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The New International, January 1947


Henry Newman

The Politics of Psychoanalysis


From New International, Vol. XIII No. 1, January 1947, pp. 23–24.
Transcribed &; marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In his article The Politics of Psychoanalysis Robert Stiler remarks that “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.” His own article is a welcome beginning in the sense that it brings the subject into the columns of The New International, though it can hardly be said to add to the arsenal of the revolution from the new insights of psychoanalysis. Rather than that the article is essentially a criticism of Freud from the viewpoint of historical materialism.

The Politics of Psychoanalysis exposes the reactionary way in which the epochal findings of Freud have been twisted to the support of exploiting capitalist society. The article further suggests that the root of Freud’s own shortsightedness politically was that he knew little of man’s pre-capitalist history and consequently generalized falsely about human nature on the basis of man’s behavior under capitalism. A basically predatory society, capitalism develops the destructive, the aggressive in man. Freud observed these traits, declared them universal and eternal, and rejected the idea of socialism because it aims to develop man and to release him from the ugliness that capitalism fosters.

Stiler seems to make the case for socialism hang on the falsity of Freud’s concept that there is a “death instinct,” i.e., that man has some inherent destructive traits. What if this concept, despite Freud’s unscientific basis for believing it universal, turns out to be valid? If men born into socialism retain some destructive tendencies, if the “death instinct” turns out to be an instinct and not just a culturally determined trait, socialist society will seek to minimize it, to divert it, and to prevent men from freely exercizing the characteristic brutal aggression that capitalist society sanctions and rewards. We assert that a rational, free society will direct man’s energy, including his will to assert himself, into socially constructive channels. There is no need dogmatically to deny the possibility that aggressive instincts exist, and are part of man’s instinctual inheritances.

The advocacy of universal psychoanalysis as the way to a better world is a mistake made by some retired intellectuals who have given up revolutionary activity. Stiler unfortunately just turns the sleepers over without putting them up onto their feet. Making the reverse error he advocates revolutionary activity as the only therapeutic treatment for neurotics. (It is understandable but quite unscientific that Stiler equates neurotics with revolutionaries!) In passing let me add that effective revolutionary activity is a demanding enough pursuit for the healthy, let alone the neurotic person.

Let us not forget that a neurotic is a person sufficiently helpless to require the aid of an analyst in getting straightened out. The aim of psychoanalytic treatment is recovery from the neurosis; that is, the analyst attempts to overcome and remove disturbances that have prevented the patient from making a normal adjustment to life. During one stage in Freud’s treatment, according to the paragraphs quoted by Stiler, the patient – still neurotic and incapable of freeing himself – places a certain faith in the physician’s findings and views. This act, says Freud, is a necessary part of the process of being cured. If the analysis is successful (and there is evidence that it often is) the patient recovers, the neurotic is no longer neurotic: he then faces the world with the ability to develop himself as a normal healthy individual. To be sure, no miracle takes place; the former patient has a long period ahead of learning, but he is at last free to grow.

A neurotic individual in capitalist society has two problems, and there is a connection between them. First he must become cured of his neurosis, which prevents him from functioning effectively in the world. Second, as a social minded man he must play his part in changing the world that so readily produces neuroses. Stiler confuses this set of relations when he advocates as a theory of therapy “to change the environment so as to be more in harmony with instinctual demands.” The change he advocates is “therapy” in a very long-term sense only.

Referring to the psychoanalytic treatment, Stiler rejects what Freud considered an inescapable stage, but in no way explains how it can be dispensed with. This is the part of the analysis wherein the patient accepts the analyst’s findings and views, having through a process of “transference” clothed the physician with authority.

Personal and Social Therapy

These “findings and views” primarily concern the patient’s personal neurotic adjustment to the world. Greater experience in behavior, detachment, and training enable the physician to interpret the behavior of the neurotic and to explain it. The transference of faith enables the patient to take the necessarily painful step of accepting these findings as the basis for a complete change in his adjustment to the world around him.

Stiler misinterprets the phrase “findings and views,” assuming that it refers primarily to the analyst’s social views. It refers rather to views about the personality deformations of the patient. By falsely identifying the narrow social views of Freud with the analyst’s psychoanalytic findings, Stiler is led to reject what is valuable together with what is valueless.

It would be foolish to deny that a particular analyst might attempt to foist his own social outlook on a patient. But this act should be condemned specifically, and not lumped with the essential aspects of analytic treatment.

However difficult it may be to achieve a relatively balanced personality in our times, it can be done. The job of the analyst is to help the neurotic reach this state now, not simply to wait until socialism does away with the conditions that cause neuroses. Stiler’s arguments have not given him the right to add the exclamation point when he states “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!” We must understand the term “harmony” in a relative fashion to be sure; the individual needs a working harmony within this social order precisely in order to construct the next one. Capitalism will see to it that the harmony remains relative. From the social crisis will come the drive for change.

* * *

Freud’s theory of culture attempted to find the source of culture. It tried to answer the question, why do men turn their energies to the arts. In his technical jargon Freud stated that culture is the result of “sublimated repressed instincts.” Throughout history man has had conflicting instincts, impulses, urges, desires. Instead of expressing certain of these instincts directly in action, man sometimes repressed them. He released the energy of the thwarted impulses, however, in the form of works of art – in the creation of culture.

Freud’s limitation in the field of culture was his inability to explain cultural change, because he gazed far too narrowly at capitalist culture only. Marx was far more successful in this respect. He showed how cultural changes are in the last analysis reflections of new ways of producing the basic things man needs. The two ideas are supplementary and not contradictory. If Freud explains the seed, Marx explains the growth, the roots and branches and flowering.

Stiler says that repression cannot be the cause of culture because repression “is part of capitalist culture, not its cause.” He could with equal logic say that commodity production and surplus value cannot be the cause of capitalist production because they are part of capitalist production!

Freud was entirely wrong in his belief that the conflicts of man’s instinctual life can be sublimated into culture only in a capitalist society, and not in a socialist society. Stiler is wrong too when he rejects Freud’s explanation, looks rigidly at the economic “mode of production,” and refuses to offer any explanations at all for the source of culture.

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