A People’s History of Psychoanalysis 

This book review of A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology (Daniel José Gaztambide, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 1st edn., 2019, hardback, 231pp., paper, $94.00, ISBN: 9781498565745) was written by Ian Parker for the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society.

The attempt to intersect personal with political change has been on the agenda from the beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud accompanying Marx with diagnoses of the ills of modern society but unable to go all the way in recommending the complete overthrow of capitalism. Freud was cautious about the possibilities of bringing about either full personal or political liberation, warning more radical adherents of psychoanalysis that it is in the nature of civilization to operate as a necessary restraining order overlaid upon a human nature that would not be as benign as Marxists hoped were it allowed to rule the roost.

There were, nevertheless, always voices from within psychoanalysis that argued against Freud and that pushed for the radical dynamic of the psychoanalytic argument – that there is something beyond our conscious control that drives us to not only repeat structures of oppression but also attempt to change the world – to be taken forward. Daniel José Gaztambide is one of those voices, and he gives voice in this book to many other radical psychoanalysts and activists, particularly from within the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements. He does this with sensitivity to the intersectional nature of contemporary struggle and a passion to understand what is wrong and what we might do about it.

Gaztambide energetically enrols a range of figures from within and outwith the psychoanalytic movement to a common project, with the aim of convincing the reader that we must take seriously the diverse psychoanalytic contributions of Sàndor Ferenczi, Erich Fromm and Peter Fonagy alongside the liberation ethic enacted by Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ignacio Martín-Baró. Along the way he provides a detailed history of the impact of antisemitism in central Europe on the development of psychoanalytic theory and practice as well as accounts of forms of racism in the Americas including a valuable contextualising – from colonialism and slavery to dictatorship and resistance – of psychoanalysis and liberation theology in Brazil.

This is an ambitious book, and its scope is broad enough to allow elements of the narrative to slide into view and then out again, drawing attention to aspects of our history that we should know, and that students and practitioners of psychoanalytic psychotherapy must be reminded of in the course of their training. It is in this respect and for this reason that the book should be read by trainees in order to ground their work and to shift emphasis from the treatment of individuals to an engagement with a wretched world that gives rise to many forms of distress, those arising from class hatred, racism and heterosexism. At some points in the book it looks as if Erich Fromm will be the hinge-point for the liberation psychology Gaztambide wishes for, but unfortunately Fromm disappears from the narrative again.

The radical dynamic of psychoanalytic argument is, as Gaztambide himself tells us, wrought with contradictions and obstacles, and this should give to the journey that he traces a contradictory even dialectical character. He knows this, and notes the painful oscillation in Freud’s own position on racism, exploring the ways that antisemitism often led to identification with the oppressor and internalisation of that ideological poison, the ways that ideological and material strategies of divide and rule set Black against Jew, and the ways that psychoanalysts attempted to find common ground for joint action. He is generous to a fault with his interpretation of Freud’s oft-told racist joke about the analyst as lion awaiting his lunch, a native at noon, and the twists and turns over whether this was actually racist or evidenced a deeper affinity between Freudian psychoanalysis and anti-racism are agonising and indicative. They are indicative of an attempt in the book to smooth the path from Freud to the liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, and so to smooth over some of the contradictions that are still potent today.

For example, we are told that the pedagogue of ‘conscientization’ Paulo Freire was indebted to the work of Black activist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. This, if it were true, would neatly bridge the gulf between the Algerian independence movement that Fanon was an integral part of (eventually resigning from his psychiatric post to work for the Front de Libération Nationale), and the Brazilian struggle against dictatorship that Freire was forced into exile from. It would be a step on the path from Freud who was clearly conflicted about the racism he suffered to the Latin American context that Gaztambide wants to make the source of a radical revival of what was always most potentially progressive about psychoanalysis. However, just as the story Gaztambide tells about Freud’s own racism (and the continuing racism of many psychoanalytic practitioners) is less hopeful than it seems, so the story he tells about Freire’s contribution to anti-racism is less clear-cut than he makes out. So, he rather disarmingly points out somewhere during the narrative that in none of his major works does Freire actually mention race or racism at all.

There are deeper conceptual problems in the narrative which repeatedly and conveniently elides the difference between psychoanalysis, which is, after all, the declared focus of the book and psychotherapy and psychiatry and psychology. The smoothing of the path from Freud to Martín-Baró is actually, it turns out when we get to the end of the book, much more from the perspective of the psychology that Martín-Baró was wedded to than the psychoanalysis we started out with. We are given a quite detailed and useful historical account of the life of Martín-Baró from his birth in Spain, training as a Jesuit and then brutal murder by military forces in El Salvador in 1989. There are some quite tangential encounters with psychoanalysis along the way, but no real sign that Martín-Baró was influenced by psychoanalysis other than in a most general way that might be summed up in the not-necessarily psychoanalytic statement that ends this book, that there should (in a deliberate allusion to liberation theology’s ‘preferential option for the poor’) be a ‘preferential option for the oppressed’.

Martín-Baró was a psychologist, and though he had a profound awareness of the nature of oppression, framed his interventions in psychological terms, looking more to the ‘liberation of psychology’ than to liberating us from the forms of psychology that so often reduce political problems to internal individual ones. Similar criticisms can be levelled against Martín-Baró as have been made by postcolonial writers against Paulo Freire, a sociologist, that he routinely made individual phenomenological ‘liberation’ the touchstone rather than systemic change. In the case of Frantz Fanon, there is the inconvenient fact that despite his dabbling with many different kinds of psychoanalytic theories of internalisation of oppression his own clinical practice was avowedly psychiatric, which included some of the most oppressive physical treatments. The cathartic model that Gaztambide summarises in the sub-heading ‘liberating the affect of the oppressed’ is one that Fanon was at times attracted by, but it is not psychoanalytic.

The kind of psychology and so ‘liberation psychology’ that Gaztambide clearly prefers, however, is psychotherapeutic, and this would seem to be why he is taken with the recent mutations of psychoanalysis through ‘attachment’ to ‘mentalization’. As with Fromm, so the references to ‘relational’ psychoanalysis also disappear from view after being adverted to, and it is Peter Fonagy’s ‘mentalization’ paradigm that is the basis of a broader ‘political mentalization’ that Gaztambide eventually calls for. This political mentalization would entail an awareness of the nature of society and its history as well as an awareness of the personal life-course of an individual in therapy. This would then facilitate the kind of dialogue that encompasses the oppressed and the oppressed to recognise each other and recognise that under present-day conditions everyone hurts. There is a rather strange detour into an attack on ‘identity politics’ toward the end that is actually out of keeping with the deeper concern with personal identity that runs through the book.

I was reminded while reading this well-meaning and earnestly therapeutic book of Brecht’s plaint in his poem ‘To Posterity’; that ‘anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow harsh’ and so alas ‘we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness / Could not ourselves be kind.’ This surely is the contradictory reality that psychoanalysis brings us face to face with and enables us to accept; that we will bring our past to the kind of world we build in the future, and we cannot pretend that there could be full liberation of each of us before or even, perhaps, after we have transformed this world to make it easier for us all to live in.


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