Lacanian and Marxist reflections on Psychoanalysis and Revolution

This talk by Ian Parker was for Lene Auestad’s Psychoanalysis and Politics group online on 10 November 2021

I take as my starting point the co-authored manifesto ‘Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements, recently published in English in London by 1968 Press (with Russian and Italian editions published and other language versions, including Arabic, Serbo-Croat, Spanish and Portuguese, in press). The manifesto explores what lies beyond us, what we keep repeating, what pushes and pulls us to stay the same and to change, and how those phenomena are transferred into clinical space. This book is not uncritical of psychoanalysis, and transforms it so that liberation movements can transform the world. This is not a manifesto addressed to academics, nor to psychoanalysts, but it invites reflection on the intersection of Marxist and Lacanian theory and practice and the productive disjunction between them.

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In our co-authored book project ‘Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements’, David Pavón-Cuéllar and I articulate psychoanalysis with the practice of left movements. We are addressing activists in a number of different movements, ranging from explicitly anti-capitalist groups to ecological, indigenous and feminist networks, and we are using the signifier ‘critical psychology’ strategically to speak about psychoanalysis. We are concerned with practice, here political practice, but we know that there is no direct unmediated practice as such, that it must be mediated, explicitly or implicitly, by a theory of the world and a theory of the human subject. If it is not explicit, reflected upon, worked through, then that mediation is usually, by default, ideological.

          The conceptual underpinnings of the project are more specific than the title of the book indicates because of the theoretical and practical commitments we both have to Lacan and Marx. I frame this examination of the connection between the two as Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism, which is a little different from anchoring the work in the writings, pronouncements or, worse, supposed intentions of two authors. Lacan and Marx are, of course, at the core of this, and all the more so because the two traditions – of clinical practice and political practice – obsessively return to what is present, or absent, in these writers’ texts. Here I am going to outline some similarities and differences between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism.

Similarities

Let’s start with similarities and attend to the way each apparent similarity includes a twist, something that doesn’t quite correspond to what the putative rival partner is up to. Here are five.

Suspicion

First is the well-known indexing of Freud and Marx, and Nietzsche, as ‘masters of suspicion’, a characterisation of a particular approach to hermeneutics provided by Paul Ricoeur. This is a characterisation that has taken in social theory, both as a way of grasping these figures as critical inheritors of the Western Enlightenment, beyond a hermeneutics of faith, and as setting them up as masters to be deposed by later supposedly non-interpretative immanentist theorists. The twist here is that both Marx and Lacan actually go further in their versions of the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ than they are usually given credit for in the popular imagination and in mainstream psychoanalytic debate.

In Marx’s case, this sets him against conspiratorial accounts of the social, even though Marxism is often confused with such toxic political approaches. Capitalism is not bad because of bad people making money and pulling the strings to protect their property. Marxism pits itself against systemic corruption in which ‘surplus value’ is a marker of the problematic nature of social relationships. The question is not how to redistribute ‘surplus value’ more fairly, but how to overthrow a political-economic system structured by the accumulation and investment of surplus value in the form of the ‘universal equivalent’, money as a commodity.

In Lacan’s case, a hermeneutics of suspicion sets him against depth psychology, even though psychoanalysis is often reduced to that. The ego is not bad because it is mistaken about what lies beneath it, learning about hidden motives so it may become more flexible and adaptable. Lacanian psychoanalysis pits itself against attempts to tame jouissance, but not thereby in order to release it, as would be the aim of many Freudo-Marxists. The question is not how to lift repression, but to track how the repression operates. The question concerning ‘surplus jouissance’ is not how to spend it sensibly but, as objet petit a, to map its effects.

So, in both cases, a hermeneutics of suspicion leads these two theorists to also be suspicious about the function of reductive attempts to discover what is secretly guiding or driving their object of study, whether that is capitalism which Marxism aims to overthrow, or the ‘subject of science’ which Lacanian psychoanalysis works upon. In both cases those reductive explanations that they avoid are precisely part of the problem, false explanations that must be addressed in the course of analysis.

They complement each other when working in their own domain and they clash when they stray from it. The suspicion of conspiracy-theoretic explanation and depth psychology warns the Marxist off trying to account for why certain political figures behave as they do, and warns the Lacanian off trying to ‘analyse’ these political figures. At least, it should warn them off, for the warning is not always heeded.

That is when they clash, one instance of which being when surplus jouissance is vaunted by Lacanians as being an ‘equivalent’ of surplus value, when there is a slippage from treating each form of surplus as serving a function in the political economy of capitalism or the psychic economy of the bourgeois subject. That is also when we begin the fruitless task of explaining to Marxists what surplus value really is, as ‘Marxlust’, as Marx’s own surplus enjoyment, for example. Needless to say, neither can the enigmatic non-empirical nature of the objet petit a be explained in Marxist terms as a simple accumulation of ‘profit’ for the subject. The one reductive interpretation of what the other means is misplaced.

Change

The second similarity revolves around the intimate necessary link between analysis and transformation. A hermeneutics of suspicion makes both of the traditions of work perfectly suited to an academic enterprise, at home in the university, dispensing interpretations as currency of the institution and accumulating knowledge. The actual nature of analysis, in both cases, political analysis or personal analysis, however, is antithetical to the university. This, on two counts; interpretations are ‘mutative’, they are designed to change what they analyse, and interpretations are produced by the subject themselves, not by an accredited knowledge-monger. But here is a twist, which concerns the nature of the ‘subject’ of change.

          For Marxism, the subject is formed in the interpretative revolutionary process as a collective subject, but even then ‘divided’ we might say. The analysis that is impelling and informed by the change that is happening is contested, as contest between different social actors and as contradiction running through them. This contestation is conceptualised by Marxists as being ‘dialectical’, internally coherent but contradictory, mutating, even turning into its opposite. And the division in the collective subject is conceptualised, after the event, in terms of which class elements play a vanguard role and which function as avatars of reactionary class interests. The vanguard is not the Leninist Party inserting correct analysis from the outside, but is the collective subject of revolutionary change reconfiguring itself as proletariat, demanding change in the conditions it now identifies as hindering it; its own analysis of its predicament entails the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

For Lacanian psychoanalysis, the speaking subject in the clinic appears as if it is unitary, undivided, but its truth, Lacan reminds us, is always ‘half-said’. It is, at one moment, ‘individual’ in the sense of being separate, standing alone, singular, working through the clinical process as something that proceeds ‘one by one’. But it actually disrupts the sense of ‘individual’ as being something undivided; what it speaks may or may not correspond with what it hears itself say. Interpretation that strikes a chord in the subject and opens it up to change, to a transformation in its relation to the Symbolic, is not something that can come from the analyst; it must come from the analysand. It is as the analysand analyses that they transform who they are.

          In neither case, then, is interpretation offered from outside the subject, and certainly not in the form of ready-made knowledge that has been accumulated and tried and tested. Each transformative moment, whether it is in the clinic or on the political stage, is singular and each operates through a break with the fantasy of a metalanguage, whether that is a metalanguage about normative development or about stages of history. What knowledge there is about change is not within the accepted frame of neutral ‘academic’ language, but a guide to action, and then usually elaborated after the event.

          Here is another reason why it is not permissible for one field of action to operate as a metalanguage in relation to the other. Here again is another warning against offering, from within one domain, an interpretation which pretends to clarify what is being elaborated in another. The domain of the collective subject, the subject of politics for Marxism, is qualitatively different from the domain of the individual subject who speaks in analysis. The transformative moments when these very different divided agential phenomena appear as subjects are not only specific to the domain in which they operate as a theoretical-reflexive break from the past, but they cannot be completely confined within the frame of any analytic frame. Something they share, which makes them all the more irreducible to analysis from outside, is that there is something excessive and unpredictable about the change they invite, require and provoke.

Knowledge

The third similarity concerns the nature of knowledge, and well-founded reluctance to turn a theoretical frame, whether it is informing a clinical or political tradition, into a ‘worldview’. We know that Lacan follows Freud’s warnings about turning psychoanalysis into a worldview and Freud’s insistence that the closest psychoanalysis comes to being a worldview is to the worldview of science. This is not to say that psychoanalysis is part of the worldview of science, but that it is the worldview psychoanalysis comes closest to. Lacan’s precision of this argument is in the claim that psychoanalysis works on the subject of science. That is a question that takes us to the historical specificity of the kind of subject psychoanalysis is geared to, which we will return to in a moment. Marxism has trod an unhappier path down this route, from the debates about whether there is a dialectics of nature to the formation of the bureaucracies in the temporarily post-capitalist states for which Marxism was, indeed, treated as a worldview; resistance to the bureaucratisation of Marxism has also entailed a critical reflection on the supposed nature of Marxism as a worldview. It is not.

The task of analysis in each case is not to embed the subject in a worldview, but to break them from it. But here is a twist, for alongside resistance to the turning of the theoretical frame itself into a worldview, there is a different evaluation of the nature of worldview as such and, more importantly, to the nature of the break.

For Marxism, such a break is imperative, built into the theory, for it is a theory that is designed to speak for the working class, against capitalism from the standpoint of those who work, those who produce ‘surplus value’. Or, better, and this is where we stay true to the transformative aspect of analysis, it speaks from the standpoint of an as-yet-to-be constituted proletariat as a universal subject. It cannot be underestimated how crucial this wider dimension of the revolutionary process is, something expressed in suspicion of the possibility of constructing socialism in one country and insistence, instead, on the international dimension of political struggle.

For Lacanian psychoanalysis, on the other hand, we do not, however much we set ourselves against the goal of adapting people to society, aim to break our analysands from anything. We hold no normative position about what kind of relationships will make them happy, or even moral evaluation of what happiness is or whether it is necessarily a good thing. The personal transformative change that occurs in the clinic one-by-one may or may not be visible to the analyst; in contradistinction to Marxism for which the public collective nature of struggle is to be as visible as possible, to enrol the maximum number of subjects to it, Lacanian psychoanalysis enables some of the tiniest most imperceptible changes, and, indeed, is rightly suspicious of those who evangelise about it.

However much we dislike capitalism, and there is much useful Lacanian analysis critical of the discourse of the university and the contemporary malaise of civilization which provides valuable insight into the personal misery concurrent with globalised consumerism, we Lacanians do not aim in our clinical work to overthrow it. The injunction to ‘escape’ capitalism, which is quite impossible while it still exists as a political-economic system, is, while being an individualist mimesis of Marxist politics, not strictly-speaking Lacanian at all. Marx famously refused to sketch out a blueprint for what a post-capitalist society would look like, and that sensitivity to the problem of a worldview chimes with a Lacanian suspicion that the new world we would attempt to build for ourselves would simply replicate the world we think we have escaped. But Marxism does wager that another world is possible, one without surplus value, something that Lacanians would never dream of doing with respect to surplus jouissance.

History

The fourth similarity concerns the nature of history and the place of a theoretical framework designed to grasp it, the nature of history, and its own place in that history. Simply put, both theoretical frameworks are reflexively attentive to the way they have developed at a certain point in history to address and work upon and transform a certain kind of subject. Actually, the link is closer than that because the two traditions of work emerged coterminously. This is one of the reasons they continually touch each other, impact on the work of the other, even treating the other as part of the problem. Each has had to disentangle itself from the sense that the other operates as a kind of mirror, in miniature or as projection, of the other, something neither has completely succeeded in doing.

          Marxism emerges first not as a theory as such, but as a critique of existing theories of political economy – Marx’s Capital carries the subtitle ‘a critique of political economy’, not of capitalism, though it is that too – and it addresses a problem, capitalism, that is to be solved. Then, just as Marxism came into existence with the birth of capitalism, working alongside the proletariat as the grave-digger of capitalism, the very grave-digger this political-economic system could not but create and nurture, so it will disappear when capitalism is finished. In other words, Marxism, despite the temptation to turn itself into a worldview in the hands of Stalinists, makes rare claim to provide a universal trans-historical theory, and when it makes such claims it is quite un-Marxist.

          Lacanian psychoanalysis, as we have already seen, reflexively positions itself as a historically-emergent practice. It too develops as a form of critique in two moments, first against psychiatry and then, as an internal critique, against the ego-psychological institutional apparatus of the International Psychoanalytical Association. And from that theoretical struggle comes an encounter with the nature of ‘science’ that the IPA was keen to find shelter with, and Lacan’s analysis of the analysand as subject of science. The twist in this case concerns how we relate to the historical nature of the subject and the world which conditions its existence.

Marxism will not let go until it has destroyed capitalism, and it faces a world that should already have disappeared, but the contours of this world are, unfortunately for Marxist activists, though fortunately for Marxist theorists, if anything a replication of the political-economic conditions Marx analysed. They are even, with the even more intense globalisation of capitalism and its re-emergence on the territory of the old Stalinist states, operating as an exaggerated form of the world Marx described.

There are technological transformations such that we are well beyond the mutations analysed by Marxists of service-sector-heavy ‘late capitalism’, and the saturation of relations of production by consumerism, the economic pole of capitalism Marx did not himself have time to deal with. However, the role, if not the precise nature of ‘surplus value’ is still very much in place, as is the ideological mystification of it. That ideological mystification is, if anything, more intense with the intensification of consumerism and the proliferation of simulacra of the cultural field. It provokes ideological fantasies of what is real and what is the core of human creativity, fantasies which circle around ‘use value’ as if that were the bare source and index of universal and essential human needs rather than the product of ‘exchange value’, historically-located and mutable. Collective change is thus blocked at the very moment that the enigma of the intimate relationship between productivity and what is lost, bewitches each individual subject.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, meanwhile, is beset by debate over the disappearance of the kind of subject which it aimed to treat, agonising over its place as a site of treatment for ‘new symptoms’, adapting itself to this intensification of consumerism and haunted by what remains of the human subject when so much of it is lost. It is this that Lacan noticed and attempted to grasp when he invented the objet petit a, an object that operates as the site of surplus jouissance, that which is at one moment alluring, excessively pleasurable, and at the very same moment impossible, haunting the subject as something lost.

It is exactly this ‘surplus jouissance’ that we find in the fantasies of ‘use value’ that drive subjects to find something beyond and beneath the shallow surface of commodity exchange. Lacan put his finger on something valuable for Marxist analyses of the nature of commodities, but misidentified this surplus jouissance as equivalent, homologous to surplus value. We need to reorient Lacanian social theory to the nature of use value in order to better explicate how surplus jouissance as ideological place-marker of use value functions in the psychic and political economy of capitalist society.

Institutions

The fifth similarity concerns the institutional context for the two traditions, and has some bearing on this last question, how one adapts one’s practice to new conditions and how one lets go of analytic presuppositions that are out of date. This institutional question parallels the seepage of Marxist and psychoanalytic notions into contemporary commonsense, more in some cultural contexts than others, but throwing up obstacles as well as providing opportunities for adherents to gain followers. The consequence in both cases is, on the one hand, a degree of theoretical rigidity, which makes contact with the other tradition difficult, at best confused, and, on the other hand, proliferation of different readings of the founding texts such that we cannot always be sure which Marx and which Lacan we are talking about.

          When we speak of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism we are not, in fact, talking about fealty to the raw texts of each single author, an author who functions as the anchor of each tradition as master signifier, but allegiance to a reading of those texts refracted through particular institutions, most-often institutions of the ‘party’ and the ‘school’. And here is a paradox, and a twist in the relationship between the two traditions, which is that as each tradition that is so suspicious of recuperation, by academic institutions or the discourse of the university, struggles for survival, it has often either taken shelter in the university or mimicked the university in its own separate institution. This gives rise to a double-problem, which is that the so-called ‘debate’ between two such similar traditions of work is also refracted through the institutions that house it rather than the practice itself. It is this similarity, and only this one, that we can say is a homology. The other similarities, concerning interpretation, change, knowledge and history, operate as mere analogies.

          Marxism takes form in its revolutionary practice, a form which also often sabotages its practice, as a party. This is historically in the communist parties and, a necessary step, the formation of a communist international which degenerated into a bureaucratic machine of state power in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s or into cognate organisations around the world that were turned into diplomatic instruments of Moscow. Attempts to resist this process by Marxists have often ended up repeating it in miniature, in ever-more rivalrous sectarian form. The party thus tends to replicate, in its notions of leadership and vanguard, exactly the forms of power and attachment to power that structure capitalist society, and it usually obsessively circles around the question of how to harness class forces that are operating independently of it, repeatedly implementing the same organisational procedures in quite different cultural and historical contexts, unable to master material and symbolic processes that escape its control.

          Lacanian psychoanalysis typically institutes itself as a ‘school’ that attempts to escape the fate of the bureaucratised International Psychoanalytical Association, but which even so accumulates a cadre charged with governing training and transmission. Each attempt to break from this replication of the institution, of status, of the desire of the analyst, has failed. We have seen, instead, a proliferation of different ‘schools’ and different international associations. This is despite psychoanalysis having close to hand the theoretical tools to critically reflect on this process, which are; a conception of transference which it extrapolates from the clinic but which it tends to exacerbate rather than dissolve; theories of the relation between desire and drive as being configured around that which operates through a claim for recognition and that which is quite meaningless activity; an understanding of the nature of this replication of forms through repetition; and, of course, of the nature of the unconscious, of what escapes every attempt of the institution to predict and control it.

This is the field on which we Lacanians usually pitch our battles, institutional battles for prestige that we call ‘debate’, including debate with rival theorists such as Marx. Not always; there are spaces that are more open, but they are hedged in by these larger more powerful institutional forces. It is then not enough, and is actually rather a distraction, to pretend that the similarities are what makes the debate worthwhile. We also need to attend to the supposed differences between the two traditions.

Differences

We can briefly identify four differences between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism, some of which have been touched on already insofar as they emerge dialectically as twists in the apparent similarities between the two traditions. The questions, from a Lacanian point of view, might be whether these differences are ‘Real’, in the sense of functioning as an irreducibly antagonistic difference underlying and sabotaging anything that could be said of it by either side, Imaginary as aspects of rivalrous miscommunication or Symbolic as mediated by difference of theoretical frame.

The question from a Marxist point of view is slightly different, and here tend to circumvent that first ‘real’ obstacle that some Lacanians would identify when debating with Marxists; for some Marxists, those schooled in the Stalinist tradition in which their theory has become crystallised as a worldview, there might indeed be irresolvable doctrinal differences between them and Lacanians, and so the problem is a manifestation of a wish for doctrinal purity. It is here that the fifth ostensible ‘similarity’ between the two traditions, over the role of institutions that represent and transmit theory, is actually so problematic. For many Marxists, however, the question revolves around the reactionary or progressive function of rival theories they encounter, here whether Lacanian psychoanalysis assists, or complements, or obstructs class struggle, the struggle of the working class for power against material and ideological defence of capitalist property relations. We need to bear these issues in mind when we consider the differences, for they concern what really counts as a difference for each side.

Discontents

The first oft-cited difference revolves around the status of sexual repression as underlying what Freud described as the unease inherent in culture – what is usually glossed as ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ following the English-language title of his book – and whether it is this or class struggle that should be viewed as primary. Against the so-called ‘Freudo-Marxist’ double-reduction – to natural sexual expression as the core driver of liberation and to the nuclear family in capitalist society as repressive enemy – Lacan argues that what we think of as ‘sex’ is operative in a number of fantasy-scenarios.

There is no possible sexual liberation, and so the task is to show how sexual difference, that which Lacan reconfigures as ‘sexuation’, is structured in class society. This, against those who would treat sexuation as the underlying bedrock of class struggle, who would be then continue privileging psychoanalytic accounts, turning them into a reductive continuation of Freudo-Marxist theories. The question, then, is how ‘sexuation’ is either universalised or historicised.

Conditions

The ideological reading of ‘sexuation’, reading it in line with bourgeois familial precepts about fixed sexual difference, versus a historical reading which asks how what is constructed can be deconstructed in progressive political practice, connects directly with the second key question dividing Lacanian psychoanalysis from Marxism; are we discussing and working with the human condition anchored in sex as unchangeable or tracking and facilitating mutations in the interpretation of biology by the human subject?

          Alongside competing views about what is primary and secondary in human nature – what is the supposed bedrock and what emerges as our ‘second nature’ – are different standpoints on whether this or that obstacle to human liberation can ever be transcended. Lacan’s return to Freud resolves this question in favour of historical conditions of possibility and impossibility – it is that which underpins our ethical commitment to the possibility of change in our clinical practice – and this actually connects with Marxist accounts of the necessity for some notion of ‘human nature’ in our political practice.

Collectivity

It would seem that the third difference, concerning whether analysis must proceed one-by-one, from the standpoint of the individual subject, or as a collective process through the constitution of a trans-individual subject, must pit Lacanians against Marxists. In practice, the question is whether such differences of domain – the domain of application of each form of analysis – need necessarily forbid the other. They need not.

          From the Lacanian side, there is a multiplicity of accounts of the nature of the ‘subject’ that make it clear that this divided crux of human action is not necessarily mapped onto the individual body. Our Lacanian understanding of subjectivity is of it as being ‘extimate’, looping what is apparently exterior ‘context’ around what is ostensibly interior, and so when we speak of ‘subject’ we may do so in such a way as to include what is conventionally sociologically described as ‘collective’ as much as it is ‘individual’. This connects with rather than divides us from recent socialist-feminist readings of Marxism as including a political struggle over the nature of the separation between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’.

Speech

The status of psychoanalysis as a ‘talking cure’ would seem, at first glance, to align it with what some Marxists would see as the superstructure rather than the material base of society, and so open up another chasm, another difference, between ideological if not idealist concerns on the one hand, and materialist analysis and practice on the other. This fourth difference is, however, as tendentious as the first three. The base-superstructure metaphor was, after all, a fleeting one within the Marxist tradition, inviting a series of crude reductive understandings of what is directly ‘economic’ and what is not. Again, it is the institutionalisation of Marxism in forms of Stalinism that is the problem, something which then unfortunately corresponds with the reduction of psychoanalysis to psychology among those in the IPA. The realm of the economic is not bedrock of political practice any more than a core self housed in the ego is in clinical practice.

          Lacan’s meditations on the nature of human action, and then ‘act’ in the clinic, have opened up new ways of thinking about what it means to speak well, and how that is interwoven with covert or overt transformations of the Symbolic realm, a realm that is itself a material structuring force in political economy. There is no human subject without a symbolic structuring mediation between individuals, and Marxism is precisely concerned with how that mediation is politically-economically organised. In that sense it is effectively Lacanian.

          In each of these four cases, then, it would seem that despite the deep problem of political-ideological purity in the Marxist tradition, an institutional matter, it is actually the supposed purity and then intransigence of some evangelists for Lacanian psychoanalysis that is the problem, that creates obstacles to a fruitful encounter between the two sides. However, it is actually the Lacanian tradition that returns to Freud in such a way as to enable him to connect dialectically with Marx. We thus need to push at those conceptual edges of Lacanian theory grounded in its clinical practice.

So, to conclude

          Lacanian psychoanalysis in our view is also in some important respects Marxist, but no less Lacanian for that. Lacanian psychoanalysis is a historically-conditioned form of clinical practice that embeds the human subject in an account of language as that which exceeds it, treating the body, our material existence as human beings, as site of power, enigma and fantasy, source of creativity which is both productive and lost. This is particularly so when this subject as subject of science is subject to surplus alienation as a function of the gap between use value and exchange value. Freud invented the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference as corollaries of the peculiar and inescapable alienation that structures our relation and non-relation with civilization, and Lacan reconfigured these inventions in such a way as to render them as historical-materialist factors in clinical work. Though contained in the clinic, as a function of the clinic, these factors speak of the conditions of possibility that enclose them, and they operate dialectically in such a way as to link what we construct inside the clinic, the Lacanian task, with what we make of ourselves in the world, which is where we must speak of Marxism.

This talk is extracted from a chapter on ‘Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Marxism: Conceptual and Practical Work’ that will appear in a book edited by Chris Vanderwees and Kristen Hennessy called Psychoanalysis, Politics, Oppression and Resistance to be published in 2022 by Routledge.

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