Free Associations in Psychoanalysis, one of its Red Threads

Ian Parker reflects on aspects of context that led him to write his recent book on his own experience of psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis was a radical modern project, at one with the development of capitalism and, for many of its early practitioners, at one with the emergence of an alternative to capitalism. Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context: Subjectivity, History and Autobiography traces one autobiographical journey into this radical tradition of work on subjectivity, and aims to bring alive the broader history and debates. We see in that history – personal and political history – how the red threads of psychoanalysis become tangled in the wretched immiserating economic system that so many analysts set themselves against. To understand what is so radical about psychoanalysis, we need to also understand how it often also operates as a reactionary force, understand that better to retrieve what is progressive about it and make it work for the left instead of against it.

In the English-speaking world, among non-analysts, particularly among academics, the ‘radical spirit’ of psychoanalysis has tended to be linked to the work of Jacques Lacan and his followers – this, partly because of the chic image of French theory among the left, and partly because of the very real links between Lacan and Marxists (and, to a limited extent, among feminists) in France. The trajectory of the book is grounded in that tradition, written by someone who practices clinically as a ‘Lacanian’, but makes it clear that there are many political problems with the Lacanian tradition – it painfully untangles some of those issues along the way – and there is a vibrant left and feminist engagement with psychoanalysis in the so-called ‘British tradition’ (wherever that is, whether that is actually in Britain or as a globalising force under the auspices of the International Psychoanalytic Association, IPA, with its headquarters in London). That tradition, in its broadest frame, includes ‘Group Analysis’, for which the social theorist was Norbert Elias who presented a wide-ranging account of the development of civilisation that in some ways parallels the work of Michel Foucault.

One of the starting points, and not incidentally, for the account of radical engagement with psychoanalysis in the book (after a first review of the reasons why one should avoid this stuff if one is on the left or in any way sensitive to questions of gender politics), is a discussion of the 1980’s Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere conferences in east London and the founding of the Free Associations journal by Bob Young, a libertarian Marxist. That project was founded on the premise that psychoanalysis in Britain in and around the British Psychoanalytical Society and its training wing the Institute of Psychoanalysis (mainstays of the IPA in Britain) was centre-left or to the left and that it would be possible to intervene and draw it further to the left. That would mean engaging with the psychoanalysts working with theorists like Melanie Klein (a major influence in Britain) and Wilfred Bion and Donald Winnicott. Some outliers, outside the IPA, in Group Analysis and, less so, in Jungian analysis, were sometimes included. Occasionally one or two Lacanians would be allowed in, but that was rare.

We need to get a handle on why this matters to the left, and to the feminists who were an important force in the first Psychoanalysis and Public Sphere conferences, why it is that a practice that focuses so much of the time on individual misery must be taken seriously by political traditions that are concerned mainly with collective processes, with collective action. This is where one of the red threads of psychoanalysis as a conceptual framework (or, rather, a multiplicity of contrasting theoretical frameworks) is important; here we see a restatement, inside and outside the clinic, of the socialist-feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’; the conceptual-practical battle is over  how to weave together those two realms without reducing one to the other (reducing the personal realm to politics, or reducing politics to the level of individual suffering – something of a temptation for clinicians).

That battle, the book makes clear, is to be fought out as much in the historical praxis of the psychoanalytic movement as a self-consciously internationalist movement as it is in ‘theory’. It means bringing alive again the political project of many psychoanalysts, remembering that most practising psychoanalysts around Freud in continental Europe were socialists, ranging from social democrat to active communists. That is our history, the history of the left, as much as it is the history of psychoanalysis, a history that was suppressed with the rise of fascism; many analysts fled for their lives and many who continued practising adapted their practice in their new host countries – a process that has been called ‘the repression of psychoanalysis’.

That battle for the soul of psychoanalysis – a battle on many fronts, which the book explores, including in relation to ‘queer theory’ and Islam, for example – must also be situated in the context of ‘adaptation’ of the individual to society and the way that psychoanalysis now tends to operate as a private practice (that which analysts, often in bad faith, prefer to describe as ‘independent practice’). We need to remember that Freud himself spoke in favour of psychoanalysis being freely available as part of collective health provision in Budapest, and that ‘free clinics’ were founded and funded by psychoanalysts in the IPA in the 1920s and 1930s in Budapest, Berlin and Vienna.

The red threads that run through psychoanalysis are still very much present, even when analysts in charge of the main training organisations guard their own professional expertise and buy into the idea that the patients must pay for their treatment, one by one. The red threads were there, for example, in the Free Associations conference at the Freud Museum in September this year, 2019, the journal Free Associations still survives online, now following the death of Bob Young a few months before the re-launch conference. This is the local ‘British tradition’ context for the reforging of links between psychoanalysis and the left. But, as we can see in Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context, this is just one of many contexts for theoretical and practical attempts to take personal subjectivity seriously as part of political struggle against capitalism and patriarchy.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements