Freud and Marxism (2)

The first part of this article appeared in our September issue

For Freud, there was an inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and society. Inevitable because the id instincts could never be fulfilled; the id was insatiable and social reality set limits on what could be provided. Necessary because the development of civilization required the repression and sublimation of the instincts to provide the energy needed for the production of culture.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Freud was at most a liberal reformer. He never questioned the socio-economic foundations of capitalism, nor criticised its specific ideologies. His criticisms were limited to the level of sexuality, in favour of a loosening of restraints on sexual expression.

Freud did not hold out much hope for any radical social change. Indeed, he wrote off most radical hopes as a search for “consolation”:

“For at bottom that is what they are all demanding—the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930).

Psychoanalysis, therefore, does not seem a likely candidate for a psychology compatible with Marxian social and political theory. Nevertheless, there have been a number of attempts over the last sixty years to adapt Freud’s views so that they can form the foundation for a Marxian psychology.


The first concerted attempt at an integration of Marx and Freud occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time this was considered a bold and unconventional step. The Bolshevik regime had outlawed psychoanalysis, preferring the physiological reductionism of Ivan Pavlov as the orthodoxy. Although Trotsky had been sympathetic to psychoanalysis, his voice no longer counted after 1923. Instead, Lenin’s prudish accusation that Freud was poking about in sexual matters was to be the orthodox Bolshevik view.

Within the psychoanalytic movement the integration of Freud and Marx was suggested by a few, but with little success. The most vociferous proponent was Wilhem Reich. However, by the mid 1930s, he had been expelled from the psychoanalytic movement as well as from the Communist Party. It was not until the resurgence of radical politics in the 1960s that Reich’s views on sexual politics were re-examined.

It was around the intellectuals based at the recently formed Institute for Social Research in Germany (more commonly known as the Frankfurt School) that the main Freudo-Marxist debate took place. The attempt to introduce psychoanalysis into this school’s own particular brand of Marxism was part of its desire to free itself of what it saw as the straightjacket of orthodox Marxism. The director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer, had had an interest in Freud from the 1920s. What attracted him to Freud was a desire to find a psychology different from the instrumental utilitarianism that he felt dominated Marxism.

However, the main work of forging links between Marx and Freud was carried out by two other members of the Frankfurt School: Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. It was through Fromm, himself a psychoanalyst, that the Institute first attempted to reconcile Marx and Freud, in a series of articles that he wrote for their journal, beginning in 1932. But even before joining the Institute Fromm had written The Development of the Dogma of Christ in 1931, his first major statement of the problem.

It was only in the 1940s and 1950s that Marcuse acquired a serious interest in Freud, unveiling his views in 1955 with the publication of Eros and Civilization. Along with Reich’s works, this formed the core of material that fuelled the debates in the 1960s and 1970s before the introduction of feminist theory into the Freud-Marx arena.

Although these three intellectuals shared a common interest in integrating Marx and Freud, their views on how this should be achieved were very different. The movement could not agree on even the basic requirements for integration. Fromm attacked Reich; Fromm attacked Marcuse; Marcuse attacked Fromm and Reich. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the debate attracted only a few adherents of either Freud or Marx.

In Western Europe the end of the First World War sparked off a number of working class uprisings that seemed to some to herald the imminent overthrow of capitalism. But, with varying degrees of difficulty, these uprisings were put down. In the wake of these failures there followed the rise of Stalinism and of Fascism, both finding a significant level of support from the working class. To many Marxists such events were incomprehensible. The means of production were sufficiently developed to provide the objective conditions for socialism, yet the subjective side, working class consciousness, seemed to be moving in the opposite direction with socialist ideas becoming less and less attractive.

This divergence of objective and subjective was seen as suggesting a major deficiency in Marxist theory: an inadequate understanding of the individual and of how irrational ideology could be accepted, when it was clearly not in the interest of the working class. Socialist consciousness did not follow automatically with the growth of the means of production. Somehow working class consciousness could be manipulated to ensure that workers willingly accepted capitalist ideology and submission to authoritarian control. In the search for an answer to this most crucial of questions, Freud seemed appropriate with his emphasis on the role of the irrational and unconscious in human affairs, suggesting that capitalist ideology penetrated deep into the unconscious and repressed instincts that might otherwise challenge the social order.

Reich and Sexual Revolution

Reich was aware of the central role of ideology, or false consciousness, in social oppression. The task of psychoanalysis was to account for the mechanisms whereby the economic base of society could be internalized to comprise a set of unconscious beliefs that would provide an obstacle to revolutionary consciousness. For Reich, the desire to change the social conditions of capitalism is a natural response of the unconscious. Psychoanalysis, therefore, was seen as a process of undoing the repression of patriarchal capitalism and releasing the individual to act in accordance with his or her individual desires.

Reich based his views on Freud’s notion of the libido and its repression, leading to neurosis. Poverty and bad housing gave rise to sexual repression and the damming up of sexual energy that would otherwise be released. Sexuality, for Reich, was expressed as heterosexual orgasm based on the genitals. Sexual repression did not exist in primitive cultures, argued Reich, and only emerged with class interests, being one of the main ways the ruling class maintained its domination. Within the personality this repression is achieved by the build up of a character armour (the ego), as a result of the conflict between the sexual instincts of the id and the requirements of a repressive society.

The character structure is formed in childhood and embodies the ideology of an earlier era. It is this force of tradition that accounts for the lack of correspondence between objective and subjective factors. Reich saw the family as the main vehicle for the reproduction of sexual repression. This led to a respect for authority, which was functional for the child’s future role of worker and servile citizen. In the family, authority was in the father and was cased on the subordination of women. It was the ruthless sexual repression to which the “lower middle class” was exposed that, said Reich, created the authoritarian fixation on which Nazism fed.

Any political revolution, he concluded, must also be a sexual revolution, otherwise all the old authoritarian ideology embedded in the character armour would return. Thus, Reichian therapy aimed at breaking through this armour and allowing the instinctual sexual energies to be fully released and satisfied.

Such a viewpoint is one of the views that uses a concept of human nature as a justification for social change. Reich’s main and radical modification of Freud was in the historicisation of repression, of its restriction to class society. Socialist society, concluded Reich, would have no repression; the free expression of sexual energy would result in enjoyment, comradeship and mutuality.

Marcuse and Surplus Repression

It was on the issue of repression that Herbert Marcuse attacked Reich; for, like Freud, Marcuse held that repression of the libido was a necessary condition for civilisation. Bui Marcuse, too, introduced a historical dimension to repression. This he did by the distinction between basic and surplus repression.

Basic repression was necessary for the continuation of the human race in civilization, whereas surplus repression was necessary only for social domination. The necessity of repression varies with the level of technology and productiveness. Given a constant amount of repression, more of it will be surplus in a society of plenty than in one of scarcity.

Marcuse also introduced a historical element into the reality principle as the law of the ego. He argued that in different historical periods it took different forms. Under capitalism it took the form of the performance principle, ensuring that the libido was repressed during alienated labour. The only period during which the libido was released was during the workers’ brief recreation time.

Since the performance principle was based on the need to overcome material scarcity, the technological advance it resulted in reduced the problem of scarcity and therefore weakened the basis for its continued existence. With the growth in the possibility of pleasure as scarcity became less and less of a problem, more of the repression became surplus. More and more effort was put into warding off the possibility of rebellion by increasing the extent to which the productive capacities were turned against the individual; there was thus an increase in state repression and the manipulation of consciousness.

For Marcuse, the spiral of surplus repression is broken by the power of imagination and fantasy within the unconscious and by the pursuit of sex for pleasure rather than procreation. Revolutionary change would occur not with the development of socialist consciousness in the working class, but through the development of art and play. It was these aspects of Marcuse that were irresistible to the pleasure-seeking radicals of the 1960s.

Erich Fromm’s Social Psychology

For Erich Fromm, the main task was to use psychoanalysis to provide the link between ideological superstructure and socio-economic base. Marx, he argued, had the beginnings of a psychology, seeing humans as having certain basic drives (hunger, love, and so on) which seek gratification. But other psychological insights were needed. Marxists such as Kautsky and Bernstein had proposed inborn moral instincts that would account for the demand for socialism. Fromm viewed such notions as idealistic whereas psychoanalysis was a materialist, historical and social science.

Freudian drive theory was compatible with Marxism. Also, Fromm added, both Marx and Freud agreed in regarding consciousness not as the ultimate motor of history, but as the reflection of other, hidden forces. To Marx, these forces were human’s instincts, needs and capacities which had become hidden because of the alienation in capitalist society.

Each society, Fromm argued, had its own libidinal structure, a combination of basic human drives and of social factors. The task of analytical social psychology was to understand the effects of the socio-economic substructure on the basic psychic drives, and especially sexuality due to its ability of being displaced, sublimated and satisfied in fantasies. Childhood experiences in particular were important as the family was the agent of society.

A valid social psychology, said Fromm, must recognise that when the socio-economic base of society changed so did the social function of the libido. Thus, for Fromm the Oedipus complex was not a universal aspect of human development but was restricted to patriarchal societies. In general, the instinctual apparatus was given but highly modifiable; the role of primary formative factors went to the economic conditions.

Feminism and Freud

The resurgence of the women’s liberation movement and the corresponding development of feminist theory since the late 1960s produced a second movement for the development of Freudo-Marxism.

At first the varieties of feminist thought found much to criticise in Freud. For example, Freud’s account of female psychology rests heavily on the concept of “penis envy” (the awareness of lack in comparison with the male), with the implication that the woman wants sex not for pleasure but for the restitution of her lost penis via male penetration. For Freud, only the male is really a full human being; the woman is a crippled, castrated man.

However, a turning point in the evaluation of Freud by feminism occurred in 1974 with the publication of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Consciousness-raising techniques, which had been a prominent feature of the feminist movement, had failed to free women of their patriarchal feminine ideology and desires. This suggested that these were more deeply rooted in the mind and were not capable of being rejected solely at the conscious level. Psychoanalysis seemed to provide the concepts which would enable feminists to understand how patriarchal ideology functioned by being internalized into the unconscious layers of the personality. The earlier explanation of social conditioning into sexual roles was rejected as inadequate for concentrating on surface appearances and being unable to deal with the depth of penetration of feminine ideology Psychoanalysis was seen as offering an explanation of the formation of sexual identity and gender formation. But the appropriation of Freud had to be a critical one; his biological reductionism and sexism had to be seen not as the essence of his views but merely the result of his own unconscious acceptance of patriarchal ideology.

Mitchell’s work encouraged feminists to pursue this dialogue with Freud and post-Freudian theory. For Freud, the resolution of the Oedipal conflict with the father was the most significant period in development. But in recent years feminists have focussed on the pre-Oedipal period and on the role of the relationship between infant and mother. It is during this period, according to Object Relations Theory, that the differences between masculine and feminine personality characteristics are formed.

From this perspective, change from “patriarchal society” is seen as coming about through men and women sharing child care to provide both sons and daughters with the conditions for their relational capacities to be fully developed. But it is difficult to see how such changes in child care can lead to changes in the basis of society. As a political programme this can only lead to failure. If social change is to come then socio-economic foundations themselves must be attacked. Ideological struggle and change in individual relations are important, but political power is the only way to change basic social relations.

While feminists are justified in analysing the role of the family in the construction of the individual, other influences are also important. There are other, more significant sites where individuality is forged—those connected with capital and the state. The personal may be political, but the political is not personal. It is in the failure to reveal the interconnectedness between the personal, ideological, political and economic that Freudo-feminism is at its weakest. What is needed is not just a castrating of Freud, but a more radical critique.

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