Marxism and Psychoanalysis

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A priori, there seems to be nothing that would provide common ground between a theory of unconscious psychic processes, such as psychoanalysis, and a social theory such as Marxism. Nothing, that is, but that which derives as much from social processes as from psychic processes: the intellectual activity and beliefs of human beings. In New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933), Sigmund Freud explicitly referred to Marxism. He did not dispute the fundamental validity of the theory, he merely considered it incomplete. If there are social conditions for the production of the intellectual, moral, and artistic activities of human beings, there are also psychological conditions that are independent of the former.

In the second generation of psychoanalysts, some authors, positioning themselves on the Left (within the social-democrat or communist movements), sought to constitute a social psychology by bringing Freudian analysis of psychic processes into articulation with Marxist analysis of social processes. This line of thinking has been called "Freudian Marxism," despite its heterogeneity. Particularly productive during the 1920s and 1930s, this approach was notably illustrated by Wilhelm Reich, Siegfried Bernfeld, Erich Fromm, and Paul Federn.

In The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology, and Culture (1930), Fromm sought to establish the factors that shaped the development of ideas about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ up until the Nicene Council. The basis for the articulation is as follows: Marxist class theory provides the tools for analyzing the life conditions of the different social groups; on the basis of these conditions and the science of the unconscious, which sheds light on the frustrations and expectations of the believers, it becomes possible to describe the "psychic surface" of the persons involved in various events.

In "Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis" (1929), Reich argued that if the instincts are biologically conditioned, they are also susceptible to change under the influence of environment and social reality. Social psychology studies the psychological characteristics shared by members of a group and the group's instinctual structure as a function of its "destiny"that is, its economic and social situation. Reich wroteThe Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/1946) in this same spirit. He again argued that the sexual poverty of human beings is mainly the result of their alienation by economic and social modes of production. The Sexual Revolution, toward a Self-Governing Character Structure (1936/1962) denounced the role of the family as "a factory for authoritarian ideologies and conservative structures" (p. 72), and in this work Reich denounced, as Fromm had done, the "patriarchal" system that prevails in our societies.

Work of this type was poorly received on the side of both psychoanalysis and Marxism. Nevertheless, Freudian Marxist research continued after World War II in Germany, with Alexander Mitscherlich (author of The Inability to Mourn and Society without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology ) and the journal Psyche. During the same period, the Marxist-oriented philosophers of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research became interested in psychoanalysis and tried their hand at bringing the two theories together with regard to ideology. Works such as The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor Adorno and collaborators marked this convergence.

In the United States, Herbert Marcuse, a former member of the Frankfurt School, published Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955). In this work he openly posed the question of happiness. He rejected Freud's theory that civilization requires that the individual's libido be sacrificed. Must happiness and the values of culture be antithetical? No, argued Marcuse. He attempted to show that libidinal repression does not take the same form in all cultures. He forged the concept of surplus repression to refer to that part of repression which is specific to a given culture and is not indispensable for group life.

During the 1970s there was renewed interest in the idea of bringing together Marxism and psychoanalysis, but on different bases. Jacques Lacan's rereading of Freud, on the one hand, and Louis Althusser's rereading of Marx, on the other, were relevant to this trend, not necessarily through direct influence, but by calling into question old stereotypes. Much of the work is being done in the early twenty-first century on belief systems, social representations, the ideal, or the habitus originated in this cultural ferment and bears its imprint, although it is more accurate to speak in terms of multireferentiality rather than of "synthesis."

MichÈle Bertrand

See also: Althusser, Louis; Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ; Bernfeld, Siegfried; Caruso, Igor A.; Detski Dom; Fenichel, Otto; France; Fromm, Erich; Ideology; Marcuse, Herbert; Mass Psychology of Fascism, The ; Morgenthaler, Fritz; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Politics and psychoanalysis; Politzer, Georges; Reich, Wilhelm; Rittmeister, John Friedrich Karl; Russia/USSR; Sociology and psychoanalysis, sociopsychoanalysis; Surrealism and psychoanalysis; Weltanschauung .


Fromm, Erich. (1963). The dogma of Christ and other essays on religion, psychology, and culture. New York: Henry Holt. (Original work published 1930)

Marcuse, Herbert. (1955). Eros and civilization: A philosophical inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon.

Mitscherlich, Alexander. (1974). Society without the father: A contribution to social psychology (Erick Mosbacher, Trans.). New York: J. Aronson. (Original work published 1964)

Reich, Wilhelm. (1972). Dialectical materialism and psychoanalysis. In Sex-pol; essays, 1929-1934 (Anna Bostok, Tom DuBose, and Lee Baxandall, Trans.). New York: Random House. (Original work published 1929)

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Marxism and Psychoanalysis

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