As both a scientist and a socialist, I was dismayed to read two statements in the May Socialist Standard which appear to reflect an anti-science or anti-academia bias. The first statement, found in the Pathfinders column, is that “science itself is unable to prove anything very much at all, whether it is a theory of gravity, evolution, or climate change”. While this is ‘technically’ true, it is more than a little disingenuous, and may lead readers to believe that the Socialist Party rejects science as a tool for understanding nature and the human condition.
Science works by proposing theories, which are tested to see if they account for the available data, and then modified if they do not. Because new data is always being discovered, scientific theories are never proved with absolute certainty in the sense of a mathematical or logical proof, but rather in the sense of a legal proof – “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The overwhelming evidence in support of the theory of evolution is such that no biologist disputes its ability to account for the fossil record and origin of species; in this informal sense the theory can rightly be said to be “proven”.
Socialists should therefore not reject calls for scientific proof of our social and economic theories; rather, we should meet them by providing supporting evidence, or by modifying our theories when presented with contradictory evidence.
The second passage with which I take issue appears in Voice from the Back, where some professors are ridiculed for speculating on some matter of Christian mythology instead of speaking out against world hunger.
I’d like to know what evidence the author of this piece has that these professors are not socialists and are unsympathetic to the problem of world hunger. And is it his belief that the study of ancient history and literature has no redeeming value, and that it will be abandoned in socialism? Or merely that any activity not directly related to bringing about socialism should be held up to condemnation and ridicule?
Perhaps the author may be able to devote every waking hour of his life to socialist propagandizing, but most of the rest of us need to set aside at least some of our time for employment, hobbies, relaxation, and yes, even inconsequential philosophical debates.
TRISTAN MILLER, London SW4
Another view of Freud
I’d like to comment on the article “Freud and Marx: do they mix?” (May Socialist Standard) and put forward some of my own thoughts on the subject. In order to appreciate Freud you really need to approach him with the right mind-set. That mind-set, in my opinion, is an ability to understand where he’s “coming from”, together with a willingness to appreciate his insights without necessarily buying into his ideas wholesale.
This second point was explained by J.A.C. Brown in his book Freud and the Post- Freudians:
“It is convenient to regard the total body of Freudian thought as falling into roughly three categories: its basic
psychological concepts; the theories based on clinical observations and described in terms of this conceptual scheme; and the essentially philosophical conclusions on such subjects as the nature of society and civilization, war and religion, which Freud drew from his own thought and experience.
Whether or not such a division is logically justifiable it is undoubtedly empirically useful in any consideration of his influence on scientific thought; for many would accept his general approach to psychological problems who would not be uncritical of his theories, and others would accept both without taking very seriously his metaphysical conclusions.”
Freud’s outstanding fault was overgeneralisation. But even this criticism of him has to be qualified because you have to judge each of his points individually. Making sweeping statements about someone who made so many different individual points over so many years is it itself an overgeneralisation. Many people have claimed that Freud’s ideas are untestable. This isn’t necessarily true. Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg have made a concerted effort to test Freud’s ideas against a wide range of scientific evidence. Their findings are compiled in
their two books The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy and Freud Scientifically Reappraised.
The following paragraph, which appears in their first book, gives you an idea of their general approach:
“Overall, the best argument we can muster for scientifically testing Freud’s models is the fact that many competent people have already tried their hand at it and discovered new, interesting things. It should be added that their fairly precise quantitative observations are making it possible to speak in terms of the degree to which Freud’s ideas are valid or not valid, rather than simply Freud, at least in terms of his theoretical conclusions, had a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, and in this sense saw things differently from socialists.
However, I believe that this should be set against Freud’s compassionate acceptance of human weakness and limitation, and in this respect, I believe, Freud and Marx were soul mates. Many of their peers would have been happy to regard the hysterical men and women as well as the poor oppressed masses as both, each in their own way, the cause of their own misfortune. Freud and Marx regarded them as fellow human beings, championed their causes, and sought to relieve them from their suffering. In doing so they both went completely against the grain of the societies they lived in, and for that bravery of spirit alone, deserve our gratitude and respect.
The idea that people are the cause of their own misfortune is a central argument of those on the political right. This is particularly so in America where it’s even accepted by many of those who suffer as a result of it. The idea is that whether someone is emotionally disturbed, or mentally ill, or a single mother, or lacks the skills, strength, or ability to get a well paying job, they are somehow supposed to have chosen to be exactly as they are. Giving them no support is then justified on the grounds that they could choose to somehow magically change themselves and their circumstances if they really wanted to. It’s interesting to note that these right-wingers choose to see emotional and economic difficulties in a very similar way.
Freud and Marx would have been united in opposing this absurd idea. Freud would have pointed out that people with emotional problems are victims of their own natures and certainly don’t choose to be the way they are. I don’t need to say what Marx would have said about the source of economic hardship.
In spite of the huge differences in their areas of interests there are quite a number of ways in which Freud and Marx parallel one another. They were both big fans of Darwin and saw themselves as doing work in a similar vein to him.
For an explanation of how Marx’s views on religion correspond to Freud’s ideas about paranoia see Paranoia by David Bell. This is an excellent little booklet which I thoroughly recommend. It gives a brilliant explanation of “false communities”, racism, hatred of asylum seekers, resentment welfare recipients, etc. from a psychoanalytic point of view. Psychoanalysis has a tremendous amount to offer to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of human behaviour.
I can’t resist mentioning the books of Robert Jay Lifton in which he applies his background in psychoanalysis to the study of recent historical and political situations. Socialists should simply take from Freud and psychoanalysis whatever they find helpful or interesting and leave aside that which they don’t.
ADAM WATERHOUSE, Bristol
The article on ‘Freud and Marx’ (May Socialist Standard) was quite interesting and may lead some readers to study more of the works of Freud, Reich and Fromm. However, it appears to make the usual errors by critics of their pioneering work
Freud’s discovery of psycho-analysis is used by the medical profession world-wide and has proved to be beneficial and invaluable in treating patients with deep emotional difficulties.
The article states that “Instinctual Sexual Energy” has never been found. This is not the case. Any objective observation of older babies and very young children will demonstrate that they have a natural and “instinctive” sexual or sensual drive for genital play for long before they have any understanding or knowledge of sexual functioning.
While there have been advances in sexual liberation for adults, in recent years, this has not led to much improvement in social attitudes. There is a specific reason for this. Development in the first five years of life pass through the stages of oral, anal and genital evolution of pleasure zones.
By puberty, on average, girls are menstruating at 10 years of age and boys, on average, are ejaculating at 12 years. So physiologically they are ready for mating.
This in our “Civilised” society is understandably unacceptable. So unlike all other living creatures, the “Sexual Instincts” must be repressed and thwarted. Freud and Freudians understood this and suggested that a price in emotional terms would be made. Hence the ‘Life and Death’ instincts evolve that give rise to the emergence of all kinds of sexual perversions that can develop. These are also expressed in ‘death’ drives in addictions, such as drug taking, smoking, alcohol, etc. And as Wilhelm Reich proved, into homoerotic political diversions, such as fascist and nazi fantasies. (Study the Nazi symbols and expressions and the “death instinct” is self-evident.) Sexuality or sensuality is the deepest natural emotional instinct all humans possess.
Most people, though unaware of their repressed emotions, are able to cope sufficiently in life.
It is essential, however, to understand the complexity of our personalities, if we are ever going to be able to create a fully successful socialist society that will be really lasting. For we are not machines or robots, but thinking animals with many emotional layers. Just as the work of Marx is a guide to understanding, and not a dogma like religions. So also, is the work of Freud, Reich and Fromm.
LIONEL RICH, London NW6