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Freud and Marx: do they mix?

Freud was born 150 years ago this month. Here we look at those who have tried to combine his theories with those of Marx.

Freud, who was an atheist and regarded himself as a scientific materialist, put forward a theory to explain irrational behaviour. As a doctor specialising in mental disorders and a pioneer in this field, he was quite entitled to put forward the hypothesis that mental disorders were generally connected with sexual repression in early childhood. But he was equally required to propose a mechanism as to how this could come about. His suggested materialist explanation was that there existed in human beings a special form of instinctual energy—sexual energy—to which he gave the name “libido”. That gave other scientists something to go on, something to look for in the physiology of human beings.

The trouble is that no such instinctual sexual energy has ever been found. Freud has, however, been proved right that what happens in early childhood is of crucial importance for the development of the adult personality. Other scientists have confirmed that this is the period of fairly rapid learning. But there is no reason to suppose that this is all about sex. Sexual preferences and orientations will be just one amongst many other things that will be learned during this period.

It is also true that people have been taught (more in the past than today) irrational ideas and attitudes about sex and this has had a harmful effect on their adult sex life and, in extreme cases, on their mental health. Freud's critics don't deny this but say he was wrong to seek to reduce everything to the expression or repression or diversion of some instinctual sexual energy.

Instinctual energy?

Wilhelm Reich, like Freud, was a medical doctor. At first he had been interested in the physiology of sex but then, under Freud’s influence, became interested in its psychology as well. But he always retained an interest in physiology and was the one of Freud’s followers who took the most seriously Freud’s hypothesis that there existed a material energy form called “libido” or “instinctual sexual energy” and set about trying to find it.

His break with Freud did not come over this, but over politics. Freud was an ordinary defender of liberal capitalism and wanted to keep his theories as essentially a clinical cure for certain forms of mental illness. Reich didn’t agree. He felt that a free society could exist if people in general were taught to take a rational attitude to sex. This led him in 1927 to join the Communist Party, from which he was to be expelled in 1933.

Reich offered an explanation as to why fascism had developed: sexual repression in early childhood. According to him, the particular form of sexual repression and family life practised in pre-Nazi Germany led to people, including workers, coming to have an authoritarian personality which inclined them to follow and be dependent on leaders, who represented the patriarchal father-figure they had been brought up to believe in and which, as a result, they had a psychological need for.

Reich’s theory didn’t have much impact at the time but it was revived in the 1960s and 70s when his The Sexual Revolution and The Mass Psychology of Fascism were hugely popular, being reprinted many times and translated into many languages. The combination of Marxism and sexual liberation caught the mood of the time. His argument in The Mass Psychology of Fascism as to why people had supported fascism was transferred virtually unchanged to explain why people supported capitalism; it was as if its title had been “the mass psychology of capitalism”. In this way sexual liberation came to be seen as being intrinsically anti-capitalist.

There is nothing wrong with sexual liberation but it stands on its own and doesn’t need Reich’s psychological theories to justify it. Since the 60s and 70s the so-called sexual revolution has proceeded. The patriarchal family is not half so patriarchal as it used to be and is not so widespread either—yet capitalism is as solidly supported by the majority of people as it ever was. Which in itself undermines theories based on Reich as to why workers support capitalism.

In 1939 Reich claimed to have found Freud's posited instinctual sexual energy, calling it “orgone”. After that, he went completely haywire, claiming that it came from outer space and could cure cancer. As a result of refusing to stop selling “orgone boxes” to cure cancer, he was jailed for contempt of court and in fact died in the hospital wing of a prison in 1957.

This pathetic end should not disguise the fact that he was merely trying to prove what was at the basis of Freud’s theories: that there was such a thing as sexual energy. He failed, and so has everybody else. These days not even most Freudians defend the existence of sexual energy in the sense Freud understood it, as an instinctual bodily energy that could be repressed or diverted into other forms of bodily energy.

Philosophical speculations

Although Freud did believe that ultimately a materialist basis for mental states would be found—that the nature of the “sexual energy” he posited would eventually be uncovered—he himself never claimed it had been or was anywhere near to being discovered. This didn’t him prevent him from continuing to speculate on the basis that it did exist. Indeed, from one point of view, Freud can be better seen as a speculative philosopher than as a practising scientist, at least in his later years. The trouble was that he came up with speculative theories which could neither be proved nor disproved.

For instance, he posited a “life instinct” and then, later, a “death instinct”. He talked about a “pleasure principle” and a “reality principle”. But how could the existence of such “instincts” and “principles” be proved? Some (most, in fact) of his followers—Reich for instance—denied that there was such a thing as a “death instinct”. So, Freud said there was; Reich said there wasn’t. But how to prove which one was right? You can’t. There’s no way of doing so.

One philosopher who took up Freud’s philosophical speculations was Herbert Marcuse. He started from a book written by Freud in 1930, Civilisation and Its Discontents. This is one of the most anti-socialist books ever written since it provides a pseudo-scientific justification for the so-called “human nature” objection to socialism. Freud was quite explicit about this:

“(. . .) men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at most defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him”.

According to Freud, human civilisation is based, and has to be based, on the repression of the basic “sexual” or “instinctual” energy he believed humans to have. What happened, in Freud’s view, was that this repressed sexual energy was diverted into the work which had to be engaged in to produce the things humans needed to survive and build up the material side of civilisation. This speculation that the energy for work comes from diverted sexual energy is baseless. We know where we get this energy from—the food we eat, which is a form of chemical energy which the body converts into potential mechanical energy.

Without such sexual repression, Freud taught, we would all behave like babies do in the first year or so of their life seeking immediate gratification, which in Freud’s mind meant sexual gratification. But more, by this time Freud had introduced a “death instinct” into his speculative philosophy. So, without sexual repression, human society would collapse into an orgy of sex and violence.

Marcuse—who was a philosopher and not a scientific researcher—set out to show, in his Eros and Civilisation (1955), that Freudian theories did not necessarily rule out a free, non-repressive society. He accepted Freud’s speculation that civilisation had originally been based on a necessary sexual repression, but added two riders: (1) that only a part of this had come from the conditions of scarcity which obliged humans to work, another part came from living in class-divided societies where ruling classes imposed an extra repression over and above that arising from natural scarcity, and (2) that, with the coming of automation and the like, scarcity had now been conquered. This being so, sexual repression—that imposed by natural conditions as well as that imposed by class-divided society—was no longer necessary. Civilisation need no longer be based on sexual repression. A free, non-repressive society was possible. Freud and socialism could be reconciled.

Marcuse’s explanation as to why people accepted capitalism was that they had been psychologically manipulated into wanting it. In other words, that their basic "instincts" had been remoulded so as to fit in with capitalist society. In so doing he presented himself with a dilemma: if this was really the case, how could such people ever come to want to get rid of capitalism?

Community life

Erich Fromm tried to combine Freud’s ideas with those of Marx in a quite different way. Whereas Freud (and Reich and Marcuse) saw the mind as something that could be explained in terms of the individual’s instinctual biological development, Fromm said that the mind was a social phenomenon. Thus, while Freud explained mental illness in terms of the failure of an individual to develop normally through the various stages of sexual development which his theory posited, Fromm (a medical doctor and practising psychiatrist himself) explained mental illness in terms of the failure of the individual to relate properly with other individuals. For him, not only the mind but (most) mental illnesses were social.

This might even be said to amount to the complete overthrow of the Freudian system. Fromm himself didn’t go that far. He still believed in psychoanalysis as a therapy and he still thought in terms of a “life instinct” and a “death instinct”. In his book The Sane Society (which also appeared in 1955) he wrote the following (which led orthodox Freudians to say that he wasn’t really a Freudian at all):

“Freud, searching for the basic force which motivates human passions and desires, believed he had found it in the libido. But powerful as the sexual drive and its derivations are, they are by no means the most powerful forces within man and their frustration is not the cause of mental disturbances. The most powerful forces motivating man’s behaviour stems from the conditions of his existence, the ‘human situation’” (chapter 3).

By “the conditions of the human situation” Fromm meant that humans are the only animal species whose individual members have an awareness of themselves as separate individuals, have “self consciousness”. This gives us a sense of individuality and freedom, says Fromm, but at the same time a sense of aloneness. According to him, the driving force behind human behaviour is not, as Freud claimed, the search for pleasure which was ultimately sexual, but the desire to overcome this sense of aloneness, the desire to feel part of a greater whole, the desire to be liked and accepted by other human beings.

This is a theory of human nature. In the argument about human nature that has gone on amongst socialists—is it human nature to be completely adaptable or are there conditions that humans couldn’t adapt to because it would be contrary to their nature?—Fromm comes down in favour of the second view. Humans are social animals, and we need each other not only practically so as to collectively produce the material things we need to live but also psychologically—we need to feel part of a group, of a community. From which it follows that any society which does not satisfy this psychological need, or which actively works to prevent it being satisfied, is incompatible with human nature.

The basic theme of Fromm’s The Sane Society is that capitalism, because it encourages competition between individuals, pitting them against each other in a rat race for power, privilege and prestige, is a society that is incompatible with human nature. It is an “insane society”, a “sick society”. Only a society based on co-operation and community is a sane society as one which properly meets the psychological needs of human beings for a sense of belonging; not just a sense of belonging but a state of actually belonging to a real community.

The existence of false communities—such as those provided by racism, nationalism and religion—would seem to confirm Fromm’s theory that there is a human need to be part of a community with other human beings and that capitalism is against “human nature” because it denies, and works against, this basic need. Although capitalism continually seeks to reduce us to isolated social atoms who only collide in the marketplace as buyers and sellers, the basic human need for community still expresses itself even if in distorted and perverted forms.

If true, this is the answer to the dilemma that Reich and Marcuse had got themselves into with their theory that capitalism had learned how to manipulate what they regarded as the driving force behind human behaviour—Freud’s imaginary “sexual energy”—so as to create people whose very personality and character structure has been moulded for life under capitalism. It would mean that there was still hope for socialism. Capitalism can try to suppress the human need for co-operation and community but will never be able to succeed.