1980s >> 1989 >> no-1021-september-1989

Freud and Marxism (1)

Fifty years ago this month one of the century's most controversial figures died: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. He has been celebrated as a genius or condemned as a charlatan, but one thing is certain: he cannot be ignored.

Freud's influence has been overwhelming. His views have informed issues and debates in every field of knowledge dealing with human affairs, and have contributed to forming present-day 'common sense'. His views have influenced many of the institutions that are a part of our social world. Child care clinics and a whole apparatus of systems to intervene in the family have been established in the belief that a healthy child requires certain sorts of experiences. Other institutions that deal with the problems encountered by adults, such as psychiatry, social work and clinical psychology, have been influenced in how they conceive of the problem and its treatment.

It would be false, however, to believe that Freudian views have swept all before them. This is far from the case. Freudian ideas and practices exist within fields in conflict with other viewpoints which claim that psychoanalysis is invalid. This is so within Marxism.

Freud's Life and Ideas

Sigmund Freud was born on 6 May 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, a small town some 150 miles north-east of Vienna, in present-day Czechoslovakia. Although tine family was Jewish, orthodox practices and beliefs were not emphasised. When his father’s wool business began to fail in 1860 the family moved and settled in Vienna.

Freud remained there, except for brief visits away, until 1938 when the Nazis invaded Austria. It was then that he moved to London, dying there on 23 September 1939, aged 83. Freud showed early academic promise and, as an adolescent his interests were broad and varied. The rampant anti-semitism in Vienna severely restricted the opportunities open to Jews. Freud chose medicine primarily because of the openings it provided to science. In 1873 he entered the University of Vienna and in 1882 entered practice at the Vienna General Hospital.

In 1885 he managed to get a travelling grant which allowed him to go to Paris to study with the famous French psychiatrist, Jean Charcot, at the Saltpetriere. The contact with Charcot marked an important watershed in Freud's intellectual development, as it led to the beginning of his concern with the psychical rather than the physiological basis of neurosis. At the time nervous diseases (neuroses) were treated by physical means such as electrotherapy. However, Charcot had shown that the use of hypnotic suggestion could be effective in recovering the lost function (such as vision or walking) in hysterics. This work was highly controversial and when Freud gave a presentation of it to the Vienna Society of Medicine it was met negatively.

On his return from Paris, Freud married and set up in private practice. He used hypnosis to enable patients to recall forgotten events and for making suggestions to change their behaviour. In doing so, Freud was using a technique developed by Josef Breuer whom Freud had known from his days at the University of Vienna.

An account of the case of one of Breuer's patients. Bertha Pappenham, together with the varying interpretations of Freud and Breuer, was published in Studies in Hysteria in 1895. This can be considered the founding publication of psychoanalysis. Through further experience with his patients and his own lengthy self-analysis beginning in 1897 Freud came to focus attention on childhood experiences and the role of early sexual development in the formation of neurosis. The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. In it Freud presented his theory of the unconscious and of repression. Dreams were seen as the royal road to the unconscious. Freud's views on the development of the sexual instinct from infancy to maturity, and the link between early development and sexual perversion and neurosis in adulthood, were presented in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1906. Freud was beginning to gather around him a group of followers: Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Ernest Jones and others. He had also been appointed to a professorship. International recognition was growing and psychoanalysis was establishing a vigorous institutional foundation of congresses and journals. In 1910 the International Psychoanalytical Society was formed. However, with the growth and development there was also conflict and dissent. Adler left in 1911 and Jung in 1914.

Freud continued to refine and develop psychoanalytic theory and extend his analyses. The theory of psychoanalysis had expanded from a therapeutic technique based on clinical observation into a general account of neuroses, and into a theory of psychological processes in general. Finally, it had become a system in which most phenomena in body, mind and society were explained.

Psychoanalysis was always a source of controversy. But 1933 saw a new way to oppose it. When Hitler came to power Freud's writings, along with those of Einstein and H.G. Wells, were heaped on blazing public bonfires. Freud was reported as saying: "What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me, now they are contented with burning my books".

Freud's Geography of the Mind

Freud's views developed and changed over the years. It was in 1923 in The Ego and the Id that he presented his final account of the structure of the mind in terms of the Id, Ego and Superego. These, combined with the concepts of the unconscious, sexual energies and repression, form the basic framework of psychoanalysis.

One of the earliest findings for Freud was that the real motivation for an act may be disguised even to the person who performs it. Unconscious processes are the most important and the least accessible. Since these processes are outside awareness they can only be understood by way of their practical effects (for example, dreams, slips of the tongue). Unconscious processes can not be controlled by consciousness.

Of the three regions of the mind Freud described in 1923, the id was the most fundamental and basic aspect of the personality. It was the source of all the instinctual energy and was rooted in the biological characteristics of the human species. The id was governed by the pleasure principle and the immediate gratification of desire. The infant personality contained no other structure. The id was entirely amoral and incapable of making judgements of right and wrong. It pulsated with greed, envy and desire.

Out of this evolved a portion of the mind devoted to reason, the evaluation of external conditions and self-activity. This was the ego. Eventually, it became the executive of the personality, controlling the demands of the id and the super-ego. Whereas the id was shaped by instinctual forces, the ego was shaped by conscious perceptions and contact with the external world. The ego was governed by the reality principle.

The super-ego developed out of the ego as the child took on the standards of the parents. In the child's early development it had to learn right from wrong. This was done through the rewarding and punishing practices of the parents. As this was incorporated the super-ego was formed, and the child took on these parental functions by itself. The super-ego was just as unbending and unreasonable as the id. It would not tolerate any deviation from its rigid code of morals. If these morals were broken the super- ego produced a feeling of guilt in the ego, and if they were met a feeling of pride. The super-ego was governed by the morality principle.

In Freud's account of the structure of the mind the concept of energy was important, as it was this which he held quite literally fuelled the three systems and allowed for their development. All energy originated in the instincts, in the id. Of especial importance as a source of energy was the libido which consisted of the sex instinct. This differed from other instincts in that it could be diverted from its biological aim (sex) and sublimated or canalized into cultural activities and work.

The concept of the unconscious does not make much sense without the notion of repression, to help explain the relationship between the id and the ego. For Freud, the psyche (mind) was in a continuous state of conflict. In the middle of this conflict was the ego balancing the demands from the id, the super-ego and the external environment. This produced a state of anxiety which the ego attempted to ameliorate. The process whereby it achieved this was defence. The most pervasive and significant of the defence mechanisms of the ego was repression. Impulses from the id which might be disturbing to the ego and super-ego were shut out of consciousness. Repression was not a conscious process. Once repressed the material did not remain static, but attempted to break through to consciousness in a disguised form in fantasy, dreams and behaviour, often related to the original conflict.

In his account of the sexual development of the child, Freud argued that the child passed through oral, anal and phallic stages. In the phallic stage at 4-5 years of age the child turned to the genitals as a source of erotic gratification. It was at this age that male and female sexual differences became significant. Up to this time psychosexual development had been much the same for both sexes. But now the feelings of the boy towards the mother became more erotic. These feelings were complicated by feelings of rivalry with the father and a fear of loss of love and castration. This conflict Freud called the Oedipus complex and he believed it was universal to human development.

Marx or Freud?

The relationship between Freud and Marx's views has been one that has been a topic of controversy for half-a-century—and is likely to continue for some time. Those who favour an integration of Freud and Marx, and those who argue that there is an incompatibility between the two, are equally determined that theirs is the correct viewpoint. There does not seem to be a prospect that one or other will win the day. This tension, however, is not without benefit; it ensures that the issue of the role of the person in socialist theory remains a topic of debate, and not an arena left solely in the hands of the ideologues of capitalism, to be used to argue that socialism suppresses the individual. In fact, it is socialism that will ensure the free development of the individual. But this will not "just happen"; it is something that needs to be consciously produced. And that requires a valid theory of the individual.

Those who favour a Marx-Freud partnership, with Marx providing the social theory and Freud the psychology, are attracted to Freudianism on a number of grounds. First of all, they point to the dialectical quality of Freud's theorisation, with its emphasis on contradictions between the psychic regions, a quality they see as paralleling Marx's social dialectic. But this similarity is surely an inadequate reason to justify integration.

Perhaps the most important reason why Freud is chosen from the vast range of psychological theories is that he seems to offer an explanation as to how capitalist ideology can have such a hold on working class consciousness. For Marx, being determines consciousness, and the early Marxists assumed that as the means of production developed to the point where they came into contradiction with capitalist relations of production, so socialist consciousness too would develop in a relatively automatic way. However, the participation of the working class in the First World War. the rise of fascism and Stalinism, and the apparent decline in the ability of socialist ideas to attract support, cast doubt on this relative optimism; matters were far more complex. Freud's concepts of the unconscious as a realm of irrationality and of repression seemed to offer an explanation of how capitalist ideology buried deep into the personality beyond the control of the "rational conscious. Freud also offered a mechanism of how this occurred—in the early years of family life. It seemed as if the unconscious determines being.

However, Freudian theory has not remained unchallenged. both by academic psychologists and by Marxists. Not only has the tripartite division of the mind into id. ego and superego been seen as an idealist fiction derived from a religious tradition rather than an authentic materialism, but it has also been seen as giving too much emphasis to unconscious processes. Certainly Marx refers to events which people are not conscious of and of the unintended consequences of actions. But to explain these he does not refer to the unconscious wishes of individuals, but to the character of the social structure and of our ignorance of its mode of operation. Moreover, socialism was to come about not through the power of the unconscious, but through the development of consciousness within the working class. Revolutionary social change will be a result of the awareness of the contradictions of capitalism and not because of the libido.

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism of Freud concerns his concept of mind. For him the mind was an entity that could be separated from society. The mind had its own laws independent of society. Certainly Freud recognised that there was an interaction between mind and society but the mind nevertheless remained for him an individual phenomenon. To understand an individual it was not enough to know the history of the observable interactions of that individual's mental apparatus with the world.

In opposition to this dualism, a Marxist view sees mind as a relation and one that is embedded in specific, historically-determined social relations. In one sense, there is no theory of the individual in Marxism; there can be no Marxist psychology. This is because the individual-as-such is only an abstraction. For Marx, the individual is a concrete individual in a society of a certain kind characterised by a certain mode of activity. Thus a Marxist theory of the individual must have a basis in a different conception of psychology than that Freudianism shares with most other theories. This is a psychology that defines the object of study not as the individual, but as the study of the specific interactions of the "individual-m-relationship-with-the-world”.

(to be continued)

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