Psychology and Socialism

The famous thinkers of modern times are easily named and their realms identified: Darwin for evolution, Einstein for relativity and so on. That is as far as it goes for most of us, and it is much less easy to be aware of their influence on everyday life and thought. There is no doubt, however, of the influence of Sigmund Freud, whose birth-centenary was celebrated recently. “Ego,” “inhibition” and “unconscious” are words in daily use; people as a matter of course comment on others’ behaviour in terms of complexes and subconscious wishes.

In a television programme on May 13th, eminent men testified to Freud’s influence in many fields of thought. “All anthropology today assumes the Freudian view of human character,” said Professor Blackburn. “Through the teaching of Freud we are forced to pay attention to the personality of the delinquent. . . rather than what he has done,” said Professor Sprott. Cyril Connolly spoke of the Freudian inroad on literature—“we’re all still reading from it”—and another speaker quoted the Catholic Charles Baudouin: “Modern man cannot conceive of himself without Freud.”

Anniversary tributes are always lavish, of course. Nevertheless, there can be no question of the part psychological theory and psychiatrical practice have come to play in modern life. The classic doctrines remain their basis. Freud himself, with his emphasis on “the Unconscious,” the mass of repressed thought and memory, is pre-eminent His one-time followers, Jung and Adler, proposed other driving-forces of behaviour for Freud’s sexuality: for Adler it was power-striving, for Jung “the Libido,” a generalized force giving rise to all creative activity. In the study of conscious thought, the Behaviourists led by Pavlov and Watson have stated and exemplified the doctrine of the conditioned reflex, which was described by Bertrand Russell in “The Scientific Outlook” as “ the basis of learning, of what the older psychologists called the ‘association of ideas,’ of the understanding of language, of habit, and of practically everything in behaviour that is due to experience.”

In addition to these two main schools, there are several branches of psychology dealing with specific aspects of behaviour. For example, there are the “investigators of intelligence” whose conclusions still hold sway in the educational world and their tests applied as measures of innate abilities. Many others, too: group behaviour, leadership, art, crime, all have come in the psychologists’ orbit.

More than anything else, psychology is an attempt at a solution, and before there is a solution you must have a problem. Freud’s theories grew out of his own clinical research into cases of hysteria and neurasthenia; the existence of a study of the mind implies the growth of mental and emotional disorder in the modern world. True, there were disordered minds before modern times—Shakespeare wrote about them, Nero seems a clear case of paranoia—and before the statistics. Nevertheless, there is no question of the tremendous growth of such illness in the twentieth century. No big hospital today is without its staff of psychiatrists.

The central theme of Freudian psychology is the supposition of an unconscious mind, receiving the impressions of experience and shaping, like an unseen hand, the acts and motives of conscious life. “The unconscious,” wrote Trotter in Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, “is the realm of all the experiences, memories, impulses and inclinations which during the subject’s life have been condemned by the standards of the conscious, have proved incompatible with it and have therefore been outlawed from it. This banishment in no way deprives these excluded mental processes of their energy, and they constantly influence the feelings and behaviour of the subject. So strict, however, is the guard between them and the conscious that they are never allowed to pass the barrier between one sphere and the other except in disguised and fantastically distorted forms by which their true meaning is closely concealed.”

That is all very well as far as it goes. There is nothing far-fetched in the idea of a fantasy-life as a source of conflict and frustration and ultimately illness; indeed, it is only too recognizable. The converts to religion are seeking stability and assurance which ordinary life does not give them; the film-star and speedway worshippers, the tough novel addicts are only snatching at secondhand emotional satisfactions. If one grants, however, that fear, guilt and unhappiness may be rooted in the subconscious, there is still the fact that the subconscious and the conscious both are rooted in society. Consciousness of itself has no meaning: man, the social animal, has only social consciousness.

To some extent psychiatrists, are compelled to recognize this. A good deal of their work amounts to rehabilitation rather than anything else—finding different jobs, recommending for re-housing and so on. This writer once saw the line of waiting patients for psychiatric treatment in a London hospital: written over them, as plain as the marks of a physical beating, were the signs of poverty and care and the fact that what they really needed most was an extra ten pounds a week apiece. That is why generally psychiatrists are as impotent as most other therapists, trying to cure the complaint without removing its cause.

It is a mistake to brush off the question of psychiatry as an amusing vogue for idle rich people or a refuge for nuts and ninnies. The first suggestion was tested in America a few years ago by two Yale investigators who grouped all the mental cases in one city—New Haven—according to income and social background. By far the greatest proportion (36.8 per cent.) came from the bottom group of unskilled poorly-paid workers with incomplete elementary education. To debunk psychiatry does not explain why currently one person in twenty in America or one in sixteen in Britain is finding his way to a mental hospital at some time or other—to say nothing of the aspirin addicts.

Our complex, class-divided society imposes a thousand and one repressions on its people, from the material discomforts which turn lively girls into nagging wives to the ulcerating strain of city life and the loneliness of the crowd. Fear is ubiquitous in modern life: not man’s sensible fear of physical danger, but a multitude of small relations of it. The insecurity from which no-one is free means perpetual fear of losing one’s job, of illness, of being unable to pay the instalments, of dropping places in the contemporary caste-race called “standards of living.” The case was stated very well in a broadcast on Crime Comics and the American Way of Life by Irving Sarnoff, in March last year:

“Unfortunately, not every American can get more. Unfortunately, too, the very process of striving after more, by foul means or fair, pits person against person in an endless struggle. For those who cannot show constant increments, the struggle is especially bitter. . . . Paradoxically, success is so often dependent upon the masking of the very antagonisms engendered by the struggle, that we are required to wear an armour of good humour, compliance, duplicity and detachment. Nevertheless, the inner anger remains and finds devious outlets in psychosomatic complaints, insanity, divorce and crime.”

Only it isn’t exclusively American, of course. And to all of that may be added the host of petty anxieties reflected in present-day advertising, the basis of which seems to be that you can sell most of a thing by making people afraid to be without it. Thus, the accent is on fear of not getting on; of leaving one’s family unsupported; of the social and sexual consequences of off-white shirts, perspiration and strong breath.

This is perhaps the appropriate point to refer to the Behaviourists. Pavlov’s and Watson’s experiments are so well known as to need little description. Show a dog food, and its mouth waters; ring a bell at the same time, and eventually its mouth waters at the sound of the bell; unless its cerebral hemispheres have been removed.

Or have a child play with a white rat; scare the child with a bang, and soon it fears the rat. The possibilities for manipulating behaviour were so extensive, in fact, as to lead to the conclusion that thought itself was but the inward expression of conditioned reflexes. Watson wrote: “States of consciousness provide no objective data that admits of scientific examination, nor can the behaviourists find any evidence for mental existence of any kind.”

Conditioned reflexes are recognizable enough in the modern world. See them in the woman’s magazine adulation of royalty; the wartime hatred of the other side; the emotional stirrings to a hymn or a military band; the advertisements for every washing-powder. And the fact is that the Behaviourists discovered nothing in the laboratory that others have not found out empirically. Bernard Shaw, as acute at some times as he was silly at others, is recorded as having said when Pavlov’s treatise was first published: “If the fellow had come to me I could have given him that information in less than 25 seconds without tormenting a single dog.”

It was probably true. Advertizing and salesmanship practise as a matter of course what Behaviourism preaches as a matter of theory (and other departments of psychology too. The magazines of popular psychology invoke Freud and Jung, but their material is the sell-more-and-get-on doctrine of How to Win Friends and Influence People). The Behaviourists’ conclusions about the nature of thought conclude only how little is yet known about thought. The brain and nervous system have been charted, the parts named which are associated with some mental processes—and that is virtually all.

K. S. Lashley, after a long series of experiments, could say no more than “the learning process and the retention of habit are not dependent on any finely localised structural changes within the cerebral cortex” and “the mechanisms of integration are to be sought in the dynamic relations among the parts of the nervous system rather than in details of structural differentiation.” And again, of his findings from mutilating the brains of rats: “Such facts can only be interpreted as indicating the existence of some dynamic function of the cortex which is not differentiated in respect to single capacities, but is generally effective for a number to which identical neural elements cannot be ascribed.” These, from Lashley’s “Brain Mechanisms and Intelligence,” are among the most positive statements made on thought and habit, and they are so tentative as to be almost speculative.

One aspect of psychology certainly should not be overlooked. Whatever knowledge of individual and collective behaviour has been gained is used to further the interests of the ruling class: to tame the recalcitrant and choose the efficient worker, to boost morale in wartime and help productivity in the factory. The social psychology of industry is a product of the last 80 years, the era of relative surplus-value—when exploitation has taken the form of squeezing and cajoling more out of the worker in a shorter working day.

That psychology has thrown side-lights on human behaviour is true, though the evidence suggests that the same would have been forthcoming from other sources. It raises questions—but fails to answer them. Freud saw that 19th century civilization was bad for people, but he offered no alternative. The psycho-therapist deals with introspection, with repression, tension and anxiety as personal conditions when in reality they are social conditions. Individual mental illnesses may be cured in the same way as one man’s ulcer may be excised—and the way of living which produces thousands more remain.

A million acts of charity point to but do not remedy an economic condition of poverty. Similarly, psychology underlines but offers no solution to a problem of society. The answer cannot lie in “adjustment” for individuals: is it to be adjustment to a rotten society? The only real solution lies in changing the structure of society itself.


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