postulation of the death instinct, which today even many Freudian analysts reject, has no scientific basis, but arises from his tendency to attribute the aggressiveness and cruelty in the world today to a universal biological characteristic of man, instead of recognizing it as a reflection of rapacious capitalist social relations. It is because of this that he concluded that capitalism had at least the advantage of permitting an outlet for the aggressive hostile drives of man.

Goodman feels compelled to apologize for this conclusion on the ground that Freud was getting senile. “He was 74 years old, and we know that he was ill and tired,” he explains.

But Freud’s pessimism, his affinity with the Schopenhauerean world outlook, is evident in his earliest writing, and inherent in his basic premises which were posed when Freud was a comparatively young man. Such a conclusion flows inevitably from his basic premise of universal instincts which he mistakenly arrived at by assuming that the various characteristics which he correctly observed in the upper middle class in a particular time and social milieu, were inherent in all human beings, in all times, and in all social milieus!

The Freudian Theory of Culture

The dilemma that his mechanistic method inevitably leads him to is never more apparent than in Freud’s theory of culture. According to Freud, culture is the result of sublimated repressed instincts. The primitive sex instinct meets with the opposition of the ever watchful super-ego, or the death instinct seeks gratification and is thwarted, the ego then sublimates these instinctual needs in the form of art, or poetry or war, or capitalist competition. Culture is the result of repression and repression is the result of culture. Here Freud exposes the weakness of his mechanistic science. Without the aid of the dialectic in history he is unable to demonstrate the real relationship between culture and repression, i.e., that repression is part of capitalist culture, not its cause.

It is precisely on this Freudian theory of culture that Goodman bases his contention that Freud’s is the “psychology of the post-revolution.” He says: “. . . culture is an art and science of the ego as the interpreter of reality. But in fact, Freud should but does not say, such an art is possible only after a thorough-going liberation has set free natural alternatives to choose from.” What nonsense! Why should Freud say this when his entire theory says the opposite. Freud expressly states that aggressive tendencies threaten every community, the liberated as well as the oppressed ones.

No matter what the society, says Freud, instinctual barriers are necessary. In Goodman’s “post-revolutionary” society how are natural alternatives to choose from going to solve the problem of the death instinct? In this new society, his planning commissions will have to plan ever new and more regressions to have more art and science. In his article he already announces his intention to suppress incest and to sublimate it. What other primitive sexual demands are to be sacrificed to art and science? If art and science are to flourish in his society, he will have a race of sexually inhibited people. And to top off this amazingly muddled excursion into the realm of psychology and politics, Goodman contends that this new society of flourishing art through instinctual repression is to be brought through the Reichian stunt of making people sexually free.

The Marxist theory of history demonstrates that the development of culture is based upon the mode of production within society. Freud’s fundamental error, arising out of his mechanistic concept of history, is to base the development of culture upon the mode of production within the individual! This is the fundamental difference between the Marxian and Freudian theories of human history and they inexorably lead to essentially opposed political views. It is extremely significant that in every consequent revision of Freud by other analysts this basic error is repeated.

From this theory Freud consistently arrived at the therapeutic goal of strengthening the ego to put it in a position to establish harmony between the instinctual demands and the existing social order. Quite consistent with this, he drew the conclusion that capitalism provided an outlet for the aggressive drives of the death instinct. The Russian Revolution failed from within because human nature was immutable and consequently any attempt to change the world was doomed to result in a system which, in the final analysis; resembles the present capitalist world.

Is it any wonder that the younger middle class intellectuals, bewildered by the defeats of the working class, at a loss to explain the nature of Stalinism, with moral sensibilities that have been shocked by the horrors of fascism, war and the atom bomb, find rapport with Freud? He provides them with the “scientific” basis for attributing the chaotic state of the world to human nature. The philosophy of Schopenhauer, the mechanistic science of Freud, and Utopian politics all combine to provide a crutch for Goodman and his followers with which they hobble along behind the renewed, revitalized struggles of the working class.

Marxism and Psychoanalysis

Freud has made contributions to human psychology of incalculable value. His genius lay in his ability to probe deeply into the human mind in spite of the handicap of an outmoded scientific method. His remarkable acuteness in uncovering the unconscious and discovering a method of reaching it, his recognition that psychic life is as determined as economic life, his technique for analyzing dreams, all are major contributions to the science of the mind. Just as Hegel in his philosophy of history was able to many make profound observations of the processes of history in spite of his “idealistic” basis, so Freud has given us a wonderful insight into the processes of the psyche despite his false premise.

With the aid of the dialectical laws of motion, Marxism has many times in the past preceded science in its discoveries, contributing to the understanding of pure or natural science as well as social science. Under the influence of Marxist scientific thought, several psychoanalists have attempted to free Freudian theory from its mechanistic premise. Even many analysts who today practice Freudian analysis lay greater emphasis upon environmental forces. But nowhere in psychoanalytical literature has anyone attempted to draw the logical conclusions of this science which inherently has revolutionary significance. In every case the analysts revising Freud still cling to a predominantly “psychological” view of human history.

They repeat the basic error of Freud and all the others who attribute this decaying world to something in human nature, i.e., that the cultural, social and political superstructure of society is based on the mode of production within the individual!

This is particularly evident in their analysis of fascism in which they attribute their own middle class weaknesses, ambivalence and yearning for authoritarian leadership to a universal characteristic of mankind, and arrive at the conclusion that the working class of Germany desired fascism.

What is needed is for Marxists to study this science; and just as Marxism freed the Hegelian system from its binding “idealistic” premise and enabled the world to gain a scientific insight into historical processes in the same way to free psychoanalysis and add to the long list of contributions to man’s struggle for the conquest of nature, and, at the same time, implement its own immediate struggle for the emancipation of the working class with invaluable knowledge of the functions of the human mind.



1. Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, page 375.

2. Freud, New Introductory Lectures, page 203.

3. Freud, A General Introduction To Psychoanalysis, page 387.

4. Freud, New Introductory Lectures, page 205.

5. Same, page 242.

6. Same, page 246.

7. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, page 47.

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