RADICAL PSYCHOANALYSIS AND ANTI-CAPITALIST ACTION

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

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

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

1. Why do we suffer?

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

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

Separation and conflict

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

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

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

Alienation as competition

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

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

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

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

Alienation from our bodies

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

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

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

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

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

Alienation from nature          

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

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

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

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

Alienation from creativity

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

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

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

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

Alienation online

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

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

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

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

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

Separation from life

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

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

2. What are we?

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

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

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

Conflict and ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repression and freedom

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

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

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

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

Fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

History and fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Where is psychoanalysis now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic psychoanalysis

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

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

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

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

Clinical psychoanalysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychoanalysis is all around us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. What use is it?

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

Science of struggle and transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal as political

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groups and organisations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Society, culture, ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What can we make of it?

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

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

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

Local and global

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical psychoanalysis reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background reading for Psychoanalysis and Revolution

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

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

Psychoanalysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychoanalysis with the oppressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacanian and Marxist reflections on Psychoanalysis and Revolution

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

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

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

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

Similarities

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

Suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Institutions

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

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

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

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

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

Differences

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

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

Discontents

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

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

Conditions

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

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

Collectivity

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

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

Speech

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

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

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

So, to conclude

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

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

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

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.

Contexts

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.

Asylums

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.

Institutions

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.

Psychoanalysis

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.

Politics

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.

Collectivity

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.

Reflection

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.

Theory

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.

Problems

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.

Structure

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’.

Families

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.

Grids

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.

Abstraction

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.

Conclusions

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.

References

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

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.

Practice

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.

Critique

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.

Representations

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.

Conclusions

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.

Looping

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

Why the Clinic is Politics

This paper was presented by Ian Parker at the ‘Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere: Social Fault Lines’ Zoom conference hosted by the Freud Museum in London in September 2020

The clinical work we do is political, the clinical is political, but that’s easy to say, and it’s a statement that is dangerously multivalent, with consequences that take us in diverse contradictory directions, clinically and politically. The real question is how it is so, how does the political realm enter into our clinical practice, and, as the flip-side of the question, how does clinical practice find its way into politics.

The difficulty we face in trying to answer that question is, among other things, because the conditions in which the clinical and the political are linked, the ways they intersect, are profoundly contextual and historical. There isn’t one answer to the question, and the underlying nature of the political-economic system that has given rise to the ‘clinical’ as a distinctive phenomenon, a recent phenomenon, is characterised by unremitting mutability, by continual deep transformation of what is social and what is personal.

Marx captured the nature of this specific difficulty in this political-economic system, capitalism, when he noted that its innovative spirit is such that all existing social relations are dissolved, repeatedly dissolved, that, as he put it, ‘everything that is solid melts into air’. But just as certain configurations of social structure and interpersonal relationships seem to evaporate, so others form to take their place.

They re-form around the underlying material parameters of this society in which alienation is endemic, capitalist society, the kind of society that calls upon clinical practice to heal the psychic wounds and to adapt people to unliveable circumstances. And they re-form around relations of power, including hetero-patriarchal relations that were critically challenged by the socialist feminist slogan that the personal is political.

So, we have a task of mapping the coordinates of a complex changing society, a society which constitutes the ‘clinical’ in a particular way. And we have a more difficult task, of mapping the changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity possible. That second more difficult task includes mapping changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity impossible or, at least, that make it susceptible to immediate recuperation, neutralisation and absorption of our work back into the very thing we thought we were pitting ourselves against.

Now it is understandable that one response to this situation is to appeal to what is really there under the surface, to what has been disclosed by scientific reason, as if the rot set in with postmodernism and relativist cultural discourse rather than being a condition of life under capitalism. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of neuroscience and, to put it simply, a return to psychiatric versions of psychoanalysis.

It is equally understandable that another response to this situation is to appeal to deep connection between people, an intuitive relationship in which there is quasi-telepathic access of unconscious meaning via counter-transference or even a reciprocal disclosure of experience in order to create deeper social bonds. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of commonsensical humanism and, to put it simply, an embrace of psychotherapeutic versions of psychoanalysis.

We learn from historical analyses of surveillance and confession that operate in such a way as to provide the cultural apparatus of a globalised capitalist economy that these two responses are not in simple immediate competition with each other, but are twins. They, surveillance and confession, together lock us into social relationships that, at the one moment, define how patients are expected to think and feel, and, at the next moment, require clients to configure their experience according to dominant structures of feeling.

The danger is that psychiatric and therapeutic versions of psychoanalysis very easily channel their own clinical discourse into paths that intensify the public character and public evaluation of personal life as well as the political moral regulation of the private sphere. Rather than provide gentle reminders that it is good to talk and to share feelings, psychoanalysis is thereby drawn into an incitement to speak in a certain kind of way and to reinforce models of subjectivity that pretend to define what is normal and what is abnormal.

Psychoanalysis that respects the singularity of the human subject also necessarily stands against the globalisation of its discourse as if it were a universal grid, as if it were a worldview, and against the reduction of analysands to particular constellations of pre-defined characteristics. We shift our focus from the fantasy of an immutable biologically given bedrock of development and disorder to the relation between the subject and language. We treat the elements of the mind we refer to in our work not as having been discovered by Freud and his colleagues but as being invented for us to make use of in our clinical work. And we refuse to use our own understanding of these processes as a tool of suggestion either inside the clinic or outside it.

That is why we need political analyses of the place and role of the clinic, to treat the clinic as a form of politics as a problem as well as an arena of struggle, as an arena where we struggle against the very form that enables our work to take place.

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

A People’s History of Psychoanalysis 

This book review of A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology (Daniel José Gaztambide, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 1st edn., 2019, hardback, 231pp., paper, $94.00, ISBN: 9781498565745) was written by Ian Parker for the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society.

The attempt to intersect personal with political change has been on the agenda from the beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud accompanying Marx with diagnoses of the ills of modern society but unable to go all the way in recommending the complete overthrow of capitalism. Freud was cautious about the possibilities of bringing about either full personal or political liberation, warning more radical adherents of psychoanalysis that it is in the nature of civilization to operate as a necessary restraining order overlaid upon a human nature that would not be as benign as Marxists hoped were it allowed to rule the roost.

There were, nevertheless, always voices from within psychoanalysis that argued against Freud and that pushed for the radical dynamic of the psychoanalytic argument – that there is something beyond our conscious control that drives us to not only repeat structures of oppression but also attempt to change the world – to be taken forward. Daniel José Gaztambide is one of those voices, and he gives voice in this book to many other radical psychoanalysts and activists, particularly from within the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements. He does this with sensitivity to the intersectional nature of contemporary struggle and a passion to understand what is wrong and what we might do about it.

Gaztambide energetically enrols a range of figures from within and outwith the psychoanalytic movement to a common project, with the aim of convincing the reader that we must take seriously the diverse psychoanalytic contributions of Sàndor Ferenczi, Erich Fromm and Peter Fonagy alongside the liberation ethic enacted by Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ignacio Martín-Baró. Along the way he provides a detailed history of the impact of antisemitism in central Europe on the development of psychoanalytic theory and practice as well as accounts of forms of racism in the Americas including a valuable contextualising – from colonialism and slavery to dictatorship and resistance – of psychoanalysis and liberation theology in Brazil.

This is an ambitious book, and its scope is broad enough to allow elements of the narrative to slide into view and then out again, drawing attention to aspects of our history that we should know, and that students and practitioners of psychoanalytic psychotherapy must be reminded of in the course of their training. It is in this respect and for this reason that the book should be read by trainees in order to ground their work and to shift emphasis from the treatment of individuals to an engagement with a wretched world that gives rise to many forms of distress, those arising from class hatred, racism and heterosexism. At some points in the book it looks as if Erich Fromm will be the hinge-point for the liberation psychology Gaztambide wishes for, but unfortunately Fromm disappears from the narrative again.

The radical dynamic of psychoanalytic argument is, as Gaztambide himself tells us, wrought with contradictions and obstacles, and this should give to the journey that he traces a contradictory even dialectical character. He knows this, and notes the painful oscillation in Freud’s own position on racism, exploring the ways that antisemitism often led to identification with the oppressor and internalisation of that ideological poison, the ways that ideological and material strategies of divide and rule set Black against Jew, and the ways that psychoanalysts attempted to find common ground for joint action. He is generous to a fault with his interpretation of Freud’s oft-told racist joke about the analyst as lion awaiting his lunch, a native at noon, and the twists and turns over whether this was actually racist or evidenced a deeper affinity between Freudian psychoanalysis and anti-racism are agonising and indicative. They are indicative of an attempt in the book to smooth the path from Freud to the liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, and so to smooth over some of the contradictions that are still potent today.

For example, we are told that the pedagogue of ‘conscientization’ Paulo Freire was indebted to the work of Black activist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. This, if it were true, would neatly bridge the gulf between the Algerian independence movement that Fanon was an integral part of (eventually resigning from his psychiatric post to work for the Front de Libération Nationale), and the Brazilian struggle against dictatorship that Freire was forced into exile from. It would be a step on the path from Freud who was clearly conflicted about the racism he suffered to the Latin American context that Gaztambide wants to make the source of a radical revival of what was always most potentially progressive about psychoanalysis. However, just as the story Gaztambide tells about Freud’s own racism (and the continuing racism of many psychoanalytic practitioners) is less hopeful than it seems, so the story he tells about Freire’s contribution to anti-racism is less clear-cut than he makes out. So, he rather disarmingly points out somewhere during the narrative that in none of his major works does Freire actually mention race or racism at all.

There are deeper conceptual problems in the narrative which repeatedly and conveniently elides the difference between psychoanalysis, which is, after all, the declared focus of the book and psychotherapy and psychiatry and psychology. The smoothing of the path from Freud to Martín-Baró is actually, it turns out when we get to the end of the book, much more from the perspective of the psychology that Martín-Baró was wedded to than the psychoanalysis we started out with. We are given a quite detailed and useful historical account of the life of Martín-Baró from his birth in Spain, training as a Jesuit and then brutal murder by military forces in El Salvador in 1989. There are some quite tangential encounters with psychoanalysis along the way, but no real sign that Martín-Baró was influenced by psychoanalysis other than in a most general way that might be summed up in the not-necessarily psychoanalytic statement that ends this book, that there should (in a deliberate allusion to liberation theology’s ‘preferential option for the poor’) be a ‘preferential option for the oppressed’.

Martín-Baró was a psychologist, and though he had a profound awareness of the nature of oppression, framed his interventions in psychological terms, looking more to the ‘liberation of psychology’ than to liberating us from the forms of psychology that so often reduce political problems to internal individual ones. Similar criticisms can be levelled against Martín-Baró as have been made by postcolonial writers against Paulo Freire, a sociologist, that he routinely made individual phenomenological ‘liberation’ the touchstone rather than systemic change. In the case of Frantz Fanon, there is the inconvenient fact that despite his dabbling with many different kinds of psychoanalytic theories of internalisation of oppression his own clinical practice was avowedly psychiatric, which included some of the most oppressive physical treatments. The cathartic model that Gaztambide summarises in the sub-heading ‘liberating the affect of the oppressed’ is one that Fanon was at times attracted by, but it is not psychoanalytic.

The kind of psychology and so ‘liberation psychology’ that Gaztambide clearly prefers, however, is psychotherapeutic, and this would seem to be why he is taken with the recent mutations of psychoanalysis through ‘attachment’ to ‘mentalization’. As with Fromm, so the references to ‘relational’ psychoanalysis also disappear from view after being adverted to, and it is Peter Fonagy’s ‘mentalization’ paradigm that is the basis of a broader ‘political mentalization’ that Gaztambide eventually calls for. This political mentalization would entail an awareness of the nature of society and its history as well as an awareness of the personal life-course of an individual in therapy. This would then facilitate the kind of dialogue that encompasses the oppressed and the oppressed to recognise each other and recognise that under present-day conditions everyone hurts. There is a rather strange detour into an attack on ‘identity politics’ toward the end that is actually out of keeping with the deeper concern with personal identity that runs through the book.

I was reminded while reading this well-meaning and earnestly therapeutic book of Brecht’s plaint in his poem ‘To Posterity’; that ‘anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow harsh’ and so alas ‘we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness / Could not ourselves be kind.’ This surely is the contradictory reality that psychoanalysis brings us face to face with and enables us to accept; that we will bring our past to the kind of world we build in the future, and we cannot pretend that there could be full liberation of each of us before or even, perhaps, after we have transformed this world to make it easier for us all to live in.

 

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