Coronavirus and the end of the world

David Pavón-Cuéllar address to the College of Psychoanalysts – UK international conference Psychoanalysis in Adverse Conditions on 7 November 2020

Perhaps the pandemic seems to us like an end-of-the-world movie. Maybe all we want now is to get back to normal. It may be that we have not realized that normality is the real end of the world.

Normality is the devastation of everything by capitalism. It is the destruction of all life for the sake of capital accumulation. It is more and more inert money at the cost of all life in the world.

Normality is the disappearance, in the last 150 years, of almost half of the fertile soil on earth. It is the loss of an equivalent of 40 football fields of tropical forest every minute. It is the daily extinction of 150 species of animals and plants. All this is already the end of the world.

We are also witnessing the end of the world when we read that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, that land-based insects have been declining at nearly 1% per year, that annual rate of current desertification is more than 3 per cent. This global devastation is the normalcy to which many want to return.

The normal is that air pollution kills twenty thousand people per day in the world, that is, more than double of the total number of deaths from coronavirus at the peaks of the pandemic. This data allows us to understand a puzzling news that was spread in the beginning of the pandemic. The British tabloid Daily Mail reported that thousands of lives had been saved in China since the coronavirus appeared. The information was right: the interruption of industrial activities due to the pandemic drastically reduced the emission of gases, which, in turn, saved more lives than were lost by the pandemic itself.

We see that the coronavirus is much less lethal than just one of the many effects of capital. We also know that the functioning of capitalism has been affected by COVID-19, which makes us place our hope in this viral agent to cure us of the capitalist terminal illness. It is with this hope that Žižek, from the beginning of the pandemic, conceived the coronavirus as a possible deadly blow against capitalism.

It is obvious that the capitalist system will not die of coronavirus and that Žižek is not naive enough to think this. He knows what we all know, that the circumstances created by the coronavirus can help us, but that we are the ones who must free ourselves from capitalism. At this juncture, as in any other in which the space of uncertainty expands, the outcome will depend mainly on us as subjects, on the subjects that we are and that we will become.

If we want to avoid the end of the world we are living in, we need to transform ourselves. It is necessary to reverse our subjectification by the capitalist system. We must stop being possessive and cumulative, competitive and destructive, compulsive consumers, white-collar murderers, ecocidal and ultimately suicidal individuals.

It is by shaking off capitalism that we will be other than who we are and thus avoid the worst and save ourselves. At the same time, as Žižek has said, “it is through our effort to save humanity from self-destruction that we are creating a new humanity”. All this is the same process of reinvention and salvation, of liberation and transformation, in which we do not distinguish what happens before or after, since everything has to happen at the same time.

Simultaneity requires a certain anticipation like that prescribed by Rosa Luxemburg at the time of the Second International. We have to save ourselves today in order to save ourselves tomorrow. We must anticipate our destiny, prefigure what we fight for, what is achieved through our own struggle, in its development and not only in its outcome. We have to understand that our time is up. We must get rid of capitalism now, at this precise moment, through each of the manifestations of our existence, because the next moment will be too late.

We have to reject a procrastination, such as that represented by Karl Kautsky in the Second International, which will only serve to let the current cataclysm continue to unfold until its final consequences. We cannot accept that the end of the world is, as Kautsky would say, “a necessary direction of evolution”, and that our only task is to “recognize it” and wait, without pretending to act as “revolutionaries at all costs”. What we need right now is precisely a revolution at all costs. There is no time to wait.

Instead of a typically neurotic Kautskian procrastination, we should opt for a Luxembourgian hysterical prefiguration in which we do not waste the only time we have left, the present. It has never been so pressing to learn from Rosa Luxemburg when she warns us against the “vicious circles” that condemn us to wait for something, whatever it is, “before we can make history”. The best thing for us, right now at the end of the world, is to decide once and for all to intervene in the catastrophe, thus making history, which is precisely, for Jacques Lacan, what we call “hysteria”.

No matter how much damage we cause, it will not be comparable to what is happening. The worst would be that everything remains the same until at the end there is nothing left. Any error is now preferable to the patience and supposed prudence of those who fear to rush and make mistakes. Currently, in the absence of time, the most prudent thing is the haste to anticipate the end. In Lacan’s terms, the “too early” of hysteria is better than the “always too late” to which the neurotic procrastination leads us.

Even when we behave like neurotically blameless citizens, we do not want the end of the world either. Death terrifies us and it is for this very reason that we prefer to wait, sometimes betting on the imminent collapse of capitalism. We thus play the neurotic role that Lacan associates with that of the slave in the Hegelian dialectic: that of the one who “yields to the risk of death”, since “he knows he is mortal”, but for the same reason “he also knows that the master has to die”, so that “he can accept to work for the master in the uncertainty of the moment when the master’s death will come”.

In the uncertainty, we continue to work for capitalism, for the end of the world. At least we are sure of staying alive. But perhaps we should not be so sure about it, because “while we wait, we are already dead”, as Lacan warns us. We are already dead like our gestures that translate the functioning of the system, being repeated in a blind, neurotic and compulsive, mechanical way. We are already dead like puppets, like the gears of any machinery, like the zombies, who not by chance obsess us today.

We are already dead in the first place because we renounce our life, because we allow all of it to be possessed and sucked out by the vampire of capital, only hoping in vain that some of it is returned to us at the end of the day, on the weekend, in the next holidays, in retirement or in the collapse of capitalism, which obviously never happens, not only because we are already exhausted to live, but because the lost life is never recovered. But we are also already dead because the only life that is lived is that one that is risked, because there is only self-consciousness of life, as Hegel has explained, in “the fear of death, the absolute master”. We can only exist, as Heidegger confirms, in the anguish of being for death. We only live fully when we relate immediately to death, when we touch it, when we fight to the death against what threatens to kill us, which at this very moment is mainly capitalism. Being anti-capitalist is perhaps the only way to be truly alive, alive before death, in our current situation.

At the point we’ve reached, resigning ourselves to capitalism is abandoning ourselves to our death for the very fact of forgetting it. It is dying in the unconsciousness of dying. It is allowing oneself to be killed in the absence of what Marxism still calls “class consciousness”: consciousness that our life is being annihilated by capital. Lacking this consciousness is, in Lacan’s terms, depriving ourselves of the “knowledge” that should stop us, preferring “jouissance”, the enjoyment of capital that drags us into “progress marked by death”, into the inertia of “death drive”, on the “slope towards the inanimate”.

Instead of knowing that we could face death and thus avoid the worst, we indulge in the ideological fictions of capitalism that operate exactly like the neurotic’s excuses for Lacan. They only serve to keep death “at a distance”, away from us, distracting us from it, forgetting it while we abandon ourselves to it. This is what the cultural industry of capitalism is for, but also the demagoguery of those neoliberal and now neo-fascist politicians who dedicate their lives to supporting fictions such as green capitalism, inexhaustible resources, perpetual growth, responsible companies, consumerism favorable to prosperity, the invisible hand, the self-regulation of the market, the benefits of the competition of all against all, and the democratic character of bourgeois democracy and its rule of law.

As Jorge Alemán has well noted, the “constitutive fictions of capitalism” have been “stripped” by the pandemic. This global crisis offers us a chance to break through fantasy and see capitalism for what it is behind its fictions. This is what we discover in the rows of graves for the victims of coronavirus, in the corpses scattered through the streets of Ecuador and in other images that remind us of end-of-the-world movies.

You can see David deliver this address to the conference here:

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

Psychopolitical cults

The term ‘psychopolitics’ has a sinister edge to it now, but it was not always so. The term has undergone significant shifts of meaning. In studies of fascism in the 1930s to the New Left rebellions of the 1960s it referred to the attempt to connect subjectivity – our personal experience of who we are in the world – with political change. Progressive use of the term ranged from psychoanalytic accounts of the way relations to authority become embedded in individuals – ‘internalised’ – such that people feel isolated and unable to change, to feminist insistence that politics is to be found inside our intimate relationships as well as in the struggle against economic exploitation.

With the fading of revolt in the 1970s and the later apparent victory of capitalism in the 1990s, more was learnt more about the involvement of the security forces in psychological propaganda during the Cold War and against the Left. Now psychopolitics came to refer to the fear of brainwashing and the destruction of individual autonomy, but the horrible twist to these revelations was that psychological theories as to why the world was a miserable and destructive place became even more powerful. The increasing influence of psychological discourse – stories about what the mind is like and how it is possible to master it – has meant that psychopolitics is something that people are in awe of, even afraid of.

The accusation that this or that group is a ‘cult’ is infused with this new discourse, and psychopolitics in the sinister meaning of the term is used to mobilise our fear of groups and collective action. Now, instead of explaining why we are isolated and made to experience our oppression as individual – down to each of us to tackle on our own – the psychopolitical explanations of cult behaviour are designed to make us suspicious of anything other than individual experience. The ground-rules for this psychopolitics of collective action, and of organised groups that seem to threaten our precious individuality, mean that anyone who refuses to believe that the label ‘cult’ is useful must themselves be labelled as cultish.

This is a good example of how everyday commonsense comes to feel so right when it is not, and this intense fear of cults, and especially cults that aim to change the world, is exactly the kind of fear that the old progressive psychopolitics tried to understand. Someone who does not believe in the devil is still capable of making a judgement about right and wrong, and someone who does not believe in ‘cults’ may have other very good explanations as to why some groups are or are not destructive.

In the early 1990s I went to New York to meet with the ‘social therapists’ led by Fred Newman. They combined some kind of radical politics with some kind of radical therapy, and I already knew that this explosive combination of Marxism and psychology had led some of their opponents to label social therapy as a ‘cult’. But why was it so explosive? Precisely because they were linking Marxism – dangerous enough when it was put into practice outside the academic institutions where it had been confined since the 1970s – and psychology. But they were doing something very different with psychology than psychologists do, and the fact they did not really seem to take it seriously as a collection of facts about behaviour and the mind enraged many academics and practitioners. The psychology, fear and awe of psychology coded as dangerous ‘psychopolitics’ seemed to overshadow all of the critical debate about their work. Ex-members and political opponents were more obsessed with Fred than other members of this supposedly cultish organisation or their ideas about social therapy (of which there are various forms).

I gathered a lot of material – journals and leaflets by and about the various social therapy front organisations, of which there were many – and wrote a long critical article called ‘Right said Fred “I’m too sexy for bourgeois group therapy”’. The allusion was to a British band called Right Said Fred that had a chart hit with ‘I’m too sexy’. Lois Holzman – one of the leaders of the group – wrote a reply ‘Wrong said Fred’, and our friendship cooled somewhat I think. But the sense of misunderstanding and betrayal eventually stabilised into an uneasy arms-length distance relationship with social therapy that was most probably helped by us being on different sides of the Atlantic. I did not mean my article to serve as a test, to see if they could withstand criticism, and it did take a while to puzzle over what they were up to, puzzling that continues to today.

This puzzling could be easily ended by grabbing onto the label ‘cult’, for that in itself would also explain why they do not really seem to behave like a cult. Psychopolitics today is like a kind of conspiracy theory that is directed at oppositional groups rather than at the powerful, and it works its way into images of groups that people do not like by making us feel that if they don’t seem like a cult then that must be because they are even more devilishly cultish than we first thought.

I know, for example, that saying how nice those folks are won’t cut much ice with people who don’t like them, and I know that telling you how Fred is at the centre of what social therapists do in their performance work and in their politics will only confirm what you think you know already, that he is obviously the cult leader. In fact, this perhaps hopeless attempt to persuade you that I am not just another gullible fool who has been taken in by this gang is bound to fail, and so I write this in a rather defensive and cautious way (even as I try not to be). To say I was ‘defensive’ is to borrow a term from psychoanalytic psychotherapy that now has wide currency among the Left and liberal chattering classes. As I write this account I am reminded about how defensive and cautious I was when I first met them, as if at any moment they were going to whip my brain out and wash it thoroughly in some East Side Manhattan magic potion. All the social therapy group talk about ‘transference’ (in which past relationships are replayed onto the figure of the therapist) fed my sense that I should keep up my defences when near to them. Their psychoanalytic reference points provoked in me some psychoanalytic responses, deep lived and even with this armoury a little fearful.

It is worth reading the stories circulating on the internet, and with prize of place on websites devoted to exposing social therapy, of people who have left Fred. The paradox appears time and again is that these people seem to have learnt a lesson about collective action from social therapy, but then, I think, drawn the wrong conclusions. At the one moment they have absorbed some of the progressive ideas about psychopolitics that are still alive in this group and at the next they have made sense of those ideas in the frame of present-day discourse about ‘cults’, a discourse that will explain nothing and which merely serves as ammunition against their old comrades. The narrative in the complaints often goes like this: I was in a bad state with lots of personal problems; I met the social therapists who said the problems were in the world; I got drawn into political activity that they said was therapeutic; I gave years of my life and got burnt out; I realised that this was a cult that manipulated people; I got out to save myself from being manipulated; I now campaign with others against the group to expose them.

You can hear this kind of narrative from many people who have once been involved in other radical political movements, and if they change their minds (when they decide that they cannot change the world) they then bitterly resent the resources they put into it. They feel they were duped, and they feel better if they can now put some energy into warning others against getting involved; and (so you can see how easy it is to psychologise political choices) we could then say that their activity now serves as a guarantee to themselves that whereas they were once in the grip of a cult they are now really free. But should we not treat this talk about ‘cults’ as something that also grips us all? We have a choice, it seems to me.

 We can either notice how a set of terms is used to pathologise politics, in which case notions like ‘cult’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘internalisation’ and ‘defensiveness’ are treated as buzz-words which indicate that someone has bought into and is endorsing a particular version of psychology (a version of psychological commonsense that is infused with quasi-psychoanalytic notions which we might at other times treat with suspicion). That would give us some room for manoeuvre, and it would enable us to have a debate about different political strategies (even, heaven forbid, including members of the organisations labelled as cults). Or we can line up with those who tell horror-stories about themselves or others as if they were mindless victims who could never have really had any opinions different to what we take to be ‘commonsense’ unless there were deep and dangerous ‘psychological’ reasons, reasons to explain mistaken ideas away. Every few years there is a new wave of allegations and panic about Fred and Co., and every time the panic draws sections of the left into alliances with those who seek to use psychology against politics, and then, of course, this kind of alliance ends up using psychology as a form of politics to discredit all of the left.

The ground-rules of debate in psychological culture individualise our experiences, our responses to political debate and especially our membership of political organisations. Those who care enough about a political cause to join a group are almost immediately pathologised and treated with suspicion. Actually, the social therapists have had some very interesting things to say about this process, taking the link between ‘transference’ and power seriously for example, but while they have used some psychoanalytic ideas they have also refused to sign up to psychoanalysis or to any particular kind of ‘psychology’ as such. The irony is that while these ideas are wiped out of the debate, the ones who are actually drawing on psychology do so by surreptitiously attributing it to the ‘cult’ they attack. What if we could refuse to sign up to psychology too? Perhaps we would then really be able to take the political role of psychology as a form of psychoanalytic reasoning in popular culture more seriously and find something better to do with it than passively accept that we are victims of some peculiar cult mentality.

This article on Psychopolitical Cults was a chapter in Ian Parker’s 2009 Psychoanalytic Mythologies published by Anthem Press.

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

Memesis and Psychoanalysis: Mediatising Trump

We need to be clear why we are fixated, for the moment, on Trump. There is actually some optimism in the business community and among financial analysts about the Trump regime and what it can deliver, optimism if you are sold on neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatisation and a strong state. If Michael Wolff’s insider book Fire and Fury is to be believed, much of the policy agenda is actually being driven by ‘Jarvanka’, that is Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Democrats who have the aim of installing Ivanka in the White House in the future (Wolff, 2018). Within the frame of this political-economic agenda, and a record of military intervention abroad, there is little evidence that Hillary Clinton would have been much more progressive in charge of the White House. The Trump vote should be set in the context of suspicion of elite machine politics that Hillary was into up to her neck and popular reaction to that, populist reaction peppered with a good dose of misogyny. In this regime, the figure of Trump himself stands out as an exception, an unpredictable element in a political movement which, as Steve Bannon feared, would be drawn into the establishment. Trump could become a generally conformist and typical member of the President’s Club. Trump is an anomaly, object of derision in the press, but should our response be in line with that derision?

The Trump election campaign was a media campaign. More than previous elections, which have been thoroughly mediatised in recent years as part of the society of the spectacle, this campaign revolved around mass media (Debord, 1967/1977). It was a campaign oriented to the media, by media and for the media. And we learn from Michael Wolff’s book that the Trump team had the media in its sights as the main prize, as the end rather than the mere means. Members of the Trump team had their eyes set on media positions at the end of a campaign they expected and hoped to lose, and Trump himself aimed to use the campaign to set up a media empire to rival Fox. They had in mind the advice by ex-Murdoch anchor-man Roger Ailes, that if you want a career in television, ‘first run for president’. The election campaign effectively continues after Trump has been installed with a proliferation of fake news and the signifier ‘fake news’ which haunts the media now. From this flows the kind of analyses we need, either analysis that will be really critical of Trump, or the kind of analysis that will easily and pretty immediately be recuperated, neutralised and absorbed by the spectacle.

It wasn’t just any old media that was crucial here, but new social media. Rapid decline in newspaper readership, which spells a crisis for the old media empires like Murdoch’s Fox News, and near-death for standard format news television programmes as a source of information, has seen a correlative rise in importance of platforms like Facebook, and, more so, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and 4chan. These are platforms for the circulation of particular kinds of information; information that works by way of what it says and, crucially, how it is packaged. These are little packets of semiotic stuff that hook and take, they are memes. Memes as tagged images or repetitive gif files provide messages which are intimately and peculiarly bound up with the form of the media. More than ever, perhaps even now with a qualitative shift in the speed and intensity of media experience and its impact on subjectivity, the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964). These are the memes produced and consumed in a significant component domain of contemporary politics, activating and replicating a certain mode of experiential engagement with Trump. There is something essential to be grasped here about the form of memes that keys into new forms of subjectivity and political engagement.

Take the example of the Trump open-book law-signing meme. In this gif, the big book Trump shows to camera as public evidence that a new statute has just been signed by him is inscribed with other messages; one of the earliest instances has the word ‘Kat’ and an arrow on the verso page pointing to a scrawled child-like image of cat recto (joke: Trump is childish); a later version after the exchanges with North Korea has an image of a little red scribble marked ‘his button’ on one page and a bigger splodge on the other page marked ‘my button’ (joke: Trump is childishly preoccupied with having something bigger than Kim Jong-un). The message content for this meme can be easily pasted in and posted by anyone using a mobile app that is advertised on the internet; the advertising also pokes fun at alt-rightists who might be grammatically-challenged but even so will find it simple to use (Salamy, 2017). There are elements to these gifs that are also very easy for pop-Lacanians to describe; of a Symbolic register in which the message also connotes Trump’s childish nature, of an Imaginary aspect which hooks us and replicates something childish about the intervention, and even a hint of something Real, of the stupidity of Trump as dangerous, this image-game inciting the very jouissance, the very deathly pleasure it pretends to ward off. It is as if, and only as if, we can connect with what we know about Trump, and find a way to tell the truth about him, about how we feel about him.

Take another example, Pepe the frog. This character was claimed and used by the alt-right to ventriloquise a series of often racist messages to support Trump during the election campaign. Pepe says the unthinkable, enunciates what is already said among the alt-right community. This is beyond dog-whistling politics; it includes humorous jpegs of Pepe with a Hitler moustache saying ‘Kill Jews Man’. The Anti-Defamation League is onto this, but that isn’t a problem for the alt-right; that merely heightens the peculiar pleasure of fans of Pepe. Here, you could say that an obscene underside of political discourse is relayed which pretends to connect with the unconscious, an unconscious realm which is configured as the repressed realm of what people really think and want to say. If there are perversions of the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real here, it is as if they are already conceptualised and mobilised as part of the stuff of the meme; with the performative aim to feed a relay between Imaginary and Symbolic and make the Real speak. It is as if, and only as if, the unconscious can speak, with the construction of truths that have been censored now released, finally free.

Notice that there is a particular kind of framing and localisation of the enemy and resistance. This framing and localisation brings to the fore the Angela Nagle thesis, the argument in her book Kill all Normies (Nagle, 2017) that the Left prepared the ground for the rise of the alt-right; that arrogant attempts to enclose new media platforms and shut down debate, to humiliate and ‘no-platform’ political opponents, set the conditions for an alt-right that was then much more adept at scapegoating others in order to triumph. The Nagle thesis also raises a question about the complicity of what we like to call ‘analysis’ or even ‘intervention’ when we are being more grandiose, about our complicity with the phenomena our critique keys into. We can see the looping of this critique and phenomenon in the widely-circulated little video clip of alt-right leader Richard Spencer beginning to explain what his badge with an image of Pepe the frog on it means, explaining before being punched in the face; the video becomes an Antifa gif, it becomes a meme. In the process, opponents and supporters of Trump become mediatised, part of the same looping process of memesis. So, a fantasy about what censorship is and how to break it, and what ‘free association’ is and how to enjoy it becomes part of the media in which that fantasy is represented.

Trump is seductive, and so is psychoanalytic critique of him. It is tempting to home in on Trump as a pathological personality. Perhaps he is, as Michael Wolff says, ‘unmediated’, ‘crazylike’, without what neuroscientists call ‘executive functions’, perhaps he is only mediated by his own image. This is where Wolff’s spoof anecdote, which is unfortunately not included in Fire and Fury, is so enjoyable; the one about Trump watching a special cable channel devoted to gorillas fighting, his face four inches from the screen as he gives advice to them saying things like ‘you hit him good there’. But we don’t necessarily avoid wild analysis when we simply shift focus away from Trump himself and pretend instead that psychoanalysis can explain how someone like Trump could be elected; that is the argument in Robert Samuels’ book Psychoanalyzing the Left and Right after Donald Trump (Samuels, 2016), an argument that is actually underpinned by Lacanian theory, a very accessible clear book. There is a place for psychoanalysis, but the question is, what is that place, how does psychoanalysis key into the media phenomena it wants to explain? We need to take care, take care not to be hooked by that question. We should not extrapolate from the psychoanalytic clinic to psychoanalyse politics.

Trump is a paradoxical figure, not a psychoanalytic subject but a psychoanalytic object. He cannot not be aware of psychoanalytic discourse swilling around him and framing him, so pervasive and sometimes explicit is that discourse, but he seems resistant to that discourse, showing some awareness of it even as he rails against it. This use of psychoanalytic-style critique is one of the axes of the class hatred that underlies much of the mainstream media contempt of Trump and the representations of his stupidity. It is then also one of the sub-texts of populist reaction against the media, the media seen as part of the elite that patronises those who know a little but not a lot, here those who know a little but not a lot about psychoanalysis, who know what is being pointed at but who cannot articulate what exactly is being mocked in Trump and why. He is reduced to being an object of scorn, seemingly unable to reflexively engage with psychoanalytic mockery of him as if he was an analysand, to reflexively engage as an analysand would do. It is as if we have the inverse of the anecdote reported in the Michael Wolff book in which a model asks Trump what this ‘white trash’ is that people are talking about; Trump replies ‘they are people like me, but poor’. In this case the question might be ‘What are these psychoanalytic subjects, analysands?’; Trump’s answer would be ‘they are people like me, but reflexive’. He is in this language game but not of it, and the joke is that he doesn’t quite get the joke, our sophisticated psychoanalytic joke. Trump is what Freud (1905) would term the butt of the joke, and here the butt of psychoanalytic discourse as a class weapon used against him.

Take, for example, a Trump meme which frames him as what we might call the case of Little Hands. This meme picks up on a comment twenty years ago by a journalist – it was Graydon Carter in Spy magazine – that Trump has unusually short fingers. Trump reacted badly to this comment apparently, and ever since has been mailing the journalist cut-out magazine images of Trump himself with his hands circled in pen and the scribble ‘not so short!’ During the 2016 Republican Primary one of Trump’s rivals Marco Rubio said that Trump’s hands were tiny, and ‘you know what they say about guys with tiny hands’ – he waits for laughter – ‘you can’t trust them’. Trump’s angry response took the implicit reference to the size of his dick seriously, and he responded publically in a speech in which he said ‘I guarantee you, there’s no problem’. This is where the meme poking fun at Trump spins into psychoanalytic discourse. Stories circulated in the media about this, including about the formation of a political action committee, that is an electoral campaign group, called ‘Americans Against Insecure Billionaires With Tiny Hands’. You see how this works as a double-joke; Trump is insecure about power, but he doesn’t realise that it’s about power. You could say that the meme joke revolves around the fact that he doesn’t get the difference between the penis and the phallus. The Trump Little Hands meme drums home a message about what he knows but doesn’t want to know.

So what can psychoanalytic theory as such say about this process? We need to ask why it is so easy to make a psychoanalytic argument about these political phenomena. It does indeed look as if a Kleinian account of splitting and projective identification is perfectly suited to explaining not only why Trump acts the way he does, but also, better, it explains how we become bewitched by Trump, filling him with our hopes or hatred. It looks as if a version of US-American object relations theory perfectly captures the nature of Trump as a narcissist or, better, as an expression of an age of narcissism in which we stage our political objections to him as for a meritocratic ego ideal that we want to be loved by. It looks as if Lacanian psychoanalysis identifies a cause that drives and pulls Trump through the blind alleys of desire for he knows not what and, better still, this psychoanalysis explains what it is about Trump as objet petit a that is coming close to us and causing us anxiety. These are lines of argument rehearsed by Robert Samuels. The reason why these explanations make sense is not because they are true but because they are made true, woven into the stuff they are applied to (Parker, 1997). So, there is a deeper problem in the supposed ‘application’ of psychoanalysis to politics, but is there a way out of this?

Fig 1One of the peculiar things about Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it is implicitly, potentially reflexively self-critical. One of Lacan’s conceptual devices helps us to understand a bit better exactly how recuperation operates under new mediatised conditions of possibility for political discourse. I have in mind the so-called ‘discourse of the capitalist’ (Fig. 1), though I am not sure that it is actually a fifth discourse that runs alongside the other four discourses that Lacan describes (Tomšič, 2015). In Seminar XVII Lacan (1991/2007) describes four discourses in one of his few extensions of psychoanalysis beyond the clinic, to understanding the political-economic context for the psychoanalytic clinic. These discourses are, discourse of the master as foundational, foundational condition of consciousness; discourse of the university, bureaucratically pretending to include all knowledge; discourse of the hysteric, productively rebellious questioning; and discourse of the analyst, hystericizing, facilitating critique. The so-called discourse of the capitalist that Lacan (1972) briefly proposes is a twist on the discourse of the master in conditions of commodity production and, I would say, of its mutation into the society of the spectacle. Here in this discourse, the barred subject is in the position of the agent, as if we are in the discourse of the hysteric, but it faces knowledge, the battery of signifiers as other. Underneath the barred subject in the position of truth is S1, master signifier, facing the objet petit a, product (Vanheule, 2016). The master signifier is where it would be in the discourse of the university, but the end-point of this is still a commodity, as it would be in the discourse of the master. So, the discourse of the capitalist is a diagnostic tool complicit in power.

We could re-label this fifth discourse ‘the discourse of psychoanalysis’, as Lacan himself implies it is. This is not the discourse of the analyst; no element is in the same position that we find in this mutation of discourse and the discourse of the analyst, but there is some significant mapping of elements with positions in the other three discourses, especially, of course, with the foundational discourse of the master. Here it is as if the agent, hysterical barred subject, is rebellious, questioning, but this agent attacks not the master but knowledge as such, rails against all knowledge, treating it as fake news. This agent revels in their division, aware of the existence of something of the unconscious in them, loving it; they are psychoanalytic subjects, ripe for analysis, up for it. It is as if the truth of this subject will be found in the little significant scraps of master signifier that anchor it, signifying substance that seems to explain but actually explains nothing. This is how memes function in the imaginary production and reproduction of politics. This kind of truth includes those signifiers that are cobbled together from our own psychoanalytic knowledge, rather like the way they function in the discourse of the university, chatter about the ‘ego’ and the ‘unconscious’ and the rest of the paraphernalia. Two key elements of the discourse of the master are still in place; knowledge as a fragmented constellation of memes mined for meaning, for signs of conspiracy or, at least, something that serves well enough as explanation, including psychoanalytic explanation; and there is the product, objet petit a, something lost, something that escapes, something that drives us on to make more of it. We know well enough the paranoiac incomplete nature of the psychoanalysis that lures us in and keeps us going; here it is again (Parker, 2009). We can draw on the discourse of psychoanalysis to make sense of Trump, and, more importantly, how he is represented.

This discourse is one manifestation of an ‘age of interpretation’ that now circumscribes and feeds psychoanalysis. Remember that Freud did not discover the unconscious, Lacan insists on this; rather he invented it, and that invention which is coterminous with burgeoning capitalism in Europe functions (Parker, 2011). It functions not only in the clinic, but in society. When it flourishes, its prevalence as an interpretative frame poses questions for psychoanalytic practice. Psychoanalytic subjects love psychoanalysis, love psychoanalytic discourse, they want more of it, want to speak it in the clinic and want to hear it interpreted, want it fed. The questions they pose in the clinic demand certain kinds of answers, psychoanalytic answers. In what Jacques-Alain Miller (1999) calls the age of interpretation there is a real danger that the analyst buys into this, feeds the unconscious. The appropriate analytic response to this demand is not to ‘interpret’ but to ‘cut’ the discourse, to disrupt it by a particular kind of interpretation, intervention which includes cutting the session. This is also why psychoanalysis should not be merely ‘applied’, for it will merely feed what it is being applied to. These conditions of discourse call for different kinds of interpretative strategies.

There are implications of this for what we think is psychoanalytic critique of meme-politics. Mere description won’t cut it. Perhaps it calls for what Robert Samuels describes as an ethic of neutrality combined with an ethic of free association; that is, neutrality of the analyst which does not rest on empathic engagement, and free association which does not feed the fantasy that something must be censored in order for correct speech to emerge. I’m not sure this will work. Perhaps it requires performative description in which there is some kind of over-identification with the discourse and unravelling of its internal contradictions; that is, deliberate use of the terms used, memes turned against memes. In which case we risk falling into the trap that Angela Nagle describes, one in which we replicate the conditions in which the alt-right emerged triumphant. Perhaps what we need is direct critique grounded in other forms of discourse, not only the discourse of the analyst which might work in the clinic but merely hystericizes, usually unproductively hystericizes its audience when it is ‘applied’ outside the clinic. Other forms of discourse, from Situationist critique and feminism and Marxism are necessary to break from the discourse that keeps all this going. Lacanian theory can connect with those other kinds of discourse as I have tried to show. This kind of anti-Trump in the media critique needs also be anti-psychoanalytic.

So, how do we speak as psychoanalysts about Trump? We can attend to the way that psychoanalytic discourse is mobilised in the public realm, but we need to take care not to simply feed that discourse. We should not pretend that we can speak as psychoanalysts. In fact, to speak as a psychoanalyst in the clinic is itself a performative impossibility. Lacan points out that what we say in the clinic may sometimes position us as psychoanalyst for the analysand, position us as subject supposed to know, but there is no guarantee that we are speaking there to them as a psychoanalyst. To pretend to speak from the identity of psychoanalyst is to speak as if we are a subject who does know. And so, then, to speak as if we are a psychoanalyst with a privileged position to interpret political phenomena in the public realm is to perform a double-betrayal of psychoanalysis itself. Words are weapons, Trump knows that. Psychoanalysis is a double-edged weapon, and so we need to take care over how to use it to speak about politics, including how we speak about Trump.



Debord, G. (1967/1977) Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red.

Freud, S. (1905) ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’, in J. Strachey (ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 8, London: Vintage, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Lacan, J. (1991/2007) The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII (translated by R. Grigg). New York: Norton.

Lacan, J. (1972) ‘On psychoanalytic discourse’,

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Miller, J.-A. (1999) ‘Interpretation in reverse’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks of the London Circle, 2, 9-18.

Nagle, A. (2017) Kill all Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.

Parker, I. (1997) Psychoanalytic Culture: Psychoanalytic Discourse in Western Society. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Parker, I. (2009) Psychoanalytic Mythologies. London: Anthem Books.

Parker, I. (2011) Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity. London and New York: Routledge.

Salamy, E. (2017) ‘Create your own Trump-signed executive order with online generator’, Newsday, 5 February (accessed 29 February 2018),

Samuels, R. (2016) Psychoanalyzing the Left and Right after Donald Trump: Conservativism, Liberalism, and Neoliberal Populisms. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tomšič, S. (2015) The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. London: Verso.

Vanheule, S. (2016) ‘Capitalist Discourse, Subjectivity and Lacanian Psychoanalysis’, Frontiers in Psychology, 7,

Wolff, M. (2018) Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt.


This paper was published as a chapter as Parker, I. (2019) ‘Memesis and Psychoanalysis: Mediatising Trump’ in A. Bown and D. Bristow (eds) Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production. Goleta, CA: Punctum Books, pp. 351-364. [ISBN-13: 978-1-950192-23-6] [doi: 10.21983/P3.0255.1.17] You can download the whole book at this link:


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





Mornington Crescent moments

There is no overarching rule that determines or predicts how rules can be broken, but it is possible to notice, after the event, how a certain sequence of interactions has given rise to a moment when something new could happen. One way of capturing this moment is provided by a game on the BBC radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue called ‘Mornington Crescent’. However, the fact that it is a game also draws attention to the automatic repetitive aspect of the process, so that while ‘Mornington Crescent’ names an ‘event’ of some kind that could not be predicted at the outset, it can also permit the voicing of formulaic ‘interventions’ that simply succeeded because they arrived on time instead of providing some new content. The Mornington Crescent moment can be exhilarating when it marks an eruption of the unexpected, even when it functions as the sign of an act, and it can be deadening when arrives at its appointed hour, an old train en route to the same old station. It is a moment when something psychological happens that is not inside subjects but between them.

How does it work? Mornington Crescent is a subway station in London. In the game participants produce an unscripted series of names of other London subway stations, a list that could include names of streets or landmarks. There is no prescribed sequence of speakers, and one simply says the next name to produce the series when there is space to do so. This means that the rhythm of the series can sometimes lag a bit, feel a bit flat, and at other times the pace can be rapid with a strange energy to the interchange. But there comes a moment when the participants arrive at Mornington Crescent, when one will produce this signifier which will punctuate the series, will end it. To say ‘Morning Crescent’ too early will be crass, inopportune and to wait too late will be to fall prey to the sense that there has been degeneration into dull routine. There is a hesitant and sometimes tense intersubjective aspect to the game.

One can notice this moment in traditional left political meetings, particularly committee meetings when someone finds exactly the right moment to point out that, say, no women have spoken yet. Usually they are right, but that’s not the point in terms of the game. The point is to seize the right moment to make the point. This moment, which sometimes provokes exasperation or guilty recognition, can be extended ad infinitum to draw attention to lack of speakers from this or that identity category or member of a group that is subject of the discussion or, in some variants, an ‘ordinary’ member of the public who should be included. To point it out too early will lead to it being easily dismissed, and to wait too long will have enabled some other member of the group to anticipate the point in another contribution and inoculate the group against it. You need to strike at the right moment. Such moments are necessary, but often merely indicate that one speaker has seized a moment rather than introduced something radically new to the discussion.

And, with a different more radical valence, Mornington Crescent moments appear in the wider political field, exemplifying a space of freedom for things to be said that could not be said before, to be said now before it is too late. When is the right moment to break from the government narrative that ‘we are all in it together’, for example, and to do that in a way that strikes a chord? It was always right to say that, just as it is always right to argue that, in principle, a general strike is needed, but most times to simply repeat the demand for a general strike sounds stupid. We need to say it just at the right moment. Maybe the moment appears at another break in politics, another break that shakes things and makes it possible to speak in a different way about things. Maybe now? Then there is a possibility that another world is possible has appeared within the frame of everyday life. Then a London subway station has appeared in political discourse.


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


Twelve lessons from Freudo-Marxism

Twelve lessons from Freudo-Marxism*

David Pavón-Cuéllar


Freudo-Marxism and its actuality

Freudo-Marxism is usually understood in two ways. In a broad, vague and diffuse sense, it encompasses all efforts of synthesis between Marxism and psychoanalysis. In a strict sense, which we will choose here, it only includes the efforts made in the interwar period, between the 1920s and 1930s, when attempts were made to systematically integrate the Marxist and Freudian traditions under an assumption of profound affinity and complementarity between them.

Freudo-Marxism in the strict sense includes works by authors as diverse as the great Marxists Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui, the Austro-German psychoanalysts Siegfried Bernfeld, Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel, the Soviets Vera Schmidt and Aleksandr Luria, the Frankfurters Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm, the surrealists André Breton, René Crevel and Tristan Tzara in France, Karel Teige in Czechoslovakia or Xavier Abril and Elias Piterbarg in Latin America, the Freudian critics of Marxism Henri De Man and Max Eastman, and some unclassifiable ones like the Brazilian Oswald de Andrade, the Hungarian Attila József and the French Jean Audard.[i]

Many of the exponents of Freudo-Marxism have already fallen into oblivion. However, as we will see, they all retain their relevance and their great subversive potential. This is why they can still give us the twelve lessons that we will summarize below.


  1. Remember the bodily, impulsive and sexual

Freudo-Marxists remind us that the material-existential basis of our consciousness lies not only where Marx placed it, in the social and economic realms, but where Freud located it, in the sexual and somatic spheres. It is to think about this basis that Trotsky resorts to psychoanalysis, conceiving it as a conjectural approach to the ‘physiology’ underlying any psychology.[ii]

Freudo-Marxism explains the psychological by something as subjective as the bodily, instinctual and sexual tendencies and configurations, and not only by something as objective as the forces and relations of production. Objectivity and subjectivity can even be merged and transcended into a single determining factor. This is what happens in Fromm, who argues that the adaptation of the instinctive to the economic is resolved in a ‘libidinal structure’ that in turn determines thoughts and feelings.[iii]

We think and feel not directly what is decided by capital, but what is determined by our body trapped and pierced by capitalism. Between the capitalist production and our psychological constitution, there is the mediation of what is approached by psychoanalysis. We need Freud to understand how the subject is psychically affected by what we learn from Marx.


  1. Do not underestimate the importance of the psyche

Freudo-Marxism also helps us to understand that consciousness is not only effect, but cause of existence. This causality, belatedly recognized by Trotsky,[iv] allows to overcome the Leninist representation of mental content as a passive ‘reflex’.[v] In addition to reflecting the socio-economic reality, the psyche ‘falsifies’ it, and it is also for this, as Horkheimer noted, that Marxism needs psychoanalysis.[vi] It needs it for something that Attila József knew better than anyone: because we are all crazy, we are not realistic, our existence does not obey socio-economic reality, but it obeys our consciousness that distorts that reality instead of reflecting it.[vii]

Socioeconomic reality also determines our psychic life, of course. However, as Reich pointed out, it does not determine it externally by reflecting on it, but internally by ‘taking root’ in it through ideology. [viii] This ideological rooting is one of the factors why consciousness cannot perceive the socioeconomic reality without distorting it.

Deforming the same reality that determines it, the psychic-ideological structure determines this reality. It is transmuted into the determinant base of the socio-economic system. This is how in the inner world, according to Fenichel, the base and the superstructure are inverted.[ix] José Carlos Mariátegui[x] and Max Horkheimer[xi] show us that this inversion is characteristic of a liberal modern society, today neoliberal postmodern society, in which everything seems to obey the subjects, their freedom, their desires and drives.


  1. Probe the irrational basis of scientific, technological and socioeconomic rationality

The weight of desires and drives in social life introduces an irrational dimension whose consideration requires the help of the Freudian method. This was very well appreciated in Freudo-Marxism. Breton[xii] and others taught us how to use psychoanalysis to approach a psychic irrationality that is inseparable from the supposedly rational socioeconomic system elucidated in Marxism.

The supposed rationality of society and economy in capitalism, as conceived by Bernfeld, is nothing more than a kind of ‘guilt ideology’ in which the rationalization, transposition and materialization of deeply irrational drives are carried out. [xiii] Henri De Man[xiv] and Max Eastman[xv] thoroughly analyzed how these impulsive forces underlie the seemingly rational interests that govern the capitalist system. Their analyzes highlight all the psychic irrationality of the socioeconomic rationality of capitalism.

Karel Teige[xvi] and Jean Audard[xvii] show us that even the perfect scientific and technological rationality of the productive forces is driven and sustained in capitalism by an irrational base of drives and desires. Audard[xviii] convinces us that the recognition of this basis constitutes an indispensable condition for materialism. To be fully materialistic, Marxists should also be Freudians.


  1. Take desire and fantasy seriously

Freudo-Marxists, consistent materialists, make us go beyond interests and their idealized rationality, beyond needs and their ideological naturalization. They lead us to the irrational and unnatural materiality of the fantasy in which the drives move and desire unfolds. They teach us that we must go through this space to reach communism.

De Man[xix] explains to us, communists, that the emancipation for which we fight cannot consist in satisfying the needs that exist in capitalism, but requires us to go beyond the capitalist horizon and conceive other needs through our fantasy and based on our desire. This conception of other needs constitutes in itself a gesture, prescribed by René Crevel, in which the ‘cowardly’ and ‘opportunistic’ realism is challenged.[xx] This is how it allows to realize the surreal ideal, enunciated by Breton, of ‘changing life’ and not just ‘transforming the world’.[xxi]

There cannot even be a true objective transformation without that kind of subjective change in which desire is involved. Freudo-Marxism reminds us that it is with desire with which history is made. The history of humanity, as Tristan Tzara said, is ‘the history of man’s desires’.[xxii]


  1. Consider sexuality and its repression

By making us take desire and fantasy seriously, Freudo-Marxists lead us to consider the sphere of repressed sexuality that lies beneath desire and fantasy. They also teach us that this sphere, studied by psychoanalysis, cannot be ignored by those who fight for communism. They help us to understand that we cannot ignore repressed sexuality because we are fighting against exploitation and oppression conditioned or at least favored by sexual repression.

Reich[xxiii] showed how sexually repressed people are also susceptible to being economically exploited and politically oppressed. They can be exploited and oppressed because they have already been subjugated, disciplined and tamed through their sexual repression. This repression made them obedient, docile, dominable.

If domination begins with sexuality, it is for a fundamental reason elucidated by the young Fromm.[xxiv] It is because the sexual instinct, compared to the needs of sleep, drink or food, is particularly ductile, manipulable, modifiable, adaptable, postponable, interchangeable, repressible and sublimable. This is why it represents the weak point of subjectivity, the most vulnerable to domination, that by which we must be caught when something or someone intends to dominate us.


  1. Confront patriarchy

Freudo-Marxism teaches us how patriarchal domination uses a supplement of repression that selectively targets female sexuality. As Reich[xxv] explains to us, if a woman tends to be sexually more repressed than a man, it is to make her show a greater submission than he does. It is also to make her be oppressed by him. It is to allow the man to dominate the woman socially, politically and economically that she must suffer a greater dose of sexual repression.

We understand, then, that the purpose of women’s liberation is fundamental to freudo-Marxism. Freudo-Marxists are among the first to understand that we cannot fight capitalism effectively without fighting patriarchy at the same time.

Andrade[xxvi] and Fromm[xxvii] even claim matriarchy as their flag. Both feel that the revolution must be feminized to be deepened and radicalized. Fromm does not hesitate to place the matriarchal ideal in the ‘psychic basis’ of the ‘Marxist social program’.[xxviii]


  1. Conceive a free and liberating education

Marxism requires the work of Freudo-Marxists to be well based on the subjective, psychic and bodily, sexual and instinctive plane. It is on this plane that repression in the service of domination is discovered. It is on the same level that radical forms of liberation can be conceived, such as those based on desire and fantasy, those that claim matriarchy, and those that take shape in free and liberating educational projects such as those promoted by Bernfeld and Schmidt.

Bernfeld and Schmidt, both inspired by Marxism and psychoanalysis, projected and implemented revolutionary strategies for the education of children and adolescents, which renounced repressive means and thus sought to engender the new men and the new women of socialism. In his colony of Baumgarten, Bernfeld[xxix] prefers understanding and persuasion to coercion and domestication, and tries to strengthen the feeling of community while weakening individualism and familiarism. On the other hand, in the Moscow Detski Dom, Vera Schmidt[xxx] resorts to love instead of fear and authority, and thus tries to develop in children the capacity for sublimation at the expense of repression.

Both Schmidt and Bernfeld aspire to undermine the repressive base of domination. It is for this purpose that they work in the educational sphere. They give us here a lesson in radicalism by using psychoanalysis to attack the root of what they fight against as communists.


  1. Recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject

One of the teachings of Schmidt’s educational method is to recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject. This singularity is not here dissolved in abstract generalizations, much less annulled by a standardization of children. In contrast to the prejudiced image of unifying and massifying socialism, Schmidt’s school in the Soviet Union is a space of singularization that was inconceivable in the capitalist countries of the time.

The consideration of the uniqueness of each one is a positive effect of the psychoanalytic gaze in Freudo-Marxism. Amongst what Gramsci[xxxi] values ​​most in psychoanalysis is its attention to the singular. Such attention can serve to avoid the eagerness to level out everyone’s experience, the eagerness of those communists who have confused equality with uniformity and community with an undifferentiated mass.

Freudo-Marxism reminds us that community is made of singularities and that equality only exists between subjects irreducibly different from each other and therefore incomparable to each other as inferior or superior. These subjects, each with his/her own history, constitute the uniqueness addressed by the psychoanalytic method. What psychoanalysis offers Marxism, as Bernfeld[xxxii] well noted, is a historical science of case by case, of the unique history of each subject.


  1. Do not ignore the tensions and contradictions of psychic life

Freudo-Marxists bring to Marxism a Freudian science of the subject that is not only historical, but dialectical. The psychoanalytic dialectic is indispensable to consider the tensions and contradictions of subjectivity. Bernfeld[xxxiii] shows us that this consideration requires thinking as dialectically as Freud did in conceptualizing the oppositions between the ego and the id, between the principles of reality and pleasure or between the drives of life and death.

The concepts of psychoanalysis unfold subjective division, tears in the subject, describe and explain them, rather than sidestep and hide them, as psychology generally does. In contrast to the misleading psychological images of harmonic and unitary subjectivity, the Freudian dialectical representation of the subject, as first pointed out by Voloshinov[xxxiv] and later by Gramsci[xxxv], is made up of conflicts and antagonisms that make psychoanalysis mysteriously compatible with Marxism.

Voloshinov[xxxvi] and others teach us how the tensions and contradictions that Marxists uncover in society are, in fact, the same ones that Freudians rediscover in the individual. This is something that no one could perceive as clearly as the Freudo-Marxists. We learn from them that our class struggles run through us and thus summon us to take a position within and not just outside ourselves.


  1. Avoid psychological dualism

Freudo-Marxists not only make us consider the inner as well as the outer world, but they urge us to reconcile them, reconnect them, reintegrate them into each other. This impulse was crucial for the surrealist encounter between the respective fields of psychoanalysis and Marxism. Between the two areas, as well as between sleep and wakefulness or between madness and reason, Breton revealed ‘capillary tissues’ and ‘communicating vessels’.[xxxvii]

What it is about, for Luria[xxxviii], is to overcome the psychological dualism in which the psyche is abstracted from the body and the world. This dualism, as Crevel sees it, obeys a political strategy that seeks to ‘divide and rule’.[xxxix] Subjectivity is divided between the soul and the body in order to use the former to dominate the latter.

Freudo-Marxists teach us that fighting domination requires leaving dualism behind and adopting a monistic vision like that of psychoanalysis. In Andrade’s terms, we must undress the ‘waterproof clothing’ between inside and outside.[xl] Subjects must be recovered as what they are, as bodies that are indiscernible from their souls, from their ideas or from their spirits.


  1. Do not idealize or spiritualize subjectivity

One of the greatest lessons of Freudo-Marxism is not to reduce the subjective to the ideal or spiritual. We receive this lesson from Oswald de Andrade[xli] and Elías Piterbarg[xlii] when we see them claim the material truth of body nudity against the ideas that cover it, suffocate and betray it. It is the same lesson that Xavier Abril teaches us when he rejects ‘spiritualist psychology’, opting instead for an investigation of the subject as ‘true body’, as revealed by Marxism and psychoanalysis.[xliii]

Marx and Freud inspire the materialistic representation of subjectivity by which Freudian Marxists go back from the ideas, reasons and justifications of people to their brakes and chains, drives and desires. This is how De Man[xliv] and Eastman[xlv] delve into the unconscious impulsiveness that underlies conscious rationality. This is also how Bernfeld goes beyond the ‘reasons’ given by the subject to discover the ‘repressed causes’ that induce them.[xlvi]

Freudo-Marxists instruct us in the art of not being idealistic when thinking about subjectivity. They make us accept that the existence of the subject is not guided only by his/her conscious ideas, by his/her visions, convictions, justifications and deliberate intentions. These ideal factors, in fact, do not constitute the sole determinant for the subject nor do they encompass all that he/she is and animates him/her, but are merely an expression of what is decisive.


  1. Distrust existing psychology and reject any psychologization

What is decisive in subjectivity, according to Freudo-Marxism, does not correspond to what is studied by academic and allegedly scientific psychology. Nor could it ever be discovered by the psychological instruments of observation. Psychology is not used here to discover anything, but only to cover up, conceal and mystify, manipulate and subdue.

Freudo-Marxists teach us to be wary of psychology. Tzara condemns it for disconnecting us from the world and for shutting us inside our comfortable interior where ‘an armchair has grown’.[xlvii] Reich denounces it for its ideological, idealistic, metaphysical, individualistic, bourgeois, normalizing, adaptive, repressive, conservative and reactionary character.[xlviii]

In addition to questioning psychology, Freudo-Marxists criticize different forms of psychologization. One, denounced by Bernfeld, claims that our thoughts and feelings are the ‘driving forces’ of the economy, when we know that they only ‘justify’ certain economic conditions.[xlix] Another form of psychologization, denounced by Reich, is that of delegitimizing insurrections, rebellions and revolutions by psychopathologizing them, explaining them for ‘irrational’ psychological reasons, when we know that they are ‘rational’ actions that are explained economically, socially and politically by circumstances such as misery, exploitation or oppression.[l]


Lessons for the present

The twelve lessons we have just recapitulated show that Freudo-Marxism is not only up to date, but even more timely than in its time, when it was not yet fully timely. The 1920s and 1930s were still too early to elucidate such things as psychologization, the subjective irrational background of economic rationality, or the essential link between capitalism and patriarchy. Isn’t all this better understood nowadays?

We have had to wait a century for Freudo-Marxism to stop being premature. Now it is clear that its time has come. This is why it should no longer give rise to reactions of misunderstanding, aversion and persecution like those that surrounded it in the interwar period, when it was rejected by the communist parties as well as by the psychoanalytic associations.

It is high time for Freudians to concede that they need such radical means as those of Freudo-Marxism to prevent psychoanalysis from continuing to adapt, domesticate, gentrify, ideologize and thus degrade. It is also the time for us communists to resort to a sensitivity such as the Freudo-Marxist to clarify the subjective origin of many of our inconsistencies, failures, defeats and surrenders.


* First published in Spanish in Revista Ideas de Izquierda (2020).

[i] For a general review, see David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxism and Psychoanalysis, in or against Psychology? London, Routledge, 2017. For a selection of the key texts of Freudomarxism, see Ian Parker and David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxismo, psicología y psicoanálisis, Mexico City, Paradiso, 2017.

[ii] Leon Trotsky, Cultura y socialismo (1926), in Escritos filosóficos, Buenos Aires, CEIP León Trotsky, 2004, p. 154.

[iii] Erich Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), in J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, Buenos Aires, Granica, 1972, pp. 119, 140-141.

[iv] Trotsky, Cuadernos de Trotsky (1933-1935), in Escritos filosóficos, op. cit., p. 68.

[v] Vladimir Lenin, Materialismo y empiriocriticismo (1908), Beijing, Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1975, p. 54.

[vi] Max Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), in Teoría crítica, Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 2008, p. 32.

[vii] Attila József, Hegel, Marx, Freud (1934), Action Poétique 49, 1972, 68-75.

[viii] Wilhelm Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo (1933), Mexico City, Roca, 1973, p. 29.

[ix] Otto Fenichel, Sobre el psicoanálisis como embrión de una futura psicología dialéctico materialista, en J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, op. cit., p. 183.

[x] José Carlos Mariátegui, Defensa del marxismo (1930), Lima, Amauta, 1976, p. 146.

[xi] Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), op. cit., pp. 27-30.

[xii] André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), en Œuvres complètes I, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 316.

[xiii] Siegfried Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973, p. 64.

[xiv] Henri de Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), París, Seuil, 1974.

[xv] Max Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution, Nueva York, Boni, 1927.

[xvi] Karel Teige, Liquidation de l’art (1925), París, Allia, 2009, p. 82.

[xvii] Jean Audard, Du caractère matérialiste de la psychanalyse (1933), Littoral 27/28 (1989), 199-208.

[xviii] Ibíd.

[xix] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit., p. 416.

[xx] René Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), Utrecht, Pauvert, 1966, p. 77.

[xxi] Breton, Discours du Congrès des Écrivains. En Œuvres complètes II, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 459

[xxii] Tristan Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), París, Flammarion, 1981, p. 218.

[xxiii] Reich, Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis (1934), México, Siglo XXI, 1989, pp. 60-61.

[xxiv] Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), op. cit., pp. 114-116.

[xxv] Reich, La sexualidad en el combate cultural (1935), en Sexualidad: libertad o represión, México, Grijalbo, 1971, pp. 95-110.

[xxvi] Oswald de Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, México, FCE, 2006, p. 180.

[xxvii] Fromm, The Theory of Mother Right (1934), en The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, Nueva York, Holt, 1970, pp. 109-135.

[xxviii] Ibíd., p. 135.

[xxix] Bernfeld, La colonia infantil de Baumgarten (1921), en La ética del chocolate, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2005, pp. 43-169.

[xxx] Vera Schmidt, Pulsions sexuelles et éducation du corps (1924), París, Union Générale D’Éditions, 1979, pp. 49-84.

[xxxi] Antonio Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), México, Era, 2003, pp. 301-302.

[xxxii] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), en Marxismo, psicoanálisis y SEXPOL I, op. cit., pp. 16-17.

[xxxiii] Ibíd., pp. 20-21.

[xxxiv] Valentin Voloshinov, Freudismo: un bosquejo crítico (1927), Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1999, p. 143.

[xxxv] Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), op. cit., pp. 382-383.

[xxxvi] Voloshinov, Freudismo, op. cit., pp. 160-162.

[xxxvii] Breton, Les vases communicants (1932), París, Gallimard, 1955, pp. 103, 160.

[xxxviii] Aleksandr Luria, Psychoanalysis as a System of Monistic Psychology (1925), Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 40(1) (2002), 26-53.

[xxxix] Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), op. cit., p. 67.

[xl] Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), op. cit., p. 174.

[xli] Ibíd.

[xlii] Elías Piterbarg, Manifiesto (1930), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, op. cit., p. 471.

[xliii] Xavier Abril, Palabras para asegurar una posición dudosa (1930), in N. Osorio (comp.), Manifiestos, proclamas y polémicas de la vanguardia literaria hispanoamericana, Caracas, Ayacucho, 1988, p. 375.

[xliv] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit.

[xlv] Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1927), op. cit.

[xlvi] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), op. cit., pp. 17-19.

[xlvii] Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), op. cit., p. 66.

[xlviii] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 26-31. Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis, op. cit., 16-24, 65-66.

[xlix] Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), op. cit., pp. 63-64.

[l] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 31.


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