Revolutionary kernel in Freud's ideas

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There are many criticisms that Marxists can — and should — make of psychoanalysis in general and of Sigmund Freud in particular.

To dismiss Freud, however, as a “career-building opportunist” as Susan Rosenthal does (“What’s wrong with Sigmund Freud?”, July/August SR) hardly does justice to a thinker whose ideas have engaged the interest of successive generations of revolutionary socialists, most notably Leon Trotsky.

For Trotsky, and even more so for thinkers linked to the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, Freud’s ideas contained a revolutionary kernel.

They pointed to the ways in which capitalist society repress and distort the most basic human needs and drives and create mental illness on a vast scale.

While Freud himself saw such repression as inevitable, these thinkers drew on his ideas (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to argue that in a socialist society in which alienation had been overcome, levels of mental ill health would be much reduced.

The current renaissance of interest in the work of Erich Fromm in particular reflects a dissatisfaction with “surface” approaches to mental illness such as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.

It is also a recognition that, as Fromm argued in his classic text The Sane Society, it is capitalism which makes us ill.

We need to critically engage with the ideas of Freud and his successors, not simply dismiss them out of hand.

Iain Ferguson