Merits of psychoanalysis

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Iain Ferguson quite correctly emphasises in his interview (November SR) that the roots of mental illness lie in capitalist society but that there is a Marxist psychoanalytical tradition that rejected Freud’s individualism.

However, we should recognise that one of the merits of psychoanalysis is that it helps us understand how the external structures of exploitation and oppression are internalised into the mind of the individual, ie the process of alienation. This was, of course, the achievement of the Frankfurt School, as represented by writers such as Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, which emerged as a result of two factors: the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Of course, these crises have to be explained politically: in the case of the failure of the German revolution in terms of a crisis of leadership. However, there was also a subjective factor as Marxist Karl Korsch emphasised.

But Iain’s conclusion that the crisis of mental health can only be solved by creating a society geared to the satisfaction of human need and not profit is spot-on.

Rob Ferguson’s article, “The Killing Fields of Capitalism” (November SR), provides a very useful outline of the main cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide post-World War Two, and rightly stresses the roots of these horrors in the imperialist structure of a world divided into competing nation-states based on ideas of race and ethnicity.

However, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims was precipitated by attacks by Rohingya insurgents on border police posts. These were no doubt motivated by widespread and longstanding discrimination suffered by the Muslim minority. However, it engendered anger and fear among the ruling group who reacted similarly to other ruling groups. The Armenian genocide was carried out by the Young Turk leadership reacting to the extreme anxiety experienced by defeat on the Russian front in 1915. Arguably, the decision to carry out the Holocaust was similarly taken by the Nazi leadership as a result of defeat on the Russian front in 1941.

There is little doubt that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 by Zionist militia was the result of the Holocaust. And the genocide of the North Americans was not only motivated by the important desire for land but also by the genocidal attitudes of the Scots-Irish and English puritan settler-colonialists.

Modern genocide has thus generally been sparked by ruling classes that have suffered military defeat or economic crises, or experience extreme anxiety brought on by profound social stress or dislocation, setbacks which can precipitate these ruling groups into mass destructiveness against minority groups. In other words, there is a psychological dimension to genocide and ethnic cleansing which is not accounted for simply by the notion of ideology. We have to understand the way capitalism and imperialism have distorted the human psyche, and the tradition of Marxist psychoanalysis has something to teach us here.

Sabby Sagall
London