Putin is not mad

Ian Parker argues that we need political analysis instead of psychiatric diagnosis

The invasion of Ukraine is, we could say, in some respects ‘mad’. It certainly looks now to be fusing together some miscalculated bluff and double-bluff manoeuvres, and some serious mistakes. If anyone in the Russian leadership thought this would be a quick strike and that the Ukrainians would rise up to welcome their conquerors, they have been shown wrong.

Demoralisation among Russian troops now firing on their neighbours, who most likely will also speak Russian, and deaths of young conscripts whose families at home will get the news despite the media clampdown, and brave open opposition to the war by a number of left organisations, show Putin has misestimated the balance of forces and the mood for war.

This is not Prague 1968, where forces from across the Warsaw Pact who did not speak Czech, and whose troops were lied to about what was happening, were sent in. It is, instead, shaping up into something more like the Afghanistan occupation that, among other things, corroded support for the Soviet state.


We need a careful nuanced analysis of what led up to this invasion rather than knee-jerk caricatures that reduce politics to the whims of this or that tyrant, or this or that great leader. The balance of forces is much more complicated than that, and we should avoid the danger of sliding into gross ideological accounts of what is happening.

Ideological caricature, and not only in the tabloid press, too simplistically relies on monster and hero narratives. The monster narrative is so often combined with an attempt to grasp what seems incomprehensible, which is when ‘madness’ is invoked. This is sometimes insulting, as in the insensitive reactionary comments that millions died in the Holocaust because Hitler ‘went mad’, but always stupid.

This is as stupid as the idea that things turned out well during the Second World War because we had great leaders like Churchill, himself a brute and crook. It also, by the way, drums home the idea that some individuals are ‘mad’, an idea that leads into psychiatric rabbit holes instead of an understanding of what kind of rationality is at work in this self-destructive miserable world, a world that does make people distressed, sometimes drives us mad.

This is the kind of narrative that leads ex-leftist commentators into a really bad place, as in the claim that strong Putin was tempted to take advantage of the West currently led by a ‘woke elite’. What has been going on inside Putin’s head is rather beside the point here, tempting though it is as a shorthand account. We get a better picture of the nationalist logic that drives Putin from his own words, his recent speech as a case in point.

We need, instead, as part of our specific analysis of each event, to understand what it is about the ostensibly ‘democratic’ regimes we might live under, and the more obviously totalitarian police states, that is really ‘mad’. There is, in cases like this one, a kind of rigorous logic to the calculations that are made by ‘leaders’, an instrumental rationality that then flips into irrationality, madness, when it encounters the real world.


Those calculations reveal something about the nature of the system that enables characters like Putin to rise to the top. In this specific case, we also know that Putin, fearful of COVID, understandably so, has been able, because of his position, been able to take extreme measures to shut out others. This is yet another case where the pandemic intensifies ‘rational’ responses and turns them into irrational attempts at frantic control. Putin’s fear of COVID then also bleeds into the popular ‘mad’ explanation for the invasion in the tabloid press.

At the heart of this kind of madness is a logic of enclosure, a process that was necessary to enable capitalism itself to take root. Enclosure of the land which drives people off their resources once held in common is supplemented by enclosure of property and of capital, control which restricts access. And that restriction of access, not surprisingly, entails restriction of information, and fatally impedes democratic functioning.

It is this crazy logic, and the enclosure of resources that breeds figures like Putin, now isolated at the head of a military apparatus and surrounded by obedient apparatchiks fearful for their lives or, in one or two cases, hoping that their chance to be the top dog might be next. Miscalculations aplenty will undo Putin, and calculations about how to exercise power will likely have just as destructive effects, unless we mobilise to put in place authentically democratic systems of decision-making, those that will work for all of us and not for the few.


Leaders like Putin, separated from the rest of their own population, enclosed and subject to misinformation, view the world from a certain kind of standpoint, from above. And that is very different from our analysis, which is always from the standpoint of the exploited and oppressed, from below.

Yes, ok, we don’t know whether Putin, or any of the other leaders of the ‘democracies’ are mad or not. But slapping on a quasi-psychiatric label on those we oppose is misleading, distracting, a trap, and our political analysis and response needs to be based on something much better than that.

You can read and comment on this article here


Capitalism’s Mind Games and Worse

Ian Parker reviews Neil Faulkner’s Mind Fuck: The Mass Psychology of Creeping Fascism (Resistance Books, 2022)

Neil Faulkner, who died of aggressive leukaemia on 5 February, was a revolutionary Marxist, an acclaimed archaeologist and, it is clear from this little book published the day he died, a Freudian. For Neil, Freudian psychoanalysis was a science of the mind that needed to be taken seriously and, where necessary, integrated into Marxism as a science of political-economic history.

Fascism was a case in point, a case where we need psychoanalysis alongside Marxism to explain the hold of destructive and self-destructive ideas on people. This book shows how personal-political processes underpinned the rise of fascism in the 1930s and how an attention to the forms of pathology that psychoanalysis specialises in describing and treating can help us understand better the grip of creeping fascism today.

I have to declare a personal-political interest in this. I commented on a version of the manuscript for this book, and Neil copyedited my Radical Psychoanalysis and Anti-Capitalist Action that will also be published by Resistance Books, adding, where appropriate, he told me, ‘Oxford commas’. Along the way we discussed some differences of approach, and we planned to set up a public meeting with other invited activist analysts to open up these issues to political debate. I will return to some of these differences in a moment, but first, the argument of the book.


We live, Neil argues, ‘in a world threatened by a surge of fascist irrationalism’. This manifests itself in many ways, and many of those involved ‘display symptoms of psychotic rage’. That is, the violence is ‘internalised in millions of minds’, and so fascism must be understood as a ‘social disease and political threat’ and also as a ‘psychological affliction’. The book then gives an account of the alienation we suffer under capitalism and shows how that contains the seeds of hatred of ‘others’ and self-hatred.

There is a good clear account of Freud’s ideas about the split between conscious understanding of the world and unconscious irrational forces. And this keys us into not only Freud’s own account of what can go wrong, how we can be fixated on past traumatic events, but also a host of other psychoanalysts, many on the left, who provided their own readings of what was happening around them with the rise of Nazism.

The sweep of the book is dramatic and compelling, and you will be drawn along into the argument that there is something deeper and more insidious about the racism and sexism that capitalism feeds on and regurgitates. It is exactly as if fascism unleashes the worst of what we are as human beings, vomiting up all of the most brutal and irrational aspects of life before ‘civilised’ capitalist society locked us into place as good citizens.

It is indeed as if Trotsky, who was himself very sympathetic to psychoanalysis, was absolutely right when he wrote in 1933 about Nazism, about the way that all forms of religious and mystical nonsense was resurfacing inside and against scientific reason: ‘Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up undigested barbarism’.

Neil, and Trotsky here, makes it seem as if Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are each, in their different ways, hard-core sciences that solve the riddles of history and the mind. It is as if, now we have these sciences we can understand the normal development of societies and individuals, and we are bit by bit edging towards a more rational description and treatment of barbarism and pathology.


I think the description Neil gives is right, but I muttered two or three times a page to myself as I was reading it ‘under capitalism’. That is, what Freud, and Neil, describes as the enclosed space of the patriarchal nuclear family is something specific to this kind of society, not universal. My worry was that he made it seem as if there really was a clear-cut universal distinction between ‘normal development’ that would lead to us being happy well-adjusted people (and to being revolutionaries who want to change the world, why not) and abnormal development that is mostly the rule nowadays and that turns us into creeping fascists.

Neil was clear that he thought that I was wrong to suggest that either Freud or Marx were historically-specific frameworks. No, he said, and I’m quoting from what Neil wrote to me before he died, ‘to argue that Freud invented psychoanalysis and that therefore it didn’t exist beforehand and therefore isn’t really applicable to earlier societies and perhaps contemporary societies outside the Western cultural sphere is wrong’. We must not, he said, fall into the trap of ‘denying the scientific status of psychoanalysis. I would insist that psychoanalysis is the science of the mind in the same sense as Marxism is the science of history/society’.

This makes clear some underlying assumptions in this book, that psychoanalysis is, as Neil put it ‘a method of analysis of universal validity (as all truly scientific projects must be). I haven’t the slightest doubt, for example, that Alexander the Great was psychotic, that medieval Madonna and Child images reflect mother-fixation, or that Shakespeare’s Othello is a study in psychosis, that of both Iago and Othello. I think not to defend the scientific integrity of psychoanalysis looks like a collapse into postmodernism.’


Then, when we come to fascism, the main focus of Neil’s book is about our understanding of fascism as a real pathology. For Neil ‘the system makes people sick in a generic sense – anti-social, narcissistic, psychotic, etc – in a way that provides fascism with a mass psychic base.’ He acknowledged that it ‘may be necessary to draw a sharper line here – between the pathologising of what are essentially healthy human responses to alienation, oppression, etc, and what are unquestionably mental disorders.’

These are sharp rapidly-written email points, but they neatly sum up some assumptions I disagree with, that we clearly disagreed on. I’m not even sure that what we call ‘mental disorders’ in this sick political-economic system, capitalism, are not merely different ways of coping that adapt us to the system and then make us seem sick too. I’m convinced that Marxism was developed under capitalism to grasp the nature of capitalism and show the way to overthrow it, but not that it is a science of all history.

As far as psychoanalysis is concerned, I replied to Neil: ‘fascism is a political problem not a mental disorder, and I think sliding into psychiatric diagnosis is a dangerous move, one that will cut against us on the left. Well, that’s why I say Freud ‘invented’ psychoanalysis, it did help key into some underlying shapes of subjectivity under capitalism, but it is not a psychiatric diagnosis or treatment, it is not bedrock ‘medical’ approach concerned with illness or organic disorders (there are organic brain disorders, for sure, but that is just not within the remit of psychoanalysis to speak about or help us speak about).’

Well, Neil said, then maybe you would not like my Marxist History of the World (sympathetically reviewed with replies by Neil), because it reads Marxism back into all historical development. We were arguing as comrades, as comrades should, rehearsing lines of argument. I said I loved that Marxist history of the world because it showed a deep sensitivity to exploitation of all forms, it is a history that stands with and speaks for the oppressed. A nice humanist could sympathise with those poor people before the development of capitalism, but only a Marxist could situate that in a historical understanding of where we are now and what we need to do.


Capitalism is poisonous not only because it is engaged in ruinous exploitation of people and the planet, exploitation that is now leading to mass misery and mass extinction. Its alienating power also forces its way into us, gets inside us, messes us up so that we often feel powerless to challenge it, coming to believe that it is impossible to change things, to overthrow it.

This is the barbarism that Rosa Luxembourg, a key figure in the political tradition Neil came from, pointed to. If there was not a socialist alternative developed to capitalism, and fast, then there would be barbarism; barbarism as vicious competition for resources managed by brutal regimes tearing us apart.

There was always an urgency in Neil’s approach to revolutionary politics that was driven by this conceptual framework, urgency that energised us and that enabled us to believe that it was still worth fighting, fighting to overthrow capitalism. We had a brief debate about the title of this book just before it was published when I raised the question as to whether it would be offensive. Neil insisted that this was exactly what he was analysing in the book, and on that he was right. Capitalism fucks us up and fascism will finish the job, unless we stop it, now.

You can read this again and comment on it here

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

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.


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


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 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/

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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