Twelve lessons from Freudo-Marxism*
Freudo-Marxism and its actuality
Freudo-Marxism is usually understood in two ways. In a broad, vague and diffuse sense, it encompasses all efforts of synthesis between Marxism and psychoanalysis. In a strict sense, which we will choose here, it only includes the efforts made in the interwar period, between the 1920s and 1930s, when attempts were made to systematically integrate the Marxist and Freudian traditions under an assumption of profound affinity and complementarity between them.
Freudo-Marxism in the strict sense includes works by authors as diverse as the great Marxists Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui, the Austro-German psychoanalysts Siegfried Bernfeld, Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel, the Soviets Vera Schmidt and Aleksandr Luria, the Frankfurters Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm, the surrealists André Breton, René Crevel and Tristan Tzara in France, Karel Teige in Czechoslovakia or Xavier Abril and Elias Piterbarg in Latin America, the Freudian critics of Marxism Henri De Man and Max Eastman, and some unclassifiable ones like the Brazilian Oswald de Andrade, the Hungarian Attila József and the French Jean Audard.[i]
Many of the exponents of Freudo-Marxism have already fallen into oblivion. However, as we will see, they all retain their relevance and their great subversive potential. This is why they can still give us the twelve lessons that we will summarize below.
- Remember the bodily, impulsive and sexual
Freudo-Marxists remind us that the material-existential basis of our consciousness lies not only where Marx placed it, in the social and economic realms, but where Freud located it, in the sexual and somatic spheres. It is to think about this basis that Trotsky resorts to psychoanalysis, conceiving it as a conjectural approach to the ‘physiology’ underlying any psychology.[ii]
Freudo-Marxism explains the psychological by something as subjective as the bodily, instinctual and sexual tendencies and configurations, and not only by something as objective as the forces and relations of production. Objectivity and subjectivity can even be merged and transcended into a single determining factor. This is what happens in Fromm, who argues that the adaptation of the instinctive to the economic is resolved in a ‘libidinal structure’ that in turn determines thoughts and feelings.[iii]
We think and feel not directly what is decided by capital, but what is determined by our body trapped and pierced by capitalism. Between the capitalist production and our psychological constitution, there is the mediation of what is approached by psychoanalysis. We need Freud to understand how the subject is psychically affected by what we learn from Marx.
- Do not underestimate the importance of the psyche
Freudo-Marxism also helps us to understand that consciousness is not only effect, but cause of existence. This causality, belatedly recognized by Trotsky,[iv] allows to overcome the Leninist representation of mental content as a passive ‘reflex’.[v] In addition to reflecting the socio-economic reality, the psyche ‘falsifies’ it, and it is also for this, as Horkheimer noted, that Marxism needs psychoanalysis.[vi] It needs it for something that Attila József knew better than anyone: because we are all crazy, we are not realistic, our existence does not obey socio-economic reality, but it obeys our consciousness that distorts that reality instead of reflecting it.[vii]
Socioeconomic reality also determines our psychic life, of course. However, as Reich pointed out, it does not determine it externally by reflecting on it, but internally by ‘taking root’ in it through ideology. [viii] This ideological rooting is one of the factors why consciousness cannot perceive the socioeconomic reality without distorting it.
Deforming the same reality that determines it, the psychic-ideological structure determines this reality. It is transmuted into the determinant base of the socio-economic system. This is how in the inner world, according to Fenichel, the base and the superstructure are inverted.[ix] José Carlos Mariátegui[x] and Max Horkheimer[xi] show us that this inversion is characteristic of a liberal modern society, today neoliberal postmodern society, in which everything seems to obey the subjects, their freedom, their desires and drives.
- Probe the irrational basis of scientific, technological and socioeconomic rationality
The weight of desires and drives in social life introduces an irrational dimension whose consideration requires the help of the Freudian method. This was very well appreciated in Freudo-Marxism. Breton[xii] and others taught us how to use psychoanalysis to approach a psychic irrationality that is inseparable from the supposedly rational socioeconomic system elucidated in Marxism.
The supposed rationality of society and economy in capitalism, as conceived by Bernfeld, is nothing more than a kind of ‘guilt ideology’ in which the rationalization, transposition and materialization of deeply irrational drives are carried out. [xiii] Henri De Man[xiv] and Max Eastman[xv] thoroughly analyzed how these impulsive forces underlie the seemingly rational interests that govern the capitalist system. Their analyzes highlight all the psychic irrationality of the socioeconomic rationality of capitalism.
Karel Teige[xvi] and Jean Audard[xvii] show us that even the perfect scientific and technological rationality of the productive forces is driven and sustained in capitalism by an irrational base of drives and desires. Audard[xviii] convinces us that the recognition of this basis constitutes an indispensable condition for materialism. To be fully materialistic, Marxists should also be Freudians.
- Take desire and fantasy seriously
Freudo-Marxists, consistent materialists, make us go beyond interests and their idealized rationality, beyond needs and their ideological naturalization. They lead us to the irrational and unnatural materiality of the fantasy in which the drives move and desire unfolds. They teach us that we must go through this space to reach communism.
De Man[xix] explains to us, communists, that the emancipation for which we fight cannot consist in satisfying the needs that exist in capitalism, but requires us to go beyond the capitalist horizon and conceive other needs through our fantasy and based on our desire. This conception of other needs constitutes in itself a gesture, prescribed by René Crevel, in which the ‘cowardly’ and ‘opportunistic’ realism is challenged.[xx] This is how it allows to realize the surreal ideal, enunciated by Breton, of ‘changing life’ and not just ‘transforming the world’.[xxi]
There cannot even be a true objective transformation without that kind of subjective change in which desire is involved. Freudo-Marxism reminds us that it is with desire with which history is made. The history of humanity, as Tristan Tzara said, is ‘the history of man’s desires’.[xxii]
- Consider sexuality and its repression
By making us take desire and fantasy seriously, Freudo-Marxists lead us to consider the sphere of repressed sexuality that lies beneath desire and fantasy. They also teach us that this sphere, studied by psychoanalysis, cannot be ignored by those who fight for communism. They help us to understand that we cannot ignore repressed sexuality because we are fighting against exploitation and oppression conditioned or at least favored by sexual repression.
Reich[xxiii] showed how sexually repressed people are also susceptible to being economically exploited and politically oppressed. They can be exploited and oppressed because they have already been subjugated, disciplined and tamed through their sexual repression. This repression made them obedient, docile, dominable.
If domination begins with sexuality, it is for a fundamental reason elucidated by the young Fromm.[xxiv] It is because the sexual instinct, compared to the needs of sleep, drink or food, is particularly ductile, manipulable, modifiable, adaptable, postponable, interchangeable, repressible and sublimable. This is why it represents the weak point of subjectivity, the most vulnerable to domination, that by which we must be caught when something or someone intends to dominate us.
- Confront patriarchy
Freudo-Marxism teaches us how patriarchal domination uses a supplement of repression that selectively targets female sexuality. As Reich[xxv] explains to us, if a woman tends to be sexually more repressed than a man, it is to make her show a greater submission than he does. It is also to make her be oppressed by him. It is to allow the man to dominate the woman socially, politically and economically that she must suffer a greater dose of sexual repression.
We understand, then, that the purpose of women’s liberation is fundamental to freudo-Marxism. Freudo-Marxists are among the first to understand that we cannot fight capitalism effectively without fighting patriarchy at the same time.
Andrade[xxvi] and Fromm[xxvii] even claim matriarchy as their flag. Both feel that the revolution must be feminized to be deepened and radicalized. Fromm does not hesitate to place the matriarchal ideal in the ‘psychic basis’ of the ‘Marxist social program’.[xxviii]
- Conceive a free and liberating education
Marxism requires the work of Freudo-Marxists to be well based on the subjective, psychic and bodily, sexual and instinctive plane. It is on this plane that repression in the service of domination is discovered. It is on the same level that radical forms of liberation can be conceived, such as those based on desire and fantasy, those that claim matriarchy, and those that take shape in free and liberating educational projects such as those promoted by Bernfeld and Schmidt.
Bernfeld and Schmidt, both inspired by Marxism and psychoanalysis, projected and implemented revolutionary strategies for the education of children and adolescents, which renounced repressive means and thus sought to engender the new men and the new women of socialism. In his colony of Baumgarten, Bernfeld[xxix] prefers understanding and persuasion to coercion and domestication, and tries to strengthen the feeling of community while weakening individualism and familiarism. On the other hand, in the Moscow Detski Dom, Vera Schmidt[xxx] resorts to love instead of fear and authority, and thus tries to develop in children the capacity for sublimation at the expense of repression.
Both Schmidt and Bernfeld aspire to undermine the repressive base of domination. It is for this purpose that they work in the educational sphere. They give us here a lesson in radicalism by using psychoanalysis to attack the root of what they fight against as communists.
- Recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject
One of the teachings of Schmidt’s educational method is to recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject. This singularity is not here dissolved in abstract generalizations, much less annulled by a standardization of children. In contrast to the prejudiced image of unifying and massifying socialism, Schmidt’s school in the Soviet Union is a space of singularization that was inconceivable in the capitalist countries of the time.
The consideration of the uniqueness of each one is a positive effect of the psychoanalytic gaze in Freudo-Marxism. Amongst what Gramsci[xxxi] values most in psychoanalysis is its attention to the singular. Such attention can serve to avoid the eagerness to level out everyone’s experience, the eagerness of those communists who have confused equality with uniformity and community with an undifferentiated mass.
Freudo-Marxism reminds us that community is made of singularities and that equality only exists between subjects irreducibly different from each other and therefore incomparable to each other as inferior or superior. These subjects, each with his/her own history, constitute the uniqueness addressed by the psychoanalytic method. What psychoanalysis offers Marxism, as Bernfeld[xxxii] well noted, is a historical science of case by case, of the unique history of each subject.
- Do not ignore the tensions and contradictions of psychic life
Freudo-Marxists bring to Marxism a Freudian science of the subject that is not only historical, but dialectical. The psychoanalytic dialectic is indispensable to consider the tensions and contradictions of subjectivity. Bernfeld[xxxiii] shows us that this consideration requires thinking as dialectically as Freud did in conceptualizing the oppositions between the ego and the id, between the principles of reality and pleasure or between the drives of life and death.
The concepts of psychoanalysis unfold subjective division, tears in the subject, describe and explain them, rather than sidestep and hide them, as psychology generally does. In contrast to the misleading psychological images of harmonic and unitary subjectivity, the Freudian dialectical representation of the subject, as first pointed out by Voloshinov[xxxiv] and later by Gramsci[xxxv], is made up of conflicts and antagonisms that make psychoanalysis mysteriously compatible with Marxism.
Voloshinov[xxxvi] and others teach us how the tensions and contradictions that Marxists uncover in society are, in fact, the same ones that Freudians rediscover in the individual. This is something that no one could perceive as clearly as the Freudo-Marxists. We learn from them that our class struggles run through us and thus summon us to take a position within and not just outside ourselves.
- Avoid psychological dualism
Freudo-Marxists not only make us consider the inner as well as the outer world, but they urge us to reconcile them, reconnect them, reintegrate them into each other. This impulse was crucial for the surrealist encounter between the respective fields of psychoanalysis and Marxism. Between the two areas, as well as between sleep and wakefulness or between madness and reason, Breton revealed ‘capillary tissues’ and ‘communicating vessels’.[xxxvii]
What it is about, for Luria[xxxviii], is to overcome the psychological dualism in which the psyche is abstracted from the body and the world. This dualism, as Crevel sees it, obeys a political strategy that seeks to ‘divide and rule’.[xxxix] Subjectivity is divided between the soul and the body in order to use the former to dominate the latter.
Freudo-Marxists teach us that fighting domination requires leaving dualism behind and adopting a monistic vision like that of psychoanalysis. In Andrade’s terms, we must undress the ‘waterproof clothing’ between inside and outside.[xl] Subjects must be recovered as what they are, as bodies that are indiscernible from their souls, from their ideas or from their spirits.
- Do not idealize or spiritualize subjectivity
One of the greatest lessons of Freudo-Marxism is not to reduce the subjective to the ideal or spiritual. We receive this lesson from Oswald de Andrade[xli] and Elías Piterbarg[xlii] when we see them claim the material truth of body nudity against the ideas that cover it, suffocate and betray it. It is the same lesson that Xavier Abril teaches us when he rejects ‘spiritualist psychology’, opting instead for an investigation of the subject as ‘true body’, as revealed by Marxism and psychoanalysis.[xliii]
Marx and Freud inspire the materialistic representation of subjectivity by which Freudian Marxists go back from the ideas, reasons and justifications of people to their brakes and chains, drives and desires. This is how De Man[xliv] and Eastman[xlv] delve into the unconscious impulsiveness that underlies conscious rationality. This is also how Bernfeld goes beyond the ‘reasons’ given by the subject to discover the ‘repressed causes’ that induce them.[xlvi]
Freudo-Marxists instruct us in the art of not being idealistic when thinking about subjectivity. They make us accept that the existence of the subject is not guided only by his/her conscious ideas, by his/her visions, convictions, justifications and deliberate intentions. These ideal factors, in fact, do not constitute the sole determinant for the subject nor do they encompass all that he/she is and animates him/her, but are merely an expression of what is decisive.
- Distrust existing psychology and reject any psychologization
What is decisive in subjectivity, according to Freudo-Marxism, does not correspond to what is studied by academic and allegedly scientific psychology. Nor could it ever be discovered by the psychological instruments of observation. Psychology is not used here to discover anything, but only to cover up, conceal and mystify, manipulate and subdue.
Freudo-Marxists teach us to be wary of psychology. Tzara condemns it for disconnecting us from the world and for shutting us inside our comfortable interior where ‘an armchair has grown’.[xlvii] Reich denounces it for its ideological, idealistic, metaphysical, individualistic, bourgeois, normalizing, adaptive, repressive, conservative and reactionary character.[xlviii]
In addition to questioning psychology, Freudo-Marxists criticize different forms of psychologization. One, denounced by Bernfeld, claims that our thoughts and feelings are the ‘driving forces’ of the economy, when we know that they only ‘justify’ certain economic conditions.[xlix] Another form of psychologization, denounced by Reich, is that of delegitimizing insurrections, rebellions and revolutions by psychopathologizing them, explaining them for ‘irrational’ psychological reasons, when we know that they are ‘rational’ actions that are explained economically, socially and politically by circumstances such as misery, exploitation or oppression.[l]
Lessons for the present
The twelve lessons we have just recapitulated show that Freudo-Marxism is not only up to date, but even more timely than in its time, when it was not yet fully timely. The 1920s and 1930s were still too early to elucidate such things as psychologization, the subjective irrational background of economic rationality, or the essential link between capitalism and patriarchy. Isn’t all this better understood nowadays?
We have had to wait a century for Freudo-Marxism to stop being premature. Now it is clear that its time has come. This is why it should no longer give rise to reactions of misunderstanding, aversion and persecution like those that surrounded it in the interwar period, when it was rejected by the communist parties as well as by the psychoanalytic associations.
It is high time for Freudians to concede that they need such radical means as those of Freudo-Marxism to prevent psychoanalysis from continuing to adapt, domesticate, gentrify, ideologize and thus degrade. It is also the time for us communists to resort to a sensitivity such as the Freudo-Marxist to clarify the subjective origin of many of our inconsistencies, failures, defeats and surrenders.
* First published in Spanish in Revista Ideas de Izquierda (2020).
[i] For a general review, see David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxism and Psychoanalysis, in or against Psychology? London, Routledge, 2017. For a selection of the key texts of Freudomarxism, see Ian Parker and David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxismo, psicología y psicoanálisis, Mexico City, Paradiso, 2017.
[ii] Leon Trotsky, Cultura y socialismo (1926), in Escritos filosóficos, Buenos Aires, CEIP León Trotsky, 2004, p. 154.
[iii] Erich Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), in J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, Buenos Aires, Granica, 1972, pp. 119, 140-141.
[iv] Trotsky, Cuadernos de Trotsky (1933-1935), in Escritos filosóficos, op. cit., p. 68.
[v] Vladimir Lenin, Materialismo y empiriocriticismo (1908), Beijing, Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1975, p. 54.
[vi] Max Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), in Teoría crítica, Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 2008, p. 32.
[vii] Attila József, Hegel, Marx, Freud (1934), Action Poétique 49, 1972, 68-75.
[viii] Wilhelm Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo (1933), Mexico City, Roca, 1973, p. 29.
[ix] Otto Fenichel, Sobre el psicoanálisis como embrión de una futura psicología dialéctico materialista, en J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, op. cit., p. 183.
[x] José Carlos Mariátegui, Defensa del marxismo (1930), Lima, Amauta, 1976, p. 146.
[xi] Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), op. cit., pp. 27-30.
[xii] André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), en Œuvres complètes I, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 316.
[xiii] Siegfried Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973, p. 64.
[xiv] Henri de Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), París, Seuil, 1974.
[xv] Max Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution, Nueva York, Boni, 1927.
[xvi] Karel Teige, Liquidation de l’art (1925), París, Allia, 2009, p. 82.
[xvii] Jean Audard, Du caractère matérialiste de la psychanalyse (1933), Littoral 27/28 (1989), 199-208.
[xix] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit., p. 416.
[xx] René Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), Utrecht, Pauvert, 1966, p. 77.
[xxi] Breton, Discours du Congrès des Écrivains. En Œuvres complètes II, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 459
[xxii] Tristan Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), París, Flammarion, 1981, p. 218.
[xxiii] Reich, Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis (1934), México, Siglo XXI, 1989, pp. 60-61.
[xxiv] Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), op. cit., pp. 114-116.
[xxv] Reich, La sexualidad en el combate cultural (1935), en Sexualidad: libertad o represión, México, Grijalbo, 1971, pp. 95-110.
[xxvi] Oswald de Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, México, FCE, 2006, p. 180.
[xxvii] Fromm, The Theory of Mother Right (1934), en The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, Nueva York, Holt, 1970, pp. 109-135.
[xxviii] Ibíd., p. 135.
[xxix] Bernfeld, La colonia infantil de Baumgarten (1921), en La ética del chocolate, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2005, pp. 43-169.
[xxx] Vera Schmidt, Pulsions sexuelles et éducation du corps (1924), París, Union Générale D’Éditions, 1979, pp. 49-84.
[xxxi] Antonio Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), México, Era, 2003, pp. 301-302.
[xxxii] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), en Marxismo, psicoanálisis y SEXPOL I, op. cit., pp. 16-17.
[xxxiii] Ibíd., pp. 20-21.
[xxxiv] Valentin Voloshinov, Freudismo: un bosquejo crítico (1927), Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1999, p. 143.
[xxxv] Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), op. cit., pp. 382-383.
[xxxvi] Voloshinov, Freudismo, op. cit., pp. 160-162.
[xxxvii] Breton, Les vases communicants (1932), París, Gallimard, 1955, pp. 103, 160.
[xxxviii] Aleksandr Luria, Psychoanalysis as a System of Monistic Psychology (1925), Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 40(1) (2002), 26-53.
[xxxix] Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), op. cit., p. 67.
[xl] Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), op. cit., p. 174.
[xlii] Elías Piterbarg, Manifiesto (1930), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, op. cit., p. 471.
[xliii] Xavier Abril, Palabras para asegurar una posición dudosa (1930), in N. Osorio (comp.), Manifiestos, proclamas y polémicas de la vanguardia literaria hispanoamericana, Caracas, Ayacucho, 1988, p. 375.
[xliv] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit.
[xlv] Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1927), op. cit.
[xlvi] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), op. cit., pp. 17-19.
[xlvii] Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), op. cit., p. 66.
[xlviii] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 26-31. Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis, op. cit., 16-24, 65-66.
[xlix] Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), op. cit., pp. 63-64.
[l] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 31.
This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements