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James T. Farrell

The Politics of Psychoanalysis

(January 1947)

From New International, Vol. XIII No. 1, January 1947, pp. 20–23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

I should like to begin my critical comments of Robert Stiler’s article, The Politics of Psychoanalysis (printed in The New International, August 1946) with a few personal remarks. A little more than twenty-two years ago, I read the first books which helped open the way to what emotional and intellectual liberation I have attained in life. These books were, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Freud and An Introduction to Psycho-Analysis by Brill. I was then twenty. I did not gain a great understanding of Freudianism from these books. I was somewhat resistant; in fear of being too disturbed, I read these books with a certain defensive dishonesty of mind. Their implications carried too much threat for me. Yet, these books ate their way into my thinking, and even in periods when I have expressed anti-Freudian arguments, I have never been free of their influence.

I would say that the thinkers who have most influenced me have been Freud, Nietzsche, Dewey, Mead, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. The first of these was Freud. On and off for years, I have come back to various Freudian ideas. Frequently, I have struggled to find arguments which would limit their scope of application, refute them, reduce them to the point where they were pleasingly domesticated in my own mind, and thereby, shorn of their painful personal menace. Of all the ideas in the world today, the ideas of Freud and the ideas of Marx are the ones which meet with the most resistance. I doubt that any other thinkers have been subjected to as many attempts at ”revision” as is the case with these two great minds. The ideas of both demand their own relevant kind of praxis. In order to come to terms with the ideas of either, one must change oneself. The beginning of understanding in the modern world – if this understanding is to have any truly systematic character – must be found in coming to terms with Marxism and with Freudianism. Here are the roads to insight in our time concerning the problems which have such a disturbing and agitating character.

There is a peculiar character to the inner resistance which grows up when one first encounters the ideas of Freud. Analysts speak of this resistance when they treat their patients. But that resistance grows up in almost every reader of Freud, if not every reader. This fact is sufficient to suggest what I mean when I say that Freudianism demands some kind of praxis. One cannot merely read Freud and assimilate his concepts. If one does not submit to analysis, then one needs at least to go through the exceedingly painful and bewildering process of testing Freud’s ideas on oneself. The assimilation of Freud demands that one try fearlessly and objectively to confront oneself with his ideas. No article, such as that of Robert Stiler’s, can give readers any idea of the character or significance of Freud. It is an article which can only increase an already alarming condition of smugness among Marxists. It is an article which strongly suggests to me that the author fears to put his Marxism to the test by placing it face-to-face with Freudianism and it can only be, therefore, of disservice to the body of Marxist thought. If this were the best that Marxism could offer in relationship with Freud, then, Marxism is in a serious danger. The least a Marxist can do in discussing Freud is to exercise that same caution, care, strictness and methodological conscience which is so marked in all of Freud’s writings. When one reads an article such as Stiler’s one can only become embarrassed.

The Universality of Freudianism

Basically, the work of Freud is therapeutic; it is directly concerned with discovering the genesis and the cure of psychoneurosis. It is based, primarily, on clinical observations. It has, however, implications which range over a wide field, and which relate, among other things, to art and politics. However, Freudian doctrine does not stand or fall on its relation to art or politics. It stands or falls on its diagnosis of psychoneurosis, and its therapeutic methods of cure. Stiler, however, would more or less create the impression that this is not the case. The heart of Freud is, to him, merely a crudely stated class phenomenon. In a sentence which violates the historical conceptions of Marxism, Stiler would tell us that Freud’s conception or hypothesis of universal instincts, a basic premise, was “arrived at by assuming that the various characteristics which he (Freud) correctly observed in the upper middle class in a particular time and social milieu, were inherent in all human beings, in all times, and in all social milieu.” Freud did not observe universal instincts in a particular time, and a particular social milieu. No one can make such observations. Freud assumed and deduced instincts, and used this assumption as a hypothesis to aid in explaining what he observed. What he observed were traits of psychoneurotic behavior, the formation of symptoms, and with this, the same types of behavior in normal people, but in a different degree of intensity and significance. When Stiler, however, restricts the application of Freud’s observations and conclusions to the bourgeoisie of a certain time, he really distorts and caricatures Marxism. The clinical observations of psychoanalysis are, largely, observations mainly concerned with the conduct of persons of the bourgeois strata. This is inevitable because the social system, both at the time of Freud and at present, is of such a character that only a few can afford to be treated psychoanalytically. As with many other things, the masses are also deprived of the benefits of psychoanalysis. However, the deprivation of the masses does not warrant the assumption that it is only the bourgeois who becomes a psychoneurotic, or a psychotic. Mental illness knows no class, no race, no creed.

The patterns of symptom formation in mental illness are universal, insofar as anything can be universal. There are general characteristics in dreams which do not change from class to class, and even the dreams of a Marxist will reveal those characteristics. The wealth of clinical observations which have been made by Freud and his successors leads to the necessity of forming some conclusions concerning “human nature.” This is especially demanded by one of Freud’s major contributions, his theory of infantile sexuality. If one takes specific traits or actions which Freud has explained, one will readily see that it is impossible to reduce the observations of Freud to a specific time and to a specific class. An example is infantile masturbation. Francis H. Bartlett, writing an article, The Limitations of Freud, in the Stalinist magazine, Science and Society (Winter 1939) attempted to prove precisely what Stiler asserts in making his central (and crucial) mistake. The alleged limitations cited are that Freud’s observations were based on the bourgeois, and that they have a bourgeois application, rather than a universal application in the sense that science teaches us what a universal application is. However, after attempting to clinch this criticism, we find Bartlett granting that infantile masturbation is an almost universal practice. Similarly, the behavior of children will reveal other practices which have a character that ranges beyond class. Further, we know really nothing as yet of the psychological implications of pre-natal development, but we can safely assume that these are also universal.

However, a dynamic conception of the human organism and its personality, demands that we credit significance to this period of our physiological and psychological biography. Here, we have an experience which is indubitably universal in character.

In addition, the human organism has certain universal structural characteristics. It lives in a common world. Its habits of perception have also a universal character. The sexual drive, instinct, aptitude, need is also universal. These facts are more than sufficient to warrant an assumption which would grant that we have “instincts” in some sense or other. [1] The observations which Freud made, at a particular time, in a particular social milieu, and of particular people of a particular class led him to make other observations concerning sexual life in infancy. It also led him to make a number of other generalizations which compose a series of psychological constructions having a scientific status similar to that of Marx’s abstractions concerning capitalism, i.e., “pure capitalism.” Methodologically, Freud had the same kind of marvelous imagination as Marx; both were fertile in the use of abstractions and constructs. Finally, Stiler is wrong factually. For a few of Freud’s observations concerned the dreams of non-bourgeois. There are a few dreams, for instance, in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, of working class people, and these dreams do not reveal characteristics different from those of the bourgeois.

Stiler on the one hand asserts that the workers should study this new science, and that, on the other hand, he limits its scientific status by telling us that it is really only relevant to the bourgeois, and that it has a specific historical location in time. He would have us believe that Freudian “human nature” is merely “bourgeois,” and then, he would tell us, that this is not so, and that Marxists, if they free Freudianism from bourgeois limitations, will add it to the long list of man’s conquests of nature. Thus, it is not solely bourgeois. It is a scientific contribution tpward our understanding of the functions of the human mind. How can anyone – even a person who has not acquired the great benefits of Marxist “science” – be guilty of such a flagrant and confusing contradiction?

Stiler’s article seems to rest on the assumption that there is, in contradistinction to a Freudian human nature, a ”Marxian” human nature. His unstated assumption would seem to me to help explain his failure to understand “repression.” Thus, he seems to equate the repression of capitalist society with ”psychological repression.” The repression practiced in capitalist society is based on force, and it is applied through deprivations which are made possible by the exploitation of man by man, and by the fact that, in the last analysis, the state is an instrument of force which can be used for class ends. Psychological repression is not at all the same thing. It is independent of these factors, and it has a dual character. On the one hand, the child represses on its own. “Infantile amnesia,” which Freud describes in his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, cannot be reduced to the status of being merely a class phenomenon. [2] Even Marxists will find this happening in the case of their own children. On the other hand, it can be added quite flatly that Freud is correct in telling us that children must be repressed. The repression of children in a socialist society will be an absolute necessity. On the basis of Freudian psychology, we can assert that one of the aims of socialism is that of creating a society which permits the best possible and the most civilized manner of socializing aggressiveness. This statement can be connected further, with Trotsky’s ideas. In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky speaks of socialist society in which the competitiveness between men will be raised to a higher level. To raise competitiveness to a higher level means that it must be made more social, that the consequences of competitiveness must not be those of increasing social miseries as is usually the case in capitalist society. But socialism gives no promise of eliminating the aggressiveness which we find so constant in the human animal. Connected with this same necessity of repression, it is essential to point out that the infant and the young child is egocentric. The child must learn, must acquire a social nature. The child must learn to act cooperatively by being taught. Without some repression how can this be accomplished?

However, the need of repression in children relates more directly to the sexual life. Freud points out, also in his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, that if the child is over-stimulated sexually, the dangers of neuroticism are likely to be increased. Sexual over-stimulation of children is very dangerous, and this is, in itself, sufficient to point out the need for, and the sense of, Freud’s point that the child must be repressed. But this repression is different in character from the social repression practiced in capitalist society. Stiler’s “dialectic” cannot explain the difference, and synthesize them as he imagines. For we do not have a problem in “dialectics” here, as Stiler would seem to believe.

In line with the above, Stiler also overstates the meaning of adjustment as this really applies in analytic therapy. To cure a psychoneurotic by analysis, to “adjust” him to society, does not mean that you adjust him to all of the facts of capitalism; to war, to imperialism, to “the peaceful warfare of competition.” It means that you adjust him to himself, that you help him to release himself from the driving neurotic tendencies which cause him to act with a kind of compulsive stupidity. Similarly, to speak of psychoanalysis as an education does not at all, and with any logical necessity, imply that this education must be a substitute for the acquisition of knowledge of society, and of its mechanisms. The intimate part of the education produced by psychoanalysis is self-education. The patient’s own past is brought to light in such a way that he is released from acting out symptomatically and on a neurotic plane, the fears and traumatic experience of an earlier age. One can say that the psychoneurotic acts in the present and toward significant people of the present with the same emotions, but symptomatically, as he acted toward significant people of the past.

Psychoanalysis and the Revolutionist

While he overstates the scope of “adjustment” here, Stiler also more or less implies that Marxism, the Marxist movement, the Marxist party, is a better cure for psychoneurosis than is analysis. This is dangerous. It can be asserted most emphatically that in most cases, a psycho-neurotic cannot be a good revolutionary leader. If a person has a clear cut illness of a psychoneurotic character, and he is told to try and cure it by becoming a Marxist, the person who offers such advice is both playing with fire and tampering with human destinies. In the present world of Marxist lethargy, of the decline of Marxist theory, of the consequences of many defeats of socialism, where endless people are finding that they have personal problems, views of this kind are truly dangerous. Realizing this, one might suggest that Trotsky’s friend and comrade, Joffe, knew better than this, and that he did not assume that the Russian revolutionary movement would relieve him of his inner disturbance; he went to a psychoanalyst. The result was that, even though he eventually committed suicide, he first found years of fruitful political activity.

A Marxist does not criticize a doctor for performing an operation which saves the life of a capitalist. He should no more criticize a psychoanalyst for treating a bourgeois, and helping that bourgeois to become cured of a psychoheurosis. Any contribution towards health must be assumed as a potential good. The healthy man is, at least, more amenable to reason that is the mentally sick man. The demand that the psychoanalyst take unto himself the functions of the Marxist is both a dangerous and a politically inept one. The patient must free himself not only of the thraldom of his personal past: he must, before he is cured, free himself of dependency on his analyst. If the analyst halts that cure midway by making the patient into a revolutionist, it is likely or possible that he may only be giving an uncured psychoneurotic to the revolutionary movement. The Marxist making this demand is asking the doctor to do what he ought to do himself: he is mixing up frames of reference and creating confusion.

These criticisms should suggest that Stiler approached psychoanalysis from the wrong end. It must be seen first not as a basis for politics, not as a basis for a world view, but as a branch of medicine which is rooted in clinical practice. The clinical features of psychoanalysis are central. Freudianism is, first and foremost, clinical. It stands or falls on its clinical successes.

The vogue of Freudian thinking in many fields at the present time cannot be blamed on Freud, and many distinctions must be made. Any intellectual tendency – even Marxism – can be turned into a means of escape. The use of psychoanalysis for reactionary purposes is not necessarily the result of Freud’s work and thought. Historical conclusions of Freud, himself, do not always and necessarily have the same status as Freud’s clinical conclusions. But Stiler turns all of this around. He writes of the politics of psychoanalysis with the same crudity as Stalinists have: in fact, he shows even less breadth than one will sometimes find in Stalinist discussions of Freud and Marx. A Marxist implicitly proves that he has less than adequate confidence in his Marxism if he fears to put his ideas to the test by placing them against the ideas of all others. In doing this, he need further to state fairly, clearly and with discrimination, the ideas against which he is testing his own Marxism. This, Stiler does not do.

Finally, I would suggest that the reader compare Stiler’s entire tone with what Freud said of his own contribution in his Autobiography.

“Looking back, then, over the patchwork of my life’s labors, I can say that I have made many beginnings and thrown out many suggestions. Something will come of them in the future, though 1 cannot myself tell whether it will be much or little. I can, however, express a hope that I have opened up a pathway for an important advance in our knowledge.”

One needs to approach Freud’s ideas with something of this same spirit. For it is the true scientific spirit. It is far removed from the spirit of Stiler’s article.


1. “Instinct in general is regarded as a kind of elasticity of living things, an impulsion toward the restoration of a situation which once existed, but was brought to an end by external circumstances.” Freud thus comments on his conception of instinct in his book, Autobiography.

2. The category of society includes the category of classes. In other words, classes exist in society, and they mutually influence one another. One cannot understand class phenomenon if one does not see it as the data of class society in which classes are opposed to one another, and, at the same time, influence one another. Stiler here is crude and rigid in a way parallel to the crudity and rigidity of third period Stalinist discussions of literature. Similarly, human beings influence one another. This influence is not a purely formal or intellectual one. In this context. I would like to recommend to interested readers, Dr. Paul Schilder’s book, The Image and Appearance of tne Human Body, London 1935. Schilder deals with the problem of the body image, and he studies this problem neurologically, psychoanalytically and sociologically. In this way, he brings Freudian ideas very close to the psychological implications of Marx. These implications would lead to a social conception of personality. At one point in his study, Schilder quotes Bukharin in this context, and shows how Bukharin has stated only an incomplete truth. Marxists, too often, state only incomplete truths when they discuss the social character of personality. Stiler formalizes an incomplete truth. In this way he is rigid and abstract.

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