I write this as a psychoanalyst working in the same tradition as Félix Guattari, Lacanian, and as a Trotskyist, active politically in the same tradition as your man. Guattari has tended to be eclipsed in academic writing by his co-author Gilles Deleuze. I was prompted to draw up this balance-sheet of Guattari’s contribution by an invitation to participate in a BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Free Thinking’ on Deleuze and Guattari, broadcast on 8 April 2021 (in which I was only able to use ten percent of my notes in a recording that was then edited down to half the length of the original before broadcast).
Félix Guattari, comrade, member of the Fourth International, was born in 1930, an active Trotskyist from 1948 to 1964, and critical psychiatric psychoanalytic researcher, writer and activist, an ecosocialist, until his death in 1992. Guattari is often best-known for his collaboration with the five-year-older philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the usually misunderstood book Anti-Oedipus, translated into English five years later (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972/1977). The two were both avid readers of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre before they met, but it was Guattari who brought radical psychotherapeutic practice and political critique – Freud and Marx – into the explosive mixture that eventually went under the heading of ‘schizoanalysis’. Guattari’s (1984) work exemplifies potentialities and limits of breaking from medical models of ‘mental health’ under capitalism.
To understand better how Guattari translates, and does not, into the English-speaking world, which now more than ever defines on a global scale the parameters of theory and treatment of distress, we need to grasp some key elements of the context in which the ‘Anti-Oedipal’ critique and alternative operated in France.
The lunatic asylum has long been understood by the left as incarceration, and has functioned as a kind of prison for many in distress in the English-speaking world. It is this understanding of the asylum, and then ‘mental hospital’ in medical rebranding of the same institution, that framed the take-up of 1970s ‘democratic psychiatry’ from Italy into English radical mental health movements, most significantly in Asylum (which carried the subtitle ‘magazine of democratic psychiatry’ for many years after it was founded in Sheffield in 1986). Asylums were indeed used by the fascists under Mussolini to incarcerate opponents.This bitter history of the asylum as prison was very different in France where, for example, the Saint Alban clinic in the south of the country was a point of refuge, housing Resistance fighters. It also provided a base for radical psychiatrists during and after the Second World War, including figures like Frantz Fanon, who did his internship there, and Jean Oury, who later moved north to found La Borde in 1953. Yes, the mental hospital contained people, but this ‘containment’ was double-edged, a place of safety for some as well as place of control, an ambiguity that Michel Foucault’s (1961/2009) work explores, an ambiguity of function that is often overlooked.
It is in places like this that alternatives were developed to the physical treatment regimes that provided the coercive medical frame of understanding dominant in British psychiatry. While there were significant attempts to develop group-psychotherapeutic and community-oriented approaches in the English-speaking world, the assumption here was that a radical break from the asylum as an institution would be necessary before these approaches could flower. Such was the assumption in Trieste in north-east Italy where Franco Basaglia’s ‘deinstitutionalisation’ process was the setting for work cooperatives, then appearing in Britain in an uneasy relationship with those inspired by R D Laing (1965) and the like.
In Saint Alban and then La Borde, in contrast, ‘institutional psychotherapy’ was the governing paradigm. This was not without some bizarre remainders from psychiatric practice that horrified Basaglia when he visited La Borde, apparent in the so-called ‘annihilation therapy’ at Saint Alban developed by one-time POUM Trotskyist Francesc Tosquelles, who fled from Franco’s Spain to inspire Fanon, Oury and many others. Guattari was still working at La Borde when he died. These traditional psychiatric practices can also be seen in the later grim drug regimes in the clinic, still very apparent in the 1996 Nicolas Philibert documentary about La Borde, Every Little Thing.
A key contextual difference between ‘anti-psychiatry’ in France and Britain is the role of psychoanalysis, usually seen as at one with the enemy by radical mental-health service-user movements here, conveniently forgetting that R D Laing was trained as a psychoanalyst before developing his own Sartre-inspired existentialist critique of the medical model. Anglo-American psychoanalysis adapted itself to society in Britain and the United States – a process intensified by the precarious status of émigré analysts from continental Europe fleeing fascism – and that turned psychoanalysis into an adaptive treatment compatible with psychiatry.
In France, collusion with psychiatry and medical training of many psychoanalysts was significant, but there was also a radical break from psychiatry, whether it was from the early involvement of the prominent psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (2006) with the surrealists and then with phenomenology or in the psychoanalytic training of Guattari himself. Guattari, who went into analysis with Lacan, as did Jean Oury and, later, all other members of staff at La Borde, had no medical training. He was a ‘lay analyst’, studying pharmacy at the University of Paris. Psychoanalysis was, among other things, an alternative to psychiatry, a critique of it, and a critique, for that matter, of mainstream psychology too.
Psychoanalysis in the English-speaking world appealed to some who wanted to change the world, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule, and in Britain, for example, ‘critique’ was more likely to be harnessed to Bloomsbury Group style distaste at the constraints of current etiquette rather than full-blown critique of the bourgeois nuclear family, still less solidarity with the working class. Things were very different in Austria, Germany, Hungary and France where psychoanalysis was mainly to the left.
It is this radical history of psychoanalysis that encourages and infuses different strands of political critique and resistance, whether from within the French Communist Party, PCF, or from the more radical alternatives. The psychoanalysts had a tough time inside the PCF, still liable to be seen as bourgeois reactionary fellow-travellers rather than comrades – Stalin’s suspicion of psychoanalysis was a potent influence, and Trotsky’s interest in it did not help their case – but they were, even so, still there. Many followers of Lacan were attracted to Maoism, as was Sartre. Guattari’s journey through active membership of the Fourth International and editorship of La Voie Communiste until 1964, carried on, informed his psychotherapeutic practice. Psychoanalysis was on the side of resistance, and so to be critical of an ‘Oedipal’ model of the ideal-typical nuclear family was to be with psychoanalysis, not against it.
British psychiatry, with some notable exceptions, which were noted by Lacan and which were then influential at Saint Alban and La Borde, was devoted to medical treatment of the individual, and the insertion of that individual as a well-behaved citizen back into society. The turn to the group in radical psychiatric practice after the Second World War had some impact in the English-speaking world, but connected with radical perspectives in ‘institutional psychotherapy’ in France in a deeper way (e.g., Lacan, 1947/2019).
It is quite early on in Guattari’s work that the term ‘transversality’ appears, for example, way before he met Deleuze, and this notion was to capture something of the ineliminable social, collective nature of unconscious processes. This, not in a mystical and sometimes racist form that followers of Jung took it in, but as located in speech, language, our necessary immersion into symbolic material as a function of being able to communicate with each other, to be human. Much of the most radical input into Anti-Oedipus and then into A Thousand Plateaus, written with Deleuze eight-years later, came from this collective vision of human action and resistance (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988/1987). The notions of enclosure as ‘territory’ and of ‘deterritorialisation’ as a radical alternative are in the same vein. It was collective action that was made manifest in the mobilisation of patients at La Borde against the colonial war in Algeria and then in support of the May 1968 revolt in Paris and other French cities.
British psychiatry, and much psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic practice in the English-speaking world tended to obediently implement its theories. This helped turn psychoanalysis, for instance, into a kind of all-encompassing world-view in which those who are fully trained think they have expertise, buttressing the power of the medics over ‘lay practitioners’ in the process. Built into much French philosophy – this is where Sartre’s existentialist puzzling over the relationship between individual agency and social structure is so relevant, and influential on both Guattari and Deleuze – is reflection on context. This reflection on context is embedded in the process of thought, so that the theory is not treated as an apparatus to make sense of the world, but as a machine that is part of the world, simultaneously a ‘tool and result’.
Guattari early on in his work at La Borde, again before he met Deleuze, had a conception of therapeutic and political work as operating like a reflexive ‘machine’, a machine that we ourselves build, participate in, learn from, collective work rather than individual ingenuity. Here the metaphor of machine chimes with some of the cybernetic interests of Lacan, but should not be understood as unduly ‘mechanical’. This then puts the notion of ‘anti-Oedipus’ to work in such a way that, in the words of British socialist feminist Juliet Mitchell (1974) in her path-breaking book Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Freud’s work is a description of patriarchy, not a recommendation for it. She was writing about Freud and Lacan, and Guattari is one of those who brings that internal critique to fruition.
British psychiatry, and then, of course, psychoanalysis in the English-speaking world generally, houses plenty of theories about the world. It revels in theories that describe the world as it is in order to maintain things as they are. These theories are designed to recommend patriarchy, for example, as part of the description; interpretation that is decidedly not intended to change the world. At the same time, there is an obsession with ‘empirical’ examination of our reality in order to confirm it. English ‘empiricism’ is a perfect machine for absorbing psychoanalytic ideas and ‘testing’ them, seeing if they work, and keeping those that correspond to reality as it is now.
You need a theory of social structure and of the formation of subjectivity in order to be able to combat the way things are organised, to mobilise to change the world, to put interpretations to work, and this the most influential radical traditions of French philosophy, psychoanalysis and even psychiatry understood well. Guatarri scribbled his notes and sent them to Deleuze, and Deleuze embedded these ideas, of ‘transversality’ and of the ‘machine’ into a quasi-philosophical narrative. Deleuze made the book, Anti-Oedipus, in which, Guattari, in a state of depression after it was published in 1972, said he felt ‘over-coded’, incorporated, interpreted. Deleuze did not want to work with Guattari on the book at La Borde as part of a collective process, and he was repelled by what he saw there at the clinic, anxious among mad people, but worked as a philosopher does on the ideas. Nevertheless, it is a theory, a theory that is designed to be put to work.
Guattari’s work with Deleuze was an innovative radical achievement, with the traces of his Marxism as apparent in it as is the influence of Freud and Sartre. But, there are problems, how could there not be problems, problems we need to work through if we are to fully comprehend how radical it still is now.
Despite the clear argument in the book for a restructuring of subjectivity rather than its simple liberation from social norms, there is a temptation hidden in the book, an invitation to romanticise madness. The notion of the necessity for there to be something of the ‘machine’, structure, organisation – what Guattari was to term ‘arrangement’ in A Thousand Plateaus – should help us steer clear of this.
However, time and again the romanticising of schizophrenia as a form of freedom returns in responses to Anti-Oedipus, something that is of a piece with the romantic hopes that the May 1968 revolutionaries pulling up the cobble-stones to throw at the police would show us that, as one of the slogans put it, ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach’. This response then structures the prevalent reading among British psychiatrists, one that understandably strikes a chord with some radical mental activists too who were burnt by R D Laing’s political-intellectual journey; images of madness as chaos operate ideologically alongside the suspicion that brute biology is the bedrock, that it is as if ‘under the beach, the paving stones’.
Despite the clear argument in the book that ‘Oedipus’ is one of the ideological motifs of the nuclear family, taken up into psychoanalysis as a description that is then too-often put to work in the clinic as a recommendation, this critique is then quickly absorbed and turned against Deleuze and Guattari. The facile reading, a misreading, is that to be ‘anti-Oedipus’ is to be against psychoanalysis; many psychoanalysts in their practice would today actually agree that psychoanalytic work is precisely to help us interpret and free ourselves from the shackles of ‘Oedipal’ relationships.
However, at a deeper level, it is difficult to implement this critique when families themselves clamour for the ‘identified patient’ or ‘index patient’ who is sent for treatment to be made better, adapted, returned intact. The recent furore over supposed psychoanalytic mother-blaming in relation to ‘autism’ in France shows how deep and difficult this aspect of critique of the family is. British psychiatry has been better placed to reassure families that this is a medical problem that can be treated, and parents are understandably very relieved to be let off the hook, not to be implicated in the distress they witness and also suffer, which does not mean that they are not also sometimes implicated in that distress.
There is nothing so practical as a good theory, but a theory can often function as a grid, a machine that runs away with itself, that operates against us rather than for us. This is the way of theory, explicit or implicit, in British psychiatry, for instance. Despite the adherence of British psychiatry, and forms of British psychoanalysis, to the assumption that only when ideas have been tested can they be taken seriously, that the theory must correspond to rigorous empirical observation, theory is used by British psychiatrists to govern the life-world of their patients.
However, there is a danger, of course, that ‘French theory’ of whatever kind, even from Deleuze and Guattari, can also operate in this way, as a grid. This is why radical mental health movements in Britain, around Asylum Magazine, for example, value theory, but focus more on how things will work out in practice. Nowadays, it tends to be the case that mental health system service users demand ‘theory’ and find it useful, while activists are more suspicious of any water-tight framework, working more pragmatically, taking ideas from here and there that will help.
Alongside the danger of theory as such, is the specific danger of abstraction, the staining out of general processes that are then detected everywhere; this abstraction of a theoretical structure in Anti-Oedipus, then blots out other specific forms of experience and forms of resistance. There is a warning in the history of anti-psychiatry in France here, in the way that Frantz Fanon, for instance, drew attention to structures of colonialism and racism when he was at Saint Alban and in his later work carried out at Blida-Joinville in Algeria, but then the way that this anti-racist critique disappears. One finds no black faces at La Borde in the Philibert documentary made barely three years at the clinic after Guattari died, for example, and the representation of ideal relationships is decidedly heteronormative. Feminism, so crucial to internal critiques of French, and British, psychoanalysis, is erased.
This contrasts with the attempt by radical mental health movements today to adopt a more ‘intersectional’ approach, now drawing on the experience of feminist #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements. Guattari’s activism when in the Fourth International is the better model here. He was not so hot on feminist critique – sleeping with patients, for example as if oblivious to power – but he did see anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle as intimately related to anti-capitalist politics, whether that was leading work brigades to Yugoslavia at the end of the 1940s or demonstrating against the war on Algeria at the beginning of the 1960s.
There are many problems in his work that should operate as questions for Guattari, questions that he cannot answer but that we can in our practice. There have been many critiques of psychiatry, many radical approaches to what is now called ‘mental health’, some anti-racist and feminist approaches more useful than others. Guattari’s is still one of the useful ones, developed by our comrade actively working with the oppressed, attentive to the nature of oppression, putting psychoanalysis to work with the oppressed.
It would be too much, perhaps, to say that what Guattari developed in and against psychiatry was ‘Trotskyist’, and it does not need to be, but close attention to what he gave us would redeem what is most potentially radical about it, take it beyond its limits, and, why not, could even today embed a radical approach to mental health in the politics of the Fourth International that he dedicated so many formative years of his life to.
Basaglia, F. (1987). Psychiatry Inside Out: Selected writings of Franco Basaglia. New York: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972/1977). Anti‑Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1980/1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dosse, F. (2011). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. New York: Columbia University Press.
Foucault, M. (1961/2009). History of Madness. London and New York: Routledge.
Goulart, D. (2019). Subjectivity and Critical Mental Health: Lessons from Brazil. London and New York: Routledge.
Guattari, F. (1984). Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. Harmondsworth: Peregrine.
Guattari, F. and Rolnik, S. (2008). Molecular Revolution in Brazil. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Lacan, J. (1947/2019). ‘British psychiatry and the war’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, vol. 33, pp. 13-57.
Lacan, J. (2006) Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (translated with notes by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg). New York: Norton.
Laing, R. D. (1965) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Tosquelles, F. and Fanon, F. (1953). ‘Indications of electroconvulsive therapy within institutional therapies’, in J. Khalfa and R. J. C. Young (eds) (2018) Frantz Fanon: Alienation and Freedom (pp. 291-298). London: Bloomsbury.
This article was first published in the journal Free Associations, available to download here (where it mistakenly says that Guattari studied philosophy rather than pharmacy).
This is part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements