In defence of Freud's innovation

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In last month's Socialist Review Susan Rosenthal argued that Marxists have nothing to gain from Sigmund Freud's theories, which simply justify the bourgeois status quo. Sabby Sagall begs to differ, seeing in Freud, and crucially his theoretical successors, a revolutionary potential.

There is much in Freud’s writings that Marxists should criticise, but there is also much of value in the Freudian tradition that needs to be incorporated into a wider revolutionary vision. Susan Rosenthal risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Marx and Engels were rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and keenly followed new scientific developments. They enthusiastically greeted Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Morgan’s anthropological studies of Native American communities, about both of which Engels wrote important books. However, Engels died in 1895, the year Freud and his colleague Breuer published Studies on Hysteria. Freud’s chapter on psychotherapy is generally regarded as marking the inception of psychoanalysis.

Arguably, Engels would have greeted Freud’s discoveries with great interest. Engels wrote in 1893, “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously…but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him… He works with mere thought material…and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of thought.”

In the 1920s Leon Trotsky pleaded for tolerance towards psychoanalysis in the face of virulent attacks by many Bolsheviks who dismissed it due to its alleged anti-materialism and over-emphasis on sex.

Susan echoes these attacks, arguing that, “for Marxists, labour is the basic condition for human existence. For Freud, sex is more important.” She adds, “Marxists interpret thoughts, feelings and behaviours in their social context. Freud interpreted thoughts, feelings and behaviours according to his personal opinion of what they represent.” But this is to compare incommensurables. One can compare Marxist theory with those of Herbert Spencer or Emile Durkheim, but not with thinkers who focus on our inner world. Within the psychological sphere it makes sense to ask which tradition is the more illuminating, the psychoanalytical or that of experimental psychology including behavourism.

Marxists have always sought to incorporate the ideas of radical bourgeois thinkers within a Marxist framework of thought and action. Had Marxists rejected all bourgeois ideas, we would never have had Marxism! Freud was not a political revolutionary. He was philosophically and politically a liberal. However, his theory of the unconscious — the idea that many of our ideas, feelings and actions are shaped by internal forces of which we are unaware — was indeed highly innovatory and radical.


Not that Freud claimed to have discovered the reality of unconscious motivation, rather to have provided an analysis, backed by empirical evidence — numerous case-studies, many of them quite famous — of how unconscious repression works. And he developed a highly creative technique: the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis. Also the idea that Freud interpreted feelings according to “his personal opinion” ignores this vast body of case studies which substantially if not universally corroborated his theories.

The point is that classical Marxism needed a complementary theory, an analysis of subjectivity, of the way external, material conditions are translated into the psyche of the individual, not just as ideology but in terms of their overall emotional life. The value of psychoanalysis lies precisely, as early Marxist psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel explained, in its ability to explain how the experience of capitalist alienation is internalised into the mind of the individual, the manner in which the external structures of exploitation and oppression are incorporated into our personal psyches.

Such a subjective theory was of great importance following the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread and its ultimate defeat. As German Marxist Karl Korsch wrote, “In the fateful months after November 1918, when the organised political power of the bourgeoisie was smashed and outwardly there was nothing else in the way of the transition from capitalism to socialism, the great chance was never seized because the socio-psychological preconditions for its seizure were lacking.”

Of course, Korsch is wrong to argue that the German Revolution failed purely because of psychological factors; lack of revolutionary leadership was clearly the decisive factor. But the question remains, why did a majority of Russian workers come to support the Bolsheviks whereas in Germany they remained with the Social-Democrats, even after the splits?

Marx and Engels are not to blame for this gap: theories of subjective consciousness, such as psychoanalysis or experimental psychology, could not emerge out of philosophy, history or economics, but only out of 19th century psychology.

Moreover, Susan seems to counterpose internal and external sources of mental illness as though they are separate, as if illness is caused by either external social or internal factors. She writes, “Social factors [are] the prime cause of mental illness.” But, as I’ve tried to indicate, the Freudian tradition has always attempted to link the two, to grasp how external reality is incorporated into our internal world.

Thus she argues that Freud was faced with having to decide whether mental illness was caused by trauma, ie external events, or internal conflict. But this is a false dichotomy. The crucial insight of Freud and the psychoanalytical tradition is that we need both.

Freud did not reject the importance of external factors in the origins of mental illness, but argued that external factors were filtered through the inner world of the victim, a world that had been created through the impact of the family on the child’s psyche. His theory is, therefore, materialist insofar as he locates the source of mental illness in the external institution of the family.

Moreover, running through Susan’s article seems to be a confusion between psychoanalysis and psychiatry, blurring the clear line dividing the two distinct traditions. For example, having described Freud’s destruction of the barrier separating mental illness and normal behaviour, she goes on to quote the number of psychiatrists practising outside institutions between 1917 and 1970 as having increased from 8 to 66 percent.

She also seems to be using criticisms of psychiatry as sticks with which to beat psychoanalysis. “Psychiatry partnered with the law to impose social control. Psychiatrists used pseudoscientific labels such as ‘pathological lying’, hysteria, and ‘genital hallucinations’ to discredit the validity of child testimony.”

It is misleading to describe Freud as becoming a wealthy celebrity. He came from a well-off Austrian Jewish family and certainly did well financially in the course of a lifetime of professional work. The important point is that Freud became infamous rather than famous among large sections of the Western bourgeoisie who felt threatened by his radical ideas.

In particular, his ideas of the Oedipus complex and “infantile sexuality” represented a massive affront to the morally complacent upper and middle classes.


Susan describes Freud as having been on the side of the oppressed early on, but that he later switched to the side of the ruling class. It is true that in 1927 he argued for the masses to be “held down”, but there is nothing to suggest that his motive here was to protect class privilege. Rather it was to guard against the dangers of social breakdown, as he saw them, of the collapse of civilisation, arising out of the lifting of the shackles binding our instinctual life. Moreover, Freud supported the social-democratic institutions created during the “Red Vienna” years from 1918 to 1934.

Freud was a biological determinist and a liberal who, after the carnage of the First World War, became deeply pessimistic about the prospects for progressive change. Earlier in his career he had argued for the division of the instincts or drives into life or self-preservation and sexual instincts. In 1920, following the unprecedented violence of the war, he developed a new classification: Life and Death instincts.

His lack of faith in the masses in the 1930s was regrettable but understandable, following the defeat of the Russian Revolution and in a decade that saw the victory of fascism in Spain and Germany. But this does not amount to “supporting the ruling class”.

Susan wrongly claims that Freud abandoned his early “seduction theory”, the then notorious idea that adult family members were in the habit of practising sexual abuse on their young children and that that this was the prime cause of mental illness in later life.

What is true is that Freud modified the theory early on in the light of his discovery of the sexual fantasies infants have about their parents, their sexual urges, which he described as “infant sexuality”. He needed to do so in order to develop the whole notion of “psychic reality”, the idea of unconscious repression.

But he never abandoned the theory and, indeed, reasserted it in his final work, “An Outline of Psychoanalysis”, published in 1938, a year before he died. “Our attention is first attracted by the effects of certain influences which do not apply to all children, though they are common enough – such as the sexual abuse of children by adults, their seduction by other children (brothers or sisters) slightly their seniors.”

Susan discusses Freud as though psychoanalysis begins and ends with him, rather than seeing him as the founder of a revolutionary science. It is like dismissing modern physics in the light of the shortcomings of Newton or Galileo. But there is a rich tradition of post-Freudian theory and practice exemplified in the work of Freud’s rivals and successors — people like Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, John Bowlby and the “attachment theorists”. The object-relations school, inspired by Klein, is one that perhaps has the greatest affinity with the Marxist tradition.

Last but not least are the Marxist psychoanalytical writers of the Frankfurt School — Erich Fromm, Theordor Adorno, Max Horkheimer — and also the early Wilhelm Reich, who contributed much to our understanding of mental illness under capitalism and the enrichment that socialism will bring to our inner life and personal relations.