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:

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:

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: and

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

Psychoanalysis with the oppressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacanian and Marxist reflections on Psychoanalysis and Revolution

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

So, to conclude

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

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

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

Guattari and Us

I write this as a psychoanalyst working in the same tradition as Félix Guattari, Lacanian, and as a Trotskyist, active politically in the same tradition as your man. Guattari has tended to be eclipsed in academic writing by his co-author Gilles Deleuze. I was prompted to draw up this balance-sheet of Guattari’s contribution by an invitation to participate in a BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Free Thinking’ on Deleuze and Guattari, broadcast on 8 April 2021 (in which I was only able to use ten percent of my notes in a recording that was then edited down to half the length of the original before broadcast).

Félix Guattari, comrade, member of the Fourth International, was born in 1930, an active Trotskyist from 1948 to 1964, and critical psychiatric psychoanalytic researcher, writer and activist, an ecosocialist, until his death in 1992. Guattari is often best-known for his collaboration with the five-year-older philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the usually misunderstood book Anti-Oedipus, translated into English five years later (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972/1977). The two were both avid readers of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre before they met, but it was Guattari who brought radical psychotherapeutic practice and political critique – Freud and Marx – into the explosive mixture that eventually went under the heading of ‘schizoanalysis’. Guattari’s (1984) work exemplifies potentialities and limits of breaking from medical models of ‘mental health’ under capitalism.


To understand better how Guattari translates, and does not, into the English-speaking world, which now more than ever defines on a global scale the parameters of theory and treatment of distress, we need to grasp some key elements of the context in which the ‘Anti-Oedipal’ critique and alternative operated in France.


The lunatic asylum has long been understood by the left as incarceration, and has functioned as a kind of prison for many in distress in the English-speaking world. It is this understanding of the asylum, and then ‘mental hospital’ in medical rebranding of the same institution, that framed the take-up of 1970s ‘democratic psychiatry’ from Italy into English radical mental health movements, most significantly in Asylum (which carried the subtitle ‘magazine of democratic psychiatry’ for many years after it was founded in Sheffield in 1986). Asylums were indeed used by the fascists under Mussolini to incarcerate opponents.This bitter history of the asylum as prison was very different in France where, for example, the Saint Alban clinic in the south of the country was a point of refuge, housing Resistance fighters. It also provided a base for radical psychiatrists during and after the Second World War, including figures like Frantz Fanon, who did his internship there, and Jean Oury, who later moved north to found La Borde in 1953. Yes, the mental hospital contained people, but this ‘containment’ was double-edged, a place of safety for some as well as place of control, an ambiguity that Michel Foucault’s (1961/2009) work explores, an ambiguity of function that is often overlooked.


It is in places like this that alternatives were developed to the physical treatment regimes that provided the coercive medical frame of understanding dominant in British psychiatry. While there were significant attempts to develop group-psychotherapeutic and community-oriented approaches in the English-speaking world, the assumption here was that a radical break from the asylum as an institution would be necessary before these approaches could flower. Such was the assumption in Trieste in north-east Italy where Franco Basaglia’s ‘deinstitutionalisation’ process was the setting for work cooperatives, then appearing in Britain in an uneasy relationship with those inspired by R D Laing (1965) and the like.

In Saint Alban and then La Borde, in contrast, ‘institutional psychotherapy’ was the governing paradigm. This was not without some bizarre remainders from psychiatric practice that horrified Basaglia when he visited La Borde, apparent in the so-called ‘annihilation therapy’ at Saint Alban developed by one-time POUM Trotskyist Francesc Tosquelles, who fled from Franco’s Spain to inspire Fanon, Oury and many others. Guattari was still working at La Borde when he died. These traditional psychiatric practices can also be seen in the later grim drug regimes in the clinic, still very apparent in the 1996 Nicolas Philibert documentary about La Borde, Every Little Thing.


A key contextual difference between ‘anti-psychiatry’ in France and Britain is the role of psychoanalysis, usually seen as at one with the enemy by radical mental-health service-user movements here, conveniently forgetting that R D Laing was trained as a psychoanalyst before developing his own Sartre-inspired existentialist critique of the medical model. Anglo-American psychoanalysis adapted itself to society in Britain and the United States – a process intensified by the precarious status of émigré analysts from continental Europe fleeing fascism – and that turned psychoanalysis into an adaptive treatment compatible with psychiatry.

In France, collusion with psychiatry and medical training of many psychoanalysts was significant, but there was also a radical break from psychiatry, whether it was from the early involvement of the prominent psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (2006) with the surrealists and then with phenomenology or in the psychoanalytic training of Guattari himself. Guattari, who went into analysis with Lacan, as did Jean Oury and, later, all other members of staff at La Borde, had no medical training. He was a ‘lay analyst’, studying pharmacy at the University of Paris. Psychoanalysis was, among other things, an alternative to psychiatry, a critique of it, and a critique, for that matter, of mainstream psychology too.


Psychoanalysis in the English-speaking world appealed to some who wanted to change the world, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule, and in Britain, for example, ‘critique’ was more likely to be harnessed to Bloomsbury Group style distaste at the constraints of current etiquette rather than full-blown critique of the bourgeois nuclear family, still less solidarity with the working class. Things were very different in Austria, Germany, Hungary and France where psychoanalysis was mainly to the left.

It is this radical history of psychoanalysis that encourages and infuses different strands of political critique and resistance, whether from within the French Communist Party, PCF, or from the more radical alternatives. The psychoanalysts had a tough time inside the PCF, still liable to be seen as bourgeois reactionary fellow-travellers rather than comrades – Stalin’s suspicion of psychoanalysis was a potent influence, and Trotsky’s interest in it did not help their case – but they were, even so, still there. Many followers of Lacan were attracted to Maoism, as was Sartre. Guattari’s journey through active membership of the Fourth International and editorship of La Voie Communiste until 1964, carried on, informed his psychotherapeutic practice. Psychoanalysis was on the side of resistance, and so to be critical of an ‘Oedipal’ model of the ideal-typical nuclear family was to be with psychoanalysis, not against it.


British psychiatry, with some notable exceptions, which were noted by Lacan and which were then influential at Saint Alban and La Borde, was devoted to medical treatment of the individual, and the insertion of that individual as a well-behaved citizen back into society. The turn to the group in radical psychiatric practice after the Second World War had some impact in the English-speaking world, but connected with radical perspectives in ‘institutional psychotherapy’ in France in a deeper way (e.g., Lacan, 1947/2019).

It is quite early on in Guattari’s work that the term ‘transversality’ appears, for example, way before he met Deleuze, and this notion was to capture something of the ineliminable social, collective nature of unconscious processes. This, not in a mystical and sometimes racist form that followers of Jung took it in, but as located in speech, language, our necessary immersion into symbolic material as a function of being able to communicate with each other, to be human. Much of the most radical input into Anti-Oedipus and then into A Thousand Plateaus, written with Deleuze eight-years later, came from this collective vision of human action and resistance (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988/1987). The notions of enclosure as ‘territory’ and of ‘deterritorialisation’ as a radical alternative are in the same vein. It was collective action that was made manifest in the mobilisation of patients at La Borde against the colonial war in Algeria and then in support of the May 1968 revolt in Paris and other French cities.


British psychiatry, and much psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic practice in the English-speaking world tended to obediently implement its theories. This helped turn psychoanalysis, for instance, into a kind of all-encompassing world-view in which those who are fully trained think they have expertise, buttressing the power of the medics over ‘lay practitioners’ in the process. Built into much French philosophy – this is where Sartre’s existentialist puzzling over the relationship between individual agency and social structure is so relevant, and influential on both Guattari and Deleuze – is reflection on context. This reflection on context is embedded in the process of thought, so that the theory is not treated as an apparatus to make sense of the world, but as a machine that is part of the world, simultaneously a ‘tool and result’.

Guattari early on in his work at La Borde, again before he met Deleuze, had a conception of therapeutic and political work as operating like a reflexive ‘machine’, a machine that we ourselves build, participate in, learn from, collective work rather than individual ingenuity. Here the metaphor of machine chimes with some of the cybernetic interests of Lacan, but should not be understood as unduly ‘mechanical’. This then puts the notion of ‘anti-Oedipus’ to work in such a way that, in the words of British socialist feminist Juliet Mitchell (1974) in her path-breaking book Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Freud’s work is a description of patriarchy, not a recommendation for it. She was writing about Freud and Lacan, and Guattari is one of those who brings that internal critique to fruition.


British psychiatry, and then, of course, psychoanalysis in the English-speaking world generally, houses plenty of theories about the world. It revels in theories that describe the world as it is in order to maintain things as they are. These theories are designed to recommend patriarchy, for example, as part of the description; interpretation that is decidedly not intended to change the world. At the same time, there is an obsession with ‘empirical’ examination of our reality in order to confirm it. English ‘empiricism’ is a perfect machine for absorbing psychoanalytic ideas and ‘testing’ them, seeing if they work, and keeping those that correspond to reality as it is now.

You need a theory of social structure and of the formation of subjectivity in order to be able to combat the way things are organised, to mobilise to change the world, to put interpretations to work, and this the most influential radical traditions of French philosophy, psychoanalysis and even psychiatry understood well. Guatarri scribbled his notes and sent them to Deleuze, and Deleuze embedded these ideas, of ‘transversality’ and of the ‘machine’ into a quasi-philosophical narrative. Deleuze made the book, Anti-Oedipus, in which, Guattari, in a state of depression after it was published in 1972, said he felt ‘over-coded’, incorporated, interpreted. Deleuze did not want to work with Guattari on the book at La Borde as part of a collective process, and he was repelled by what he saw there at the clinic, anxious among mad people, but worked as a philosopher does on the ideas. Nevertheless, it is a theory, a theory that is designed to be put to work.


Guattari’s work with Deleuze was an innovative radical achievement, with the traces of his Marxism as apparent in it as is the influence of Freud and Sartre. But, there are problems, how could there not be problems, problems we need to work through if we are to fully comprehend how radical it still is now.


Despite the clear argument in the book for a restructuring of subjectivity rather than its simple liberation from social norms, there is a temptation hidden in the book, an invitation to romanticise madness. The notion of the necessity for there to be something of the ‘machine’, structure, organisation – what Guattari was to term ‘arrangement’ in A Thousand Plateaus – should help us steer clear of this.

However, time and again the romanticising of schizophrenia as a form of freedom returns in responses to Anti-Oedipus, something that is of a piece with the romantic hopes that the May 1968 revolutionaries pulling up the cobble-stones to throw at the police would show us that, as one of the slogans put it, ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach’. This response then structures the prevalent reading among British psychiatrists, one that understandably strikes a chord with some radical mental activists too who were burnt by R D Laing’s political-intellectual journey; images of madness as chaos operate ideologically alongside the suspicion that brute biology is the bedrock, that it is as if ‘under the beach, the paving stones’.


Despite the clear argument in the book that ‘Oedipus’ is one of the ideological motifs of the nuclear family, taken up into psychoanalysis as a description that is then too-often put to work in the clinic as a recommendation, this critique is then quickly absorbed and turned against Deleuze and Guattari. The facile reading, a misreading, is that to be ‘anti-Oedipus’ is to be against psychoanalysis; many psychoanalysts in their practice would today actually agree that psychoanalytic work is precisely to help us interpret and free ourselves from the shackles of ‘Oedipal’ relationships.

However, at a deeper level, it is difficult to implement this critique when families themselves clamour for the ‘identified patient’ or ‘index patient’ who is sent for treatment to be made better, adapted, returned intact. The recent furore over supposed psychoanalytic mother-blaming in relation to ‘autism’ in France shows how deep and difficult this aspect of critique of the family is. British psychiatry has been better placed to reassure families that this is a medical problem that can be treated, and parents are understandably very relieved to be let off the hook, not to be implicated in the distress they witness and also suffer, which does not mean that they are not also sometimes implicated in that distress.


There is nothing so practical as a good theory, but a theory can often function as a grid, a machine that runs away with itself, that operates against us rather than for us. This is the way of theory, explicit or implicit, in British psychiatry, for instance. Despite the adherence of British psychiatry, and forms of British psychoanalysis, to the assumption that only when ideas have been tested can they be taken seriously, that the theory must correspond to rigorous empirical observation, theory is used by British psychiatrists to govern the life-world of their patients.

However, there is a danger, of course, that ‘French theory’ of whatever kind, even from Deleuze and Guattari, can also operate in this way, as a grid. This is why radical mental health movements in Britain, around Asylum Magazine, for example, value theory, but focus more on how things will work out in practice. Nowadays, it tends to be the case that mental health system service users demand ‘theory’ and find it useful, while activists are more suspicious of any water-tight framework, working more pragmatically, taking ideas from here and there that will help.


Alongside the danger of theory as such, is the specific danger of abstraction, the staining out of general processes that are then detected everywhere; this abstraction of a theoretical structure in Anti-Oedipus, then blots out other specific forms of experience and forms of resistance. There is a warning in the history of anti-psychiatry in France here, in the way that Frantz Fanon, for instance, drew attention to structures of colonialism and racism when he was at Saint Alban and in his later work carried out at Blida-Joinville in Algeria, but then the way that this anti-racist critique disappears. One finds no black faces at La Borde in the Philibert documentary made barely three years at the clinic after Guattari died, for example, and the representation of ideal relationships is decidedly heteronormative. Feminism, so crucial to internal critiques of French, and British, psychoanalysis, is erased.

This contrasts with the attempt by radical mental health movements today to adopt a more ‘intersectional’ approach, now drawing on the experience of feminist #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements. Guattari’s activism when in the Fourth International is the better model here. He was not so hot on feminist critique – sleeping with patients, for example as if oblivious to power – but he did see anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle as intimately related to anti-capitalist politics, whether that was leading work brigades to Yugoslavia at the end of the 1940s or demonstrating against the war on Algeria at the beginning of the 1960s.


There are many problems in his work that should operate as questions for Guattari, questions that he cannot answer but that we can in our practice. There have been many critiques of psychiatry, many radical approaches to what is now called ‘mental health’, some anti-racist and feminist approaches more useful than others. Guattari’s is still one of the useful ones, developed by our comrade actively working with the oppressed, attentive to the nature of oppression, putting psychoanalysis to work with the oppressed.

It would be too much, perhaps, to say that what Guattari developed in and against psychiatry was ‘Trotskyist’, and it does not need to be, but close attention to what he gave us would redeem what is most potentially radical about it, take it beyond its limits, and, why not, could even today embed a radical approach to mental health in the politics of the Fourth International that he dedicated so many formative years of his life to.


Basaglia, F. (1987). Psychiatry Inside Out: Selected writings of Franco Basaglia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972/1977). Anti‑Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1980/1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dosse, F. (2011). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, M. (1961/2009). History of Madness. London and New York: Routledge.

Goulart, D. (2019). Subjectivity and Critical Mental Health: Lessons from Brazil. London and New York: Routledge.

Guattari, F. (1984). Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. Harmondsworth: Peregrine.

Guattari, F. and Rolnik, S. (2008). Molecular Revolution in Brazil. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Lacan, J. (1947/2019). ‘British psychiatry and the war’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, vol. 33, pp. 13-57.

Lacan, J. (2006) Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (translated with notes by B. Fink in collaboration with H. Fink and R. Grigg). New York: Norton.

Laing, R. D. (1965) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tosquelles, F. and Fanon, F. (1953). ‘Indications of electroconvulsive therapy within institutional therapies’, in J. Khalfa and R. J. C. Young (eds) (2018) Frantz Fanon: Alienation and Freedom (pp. 291-298). London: Bloomsbury.

This article was first published in the journal Free Associations, available to download here (where it mistakenly says that Guattari studied philosophy rather than pharmacy).

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

Psychoanalysis and Revolution August 2021 Update

Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements is out in the world, published first in Russian by Horizontal Publishers. A link for the Horizontal book is here: A brief video about the book to publicise it, and which has Russian sub-titles, is here:

We have a website for the book – – which will be updated with news about progress with the project and, when new language versions appear, publication links together with the prefaces specially written for different contexts. The preface for the Russian edition, by Vadim Kvachev, is available now, translated into English here: We are endeavouring, where possible, to make downloads of different editions of the manifesto available for free. There is a Facebook page Please like and share it.

The manifesto is now also being translated, or will be soon, from the English and Spanish language versions that we produced into different languages; into Arabic, Bahasa, Chinese, Danish, Farsi, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Kurdish, Malayalam, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Tagalog, Turkish and Urdu. We know that the Arabic version has been cleared by the censors in Cairo – we admit to our surprise – and we will let you know when we have a link for that version when it is published. The Italian version is scheduled for publication in September, and a link for that will be available soon.

We will have a news update very soon about the English language edition, which will be published by 1968 Press. There is an interview with Ian conducted by Alfie at 1968 Press on their blog here:

This is the blurb being used for the cover of different versions of the book: ‘What is revolutionary about psychoanalysis, and why should those of us concerned with political praxis take it seriously? This manifesto is an argument for connecting social transformation with personal liberation, showing that the two aspects of profound change can be intimately linked together using psychoanalysis. The manifesto explores what lies beyond us, what we keep repeating, what pushes and pulls us to stay the same and to change, and how those phenomena are transferred into clinical space. This book is not uncritical of psychoanalysis, and transforms it so that liberation movements can transform the world.’

We have been very lucky to be in contact with some enthusiastic colleagues who have been able to take up the challenge to translate and publish the book, and we want to be in contact with those who could take it into other languages. We have drawn a blank in some places. In some other places we are making slower progress. In some cases where we cannot find a local publisher we may just put translations online. If you can help, contact us. You will notice which languages are missing. We know that translation is creative work, and give rights to the book to local translators and publishers.  

We are keen to collate critical responses to the manifesto. It is by no means perfect, and we need to be able to collectively reflect on its limitations and work out how to improve it.

We are circulating this update to our translators and publishers around the world, and to anyone else who wants to keep in touch with progress on the project. If you do want the next updates, let Ian know at

August 2001

Socialisms and psychoanalysis

The book Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade did not concern itself with psychoanalysis. The book is a description and political analysis of eight failed attempts to build socialism in this capitalist world so hostile to collective self-organisation. But these failures do raise questions about the place of psychoanalysis in the world, both as a therapeutic practice and as a form of political critique.


First, there is the claim that psychoanalysis offers a place for ‘free association’ that may threaten regimes that are based on surveillance of their people. This is sometimes even extended to the idea that the political ethos of psychoanalysis leads to the kind of ‘free association’ we hope and aim for in a socialist society. Such an ethos is threatening to regimes that claim to be socialist but are not, that have betrayed fundamental principles of Marxist politics in which, as Lenin put it, we should expect and demand debate, open governmental processes that are a thousand times more democratic than in bourgeois parliamentary regimes. The issue here is whether or not psychoanalysis connects ‘free association’ and the right to speak freely inside the clinic with a political programme; there are plenty of regimes that do actually seem to believe that is the case, and oppose psychoanalysis for that very reason.

So, in the case of the USSR, there was a first flourishing of psychoanalysis in the 1920s, with prominent psychologists like Lev Vygotsky and AR Luria joining the Russian Psychoanalytic Society, and then leaving the society when Stalin tightened his grip on the apparatus, when psychoanalysis was seen as a threat. I saw minutes of the Russian Psychoanalytic Society signed by Luria, and then a hand-written note from Luria and Vygotsky when I visited Izhevsk, and it was clear that, with the end of the regime there were new possibilities, new openings for psychoanalysis, but within limits. As the regime shifted from bureaucratic state management to capitalism through the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s we saw, in fact, even greater hostility to what were viewed as aberrant decadent ‘Western’ forms of sexuality than under Stalin. Stalin outlawed homosexuality, and the Putin regime demonises it, and discussions of queer theory in an Izhevsk psychoanalytic congress that I attended were very difficult.

There is another indication of this in the case of Cuba, where, during my second visit that I describe in the book, I attended a psychology congress that included a session devoted to the work of Fernando González Rey, who was head of the Cuban Psychological Society and Vice-Rector of Havana University for many years. González Rey fell out with Castro during a visit to Brazil when his wife needed medical treatment and he defied Castro’s order that he should return to Havana, and for many years after that he was persona non grata in Cuban psychology, but the congress was a sign that things were opening up again. It should also be noted that González Rey was, during his time at the head of the psychology department and then vice-rector in Havana University, a key figure in brokering unusual path-breaking meetings which brought psychoanalysts, both from the International Psychoanalytical Association and Lacanian groups, from outside the country. I guess we could take this as a sign that Cuba has, through the years, been more open to dissent. Not completely so; it has always been under threat from the US and has had good reason to be suspicious of ‘dissidents’ working for foreign powers, but relatively more open than the Soviet Union. I met with some young Cuban academics, not psychologists, and we went walking through Havana, chancing on a street bookstall near the University on the way, and there was a little book, published in Cuba, of writings of the Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller. Again, perhaps this is a sign of relative openness in a regime that broke from capitalism but is still subject to it, that collectivised key industries but which has now had to relax restrictions, just recently abandoning the ‘dual currency’ that separated tourists and foreign entrepreneurs from the locals.

As well as repression of psychoanalysis as such, which was fiercer in the Soviet Union and the satellite states under its control, there was also some relaxation as the hold of Moscow was also lessened. In the case of Serbia, for example, the break between Tito and Stalin was, perhaps, more significant than I made it seem in my description in the book. I emphasised more the continuity between Tito and Milošević and then the current regime, which is well on the way to embracing fully-fledged neoliberalism, than focusing on the positive aspects of Tito. We have to remember that Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was a dominant cultural bloc, was also a place of intellectual ferment, which included more openness to psychoanalysis. Wilhelm Reich’s writings were translated quite early on, and my main guide and friend in Belgrade during my visit was one of those who translated Reich when Serbia was, as she still sees it, ‘socialist’. Slavoj Žižek wrote a lengthy introduction to a Croatian translation of Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism, and, of course, psychoanalysis was a resource for the countercultural movement in Slovenia.

There are now psychoanalytic trainings in these countries, now that they have become capitalist societies, as there are in China, and I have discussed this with friends who studied in the West and then returned to China, during which time, psychoanalysis had blossomed. The trainings are, however, often linked to medical institutions which is where the training by Western organisations is often pitched. When I briefly discussed psychoanalysis in North Korea, by the way, I was met with the blankest of faces, and futile attempts to engage with what I was saying – which was rare because those assigned to deal with Westerners very quickly change the subject when conversation touches on things that are out of the tour frame – indicated that they had not the slightest idea what I was talking about. There were no psychoanalytic books in the libraries we were permitted to enter in Pyongyang.

Here again we need to reflect critically on the claim that the existence of psychoanalysis in a society is an indication that the society is ‘freer’. The claim that psychoanalysis can only really function in a democratic society, and that the two – the realm of therapeutic practice in the clinic and the realm of political debate – mirror each other, is often assumed to be the case by liberal and even some radical psychoanalysts, but I am not so sure it is true. We just have to consider, for example, the case of Hungary, where psychoanalysis did flourish under the Horthy regime, before the incorporation of the country into the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and Soviet control, or South Africa, where psychoanalytic associations operated during the years of apartheid. The flipside of this is Argentina, not by any stretch a socialist country, where it is true that some psychoanalysts, like Marie Langer, had to leave the country during the dictatorship, but this did not at all spell the end of psychoanalysis. Other psychoanalysts stepped in to fill the positions of those who left the country, and the practice, depoliticised perhaps, even so survived.

There are two other issues closely connected with this. One is that psychoanalysis is a child of the Western Enlightenment, and, contradictory though it is, and perhaps precisely because it is contradictory, difficult to pin down, make sense of, some regimes are suspicious of it. I heard in several places the claim that psychoanalysis is ‘Western’, and suspect for that reason. The other issue, which I’ve already flagged up briefly, is the link with non-normative sex, well the link with sex actually, which is always necessarily in some ways ‘non-normative’. I describe in the book attacks on vegans in Georgia, and the conservative pro-family activists there are as hostile to feminism as they are to psychoanalysis, seeing the two sets of ideas as equivalent.


Second, alongside claims about whether psychoanalysis is or is not ‘radical’, or even liberal about the need for ‘free association’ – which is no bad thing, to be honest – there are some deeper conceptual questions about the interrelationship between forms of socialism and psychoanalytic views of what subjectivity is. The two are connected, of course, through feminism, particularly socialist feminism in the claim that the ‘personal is political’, and that is why feminism has been an absolutely necessary and unavoidable bridge-point for many activists and analysts between Marxism and psychoanalysis. That is one reason, by the way, why conventional so-called ‘Freudo-Marxism’ and the strand of work that eventually led back to the pro-family complaints of the likes of Christopher Lasch failed, why they ended up down conservative dead-ends; hostility to feminism blocks, at some point, possible connections between the idea of socialism and psychoanalytic practice.

One block, one obstacle, to linking the two, or, another way of putting, distorting both, is in the bedrock claims about ‘human nature’ and the spiralling of ideological claims about what the human being is not capable of because of this or that aspect of their nature. It is here that the operation of psychoanalysis as some kind of worldview is so reactionary. There is a key question about ‘socialism’ here, and the way that regimes I discuss in the book often turn Marxism into a worldview. This was clear in the case of China, where I was told by one Communist Party apparatchik that Marxism was their ‘faith’, and that’s why students needed to learn about it. In the case of North Korea, incidentally, this belief system is transformed into something more mystical, the ‘Juche’ idea. One of the cultural-political limitations of the ‘socialisms’ I discuss, is precisely that they were governed by a belief system functioning as if it was a faith. Maybe I am too liberal here, but it is precisely because I am a Marxist that I do not see ‘Socialism’ as being defined by its belief system but by the creative ability of contradictory ideas and practices to work together; that is ‘free association’, an aim if not completely possible. Likewise, it is because I am a psychoanalyst that I am averse to psychoanalysis being turned into a ‘faith’, and to talk about ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’ and ‘aggresivity’ and ‘jouissance’ being used to tell us what we cannot do as human beings, and so used to sanctimoniously explain why socialism has failed.

Another block, another obstacle is in common assumptions about subjectivity and change that are sometimes actually shared by psychoanalysts and the left. This is the old hydraulic model of the unconscious that is so popular in psychologised representations of psychoanalysis, and that still seems to be even believed by some psychoanalysts, an idea that has also entered into popular consciousness as an implicit model of the emergence of political resistance and action. Marxism is very clear about this, and in opposition to this point, arguing that the contradictions of capitalism are a function of the specific nature of its political-economic functioning, and that the working class is constituted as a force that will overthrow capitalism. That is, dialectics does not posit the force of upheaval and overthrow as primary but as a function of the system.

Capitalism distorts Marxism, so that even socialists often argue their corner using rhetorical tropes and even historical narratives that are antithetical to it – conspiracy theories being a case in point – and capitalism very efficiently distorts psychoanalysis too, making it seem as if psychoanalysis stirs up the instinctual depths of the individual, exacerbating these when individuals associate with each other and turn into mobs. That returns us to the image of psychoanalysis that so concerns some of these regimes I describe in the book, and returns us to images of Marxism at the same time.


As well as including detailed historical-political context for the regimes I describe, and reportage to weave a narrative about the internal shape of the regimes, the book is about representations and self-representations of different forms of socialism. I begin the book with an introduction which points out that Marx never offered a blueprint for socialism, and Marxists have usually been careful not to specify exactly what communism would look like. The best nearest accounts of that we have available to us now are still in the vein of speculative fiction, in the work of writers like Ursula Le Guin. In other words, Marxist political activists do not, as some psychoanalytic conservative accounts would have it, present an ‘ideal’ which they then try to press the real world into some correspondence with.

We have real problems when we are trying to articulate psychoanalytic and socialist accounts of society because the domain of psychoanalysis is the clinic, not society. Attempts by psychoanalysts to generalise their favourite theory of internal psychic processes to society usually stumble over another problem. From Freud onward, psychoanalytic analyses of society are always themselves from a particular political position. Usually that political position is disavowed; psychoanalysts often wield their theory in such a way as to pretend that they are simply neutrally describing reality. Venezuelan psychoanalysts have often voiced opposition to the regime there because they want to defend their practice as something private, available only for payment, a political not a clinical position.

Many of the representations and even self-representations of socialism are, nevertheless, influenced by some version or other of psychoanalytic theory. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that Freud’s ideas have been a staple of popular media for over a century now, ranging from the reference and use and depiction of those ideas in Hollywood film to the motifs that structure novels, either in knowing winks to the reader in high-brow novels or in simplistic portrayals of underlying sexual motives in pulp fiction. The other reason is that Freud himself picked up and recycled many popular ideas about the mind and worked on them to develop psychoanalysis. This is especially apparent in his accounts of social processes, and in the work of succeeding generations of psychoanalysts. This is especially so in forms of psychoanalysis aiming to adapt their practice and their analysands to society instead of challenging it. There are then dire consequences for images of socialism in psychoanalysis.

Take, for example, images of the crowd. Yes, it is true that Freud re-read and re-worked Le Bon’s nineteenth-century diatribes against ‘the mob’. So, we have in Freud’s ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ a more sophisticated account of the role of the ego-ideal in the form of a leader or a leading idea structuring identification and idealisation in groups. But Freud also carried into psychoanalysis from Le Bon a distrust of collective action as prone to be pathological, distrust that reflected Freud’s own political position, worry about things getting out of control, worry about irrational forces being unleashed.

So now when we look at representations of socialism, we find some of these self-same ideas at work, ideas that are of a piece with psychoanalytic diagnoses of socialism as a problem. In the case of the recent Netflix series ‘Crash Landing on You’, say, which is about a very wealthy young South Korean woman landing by mistake after a freak storm in the Demilitarised Zone and falling in love with a soldier from the DPRK elite, we have quasi-psychoanalytic elements structuring the narrative. According to this South Korean television series, the dictatorial regime north of the border is riddled with corruption and crime, and there are criminals and gangs running riot unchecked by the authorities. There may be no psychoanalysis in North Korea, but there is plenty of it around in the South in academic work and in popular culture.

The series pokes fun at the South Korean elite, yes, with images of wealthy Catholics asking God to intercede, but the North Korean regime is presented, represented as dangerous precisely because there is no such authoritative trustworthy societal structure in place. It is as if South Korea is organised around the figure of the Swiss policeman Freud speaks about – a strict but fair superego to be installed at the end of analysis – and North Korea, in contrast, is ruled by the Russian corrupt cop, a superego that asks to be bribed and that then licences self-destructive and anti-social behaviour. There are scenes of North Koreans being tutored in how to articulate their feelings, in the way that psychoanalysts keen on ‘psychological-mindedness’ would approve of. Switzerland does actually figure in ‘Crash Landing on You’, and the series was filmed in South Korea, Switzerland and Mongolia.


What I aim to do in the book is show how and why each form of ‘socialism’ failed, how it was betrayed, mislaid or unmade, examining the particular circumstances in which the revolutions occurred and the world-historical context in which they struggled to find their way. We need detailed analyses of actually-existing socialisms and analyses of forms of psychoanalysis too, showing how they intersect, how the failure of each reinforce each other and so working through how the success of each can provide resources for the other.

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

Looping psychoanalysis into film

Our life-world of film, a domain of reality that is an intimate part of our society of the spectacle, has in some respects been shrunken down during this latest pandemic. Film is now not only an intimate part of the spectacle, but intimate to us; the forms of subjectivity it rolls in front of our eyes quickly unspool behind them, inside us, becoming part of our own subjectivity. Psychoanalysis has always had something to say about the big screen, and now, of course, it has more to say, it has an even more richly elaborated array of discursive devices to speak to us about who we become in the more intimate space of our own home, when the screen is smaller. But we need to ask why that is, why it is that psychoanalysis speaks to us about film almost as deeply as film itself does.

Contented form

First, there is a question of content, of the feeding of psychoanalytic motifs into film, so that film criticism becomes an exercise in unravelling what has been spooled into the object being examined. This happens in US and then globalised film culture remarkably early on, and film then becomes one of the virtual microbial cultures of psychoanalysis. Take Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, for example, from 1941, in which characters refer explicitly to ‘psychoanalytical’ explanations of the message unwittingly or covertly, it is not clear which, passed from Barbara Stanwyck to Gary Cooper. This box office hit also sent a message to the audience that marked significant interpersonal, and, by implication, intra-personal messages as being in some way ‘psychoanalytical’.

Second, more potent still is the question of form, of how it is that the texture of film, flickering snapshots of reality are chained together to fabricate the illusion that there is a moving image on the screen that is more vibrant, charged with affect; this so that the plot money-shot injects not only a sense that there is something cathartic about the compression and conclusion of a narrative, but also another message about the nature of reality and subjectivity itself. Directors have often struggled to portray dreams in film precisely because film already harnesses and reconfigures reality as if it were a dream fragment that, at some point, will yield its meaning. The Dalí sequence in Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound is a notorious case in point. The critic and academic are hooked into this game as surely as is the viewer, but they draw on a specific kind of language to pin it down, a language that is often structured as if it is psychoanalytic.

Then, as we learn to speak about film, those of us who are not critics or academics, the uncanny and unsatisfying, the realistic and moving character of what we have watched together in the cinema also become, bit by bit, structured by the same range of psychoanalytic rhetorical devices. Psychoanalytic discourse now inhabits everyday life, appearing to give access to hidden depths while repeatedly structuring the sense that there are hidden depths – in the film and in ourselves as we respond to it – in the working over of content and in the replication of form. In both cases, to be able to convey to someone else who has seen the same film that one ‘understands’ it requires that the meanings be grasped and moulded; the meaning of film always lies in its use. Filmic discourse does not only describe the world but creates affiliation, identification even, among those who employ that discourse, identification that often also requires disjunction, disagreement, the idea that the film is not completely exhausted of meaning. Film is, in this sense, constituted as if it were a subject, never fully able to reveal itself to us.

One of the effects of the streaming into the home of film, and of the blurring of boundaries between cinema and television, is that this enigmatic and inexhaustible character of the filmic narrative is intensified. The box-sets we glut on take on even more the character of a dream, extended, fragmented and inconclusive. In contrast to the apparently rounded out delimited vignette that a classic mass-market film usually is, the box-set narrative usually begins with a premise, a promise and then by series four, say, a lingering unsatisfying trailing off. This is then less triumphant finish than ruined orgasm, something closer to what it is to shy away from impossible enjoyment, and in that case the teasing and failing is a function of viewing figures and advertising revenue. The drivers are economic, but the drives are privatised, and the excitement and disappointment located inside each individual viewer.

The time-compression and sense of personal control of what streaming into the home brings are new questions for psychoanalysis. Or rather, an intensification of the old questions about how we are positioned as subjects in relation to a symbolic medium that seems to express what we want while impressing on us a complex contradictory series of wants from somewhere beyond us. Now it is as if the Other is with us inside our homes asking us what we want while instructing us about the permissible parameters of what we can want and tantalising us about the prospect of there being something more. It was ever thus, but now, in the context of the Pandemic, the small screen reminds us that there is a big screen to which we might one day return, should want to return to.


This is what ‘looping’ is, with psychoanalysis as one of the looping effects of film and television, and now the more intensely privatised experience of streaming the moving image into our own homes. Psychoanalysis is very well able to comment on what is happening here precisely because it is woven into the phenomenon itself. A looping effect is a particular kind of feedback in which we are subjectively implicated in what is described such that what we describe to ourselves becomes the stuff of our subjectivity. In the case of psychoanalysis, this looping is tantalisingly incomplete; it must be so for psychoanalysis to work, for film re-activates the discourse and the experience of there being something unsaid, something unconscious. One of the indications that the psychoanalytic looping effect is at work is when phenomena specific to the clinic, specific to the strange artificial relationship between analyst and analysand, spill out into everyday life. Then we resonate with them onscreen because we assume that what we see resonates with the kind of beings we are.

I have one TV example. The CEO of Netflix tell us that their only competition is sleep, but this example is from the dream-world laid out by Amazon Prime Video. Take episode three of the 2015 mini-series Mr Robot, for example. Mr Robot, played by Christian Slater, masterfully incites and manipulates what we might quite understandably take to be ‘transference’ to him on the part of Elliot Alderson, the neurotic hacker played by Rami Malek. Mr Robot, the master, goads Elliot about his relationship with his father and repeatedly ‘interprets’ this failed relationship as also concerning him, Robot; he thereby structures the choices Elliot must make, not so much as the way in, but as if the way out of his prison, and that means Elliot must choose to work with Mr Robot. It is as if Christian Slater is also simultaneously playing the part of a stereotypical IPA-analyst from hell, provoking, constituting the transference so that it can be put to work, as if what drives it comes from inside his victim. Never underestimate the canny ability of the writers to pop in to the box-set what we then imagine we are so clever in detecting there. What should be noticed here is not merely the framing of the relationship, but its own internal looping effects within the narrative of the series, and then, of course, the questions it raises about why it would be that someone should carry on watching the thing.

We carry on watching this stuff because we enjoy it, but it is the patterning of that enjoyment that is the issue here. Of course we then enjoy excavating new meaning, mastering what is unresolved in the narrative. Rather like this particular pandemic itself, which is a narrative with an uncertain beginning and even more uncertain ending, every attempt to create a metalanguage that will master film must fail. We can then be sure that the parasitic industry of professional academic criticism, including journals and conferences devoted to psychoanalytic discourse, will find confirmation of underlying psychoanalytic assumptions that they make. The work of interpretation here is unending because there is nothing to be done save plugging and unplugging the gaps in subjectivity that film plays its own part in creating and re-creating.

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