Conspiracy theory and Marxist analysis

A small socialist meeting in Lancashire this month drove home to me how, as we should already know, the context for the linkage between the far right, anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movements is very different in different places. In contrast to, say, the US and Brazil, where Trump and Bolsonaro supporters have succeeded in welding together the three different aspects of the threat to our health and future, in the UK the three movements are overlapping but still distinct.

Not all anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists are fascists, and if we do not intervene and argue with these people, we are finished; we will end up as marginalised as we think they are. The pity of it is that they are not marginal, and they are among us. Some comrades who thought they were just being ‘anti-Zionist’ did slide into antisemitic conspiracy theory territory when they became obsessed with who was setting political agendas. Now some comrades who worry about the capitalist state restricting freedoms, which by its nature it will always attempt to do, are now sliding into the same kind of terrain.

Conspiracy

What they have in common is an obsession with conspiracy. At this socialist meeting it became increasingly clear how potent conspiracy theory is on the left as speaker after speaker intervened in a discussion about something else entirely. They said that they felt in a minority, that they had been ‘deplatformed’ because of their views and that they were mobilising for their rights in what they referred to as the most important struggle of their lifetimes, against ‘Covid’ (and you have to imagine the word being spoken here as with scare quotes).

Bit by bit they alluded to what they have been banging about in this socialist forum for some time, that is, the Great Reset; an open economic discussion now spun as the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered by global elites to crack down on dissent and regenerate capitalism for the benefit of the super-rich. This is dangerous nonsense, and we should not be afraid to say so, but we also need to address the problem and argue with these people, who think of themselves as being on the left, about why conspiracy theory is so deeply wrong, and so deeply dangerous to the left.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous forms either renders people into passive observers of the real struggle for power going on behind the scenes or, worse, mobilises them to search out scapegoats, members of groups supposedly connected to the hidden forces that are somewhere pulling the strings. A case example of the former is QAnon, in which increasingly bizarre claims are made about the clash of good and evil conspiracies – such as Trump versus the ‘deep state’ paedophile pizza parlour rings – and supporters are left guessing which political event is playing into the hands of which side. The latter, of course, is present in old antisemitic propaganda, in which big business, Bolshevism and race-mixing are traced to the hidden hands of the Jews.

The left

There is a long history of conspiracy themes on the left, and it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most stupid anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown stuff should now resonate with some socialists. It is true, for example, that corporations and the state will take advantage of any crisis to restrict human rights. That doesn’t mean that Bill Gates has any real interest in knowing where you live and who your friends are, or that his very good friend (wink) George Soros (a Jew) is siphoning your money to support an agenda we are not ourselves clear about.

In the Stalinist tradition there has been much flirting with conspiracy motifs, and that was not surprising, perhaps, as Stalin himself became more isolated at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy, and paranoid about who might take the power he jealously guarded. That context provided the seedbed and opportunity for labelling those who were supposedly manoeuvring against him as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, basically an antisemitic code-phrase for Jews.

This way of dealing with a reality that Marxists were disconnected from also fuelled the idea, popular among far left groups, that it would help their case to point to the nefarious activities of, say, the ‘Bilderberg Group’. This search for puppet masters conveniently overlooked the fact that business leaders and governments meet in many different forums and that they would themselves be daft if they did not sometimes operate together to pursue shared interests.

More recently, we find similar simple-minded themes in the supposed ‘evidence’ that Keir Starmer has attended think-tank meetings hosted by the Trilateral Commission (though I’m reluctant to include too many of the rabbit-hole links to those kind of claims in this article). Again, this is not a big deal once you have an analysis of what Starmer’s politics amounts to, a politics he is quite open about.

What this leads to is an approach to politics that attempts to track down the hidden motor causes for our problems, to point the finger at this or that shadowy organisation or individual, and to declare that the game is up. It beggars belief that people caught up in conspiracy theories should believe that this is a Marxist approach. It is not.

There are two key arguments to keep in mind when we challenge our conspiracy-minded anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown comrades on the left.

Marxism as opposite of conspiracy

The first is that Marxism is not a conspiracy theory. In fact, conspiracy theory is the diametric opposite of Marxist analysis. Marx never showed you that the ruling class deliberately hoodwinks and manipulates the population, or that the working class is kept in the dark about who the real movers and shakers are, let alone that the ruling class is putting you to sleep, or that there is chemtrail evidence in the sky that you are being turned into sheeple.

Marxism is an analysis of the capitalist system of production, a political-economic system that operates according to a profit-motive that is outside of the control of those who are driven to compete and enrich themselves as well as those who are exploited in the workplace to produce the source of profit. It is an analysis of the logic and dynamics of a system, not of particular individuals or groups who benefit from it. It is an analysis that shows how capital accumulation drives the whole world to destruction, to barbarism if we do not act collectively to build a world that is democratically accountable.

This capitalist system breeds conspiracies, and it is sometimes sad to see how some of those who accrue power then themselves come to believe that they control the levers of power. Their boasts, desperate machinations and their organisation of coups against democratic governments that threaten their interests are then taken and used as evidence that the ridiculous overblown idea they have of their own power is real. Careful Marxist analysis of the capitalist state, however, is concerned with networks of relationships that are understandable, explicable as a security apparatus to maintain exploitation.

Marxism accounting for conspiracy

The second key thing to notice about Marxist analysis is that it also shows how capitalism breeds conspiracy theory. The system secretes this theory as part of its own spontaneous ideology, as if of its own nature. We are told time and again, for example, and those who are successful believe it themselves, that it is the brightest and cleverest who will rise to the top, that this system rewards ingenuity. This ideological account covers over the actual source of profit, wealth extracted from the exploitation of the labour power of others. This idea, that individuals achieve and thrive and rise through the ranks, then also feeds the idea that someone somewhere must be taking the decisions that count.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous form was once able, with the rise of the Nazis, to turn an internal division of society, between classes – between the working class that laboured and the ruling class that lived on the accumulated fruits of exploitation – into another kind of division, one between the nation all together and an external enemy. Nazism layered that with all kinds of mystical notions to smother scientific research into the nature of society.

In the process, Nazism took on some of the elements of socialist politics, concern with inequality and, much more problematically, concern with national development and security, and blended those with conspiracy theories that targeted Jews, first associating that enemy with the left, as in the claims of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ emanating from the Soviet Union, and then, to win over some leftists, in claims that it was the rich Jews rather than the rich as such who were the real problem.

A real danger

Conspiracy theory brings in its wake a host of other superstitious notions that drive the believer to the right, turns them from being a searcher for the real truth into an engine of divide and rule, labelling anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy, and embroils them in hostility to reasoned argument, hostility to analysis as such. The truth about this wretched political-economic system is in the exploitative structure of social relationships. The truth is not somewhere hidden behind this reality but in plain sight; conspiracies are ideological distractions that make people angry but helpless.

We see hostility to reasoned argument, to evidence, already flourishing among the anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists who are becoming suspicious of science itself, and that is a suspicion that will, as night follows day, lead them into the arms of all manner of cranks and mystical leaders. That needs to be argued against as such if we are to keep open a space for Marxist analysis that is, in some sense, ‘scientific’. It is by virtue of its analysis of the nature of this political-economic system that Marxism leads us to change the world instead of merely interpreting it.

Our ‘science’ is a science of social transformation, realising our potential together as agents of collective change. One of Marx’s favourite sayings was ‘doubt everything’, an approach which works in line with Marxism, and science, and that cuts into every conspiracy theory that is closed and certain in its attempt to account for everything and explain away the cracks and contradictions. Conspiracy theory refers ‘facts’ that it can glean from science, but abstracted from scientific research.

And, worst case scenario, we then see superstition and hatred that is hitched to the far right come into play, and that is where the suspicion of science turns into hatred of Marxism, and of ‘cultural Marxism’ as one of the antisemitic code-words used by fascists. Then, because we are refusing to cheer on the search for the groups or individuals responsible for our ills, because we are insisting that this is a system of production that is at fault, we could then be seen as part of the enemy. Then we really do have the danger of creeping fascism.

Capitalism as a political-ideological structure that operates in tandem with economic exploitation is composed of conspiracies, conspiracies that pretend to explain how the world works and career-guides for individuals isolated from each other who want to be the rulers. Like fascism itself, conspiracy theory flourishes at times of defeat when collective organisation against capitalism is weak, when people are isolated from each other then have to puzzle on their own, as separate individuals, about what the hell is going on. The alienated individual in the grip of the society of the spectacle in social media is one of the key relay points.

That is why we need to argue with the conspiracy theorists among us now, clarify with them what it is they fear and mobilise them in a collective project to change the world. We need to win them back to Marxism, Marxism as the diametric opposite and explanation for the hold of conspiracy theory. If we just treat them as automatic enemies we will be playing a deadly game, a game of hunt the enemy, a game with deadly consequences for us and for progressive movements.

You can read and comment on this article where it was first published here

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RADICAL PSYCHOANALYSIS AND ANTI-CAPITALIST ACTION

The crisis-ridden capitalist system is having disastrous effects on the climate, on our bodies, on our internal worlds, on how we feel and try to respond, on how we panic, and on how we act collectively. Psychoanalysis can be part of our collective political response. Ian Parker shows in this short introductory book written for Anti-Capitalist Resistance and published by Resistance Books in 2022 how personal struggle can be linked to political struggle so we can confront misery in this world and find alternatives in anti-capitalist resistance. This is a long read, about 12,000 words. The full-text PDF of the book can be downloaded here.

Politicians of all stripes now talk about ‘mental health’. They tell us how they have suffered, and promise more resources to put things right. At the same time, welfare services are being cut, people are told to sort problems out for themselves, and the state is beefed up to deal with dissent. With increasing misery comes increasing anger, some of it directed at capitalism and some of it turned around against ourselves, even into ourselves, so this sick system also makes us sick. Energy that could overthrow this rotten system is turned around to sabotage our collective struggles for a world beyond capitalism.

Mainstream ‘mental health’ and ‘well-being’ programmes are too-often focused on making us change our thoughts, urging us to be happy, and fit in. But there is an alternative. The alternative comes through political action, through anti-capitalist resistance and many other political struggles, and this is where radical psychoanalysis can be our ally. But to make it our ally we need to know what it is and what it could be. Another world is possible, and psychoanalysis opens up possibilities for personal and political change.

1. Why do we suffer?

Human beings suffer and also, against all odds, they thrive. They do both in very different ways in different cultures and at different points in history. We suffer now from a sick world, a capitalist world, and the suffering is quite specific. It takes different forms for each of us, and that is why a psychoanalytic approach to suffering listens to us one by one, listening to our distress, our different ways of living and barely surviving in this world.

We cannot pretend to understand completely the complicated and hidden ways each one of us suffers, but what we do know is that capitalism as a sick system is grinding us down while it destroys the world. Capitalism, a system of political-economic domination, also intensifies other forms of oppression, including sexism and racism, and it turns us from being the ones who can change the world into our own worst enemies, so we become attached to our misery while blaming others for it.

Separation and conflict

We want a world where we can live and work, be creative and happy, but we are torn apart and torn from each other, while those who benefit from this terrible destructive exploitation rub their hands and encourage us to join them. Those in positions of power and privilege want us to scramble upwards, treading on everyone else, as they do.

The false promise is that by working our way up, and abandoning those who suffer alongside us, we can be happy. The promise is that more money and more power, especially power over others, will relieve our misery. In the process this might, those in power hope, even dissolve our knowledge that things are wrong, that this kind of world is built on lies. Ideology that tells us we cannot change is a system of lies. It is just not true that we cannot change, be otherwise.

Separation and conflict in this sad world are quite specific to capitalism; this is alienation, which has awful effects, and which psychoanalysis has insights into, insights into the depth of suffering and into the way distress paralyses us and turns our energy for change into resentment at each other.

Alienation as competition

We are already separated from each other in the market-place for labour power. That labour power is what we sell in order to get a wage, what we must sell in order to survive. Labour power is not only physical but also mental, and mental labour in a software company for example, is then treated as superior to physical labour. It is not, but that feeling of superiority is part and parcel of the competitive world in which we sell our labour power, a world that alienates us from each other. We then compete to get the job, compete to keep the job, compete with foreigners, who, we are told, are threatening our jobs; and we resent those who seem to have cushy jobs.

In this way, alienation as competition with others drives us into our own little individual selves, the tiny world of the individual body separated from others, and we become convinced that it is only individual struggle and individual success that counts. This is ideology. This is the false self-destructive world, and the private inner world, where we imagine that all that counts is the ‘I’, what is good for ‘me’; this self-contained individual ‘me’ is what psychoanalysis calls the ‘ego’. Some psychoanalysts aim to strengthen the ego, to adapt it to society, to enable us merely to survive, help us compete, but radical psychoanalysis reminds us that there is more to us than this.

We are who we are with and alongside. Psychoanalysis describes how we patch together our sense of self, our ‘ego’, from our relationships with others. Early relationships are crucial, but this is a process that continues throughout life, something we notice in the way we borrow words and phrases and little tics from those who are close to us, as well as from the media.

But another world is possible, and also possible is another way of being human. Then we can come to be who we are among others, with us, tackling that competitive alienation in collective struggle.

Alienation from our bodies

Psychoanalysis shows us how this miserable separation from other people in the world of work under capitalism also separates us from our own bodies. Each of us locked into our selves must sell our labour power, and that labour power is there in the body that takes us to work or in the brain that must produce something for a wage. So, alongside the fear that someone else will take our job is the fear that our own body will break down, let us down, even turn against us.

Our bodily ‘health’ is then intimately linked to our ‘mental health’. We become anxious and depressed about what our body cannot or will not do. And we have enough examples around us to learn that those with bodies that are not healthy enough will quickly be ‘disabled’, turned into the waste of this rotten system.

Alienation from our body then becomes something toxic, and we may live our distress through our bodies. We know friends and relatives who have already done this, been broken and stuck in misery in which their bodies seem to cry out for them to be heard.

Psychoanalysis listens to how our alienation and misery locks up what we want to cry out, locks up our distress in our body so that a physical symptom takes the place of that distress and speaks for it in disguise, or locks up our distress in the mind so that the thought that we have failed, or some other self-destructive thought, goes round and round inside our head.

Ideas and images of what a normal body is like, and what we are told is weak or ‘abnormal’, then feed these symptoms. Images of women as weak or irrational or even as ‘hysterical’ when they complain, or of gay sexuality as a sign that something has gone wrong, or of the black body as savage, uncivilised, then make it so that the individual symptoms also operate as social symptoms. Then we live out different forms of oppression in our bodies, locked into them. The question, which radical psychoanalysis helps us answer, is how we might find space to speak and be heard and take action to change the conditions that lock us up inside ourselves.

Alienation from nature          

That is not all. Capitalism as an economic system based on the drive for profit and the enrichment of a few must exploit nature just as it exploits each of us who sell our labour power. We are alienated from nature, and the world is spinning out of our control. It is burning. Some scientists call this stage of history the ‘Anthropocene’, as if it is the appearance of human beings in the world and their domination of other animals and nature that is the underlying cause of climate change and environmental disaster. It is not.

Human-led destruction is a function of relations of power, of exploitation of nature, of the oppression and alienation that afflicts us all. It has been intensified in the last few hundred years by the capitalist system, so we could really call this period of history the ‘Capitalocene’. It is capitalism that is the problem, not human beings. Human beings can work together cooperatively, and will need to do that in order to overthrow capitalism and create better ways to live together.

Domination of nature is at the heart of this, and made central to capitalism as it extracts value from bodies and from the land, extracts it for sale. The drive to dominate nature is sometimes expressed in fear of nature that gets out of control, and sometimes in attempts to ‘return’ to nature, as if merging with it will solve the problem. That romantic solution, that romanticising of nature will not solve the problem of our alienation from nature. Yes, this is where we should be, with nature, and living alongside other species, and radical psychoanalysis agrees that this is a way forward, while also noticing some of the traps this can lead us into.

Radical psychoanalysis offers a diagnosis of our alienation from nature that is also a diagnosis of the false paths we take when we try to either dominate it or merge with it. We cannot start from scratch, go back to nature, abandon the technical scientific gains we have made. To feed the world and live in these new climate conditions will depend on our rational, collective and democratically-organised abilities. That means confronting our fear of natural forces that are more powerful than us and carefully examining what is possible and what is not. And it means acknowledging that each of us is part of nature, but always transforming it as we make sense of it for ourselves, not being driven by brute animal instincts. We are animal and more than animal, with political responsibility to each other and to the world.

Alienation from creativity

We can change the world we have made: it already has the shape it has. But that is not the whole picture. The world has taken shape guided by the needs of the ruling classes of each epoch, and today by those fuelled by the drive for profit. We do not make the world under conditions of our own choosing. Our creative capacity as human beings, which will enable us to get out of this mess if we act collectively against capitalism, is channelled and distorted by those who buy our labour power and then sell the fruits of our labours.

That is, we are alienated from our creativity. What we creatively produce is stolen from us, and the theft we suffer at the heart of capitalism is even deeper than this. At the very moment that we create something while we work, it is harnessed for sale. What is of value is turned into ‘exchange value’, into an object that turns our labour into a commodity.

Even our own labour power, even our own bodies, and even elements of nature itself, are turned into commodities by capitalism. Our lives are turned into things for sale – into commodities – and so alienation operates right at the core of what we are as human beings. We are creative beings, living, loving, making sense of this world with others, but that aspect of our human nature is systematically distorted. This systematic distortion, alienation from our creativity, is at the root of much distress, mental distress which is often also expressed through physical distress, real illness.

Psychoanalysis is caught up in this problem, and anyone who has sought help for their distress will know this. When psychoanalysis as a particular kind of treatment of distress is a ‘private’ treatment, as it so often is, it is also turned into a kind of commodity. The space that someone needs to speak and to be listened to has to be bought, and the professional who offers you that space will be pushed and pulled by market forces. In the public health services, this one-by-one psychoanalytic treatment is expensive, and rationed, and there is a selection of people to be ‘patients’, usually those who already know how to operate within the rules of the game. Radical psychoanalysis has to be creative, and offer creative solutions, to be up to the task of connecting with change instead of colluding with alienation.

Alienation online

Now, in addition to the other aspects of life that separate us from others and from ourselves, even our forms of communication operate against us. The social media we use to access information about the world is not only unreliable but contradictory, confusing. Interaction online has the effect of drawing us into a gigantic competitive game-like field of communication in which our relationship to reality is systematically undermined. It is as if the real world itself disappears, and in its place are toxic competing messages and images that sometimes bring comfort, a sense of community, but more often bring isolation and anxiety.

One of the claims made by ‘humanistic psychotherapists’ who mistakenly take our experience at face value is that your feelings are your friends. That was never really true, and ‘psychoanalytic psychotherapists’ and ‘psychoanalysts’ argued that we are always separated from our feelings, alienated from them as we try to put them into words. Psychoanalytic ‘free association’ is a way of noticing that, and noticing how feelings are transformed as we speak about them.

Now, despite the claims of the big media companies who want to sell the latest model of their product to you, your phone is not your friend; it misleads as much as it informs, and it gathers data about you for more marketing, it informs on you. This ‘digital alienation’ turns your image of yourself online into a commodity to be bought and sold. It is part of a bewitching computerised media universe which gives license to a multitude of conspiracy theories that pretend to give access to a more authentic view of the world while sucking us into an unpleasant destructive meme-world.

Psychoanalysis does not pretend to disclose what the world is really like nor does it disclose what you are really thinking, imagining, fantasising about. Instead, the focus is on the mechanisms by which reality is pushed away, ‘repressed’. It is the work of repression that we learn about in psychoanalysis and our relation to our unconscious, not the stuff hidden away in the unconscious or under surface as such.

That is also why radical psychoanalysis is ‘ecosocialist’ in the sense that it does not return us directly to nature as if that is underneath our human culture, something authentic and deep in which we will feel at home. Rather, radical ecosocialist psychoanalysis helps us together create a world in which we respect other species, respect nature, build a different relationship with it. We live in exile from nature, whereas psychoanalysis helps us live with it.

Separation from life

Radical psychoanalysis provides a critique of alienation that deepens the critical analysis made of capitalism by different political movements. Exploitation of the working class, oppression of women, pathologisation of alternative forms of sexuality – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer – exclusion of people with disabilities, and the turning of animals into objects only harvested as industrial processed food, all of these aspects of life that produce so much misery are bound together by alienation.

Alienation deepens each aspect of exploitation and oppression under capitalism, and it binds each of us to this society even at the very moments that we want to resist it. We know things are rotten, and we want to speak out, but we often feel afraid, isolated, and helpless. How can we find space to speak, and link that speaking against exploitation and oppression to action? What does psychoanalysis have to say about our creative rebellious energy that would help us give that energy for change a voice, put it to work?

2. What are we?

Separation and conflict are sources of power for those who are already too powerful under capitalism; but they can also be turned into sources of power for ourselves. The system works by ‘divide and rule’, setting people against each other, inciting them to be good workers who will exclude others, blaming immigrants, women and others. People are made to feel they are missing out, lacking something. They are told they could buy things to make them happy if they could afford to, and that someone or some others are to blame. There are so many traps, traps that lead us to hurt others and hurt ourselves more.

Psychoanalysis provides one way of thinking about what we are, one way of turning separation and conflict into sources of strength. Yes, we need to be able to separate ourselves from our immediate responses to others and ourselves, and we need to be able to do that because those immediate responses are not always the authentic deep feelings that will guide us out of this mess that they pretend to be. This is because ‘feelings’ under capitalism have also been turned into commodities, objects to be bought and sold, along with every other aspect of life.

Feelings of love, attraction and desire, along with hate, repulsion and resentment, do not flow from our underlying human nature, but are organised by the culture we live in and through which we learn to be human. They are organised under capitalism as part of ideology, ideas that are false, misleading us about how the world works and what our place in it is, telling us that we will always be like this, that things can never change.

Conflict and ambivalence

Political action is one way of separating us from the ruling ideology, the system of ideas that keep the ruling class in place as if their privilege and power was normal and natural. But when we act collectively against capitalism, new ways of living appear as possibilities. Other worlds are possible when we struggle, break from capitalism, and break from the ideology that tells us how we should feel and who we should love and who we should hate, and how we should go about loving and hating.

It is not possible to have political action without conflict, conflict between classes, conflict between ideas about how the world could and should be organised, and here psychoanalysis emphasises a key element of change. For psychoanalysis, conflict is always present in every social relationship, whether at the level of society or at the level of organisations or groups, including inside every family, whatever form that family takes. And, crucially, conflict is always present inside each individual.

We are taught to be ‘individuals’ under capitalism, and this means two things; that we are separate from others, ‘individuated’ from them instead of working with them collectively; and that we are ‘undivided’, operating as if we are complete self-contained units. But neither of these things is true: we are always linked to others and we are always divided beings.

We are all riddled with conflict. We are divided from ourselves, wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time, and wanting different things that pull us in different directions. We sometimes hate those we love, we feel torn about what we are told we need and what we think we need. In psychoanalytic terms we are ambivalent, always ambivalent, contradictory beings.

That contradictoriness, that ambivalence, fires change, it opens the way to noticing what can be different, leads us to act so that we make a difference in the world. When it finds expression in the political realm, when it becomes anti-capitalist, that ambivalence and the creative engagement in conflict that goes with it enables us to see that every radical political movement is also divided, and that its internal division need not be a source of weakness but can be a source of strength.

That is why times of revolution, when social conflicts come out into the open and there is a possibility of changing the world, perhaps of overthrowing capitalism, are so energising. Times of revolution make visible different kinds of conflict, not only around class relations but also around questions of gender, sexuality and what minority groups are able to say and do.

Repression and freedom

Repressive regimes hate psychoanalysis as well as radical politics. This was the case for the fascist regimes in Europe, and that is why psychoanalysts had to flee for their lives from the Nazis, and it was also the case for the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet bloc. Those regimes were threatened by class conflict, and by the struggles of women and minority communities, and they were threatened by psychoanalysis as an approach to our internal lives that emphasises the role of conflict.

Russia under Stalin and the other regimes modelled on the Soviet Union forbade psychoanalysis, and there is a political question for us here about what form radical politics must take. It must always be committed to democratic rights. The fundamental method of psychoanalysis as a treatment of distress is ‘free association’, to speak as freely as possible about ideas that come to mind, ideas that are associated with our distress. It is through that free association that it is possible to get a sense of how we have been formed as individuals, each one of us thinking about some particular things that bewitch or bother us and refusing to think about other things.

Free association is a method that enables us to notice the form alienation takes for each person. Of course, free association inside psychoanalysis requires freedom of speech in society. Just as free association inside psychoanalysis brings to light repressed ideas about sexuality and the choices we make about how to love, so free association in the political realm is the necessary space for the creative flowering of ideas about new forms of identity, including sexual identity, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and so on.

New forms of identity open up new ways of connecting with oppressed groups, new more open relations between different cultural communities. So, a society that has forbidden freedom of speech will be suspicious of what might be spoken about inside psychoanalysis in case it spills out into the open.

Fascism

Fascism is a particularly dangerous case in point, and particularly dangerous now when there are new fascist movements. Fascism grows when there is conflict that gets out of control, out of control of the ruling class and the capitalist state that is dedicated to protecting large-scale private property, private corporations, and the power of the ruling class. Fascism takes power when the working class and other movements of the oppressed have failed, when they are beaten, when they are weak. Then the role of fascism is to restore order, to ensure there is no internal conflict, and to enable profits to rise.

Before it takes power, fascism is a deadly enemy of free association and an enemy of any genuinely liberating political movements that open up conflict. The way fascism deals with conflict is quite specific, and dangerous. It replaces internal conflict with conflict directed at others, at those who are different.

Fascism combines two forms of repression: direct repression by the capitalist state through assassination, abduction, arrest and imprisonment; and ideological repression through an ideological assault on the very idea of free association. It is that ideological repression working its way into the mind of each individual that has been the main concern of psychoanalysis. It is radical psychoanalysis that speaks explicitly of these things.

Fascism mobilises and intensifies the fear each of us have about our alienated lives and what might happen if we start to think about the possibility that things could be different. The fear is harnessed into what psychoanalysis calls ‘defences’. We can think here of the way the capitalist state defends itself by setting fascism loose at times of threat, and of internal defences as how that process replicates itself inside the individual so they stop themselves thinking, and then hate what they perceive to be different.

This is how conflict inside society which might lead to revolutionary transformation, to the end of capitalism and to the flowering of different ways of being human, is replaced by fascism, with the kind of controlled conflict which gathers together a people as if they are all the same and pits them against those who are different. The mass murder of people diagnosed as having ‘mental illness’, of disabled people, of homosexuals, and of Jews and Roma and other minorities under the Nazis was a gigantic horrific cleansing of society of real conflict. There was an ideological assault on those who were marked as different and an ideological fantasy that by wiping out conflict the society could function as some kind of healthy natural organism.

There is so much psychoanalytic writing on fascism precisely because it is a telling example of how the simple enforcement of ‘health’ can be so sick, so destructive. Radical psychoanalysis values difference and speaking about it, and living it, and psychoanalysis was a target of fascism for that very reason.

History and fantasy

Fascism and other reactionary political forces – those designed to block anti-capitalist and liberation movements – are driven by a fantasy about what is normal and natural in society. This means they are also driven by a fantasy that wipes away history. Fantasy is a kind of organised illusion that feels comforting but can sometimes be disturbing and dangerous, be delusory. This fantasy can be understood as being a necessary part of the ruling ideology of capitalist societies; it takes different forms in different capitalist societies but boils down to the same claim, that this social order is how we always were and must always be.

Psychoanalysis looks at how ideological fantasy operates at a deeper level, inside each individual, who uses those attempts to wipe away history to shore up their own sense of self, their own fragile ego. The thought that we were not always like this and that things may change is unbearable to those whose lives and societies are ruled by fantasy, those who rely on many different kinds of ‘defence’ to forbid other possibilities being thought or talked about.

The fact is that capitalism has only been the dominant system of political-economic rule on this planet for quite a short time, a few hundred years, and in some countries it is even less than that. The development of capitalism in Europe required the ‘under-development’ of other parts of the world, with natural resources plundered and peoples enslaved. Colonialism meant racist regimes of white people who treated those they ruled as lesser beings, to be repressed and prevented from speaking and acting for themselves.

This was a feature of capitalism from the beginning. Each capitalist culture has its own peculiar way of ‘inventing tradition’, that is, making it seem as if quite recent ways of living were always there, as if they had existed back into the mists of time.

It simply is not true that national cultures always existed as they do now. National cultures invent their history to operate in the present and hold things in place. One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that the stories each of us tell ourselves about who we are operate in the same kind of way. We are told and told again who we are and what our family and cultural allegiances should be as if they are normal and natural.

Stories we tell ourselves about who and how we should love, how our sexual enjoyment is organised, are of a piece with that. Not only are they fictions, as fictional as the supposedly conflict-free nationalist and fascist stories about the past, but these fantasies wipe away the real history of how we have come to be who we are.

Psychoanalysis warns us that we cannot ever travel back in time to be sure of the real story, what really happened, but we can question the stories that have been handed down to us and that rule our lives. New stories can be invented, but they need new conditions of life for that to happen. Conflict, and the tension between different stories, opens up the possibility that we might remake ourselves, and radical psychoanalysis helps us think about how we might remake ourselves at a personal level while remaking ourselves together with others at a collective level.

3. Where is psychoanalysis now?

Psychoanalysis also has a history. Some psychoanalysts think that it was ‘discovered’ by Sigmund Freud at the end of the nineteenth century, so they are caught up in their own quite un-psychoanalytic way of wishing away the history of the world before Freud. To insist that it was ‘discovered’ is to make it seem that it was always there, and it was the lucky break of this guy in Vienna to hit upon it, dig it up.

The problem is that to assume psychoanalysis was always there leads to a-historical stories of the past, and to attempts to apply psychoanalytic ideas to pre-capitalist times where it makes no sense. It also leads to the idea that we will never be free of psychoanalysis, and to a colonialist assumption that every other culture can be psychoanalysed. Radical psychoanalysts are more careful and say instead that psychoanalysis was ‘invented’ by Freud and his followers.

Psychoanalysis was invented at a time when it made perfect sense. Freud himself often liked to claim that psychoanalysis was scientific, and tried to apply it to historical figures as if it would work as an explanatory framework for the past as well as for the present under capitalism. But actually, like Marxism, which is specifically designed to understand and challenge capitalist society, psychoanalysis is specifically geared to understand the society it was invented in. This was a developing capitalist society in which there was increasing alienation, and so the increasing separation of individuals from each other. Then it made sense that distress that is experienced at an individual level should be treated at an individual level. The distress and the treatment are thus ‘privatised’. Psychoanalysis speaks of life in and against capitalist society.

The alienation of people from their own bodies was the context for the weird ‘hysterical’ symptoms that patients came to Freud with; bits of their bodies were operating separately from their owners, shouting, twitching, convulsing, or paralysed. These patients’ own nature was a threat to them, and their own creative capacities were systematically distorted. Collective activity was also seen as a threat, as a kind of pathology, and that was an idea about groups and crowds that Freud himself, who was a political liberal who worried about radical and rapid social change, actively supported.

This is not at all to say that capitalism alone was the only cause or context for the development of psychoanalysis. The treatment of women as emotional non-rational beings also meant that the kind of psychoanalysis that wanted to be a ‘science’ then sided with stereotypically dominant masculinity, sided with men at the head of the patriarchal family. Patriarchy is the organised power of men over women, with the family as a crucial relay point for that power. The development of capitalism in Europe, which was intimately linked with the exploitation of the rest of the world, meant that images of ‘civilisation’ and of ‘savages’ who were seen as a threat played a key role in Freud’s own ideas about child ‘development’.

Freud, as a Jew, and therefore marginal to mainstream capitalist society because of antisemitism, was certainly critical of society, but he was also trained as a psychiatrist, a medical professional anxious about his own status. So, when it came down to it, he sided with this society against those who argued for a different way of being that would really have enabled people to live their own lives, perhaps a little more free of repression.

Now, as a consequence of this history, we have a problem. The problem is that psychoanalysis is a key to unlock some aspects of capitalist society, but it is also the lock, part of the very society it gives critical insight into. This is where things get complicated, where we really need a political understanding of psychoanalysis too.

Academic psychoanalysis

One problem of psychoanalysis is that there is so much of it in the academic world. One of the consequences of the destruction of psychoanalysis by the Nazis in Germany was that when psychoanalysts fled and found new homes in other countries, they were understandably anxious about their immigrant status and concerned about ‘adapting themselves’ to their new homes. In the process many of them turned psychoanalysis from being a tool of critique and rebellion into a tool of adaptation, focused on fitting people in and enabling them to behave as good, well-behaved citizens in a capitalist culture.

Some psychoanalysts stayed critical, and new waves of psychoanalysis, particularly in the English-speaking world, have taken root in university departments. However, ‘critical’ academic work is often very different from real political critique linked to action. To really critically analyse capitalism, or racism or sexism, should be to provide a radical interpretation that empowers people to change things. More than that, the very act of reading and taking seriously a critical analysis of society should involve the reader in a process of political change, and the test of the analysis will be the process of collective change they engage in, through strikes, occupations, and constructions of new forms of life that challenge the capitalist state.

Academics are trained to read and write, and to publish in journals that are read by other academics, and ‘popular’ books about their research are often frowned on in their own departments. Research projects are usually funded by organisations that want to limit the ‘impact’ of the research to future ‘social policy’. This means that the kind of psychoanalysis that has become popular in departments of literature or philosophy or psychology and even in ‘social theory’ or politics has adapted itself to those niches. It then becomes rather abstract, even elitist, and is often incomprehensible to people who live and work and want to change the real world.

There have been some interesting critical psychoanalytic analyses of fascism, however, and some of the émigrés from continental Europe who found homes elsewhere in university departments provide some insights into the nature of fascism. More recently, some of the new developments in theories of sexuality, most notably queer theory, have happened in these departments. It is to the credit of the academics who have reached out and tried to connect those theories with changes in the real world that they have broken with traditional academic practice, broken through traditional academic boundaries.

Clinical psychoanalysis

In this process, and again this is particularly the case in the English-speaking world, the radical psychoanalysis that has developed in academic departments has often been disconnected from psychoanalysis in the clinic.

In the clinical realm – where psychoanalysis is used as a treatment of distress – psychoanalysis is sometimes confused with psychiatry. Psychiatry is a medical profession, and even when psychiatrists turn their hand to talking about problems with their patients, there is still, at the back of their minds, a medical understanding of the symptom as the expression of some kind of disorder, as an illness. Freud was trained as a psychiatrist and had to break from it in order to develop psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is not a medical treatment: it is a talking cure.

If you put things into words, that does not guarantee that you will be listened to without being judged; but that is what a psychoanalyst should do. A psychoanalyst listens, draws attention to contradictions, repetitions, opens up conflict in order to work with it and understand what is going on, and, most importantly, makes space for their patient to understand for themselves what is going on. The talking is to another, and the other person, the psychoanalyst, does challenge, does draw attention to the repetitions, does not let the person who speaks to them off the hook so they can pretend that things are just running as normal, as if there is no contradiction, as if there is no conflict.

The kind of professional who does judge and lead the patient along a certain path is usually someone schooled in psychology. Psychology is devoted to noticing problematic thoughts and putting them right, so there are often underlying assumptions about what is normal and what is abnormal. Here we are back to the problem of judging and setting out how people should be happy, how they should function in society. Radical psychoanalysis is effectively a form of ‘anti-psychology’.

Often psychoanalysis provides insight in the clinic that is therapeutic, but psychoanalysts are very careful not to rush too fast, to simply make the therapy the be-all and end-all of the treatment. Understanding, which is a priority for psychotherapists who want to make you feel you have been understood, has a role, but so does misunderstanding, which is much more important for radical psychoanalysis. Understanding too-often functions to draw people into the same frame as the psychotherapist. Parents like to say to their children that they ‘understand’ them, but it is better when they can tolerate misunderstanding.

Psychoanalysts tolerate and work with misunderstanding, their own and that of the analysand, who encounters their own unconscious as they speak. A psychoanalyst should know that every individual has their own singular way of dealing with alienation, with making their symptoms work for them, and that giving them a space to speak is not the same as pretending to ‘understand’ the inner life of another human being.

Freud is sometimes quoted as saying that the function of psychoanalysis is to transform hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. How could psychoanalysis pretend to do more than that in a society that is systematically organised around exploitation and oppression? Unhappiness and the selling of commodities that pretend to make people ‘happy’ is the name of the game under capitalism. We can only claim more than Freud did for psychoanalysis by linking psychoanalysis with social change, with ending this wretched political-economic system once and for all.

Psychoanalysis is all around us

We are all familiar with images of psychoanalysts sitting behind a couch and of patients babbling on about their childhoods to no good effect, except that they end up blaming their parents for their problems and then idealise psychoanalysis, maybe training to be an analyst or giving amateur interpretations to their friends and comrades about the ‘Oedipus complex’ or some other idea they have picked up. We might have heard about the Oedipus complex as a description of rivalry with dad and desire to marry mum, and the pity of it is that some enthusiasts for psychoanalysis use this to interpret whole societies. At least in the clinic we know that the aim is not to make people fit into the so-called Oedipus complex but to free them from it.

What we face here is the popular cultural uptake of psychoanalytic ideas. That makes the task of explaining how psychoanalysis can be ‘radical’ a very difficult one. On the one hand, if we make things too simple, then we just play along with everyday commonsense about our unconscious lives or the role of fantasy, and then we have explained nothing. Things stay in place, nothing changes. On the other hand, if we make things too complicated, we come across as some kind of crank, or as a ‘psy’ professional peddling their interpretations, or as an academic turning politics into some kind of weird thesis.

There is a risk here also in using psychoanalytic ideas in the anti-capitalist movement. There has long been a close link between psychoanalysis and the left. Some of the most radical figures on the revolutionary left have been attracted to psychoanalysis; it kind of plugs in a gap in political analysis about the role of the individual in history, and it does help explain why people remain so attached to irrational ideas that are actually so obviously reactionary and self-sabotaging.

There has also been an uptake of psychoanalytic ideas among feminists who can use it to unravel the claims of patriarchy to show us what is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ about sexuality, and this does take us in the direction of radical psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in the hands of feminists opens the way to a really queer sexuality that is revolutionary, against what is assumed to be ‘normal’. No one is ‘normal’.

In anti-colonial and anti-racist theory, there has also been use of psychoanalysis to understand racism, not only racism of the oppressors, how they defend themselves against people who are different, but also internalised racism among the oppressed. Psychoanalysis is very good at showing how all of us buy into our oppression.

We sometimes find pop psychoanalytic ideas appear in the left and feminist and anti-colonial movements, in the notion that unconscious urges that have been ‘repressed’ and so should be released, for example, or that there are really healthy kinds of sexuality that need to be expressed as part of the revolution.

We do not ‘release’ or ‘express’ stuff in a revolution: we create it. Our task is to build a revolutionary movement and lay the basis for the creating a better world beyond capitalism. We need to beware of the way that psychoanalysis is tamed, and turned into part of the ideological apparatus of capitalism. Sometimes the distortions of psychoanalysis are relatively innocent, but we need to tread with care, and not listen to one individual guru or another telling us what is what.

Psychoanalysis teaches us to be sceptical about masters or claims to mastery or master-frameworks that pretend to explain anything and everything. We should already have learned the dangers of that from the degeneration of Marxism into something akin to a religious faith under Stalin and in the apparently ‘post-capitalist’ workers’ states. The development of radical psychoanalysis will change from context to context, and must be a collective process.

4. What use is it?

This is the crunch point. What use can be made of psychoanalysis in practice in a way that works with revolutionary movements instead of against them? For all the progressive ideas and practical possibilities that Freud and his followers opened up, there are lots of traps. Like many other radical ideas, psychoanalysis has been absorbed and neutralised, turned against us even while it points towards liberation. So here we will look at psychoanalytic ideas in practice in three domains, that of the individual, the group, and society as a whole, and point to what these ideas offer and some of the dangers we need to beware of.

Science of struggle and transformation

Psychoanalysis is ‘scientific’ in a special way that is connected with its practice. It is not a ‘natural science’ like chemistry or physics, but a human science; that is, it provides an explanatory framework for understanding the social world. When it pretends to be neutral and ‘objective’ like a natural science and simply circulates as a set of ideas that are disconnected from practice, there is a real risk that it turns into ideology, into false ideas that present the world as unchangeable, that present the domination and power we suffer as natural and unchangeable.

Then the danger is that psychoanalysis turns into some kind of weird worldview that pretends to explain everything; then it makes a bid to be a kind of ‘master code’ that will unlock all the puzzles of the social and natural world. Some psychoanalysts are drawn into that way of thinking, and they are then resistant to, even hostile towards, other forms of knowledge. They may lecture feminists and Marxists about what they have got wrong and busy themselves putting psychoanalytic ideas in place of liberating ones.

But the best of radical psychoanalysis is actually closer to Marxism and feminism. Marxism is not just a theory to describe the world, still less to guide ‘policy-makers’ to help capitalism run more smoothly, or to prop up a regime that uses Marxism as some sort of religious faith. That was how it came to function in Russia, and does still now in China, both capitalist countries.

Marxism is geared to transform the world at the very same moment that it explains what exploitation and oppression is. Marxism makes sense from the standpoint of the exploited, not from the standpoint of those with power, whether those are businesspersons or politicians. It makes sense because it transforms our understanding and impels us into action to change the world. Then, in the process of changing social conditions, we can test out best which aspects work for us. Feminism and the most radical forms of sexual politics, and anti-racist struggle too, similarly work as a process of change. The process of change uncovers what has been holding us back. They are sciences of struggle, of transformation.

This is why radical psychoanalysis is a science of struggle and transformation; it is part of a struggle to understand how we have come to be who we are at a personal level and it aids transformation of ourselves as we engage in that process of understanding. This means that the theory does not work when it is simply handed down to people, when they are told what they must think, but only when they think and act for themselves. Just as Marxist and feminist and anti-racist ideas must be put into practice by the exploited and oppressed, by themselves and for themselves as they become conscious of what this world is doing to them, so psychoanalysis is a means for someone to think and act for themselves.

Sometimes this person who makes use of psychoanalysis is called a ‘patient’, as if psychoanalysis is a medical profession, or a ‘client’, as if they are buying a service. In psychoanalytic jargon this person is termed ‘analysand’; an ‘analysand’ is the one who analyses. It is not the only path, the only approach, but it is a useful one. How might it work?

Personal as political

We experience ourselves as separate beings in capitalist society because we have been brought up to compete with others, and that also means that we experience our distress at an individual level. Political activists are faced with distress about the horrible things that are done to them at an individual level, and this distress is compounded by their awareness of exploitation and oppression. This has always been the case, and activists have had to care for themselves, seek out support, while carrying on struggling alongside others in social movements and radical groups. They know that collective work is the only thing that will make a difference, but this is not easy, sometimes painful, sometimes too much to bear.

We see this today among our comrades and people new to political struggle who are shocked, horrified, overwhelmed by the scale of abuse and violence in the world. Many people who are finding out about the climate catastrophe, the destruction of the world as a result of the drive for profit, violence against women and endemic racism can feel that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We see this among our sisters and brothers who are attempting to make sense of the way their bodies are impacted by sexism, and when they explore what it means to be male or female, queer or trans, they are subject to abuse by family and friends and even by some on the left, by those who should know better.

Not only have we hard lessons to learn about the depth of hurt caused by racism and the treatment of people who are disabled – disabled because their bodies are not seen as fit to make them productive workers – but we have lessons to learn about how to respond to distress.

Distress, like much else in this world, is ‘privatised’, locked inside us. That means that it makes perfect sense for us to try and buy a service that will help us feel better, to ask for help as a ‘client’ or a consumer. And it sometimes makes sense for us to believe that our distress is because of some medical problem – so we seek out a mind doctor and turn ourselves into ‘patients’.

There are many responses we need to learn from, many of which are not psychoanalytic at all. These include those who can see that ‘mental distress’ is privatised and look to collective solutions through refusing medical diagnoses or treatments that aim to make them think differently and adapt them to a sick world. There are movements for ‘mad pride’ that do this, and movements that give space for people to talk about the way they harm themselves, or their experience of hearing voices, or their paranoia, or their need to rebel.

Psychiatric labels sometimes give people comfort and access to support, but these labels need to be redefined and used by people themselves if they must be used at all, not handed down as a kind of medical life-sentence by a doctor or by a family that has bought into a medical explanation as a quick fix. Some ‘anti-psychiatry’ movements argue that when we are labelled as ‘ill’ we need to respond by turning around that label and treat illness as a weapon, to channel our rage in collective struggle.

Psychoanalysis also needs to learn from these approaches and needs to ally with them. But what does psychoanalysis do that is different in what psychoanalysts still like to call the ‘clinic’? This psychoanalytic ‘clinic’ is not run by men in white coats, but is simply a confidential space in which we speak to another person – speak to the psychoanalyst or psychoanalytic therapist or psychodynamic counsellor, or in a ‘group analytic’ meeting – and encounter something of ourselves that we usually push away, make ‘unconscious’. Psychoanalysis is a ‘talking cure’. That description was used by one of the first analysands.

Does the analysand lie on a couch? Maybe. What is important is that they are given confidential safe space to speak without being judged. Psychoanalysts should not push interpretations, but give space for the analysand to analyse. Yes, the psychoanalyst notices repetition of key words or phrases, and notices how significant relationships with other key figures are repeated, including in relation to them as analyst.

They are repeated, noticed, and the analysand can then decide to move on. This decision is difficult. The joke goes that it only takes one psychotherapist to change a light-bulb but the light-bulb must really want to change.

This joke does not work if you take psychoanalysis seriously because we are so locked into who we have been told we are that we put a lot of effort into preventing change. The light-bulb analysand does not want to change, they want things to stay the same. It is easier to stay stuck and just repeat what you have always said and done, so this analysis that happens in the presence of a psychoanalyst who incites change, and enables change, is difficult, sometimes annoying, upsetting.

Now we have another warning, which is that some psychoanalysts are medically trained, so they cannot help themselves diagnosing and then giving interpretations, as if interpreting was a kind of medicine. This is the way of some psychoanalysts who ‘treat’ trans as if it was all a matter of what medically-trained professionals call ‘dysphoria’. Sometimes it is worse, and the psychoanalyst carries into their clinic reactionary ideas about supposedly natural biological differences between men and women. Sometimes they bring in well-meaning ideas they have learnt about different cultures, so they end up making assumptions that are racist. Sometimes they are just downright conservative, and then they have bought into the idea that people must change instead of changing the world.

These problems are made worse by the way that much psychoanalysis takes place as private practice outside the NHS, so analysands have to pay, and the psychoanalyst comes to believe that it is important that they pay in order to make the cure take place. And, inside the NHS, the psychoanalysts often work in a medical institution, with ‘assessment’ and ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ turning the talking cure into a trap rather than a way out of our misery.

We must take seriously the feminist slogan that the ‘personal is political’ by working with ‘personal’ and privatised distress as something political. Radical psychoanalysis does not reduce politics to the personal level, but embeds what psychoanalysts do in a political understanding of individual distress, of why it takes shape as something individual. Radical psychoanalysts work in alliance with other movements tackling the reality of distress, and they have a political understanding of the contexts and institutions in which the talking cure can be helpful.

Groups and organisations

We must organise collectively, join political groups, and work together if we are to change the world. Individual-enclosed ‘change’ is not enough, and is actually quite impossible in a world that is structured to reward competition and pathologise those who are different, those who cannot or will not fit in.

But groups and organisations and political parties are also, of course, riddled with problems. It could not be otherwise. They cannot avoid carrying in aspects of racism and sexism and unthinking reactionary ideas from the outside world. They struggle against the world as it is but they also replicate it. Sometimes that is because of the personal problems that individuals bring into the group and play out there, and sometimes it is because of the peculiar way that groups work.

We are sometimes faced with places that should be liberating but actually feel suffocating. The groups sometimes operate as exhausting institutions that drain our energy instead of inspiring us. Meetings become taken up with deadly boring procedures in which the same things seem to be repeated without anything changing, with the same people dominating the discussion. Then there is a sense of futility, hopelessness. Even, in some cases, the group has a power structure than enables men to take advantage and harass or abuse women. This has happened in some left parties. Then there is understandable hostility to the idea of joining a political party at all. People burnt by the group turn in on themselves; they retreat, leave, and nothing has been learned.

The most radical psychoanalysis sometimes takes the form of ‘group analysis’ or the application of group psychotherapeutic ideas to understand better how these organisations do this to us, how they get away with it. The task, as with individual psychoanalysis, is not to make people adapt or to simply make the organisation function more ‘efficiently’, but to notice what it is doing to people and how they might work better – better according to their own collectively-decided criteria instead of according to the expert imposing their own ideas.

The psychoanalyst might help us notice how ‘defences’ are operating in a group so that certain ideas are avoided, repeatedly pushed away. To talk about racism in an organisation, for example, makes people feel uncomfortable, so one way the members ‘defend’ themselves is to avoid talking about it, or even worse, to label those who do want to talk about it as obsessed or as trouble-makers.

Sex and sexuality in organisations are often flashpoints because sex and sexuality feel so intimate, a private space, and we energetically protect it, and feel all the more violated when those with power abuse us. Psychoanalysts notice how ‘splitting’ works to divide the good people we are willing to listen to from the bad people we want to avoid. We notice how people seem driven to ‘split’, unable to weigh up ideas rationally, but tending to strike out. Sometimes there are fantasy forms of defence, in which the organisation develops a sense of itself as some kind of invulnerable or super-important thing, and then splitting is all the more dangerous, because those who are marginalised are accused of sabotaging what has been built. Never underestimate the power of the unconscious in an organisation, but also, at the same time, give space to take seriously what the real obstacles to changing things are.

Here again there is a problem and a warning about the use of psychoanalytic ideas. This is to do with the kind of knowledge that psychoanalysts develop to protect themselves. They are very skilled at turning everything into their own kind of knowledge. This means that when we listen to them we need to be able to embed what they are saying about unconscious processes and unthinking repetition and so on in a political context. We can make use of psychoanalysis, but it is politics that must be the priority in order to bring about social change.

There is time for reflection on what is happening in an organisation – and we need that time – and there is time for action, when we put ideas into practice. A group can take seriously psychoanalytic insights without wallowing in continual talk about how ‘hurt’ it feels or reducing things to the personal pathologies of its members. Whatever, the group must think about what it is doing, and psychoanalysis can be of assistance.

Society, culture, ideology

We are trying to change the world, and we know that only by working as internationalists can we make a difference. We have learned from bitter experience that there can be no ‘socialism in one country’, but our fate in the world is tied to the fate of other people divided into different ‘nations’ and so-called ‘races’. Even less can we build socialism inside one individual, which is the kind of illusion of personal responsibility that some non-psychoanalytic psychotherapists fuel. Solidarity in struggle is what embeds what we do at a local level at every point in what is happening at a global level. That struggle is material and it is ideological, so we need to understand something about culture, local and global, and intervene in that. Psychoanalysis is one way of understanding and intervening.

Fascism and creeping fascism is one pressing example of a political process that psychoanalysis helps us to understand. We need a political analysis of the way that fascism appears at times of defeat and demoralisation of the working class, how fascism takes root in the middle class trapped between the power of the big capitalists and the working-class organisations. But the poisonous resentment of fascism, directed at those perceived to be ‘different’, has a dimension of irrationality that we need to grasp. Sexual freedom and the self-assertion of cultural minorities enrage the fascists, and fascism as a brutal social phenomenon entails a violent ‘repression’ that operates at an emotional level as well as at a directly political-state level.

For fascism, liberation of the variety of ways of being human in this world is a threat, and fascist anger then hooks into and feeds dangerous paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies and hidden puppet-masters pulling the strings behind the scenes. As well as ‘projecting’ their anger and resentment onto others – and that is so they then experience that anger and resentment as coming from others instead of from themselves – fascists split the world into good and bad. The crazy QAnon theory is a good example. It feeds into contemporary fascism and images of George Soros as one of the Jewish puppet-masters.

Those viewed as the bad are then turned into scapegoats; with antisemitic anger and then fear following projection often focused on Jews, harnessing long-standing conspiracy theories peddled by the right, also against Muslims in the Islamophobic fantasy of ‘race-mixing’. Fascists like things to be pure, wholesome, ordered, and their fantasy of ‘race-mixing’ taps into their deepest irrational fears. Fascism is not the kind of problem that can be understood by psychologists or a ‘mental illness’ cured by psychiatrists, and although psychoanalysis does show us how some bizarre pathological self-destructive things go on for people drawn to fascism, it does not reduce fascism as a political problem to personal pathology.

So here we need to take care, and here is another warning. Psychoanalysis discloses something of what is happening in right-wing ideology, but that right-wing ideology also operates on its own, independently of the ‘unconscious’ mental processes that psychoanalysis focuses on. So, again, we have to remember not to let psychoanalysis reduce everything to its own domain of expertise, to what it describes of the internal world. There was antisemitism before psychoanalysis, and that toxic ideological phenomenon shadowed the profession, labelling it, under the Nazis, a ‘Jewish science’.

There is another problem which is that psychoanalysis often pretends to be neutral, objective, pretends to be the kind of science that simply describes the world instead of changing it. Those psychoanalysts who offer themselves as interpreters of culture then forget a key point from psychoanalytic practice, which is that it is the analysand who analyses, not the psychoanalyst. Many different things are happening for different individuals and groups in society that cannot be ‘interpreted’ psychoanalytically so easily, and we need to engage in reflection on what is driving us for ourselves. Psychoanalysts often forget this in their enthusiasm to explain what is happening in their own terms, and then conservative psychoanalysts try to ‘balance’ their analysis of cultural phenomena and end up advocating ‘balance’ as the most sensible response to what they view as irrational and ‘extremist’ responses to the world.

‘Extremism’ is not the problem. We do need to take extreme steps to get out us of this awful world. We revolutionaries are extremists; we hate what capitalism has done to us and our planet, and we are committed to mobilising people collectively to change the world. Another world is possible, and we will need to act to bring that about, peacefully if we may, but defending ourselves physically if we must, as exploited and oppressed people have done throughout history. We do not ‘balance’ right-wing and left-wing ideas as if we are the BBC, for we are committed to anti-capitalist struggle in alliance with anti-racists, feminists, and disability-rights activists. We take our stand always against the oppressor and with the oppressed.

 Sometimes that means we take sides against psychoanalysis that merely offers ‘explanations’ and then operates as a form of ideology. Psychoanalysis has been marginal, even repressed in different parts of the world during the century since Freud invented it, but we face a more complicated situation now. Psychoanalysis is also part of popular culture. For some people it is part of their commonsense; they talk about the ‘unconscious’ and ‘fantasy’ and ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’. We see images around us in film and television of analysands lying on couches or psychoanalysts giving interpretations, and Freudian ideas have become part of middle-class chatter. This can have the effect of dissolving politics into psychoanalysis, reducing social conflicts into individual conflicts.

5. What can we make of it?

Psychoanalysis is not the only radical approach to our distress under capitalism. We need to take it seriously, but to be as ‘intersectional’ in our use of it as we are in our linking together of different kinds of revolutionary politics. Intersectionality is an approach to revolutionary politics that links together different standpoints from within the field of the exploited and oppressed, valuing each standpoint or claim to identity in order to throw light on what is missing in the others.

We draw attention to each dimension of oppression not in order to prioritise any particular identity, a sense of who we are, but to show how we construct new identities in alliance, in political action. Traditional anti-capitalist class politics often carries with it racism and sexism, for instance, but anti-racist and feminist struggle enrich that politics. It is self-critical, energising. Identities are important here, but so are the connections, the links, the spaces between any one particular identity, whether as woman or man, or black or white, or working class or ‘middle class’.

Psychoanalysis gives an account of the development of personal identity that is already, in some senses, ‘intersectional’. We think we are this or that, when we are in fact patched together from different relationships we have forged with significant others in the course of our lives; our individual ‘ego’ is the product of many competing ‘identifications’, emotionally-charged connections with and images of others important to us. The competing attachments we have remain with us at an unconscious level, and there are conflicts between them. The conflicts and contradictions give us space for movement. They are the stuff of change, necessary to it. This is the ‘ambivalence’ that we described earlier as fuelling possibilities of change.

Local and global

Psychoanalysis works at the contradictory connection between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’. By ‘political’ we mean the realm of collective struggle that we learn from as we attempt to change things – something very different from the bureaucratic, alienating world of professional politics. And by ‘personal’ we mean the emotional, experiential engagement we have with change and with our comrades as we struggle – something very different from burrowing away into therapy and trying to change ourselves instead of changing the world.

That means that we work at a local level, very local, even down into the individual when necessary, giving space for things to be worked through. That space may take the form of what we think of as the ‘clinic’, but this clinic can be a safe, confidential, secure space, while also being a space that is clearly and explicitly connected with the broader process of political change.

And it means that we work at the wider social level, and here it is important that those working with psychoanalysis learn from the social movements they are part of, learn about the limitations of psychoanalysis. At the broadest level, it means that this radical psychoanalysis must be internationalist, learning from the work of other radical movements that have encountered psychoanalysis, learning what they have made of it.

The argument we are making here about the possible progressive role of psychoanalysis has been made many times before in different ways. There were Marxists among the psychoanalysts in central Europe in the 1920s who focused on the link between political repression, repression in the nuclear family and sexual repression, and who tried to harness energies for change. Revolutionaries were attracted to psychoanalysis in the 1930s, when fascism was growing; they found in it a way to explain the power of fantasy in distorting people’s desire for change and making them hate difference instead of embracing it.

Émigré psychoanalysts tried to keep radical ideas in psychoanalysis alive in the 1940s and 1950s in the different contexts they worked in around the world. In the 1950s and 1960s anti-colonial psychoanalysts were part of national liberation movements that worked with and challenged the depth and hold of racism. Feminists looked to psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s to understand how patriarchy – the power of men over women – was operating at the level of fantasy as part of capitalism. We have seen fresh waves of LGBTQI+ interest in psychoanalysis because it offers a new way to understand ‘identity’ and ‘identity politics’ and to find a way through that to collective struggle.

There are surprising examples from around the world already, ranging from the emergence of ‘free clinics’ in the favelas of Brazil, where radical psychoanalysts listen and support people in communities without imposing their theory as a model of the world, to the psychoanalytic work in Palestine, where practitioners build the self-confidence of a people speaking and acting against occupation.

In Brazil there are psychoanalysts who have been publicly active in the struggle against the creeping fascism of Jair Bolsonaro, who not only burns the rainforests and denies the existence of coronavirus, which is affecting the poorest people most, and, not surprisingly, is hostile to anything about sexuality that breaks from the standard ‘normal’ nuclear family. Psychoanalysts stand in elections with the radical left parties, and psychoanalysts are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer movements.

In Palestine there are psychoanalysts who are building resistance to the occupation of land and minds by the Israeli state. This means strengthening bonds of solidarity and a collective sense of the power of the Palestinian people, while also resisting the reactionary use of psychoanalytic ideas that pathologise the Palestinians for daring to resist. These radical psychoanalysts offer a powerful critique of the idea of ‘balance’ and the attempt to dissolve political struggle into ‘dialogue’ that would label those who resist as being dangerous, fanatical ‘extremists’.

The development of radical psychoanalysis will be in conditions of dialogue and joint action with these and many other initiatives, and we will be searching for ways to speak and act against alienation and exploitation and oppression, searching for other worlds within and for another world that we build together in the future.

Further reading

For a deeper dive into some of the ideas that went into this pamphlet, here are five great books: 

Arruzza, C. (2013) Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism. London: Resistance Books. [Cinzia Arruzza, an Italian feminist and revolutionary, gives a clear account of the many different ways that feminists and Marxists link together in theory and practice, including ‘queer’ and psychoanalytic perspectives]

Fanon, F. (2017) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto. [Frantz Fanon, an Algerian anti-colonial revolutionary and radical psychiatrist originally from Martinique, drew on psychoanalytic ideas to discuss racism in this classic book, and the way that oppression works its way into the lives of the oppressed]

Gherovici, P. (2017) Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference. London and New York: Routledge. [Patricia Gherovici, a practising psychoanalyst from Argentina, shows how psychoanalysis can learn from the experience of trans in order to make clinical work welcoming and transformative]

Pavón Cuéllar, D. (2017) Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or against psychology? London and New York: Routledge. [David Pavón Cuéllar, a Mexican Marxist and psychoanalytic writer, gives a detailed overview of the ways that different kinds of Marxism have been taken up an integrated into different kinds of psychoanalysis]

Sheehi, L. and Sheehi, S. (2021) Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine. London and New York: Routledge.  [Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi, Lebanese activists, describe in detail the way that psychoanalysis works in conditions of Israeli colonial occupation in a book that stands with the oppressed, exemplifying what radical psychoanalysis could be]

Follow these ideas about radical psychoanalysis and take them forward. There are suggestions for further reading here https://fiimg.com/2021/11/19/radical-psychoanalysis-reading/ (or at this quick-link: https://bit.ly/3Fxcrf2). Anti*Capitalist Resistance is committed to building a form of politics that works for liberation for all of the exploited and oppressed in this wretched world. We fight for the building of a world in which, as Marx put it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. Read, think, act, join us.

The full-text PDF of this book can be downloaded here.

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

Book review 2021: Five old crackers

Five books Ian Parker liked a lot and recommends you read too.

I read these five – well, actually nine because two of these are trilogies – which were all published way before the plague year, but are thought-provoking and really worth reading

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin was first published in 2008, with the full approval of the Chinese state. It is ‘hard sci-fi’, tracking forward 80 million years in this and the two following books in the trilogy – The Dark Forest and Death’s End – and spelling out along the way the ambitions of current regime and ideological representations of what ‘dark forest’ it faces in the world. This is reactionary breath-taking stuff, but compelling.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler is a speculative fiction trilogy published between 1987 and 1989 attentive to race, gender. The three books – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago – trace an encounter of humans with aliens who are completely immersed in nature, and the fascination and repulsion at what that immersion might entail. There are themes here that Butler explores in other books, of our current hatred of what is different to us. Read all her work.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929 and released as a film this year, with the main characters dealing in different ways with race segregation, reflecting issues Larsen faced in her own life, and making life-style choices that involve ‘passing’ not only as White but as middle-class. The film captures well the tone of the beautifully-written book, a reflective interiorised sense of racism, self-sabotage and a little misplaced resistance.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch was first published in 1954. Murdoch, who was a member of the Communist Party during the war, and who wove her philosophy into her novels, included in this first novel evocations of life in London and encounters along the way with Lefty Todd, leader of the New Independent Socialist Party. The ‘net’ that she gets under is the web of language, and she does enable a few hours of escape from this world as you read the book.

The Cave by José Saramago was first published in 2000, and is included in the collected novels e-book which you could just go through, they are all great. Saramago, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, tells his stories from the point of those who labour. This haunting novel is a superb example, with descriptions of creativity, alienation and the encounter with a corporate world that cares nothing for us. Read all his work.

You can read and comment on this at: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/book-review-2021-five-old-crackers/

What hope for the Labour Party in 2022?

The Labour Party apparatus and parliamentary representatives, and many organised right-wing local councillors, are now clearly in control. They were biding their time under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and actively working to sabotage the chances of a radical government coming to power, albeit with a manifesto less radical than that of the party in the 1960s.

Now some in the party are embarrassed by their seeming saviour Keir Starmer – former Director of Public Prosecutions who declined to pursue the legal case against police who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 (just one telling indication of where Starmer’s loyalties lay and the direction he would take the party) – but they are unrepentant about what they have done to our hopes, real hopes of change, and triumphant in most local constituency parties.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested Starmer, and his abject agreement with nearly every twist and turn of the Johnson government has been of a piece with a return to business as normal in the Labour Party. As with much else, the pandemic has intensified every form of inequality, oppression and abuse of power. Inside the party, the opportunity opened up by Zoom has been seized; the left has been silenced while each and every policy gain made under Corbyn has been ignored or rolled back. What hope is there for those who insist on staying in the party now?

Rejoining, rejoicing

I rejoined the Labour Party in 2017 after actively campaigning for a Corbyn-led government in the June General Election. I canvassed alongside new comrades, some of whom had stayed in the party during the Tony Blair years gritting their teeth and now delighted by the new leadership, some of whom had left, like me, and rejoined, and some who were enthused by the possibility of something different, something more radical happening, rejoicing at this amazing revival of this radical tradition of the organised labour movement.

Many of those who signed up as members never canvassed, or came to meetings, and those who did quickly drifted away, appalled by the bureaucratic machinations that were eventually to see Corbyn’s final defeat in 2019. The ‘Corbyn movement’ was largely outside the Labour Party, with many Corbyn supporters never looking to the Labour Party as such. However, something happened inside the party, and it was worth being there, and putting energy and time into the possibility of radical change.

Most Corbyn supporters inside the party welcomed the newcomers and the rejoiners, and worked with those still outside. There are activists inside the party now who have turned outwards, linking with social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too and supporting strikes. That activity was key, the sign that something could be built from Corbyn’s unpredictable election as leader in 2015.

Now, as we are asked to deliver 2022 calendars and other party literature, asked to support left councillors who are hamstrung by threat of disciplinary procedures and frightened of losing what toehold they have on power and in some cases their livelihood, we face a dilemma. The balance of forces in the party is against us in most parts of the country, certainly in the largest and what is touted as the most ‘successful’ constituency of Manchester Withington, where loyal Starmerite MP Jeff Smith, Shadow Minister for Local Government, has an unassailable 27,905 majority.

Expulsions, pressure

Jewish members of the party, including in Manchester Withington, have been expelled for speaking out in solidarity with Palestine or been subjected to a ‘notice of investigation’. One of them, an elderly activist, member of Jewish Voice for Labour has written to Jeff Smith asking his MP to take action over the ‘persistent personal harassment’ he has suffered, and carefully dismantled the case against him. Starmer and his lackeys claim to speak for Jews, but promote an antisemitic witch-hunt against those who defy stereotypes of what a Jew is supposed to look like, with support for Israel now top of the list.

Prominent BAME activists in Manchester have already left the party, claiming that endemic racism as well as hostility to an activism that counts made them a target for bullying, for discipline and exclusion. There is a statement of solidarity for former councillor Marcia Hutchinson circulating inside the Manchester party after the most recent revelations about racism against her, and some on the left have bravely agreed to sign it. (The statement with names supporting it is not yet public – we need to get the go-ahead from other BAME left members first.)

Meanwhile, other party members are cautious, are staying quiet, not yet signing; Councillors anxious about their jobs, prospective candidates not wanting to damage their chances of being selected, and others wondering whether speaking out now will be unwise. They carefully weigh up what they should say, which is part of the problem. To be clear, we are working alongside perpetrators of racism against Marcia, perpetrators of crimes against the labour movement.

Many of our comrades have left, some drifting away from politics, some working with the Green Party. That is not a bad choice, an understandable choice, and those on the left inside the party need to stay in comradely joint activity with those on the left outside. Many have left if they have not been expelled, and many more will follow. Now, when they voice their qualms within closed left forums, they are told that the Labour Party is the only field of battle, told that they must not give up, that there is a choice between sulking and staying and that they must not let the party have the satisfaction of having people abandon this internal fight; that is a false choice that poses what we are up against now wrongly and, despite its own claims, moralises against those who have very good reasons for leaving.

Choices, tactics

There is an internal fight, but it is mostly secret, behind closed doors; the fear of speaking out is all the more powerful when combined with fear of being seen as disloyal, going public. As the right in the party tightens its grip, the choice the left who stay in the party has is stark. There is an outside chance, a slim possibility that something like the Corbyn moment may happen again – it is extremely unlikely, and the party apparatus is ensuring that it will not happen – but we do not need to stay inside the Labour Party to support that, if it happens.

Wherever we are, inside or outside the party, as ‘paper members’ or constituency delegates from trades unions or working with other progressive forces, in campaigns, social movements or even in political parties outside, we need to support each other, keep the activist networks alive, ready for that moment or any other moment to work together. There is a wider field of battle.

If we are still inside the Labour Party, as are quite a few members of Anti-Capitalist Resistance – an organisation in England and Wales that I now give most of my allegiance to – our time and energy needs to be conserved, our support conditional. Already, there are clear statements by many on the left that they will not support candidates in elections who do not speak out about racism or who break strikes. The choice is more difficult when there are local candidates who are still on the left, those we do want to support. The conditions we place on support, and the conserving of our time and energy for other better causes is then more necessary, sometimes personally painful.

In the case of Manchester, to give just one instance, one that does not directly translate to other places, the left is blocked, and drained, helpless. It needs to say so to anyone who is called on to vote Labour and explain why, explain why participation in the Labour Party now is with a left that is resisting the party rather than simply cheering it on.

When the balance of forces is so against us, on balance we have to recognise that giving out party literature when there is no opportunity for explaining where we stand, and even working for a left candidate – a candidate whose leaflets are usually written by the right or self-censored – is effectively to support Starmer, not to challenge him.

Public declarations of support for the Labour Party where there is no qualification, no hint of disagreement with the right, no indication that there is a left still alive inside the party, are exactly that, useless; effectively, they are then declarations of support for the politics of the labour right, one that is virulently hostile to progressive political action while hounding out the best, most disobedient comrades.

There will be rare exceptions, and then we should encourage everyone, inside and outside the Labour Party to vote for candidates who have taken clear consistent public positions that defy Starmer and the local city council apparatus. Obedience, deliberate and cynical or tacit and silent, is not good enough now, and works to confirm the reactionary politics of a party that is increasingly disconnected from the working class, a party that colludes with exploitation and oppression. There is no longer anything sacrosanct or even necessarily progressive in always everywhere voting Labour in this disunited kingdom.

A good many left activists who are still hanging in there already know that the real struggles are elsewhere, not in futile squabbles with a right wing enjoying every victory, occasionally humouring the left by voting for motions that have been timidly and humiliatingly watered down to be almost meaningless.

I reckon it is time to be a fair-weather friend, taking the occasional opportunity for debate and connection with those who know that things are bad in the party, attending perhaps, speaking if possible, and voting. If I am expelled, so be it. For the left who remain, this is a reminder of the overarching struggle, not a call for resignation but a call for conditional support and the harnessing of our energies to other, better things than to buttress the power of a Labour Party apparatus that poses no radical challenge to capitalism in 2022.

You can read again and comment on this article here: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/what-hope-for-the-labour-party-in-2022/

Don’t Look Up: The planet is already burning

Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix on 24 December, and has already met with strongly divided reactions, either because it is a feel-good holiday movie or because it is not. These are reactions which kind of miss the point, because it is a satire.

First, some random things to look out for in Don’t Look Up: it is cool to be a young scientist with a nose-ring and dyed red hair (and, ok, better if you look like Jennifer Lawrence, also signalling here Hunger Games narratives); the scientist played by a tubbier than usual Leonardo DiCaprio does not take off his glasses (normally the case in films in which the scientist has to lose their specs when he goes into action mode); the female US president is not a mere token but an active force (a bad Hillary Clinton figure played well by Meryl Streep); and one of the villains is a Brit (Mark Rylance stirring in some pertinent critique of big tech). Plot spoiler – the earth dies in this one.

What to avoid

Satire has to avoid a number of traps, which this film does at points – at points, what can you expect from a multimillion dollar production on Netflix. It should avoid collapsing from a ‘modern’ quite rationalist critical approach to what it depicts into a ‘postmodern’ pastiche. Postmodern pastiche mixes up high and low culture and, crucially in the political realm, muddles the difference between fiction and reality so we are presented with a flat entertaining surface which tells us nothing about the world, playfully unhinges us from any grounding in reality.

In many ways and at many points, this is ‘about’ something, not simply a media spectacle. This is not merely the kind of ‘spectacle’ which lures the viewer in so they are passive viewers, the kind of alienating spectacle that Anti-Capitalist Resistance has been diagnosing through the last year. This film is, among other things, ‘about’ climate change, and corrosive ideological government and alt-right fuelled scepticism. There are many poignant images in the film intercut with the narrative, of nature, of life, and of love. This is the planet under threat, from within, and not only from some comet about to strike in six months.

Satire also has to avoid soothing its audience, turning real political issues into mere entertainment and letting us relax. The name for this process in the spectacle is ‘recuperation’; the absorbing and neutralising of radical ideas so they just become part of the mix, and we are made passive, mumbling to ourselves – in line with 12-Step Programme treatment – ‘it is what it is’. This is what it is, but it is more. There is a great moment where the White House chief of staff tells a Trumpite crowd that they are the workers, and they need the rich elite, and together, rich and poor need to unite against ‘them’ (and he gestures to the left, a move that works until one of the crowd does look up, and sees the comet heading for them).

Satire

Satire cuts into what it shows us, makes us think. It is not balanced or nuanced, and, as we had to learn when we were subjected to ‘satire’ on the BBC that was mainly directed against Jeremy Corbyn before the pandemic, it cuts all ways. Yes, this is sickening, but a divisive reaction – let us say, dialectically, that one divides into two – and is no bad thing. This film opens up a debate, and if we look at which way the debate about the film goes we also learn something.

The Lib Dem / Labour Right broadsheet The Guardian hated the film, and bizarrely devoted three articles to attacking it, accusing it of not really dealing with the climate crisis that it hinted it. The ‘Below The Line’ (BTL) comments on one of the most spiteful reviews (by the usually liberal serial plot-spoiler Peter Bradshaw) were headed by one picked out by the Guardian editorial team, one that was also negative. Rolling Stone accused it of being ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’, while the Wall Street Journal said it ‘might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism’, the Globe and Mail called it ‘a messy, smarmy assault’ and the Hollywood Reporter claimed that it was ‘a cynical, insufferably smug satire’. Most of the BTL comments on the Guardian website were positive though, bewildered by the negative response of their newspaper.

Why would the liberals hate this film if it is merely a liberal soothing postmodern pastiche designed to put us to sleep? Perhaps they hate it because woven into the attempt by scientists – even, mockingly from ‘Michigan State’ as a lower-tier college – to alert us to what is happening above us (and around us) there is critique of corporate and governmental greed.

Some friends responded online by pointing out that the bad president dies and that the Trumpites in the film are stupid. This is in line with ideology, not cutting against it, and, yes, that is true, as is the point that this is concerned only with the reactions of the US. A Mexican comrade argued that this is reproducing pernicious representations of the world in which other nations – China and Russia are barely mentioned in the film – are sidelined. This is, we might say ‘white first-world satire’. Not only that, the science was ‘wrong’; the algorithms used by the BASH corporation could not work, and the very idea that sending missiles up to stop the comet is absurd.

But satire of this kind does not directly represent the reality it is focused on. We cannot measure what it says about the world against what we really know. That is beside the point. Yes, actually, we know well that sending up missiles will not blow up a comet heading to earth, but that is exactly what the US government plans to do in cases like this, and this precisely why it cannot deal with global ecological destruction that comes from ‘within’ – within the capitalist system – rather than from the stars.

I’m not saying that you should love this film, just that you should see it. You may hate it as much as climate change, and that may spur you into more action. Fine. You might object that it sanitises what is happening, but whether you like it or despise it, this film reminds you that the planet is burning, that you need not only look up. You need to look around at this world, at what is happening now, and use the spaces of satire to think, energise yourself and do something about it.

You can also read and comment on this review here: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/dont-look-up-the-planet-is-already-burning/

West Side Story again

Ian Parker took himself to the Regent Cinema in Marple to see if this was any good.

A question on Google flashes up asking whether West Side Story, recently remade by Steven Spielberg and on general release is ‘based on a real story’. Nearly so; it reworks Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – the tale of star-crossed lovers from rival families – and transplants it from Verona to New York, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Past

The 1961 film followed a 732-performance run on Broadway and then tour of the 1957 musical (and 1958 British production that opened first in Manchester), with the rival families now configured as gangs, the White ‘Jets’ and Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ clashing after the thrilling finger-snapping prologue orchestral number.  

Rita Moreno played Anita, and was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar; the film was a smash hit and was followed by scores of stage revivals. The dance format for these productions was strictly controlled by the rights holders for the musical, though relaxed, with permission, for the performances in the round at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in 2019.

The story has been reworked countless times in other productions, including the zippy 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet that reset Shakespeare on Verona Beach, though most of the film was set in Mexico City. Natalie Portman was ditched from the role of Juliet because she looked too young – she was 14 at the time – and the part was taken by Claire Danes, and Leonardo DiCaprio made his film career from it, as Romeo.

Now, in the 2021 Spielberg version we have new choreography, with Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria, and Anita’s part is now taken by Ariana DeBose. But, a reminder of time passing perhaps and the updating of the film, Rita Moreno is back, now as ‘Valentina’ and replacing the 1961 film character of ‘Doc’, mentor to the two lovers. Black and Irish New Yorkers, who supply the gun, are clichéd parts, as are the tenement buildings with washing hanging to dry.

Does this work? The 1961 film riffed on racism, displayed it, commented on it and challenged it. It could still be accused of reducing gang warfare to poignant and then tragic dance sets, turning systemic racism and the colonisation and emigration of Puerto Ricans into tear-jerker sentimentality, wiping away real struggle and leaving liberal audiences with a feel-bad experience they could then easily process into hummable tunes on the way home.

Present

Sixty years later, in the context of sustained anti-racist critique of material oppression and ideological denigration, Spielberg really had to add something to the mix. He did, but made it worse. The ratio of songs to script was reduced, and we were subject to long passages in which characters from different backgrounds talked about how they were brought up to dislike people who were ‘different’, while there was a knowing wink to the audience at the beginning with a reference to property developers benefitting from the conflict between communities as they tore down the neighbourhood.

One of the most horrible narrative additions was where Tony, who had been in prison for a year, said he had used the time well to look deep inside himself and come to realise that he should not hate others who were different from him. So, the message is that the law is benign and prison has good effects.

Woven into the liberal representation of racism – which had nothing about institutional racism and plenty about irrational dislike and conflict between groups abstracted from context – were themes of sexism, more so than in the original. Anita in this version is sexually harassed by the Jets, but almost raped. Poor Rita Moreno – who has the function of reminding us by her presence that this is a pattern repeated over generations – calls the Jets ‘rapists’. And we have a gratuitous transformation of the Anybodys character, from tomboy to trans. Ok, but why?

I confess, I was really looking forward to this film. My mum and step-dad, who was a jazz musician, used to play the soundtrack and sing the songs, I knew the words. But I was disappointed. Yes, there were some nice moments; the cleaners in the department store singing ‘I’m so pretty’ while posing with obviously white dress manikins made a point. But the point was focused on the identity of Puerto Ricans as victim immigrants with not a whisper about the colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.

Glossy

The film was supposed to be more grounded in reality but actually looked more artificial. A Brazilian friend watching the film with us said he was surprised at the end that there were real actors named because he had assumed that it was all done with CGI. Along with the glossy CGI images was an apparently computer-generated script, a sad output from Tony Kushner.

The Globe Theatre in London recently had a trigger warning for its performance of Romeo and Juliet, that the production ‘contains depictions of suicide, moments of violence and reference to drug use’, and that it contains ‘gunshot sound effects and the use of stage blood’. This West Side Story might have told us that it was lathered with more well-meaning messages but, warning, infused with ideology, ‘an unnecessary remake, avoid’.

You can also read and comment on this review here: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/west-side-story-again/

Radical psychoanalysis reading

The pamphlet Radical Psychoanalysis and Anti-Capitalist Action (forthcoming from Resistance Books) was written for the revolutionary Marxist organisation Anti-Capitalist Resistance by Ian Parker. It was written for activists and for those interested in becoming involved in revolutionary politics, those who know nothing about psychoanalysis beyond the caricatures in mass media. Psychoanalysis has a radical history of theory and practice that is very different from popular images of rich people lying on couches spilling their guts to bespectacled doctors scribbling notes who conclude that the problem must always revolve around the relationship of these worried-well neurotics with their mothers and fathers.

There is an emphasis in the pamphlet on the way that psychoanalytic ideas can be intimately linked to personal and social transformation, and towards the end it is clearly acknowledged that the argument is not new. Many writers over the course of the last century have made connections between psychoanalysis and Marxism and feminism and with anti-colonial anti-racist protest at this sick world. Psychoanalysis was inspiration for radical writers and artists, and for revolutionaries who wanted to change the world. Feminism as a consciously internationalist force is central to radical psychoanalysis, and this, alongside anti-colonial anti-racist movements, deepens Marxist analysis. Marxism is concerned with economic exploitation and also, crucial to radical psychoanalysis, with alienation; ecosocialist understandings of Marxist accounts of alienation add to a psychoanalytic account, as does recent work on ‘digital alienation‘ in which reality itself seems to dissolve.

There have been many developments in psychoanalysis since it was invented by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and as psychoanalysis spread around the world, new and quite different strands of work appeared. The pamphlet does not fix on any one of those strands of work, and makes it clear that there are some ideas in psychoanalysis that are problematic, reactionary, and some ideas that can be progressive, that can help us. Psychoanalysis can be our ally.

The Anti-Capitalist Resistance website includes some articles on psychoanalysis. They include Rowan Fortune on the Marxist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, Neil Faulkner on ‘digitalised alienation’ which draws on psychoanalysis, among other things, to extend Marxist analysis, and Ian Parker on the French Marxist Félix Guattari, on psychoanalysis in relation to forms of ‘socialism’, and on psychoanalytic psychotherapeutic work in Palestine.  

Psychoanalysis is, among other things, a progressive alternative to medical psychiatry, but it is not the only alternative. You can track arguments in those alternatives at Asylum: Magazine for Radical Mental Health. Asylum was formerly the magazine for democratic psychiatry inspired by the reforms and mass movements against the mad-house asylum prisons in Italy in the 1970s which led to many activists taking seriously the need for real ‘asylum’ as a place of safety from this wretched world when it gets too much for people. We do not treat distress as ‘sickness’ to be cured, and we do not treat ‘disability’ as sickness either; instead we need to understand how this sick world ‘disables’ people.

Revolutionary Marxism must include and work with and learn from feminism, which is why the pamphlet is as much feminist as it is Marxist, and this politics must, especially when it concerns questions of sexuality and distress, be clearly in solidarity with trans liberation. We also stand with the women’s #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment, learning from the work of Marie Langer who connected her psychoanalytic work with revolutionary solidarity. We stand with and learn equally so from the Black Lives Matter movement and the inspiring work of the anti-colonial radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon.

The arguments in the pamphlet are taken further in the book Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements jointly written by Ian Parker and David Pavón-Cuéllar, and there is more detailed background reading for that book available online. As the pamphlet and the book make clear, however, the only way to learn about the ideas is to put them into practice, anti-capitalist practice. 

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

Background reading for Psychoanalysis and Revolution

This is the ‘background reading’ section of Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements

We have deliberately avoided bibliographic references so as not to dissolve our manifesto into the form of an academic discussion, but we must recognize that we are indebted to authors who have guided and inspired us. There are too many and it would be impossible to mention them all now. We will refer below to just a few texts we have found useful in working on this manifesto, and you will find many ideas from them incorporated in and reworked in it.

Psychoanalysis

This manifesto speaks of psychoanalysis in general, but our work is influenced by a number of radical traditions. We speak about Sigmund Freud, of course, and discuss many of his ideas contained in texts such as The Unconscious, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id, and Civilization and its Discontents. Freud’s ideas are central to any psychoanalytic work, conservative and radical. There are many ‘introductions’ to psychoanalysis that are misleading, in some cases quite wrong; a clear trustworthy introduction is Freud: Theory of the Unconscious by Octave Mannoni.

The radical traditions that are important to us include psychoanalysts in the first wave of critical work around Freud, his followers who were also Marxists. In particular, we have learned from the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose fight for communism and sexual liberation caused him to be expelled from both the International Psychoanalytic Association and the Communist Party. Reich tried to use Freudian theory to understand the ideological rooting of society in the psyche, as well as sexual repression in capitalist society, and the way that repression was relayed through the bourgeois nuclear family into individuals, in books such as Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

We also very much like the writings of Erich Fromm, who was a humanist psychoanalyst and a socialist deeply influenced by Marx. Fromm emphasized the way in which capitalism dehumanizes us, alienating us from our humanity, and encourages us to ‘have’ things which we believe will bring us happiness rather than to concern ourselves with ‘being’. This is explored in his books such as The Sane Society and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

Another key author for us has been Herbert Marcuse, who was an important figure for the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In his books Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse taught us to appreciate the repressive aspect of certain forms of freedom in contemporary society. He has also helped us distinguish between the kind of repression that serves culture and the surplus-repression that serves oppression and exploitation under capitalism.

Later psychoanalysts who continued this radical tradition of work include Marie Langer and Joel Kovel. Langer persisted at the end of her life to continue being a psychoanalyst without renouncing her participation in the liberation movements, as she explains in her text Psychoanalysis and/or Social Revolution. Kovel described clinical work in the the capitalist context, with lives affected by capitalism, in books like The Age of Desire. Kovel stopped practising as a psychoanalyst and became involved full-time in Marxist and ecological politics as an ‘ecosocialist’, while Langer helped re-politicize psychoanalysis in Latin America.

The problem with so-called ‘Freudo-Marxism’ is that it is sometimes rather reductive; tending to see class structure as replicated directly in the character structure of individuals, and tending to make sexuality as it is conventionally understood in bourgeois society into an immediate experiential force for freedom. This is especially evident in Reich and to a lesser extent in Fromm, Kovel and Langer, but it was an idea and a problem already discussed by Marcuse. There is an excellent overview of these different traditions in Stephen Frosh’s The Politics of Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to Freudian and Post‑Freudian Theory, and a very inspiring account of the way psychoanalysis was developed before the rise of fascism in Europe as a welfare-practice for all, not for private profit, in Elizabeth Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938.

The tradition of work that has most influenced us, but one we are also critical of, is that of Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who broke from the International Psychoanalytical Association to set up his own school to train analysts. Lacan shifted focus from biological forces and biologically wired-in stages of character development to language. Language organised through the Symbolic is more than just a medium of communication; it is a structure in which we occupy our place, an exteriority that surrounds us; it is ‘Other’ to us, as we explain in this book. We appreciate the critical work of Lacanian psychoanalysts on the history of its practice, for example Christian Dunker’s book The Structure and Constitution of the Psychoanalytic Clinic: Negativity and Conflict in Contemporary Practice, and the attempts to connect Lacan directly with Marxism in the work of Samo Tomšič in The Capitalist Unconscious. We also appreciate the earlier theoretical intervention made in Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, as well as critical-theoretical appraisals of that work in Yannis Stavrakakis’ The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics. Finally, we feel close to works that try to re-politicize Lacanian psychoanalysis in progressive leftist directions, whether moderate as in Jorge Alemán’s La Izquierda Lacaniana or more radical such as Emiliano Exposto and Gabriel Rodríguez Varela’s El Goce del Capital.

 That Lacanian critical work would be incomplete and not viable without critiques from within the feminist and anti-colonial movements, critiques that are not always fully acknowledged. For us, the work of the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell in Psychoanalysis and Feminism was crucial for the argument that there were limitations to ‘Freudo-Marxism’ and that Lacan was worth taking seriously for linking personal change with social change. We have also been inspired by the psychoanalytic attempts to understand the embedding of racism inside both white and black subjects in the work of the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, particularly in his path-breaking Black Skin, White Masks.

Critical Psychology

We turned to psychoanalysis because although we were both trained in psychology, we came to see that there was something seriously wrong with that discipline, including its sexism, homophobia, racism, colonial functioning, complicity with capitalism and contempt for working-class people. The discipline of psychology sometimes uses psychoanalytic theory, usually in a reactionary way, and usually also abhors psychoanalysis, seeing it as a threat. Our argument in this book is that psychoanalysis is the most radical possible form of ‘critical psychology’, an attempt to turn around and treat psychology as part of the problem rather than as a solution to our ills.

Among the authors of ‘critical psychology’ who have most influenced us is Ignacio Martín-Baró, who connects the critique of psychology with a project of liberation. Martín-Baró insisted that psychology could only serve the liberation of the peoples of Latin America by liberating itself from its own alienation. We think that psychology can only free itself by freeing itself from itself. This is why we turn to psychoanalysis.

In the broad tradition of ‘critical psychology’ are psychoanalytic critiques, for example in the work of Néstor Braunstein who wrote, with Marcelo Pasternac, Gloria Benedito and Frida Saal, Psicología: Ideología y Ciencia. They show that the discipline of psychology pretends to be a science, but it is not, instead corresponding to an ideology and a technique at the service of capitalism. One of the most radical critiques of psychology today focuses on ‘psychologisation’ and the way that ideas from the discipline operate as a global force, in the work of Jan De Vos in, for example, Psychologisation in Times of Globalisation.

Not every critic of psychology looks to psychoanalysis as an alternative, and this is certainly the case inside psychiatry where the so-called ‘anti-psychiatrists’ and ‘democratic psychiatrists’ have often tended to see psychoanalysis as part of the ‘psy complex’, that is, as a ‘psy’ profession that aims to adapt people to society.

It is the internal critiques of psychiatry that have linked with radical politics that interests us most, of course, and these critiques include the work of Franco Basaglia in books like Psychiatry Inside Out, and Marius Romme, who wrote, with journalist partner Sandra Escher, Accepting Voices, which is about the phenomenon of ‘hearing voices’ as part of human experience instead of being seen as a pathological symptom of schizophrenia or a form of ‘psychosis’. We have taken seriously the key phrase from Wolfgang Hüber’s anti-psychiatric intervention SPK: Turn Illness into a Weapon.

We should also mention here critical Lacanian work on ‘psychosis’ by Annie G Rogers, a psychoanalyst who herself has lived with that diagnosis of ‘psychotic’ while continuing to practice, in The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma.

Politics

We come from different political traditions on the left. We include in this manifesto many ideas and even key terms and phrases from the work of Karl Marx, of course. Marx’s ideas were crucial to the social movements that made the Russian and Chinese and Cuban revolutions possible, as well as many anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements around the world. Marxism continues to inspire anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles throughout the world. We are with the radical spirit of these struggles and of the previous movements and revolutions, and with the defence of what was gained against the encroachment of bureaucracy, against the betrayal by self-appointed leaders.

Among the many critical Marxist writings that have influenced us are Ernest Mandel’s The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, which makes it clear that Marxism is a historically-specific analysis, an analysis of capitalism that aims to overthrow it, and his book Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy, in which Mandel explains the collapse of the socialist countries by the disintegration of the political base of working-class power usurped by the bureaucracy.

We also acknowledge the contribution of Marx’s co-worker Frederick Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Although Engels was not a feminist, his interlinking of the institution of the family with the maintenance of private property and the kind of state structure that is dedicated to protect those with power in society is a scathing indictment of patriarchy. Feminist critiques of patriarchy have often, for very good reason, seen Freud as an enemy, for example Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics. The most radical of the so-called ‘second wave’ feminism of the 1960s and 1970s then saw the appearance of socialist-feminist politics, and the slogan ‘the personal is political’.

We are arguing for psychoanalysis in this manifesto, not taking our time to deal with the many critiques of it, though we do take seriously both feminist critiques and anti-colonial critiques, and critiques of the way psychoanalysis unconsciously reproduces the logic of social power, something masterfully elaborated in Le psychanalysme by the sociologist Robert Castel, and pathologises people who criticise it; that last issue is dealt with very well by the cultural anthropologist Ernest Gellner in The Psychoanalytic Movement, or The Coming of Unreason.

Socialist-feminist politics included anarchists, including Jo Freeman who wrote The Tyranny of Structurelessness, which we refer to in this manifesto. The different versions of intersection between radical political traditions are described and discussed in detail by Cinzia Arruzza in Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism. Black feminism in the work of Audre Lorde, for example in her book Sister Outsider, insists on the importance of speaking truth to power, an argument that we have referred to a number of times in this manifesto.

We have co-edited in Spanish a volume which includes many attempts by different writers to connect radical politics with critical psychology and psychoanalysis, Marxismo, Psicología y Psicoanálisis. This background reading is also available on these two blog pages, on which we have put links, where possible, to access key texts, and which also include articles related to the issues we cover here and updates on the manifesto: https://sujeto.hypotheses.org/ and https://fiimg.com/psychopolitics/

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

Psychoanalysis with the oppressed

Ian Parker reviews Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi’s Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine

You will need to get this on a pirate site if you don’t borrow it from a library because it is a whopping £120. That’ll set you back more than the cost of a session with an analyst, but you will learn more. And you don’t need to know much about psychoanalysis as such to follow the compelling accounts by radical mental health practitioners in Palestine. These are practitioners committed to sumud, the wilful collective agency and steadfast resistance of people thinking and speaking and acting against Israeli occupation. You will learn something about the difference between psychiatry as a medical doctrine that usually amounts to little more than pushing drugs with terrible ‘side effects’, and psychology as an attempt to correct bad thoughts that people have when they are living in an impossible situation, and psychoanalysis as a ‘talking cure’; if you give people space to speak about their oppression they will come to realise that, as the black feminist Audre Lorde had it, ‘your silence will not protect you’.

Lara and Stephen Sheehi show that breaking silence is therapeutic; working with unconscious fantasy about trauma and against the kind of victim-status that the Israeli state would like its Arab citizens to experience repetitively and with no escape, is liberating. In Palestine speaking truth to power is liberating. This book shows that this is possible, and how it is actually taking place now. The book is committed to giving voice to practitioners putting themselves on the line as Palestinians, working with Palestinians, and to the ‘patients’ who become more than that, become more than patient, open and able to change and to change the world, to challenge occupation.

Even if you know nothing about psychoanalysis, this book is a case study in the best kind of ‘action research’ that was developed in ‘liberation psychology’ in Latin America, and, fuelled by the work of the revolutionary Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, it lays bare the micro-politics of oppression and resistance. Just as Fanon was able to do in his work in the psychiatric hospital at Blida-Joinville during the Algerian liberation struggle against France, Palestinian mental health practitioners show us how Israeli apartheid works its way into every consulting room and how the settler-colonial state implants itself inside the lives of Palestinians.

You will read, for example, how a therapist responds to the question as to whether politics enters into the consulting room with a description of working with a client when tear-gas is seeping through the windows. From the demand that practitioners take their oral exams in Hebrew to the ‘supervision’ of their cases by Israelis, these Palestinian practitioners are forced to make decisions about when and how to work in and against the state institutions and when and how to construct other independent networks.

Some of the claims are tough to read, but are made with the full knowledge that they must be faced head on if the collective nafs of the Palestinian people is to be honoured and built. The Sheehis are working in Arabic in Palestine – they were prevented from entering Gaza during the time of their research interviews, talks and workshops – and so they explain how key terms, like nafs, have a multiplicity of meanings (in this case translating the ‘ego’ of traditional psychoanalytic theory as well as the ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’ of a people).

Among the popular mainstream psychological motifs that buttress the occupation of Palestine that this book dismantles is the notion of ‘dialogue’. One of the Palestinian therapists points out that their Israeli colleagues are only interested in ‘dialogue’ on condition that the oppressed acknowledges and foregrounds the pain of the oppressor. Once the ‘distress’ that is caused and replicated by the occupation is treated as equal on both ‘sides’, there is a slippery slide into the demand that the Palestinians renounce violence.

This concern with ‘dialogue’ that is designed to depoliticise the conditions of life of the Palestinians, and even while the practitioners go for ‘supervision’ in their Israeli colleagues’ offices – offices in buildings that were once Palestinian homes – is the basis of humanistic psychological interventions. Those kinds of psychologists love Martin Buber, one of the Israeli national treasures who basically arrived in the land of Palestine and generously suggested that the problem would be solved by the two peoples having half each. The book notes in passing that Martin Buber occupied the house of Edward Said’s family, Palestinians exiled to Egypt.

But then, it is also clear that these radical practitioners are in favour of dialogue when it is focused on real conflict and on the empowerment of the Palestinians. The book draws on the work of Israeli Jews who speak out against the occupation and who also put themselves on the line in supporting radical therapeutic work. The question the book poses again and again is how a ‘psychotherapeutic commons’ will be built that will enable the oppressed to speak, not for the sake of the beautiful souls of the oppressors – a common concern of mainstream state-licensed ‘dialogue’ that is designed to break the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – but for the sake of Palestinians themselves. Here in this book they speak as Palestinians, laying the basis for all Palestinians to speak.

 The book is attuned to conceptual debates in the left that underpin the psychoanalytic work they describe, and apart from anything else, the detailed footnote referencing of each and every claim and theory they draw on is worth reading the book for. They are grounded in practice as Lebanese Arabs working for many years with people who are effectively prohibited from speaking the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Nakba’ in Israeli state institutions.

This is explicitly self-consciously about psychoanalysis as a progressive indigenous healing practice. That will be very surprising to those of us who think of psychoanalysis as being an individual treatment tailored to the needs of the neurotic rich worried well. Against the usual colonial narrative that traces the way that psychoanalytic ideas enter Palestine through Jewish émigrés, this book shows how widespread psychoanalysis is throughout the Arab world. It is also doing much more, however, and turning a reflexive self-critical gaze on psychoanalysis itself. Through close attention to how it actually works in practice under occupation, the Sheehis engage in what could be called a ‘decolonising’ of psychoanalysis. In fact, the mental health practitioners they speak to, and give the last word to, are already themselves decolonising psychoanalysis while they make use of it to decolonise their people.

This is revolutionary psychoanalysis, not as a ‘critical social theory’ of the kind that circulates in university departments, and the book takes great care not to ‘psychologise’ or ‘psychoanalyse’ the political struggle that is the context for the clinical work they describe. They are focused on the practice, practice in context. Politics is in command here, and that is what makes this approach to mental health something subversive. It is a wonder that this book was published by Routledge, a mainstream publisher, and there is so much that is wonderful and inspiring in it, for anyone who has ever wondered about the social context of mental distress and what can be done about it.

Lara Sheehi will be giving the 16th Hurndall Memorial Lecture online on Tuesday 14 December under the same title as the book ‘Psychoanalysis Under Occupation’.

You can read and comment on this review which was written for Anti-Capitalist Resistance

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

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