Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism By Frank Brenner It is my aim in this paper to show that a familiarity with the basic concepts and major discoveries of Freud’s psychoanalysis can be of great value to Marxists...
He also inspires our belief that the mysteries of the present will become more transparent if we can trace them to their origins in the past, perhaps even in the very earliest past we can remember (or, more likely, not remember). And, finally, he has created our heightened sensitivity to the erotic, above all to its presence in arenas, notably the family where previous generations had neglected to look for it."1
In short, Freud effected a sea change in psychology; like Marx, Darwin and Einstein, his achievement forms one of the key intellectual landmarks of our time. And yet there has been virtually no assimilation of that achievement by Marxists. It would be wrong to blame the Freudians for this, though their antipathy to Marxism is well known. After all, Darwin and his leading disciples like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer were no more inclined towards Marxism than the adherents of psychoanalysis; for that matter, genetics was founded by a monk, the great chemist Mendeleyev was a conscious opponent of dialectics, Mach and Einstein were both neo-Kantians. Obviously in all these cases (and dozens more like them), Marxists draw a distinction between the science, which is demonstrably dialectical and materialist in character, and the ideological ‘spin’ given to it by the scientist which expresses his/her social position in the professional middle class.
Why then hasn’t the same approach been taken to Freud? Clearly there is something different about psychoanalysis: at first glance, it looks more like speculation than science, and wildly idealist speculation at that. And what is the object that this science claims to study? By contrast with the palpable, objective kinds of reality studied in such ‘hard’ sciences as biology or physics, the phenomena in psychoanalysis seem much less ‘real.’ As a psychology, it studies the mind, and so let us consider for a moment what that is.
A Marxist would probably begin with some basic postulates of materialism: that thought is a reflection of reality and that the brain is the organ of thought. From this emerges, if only by implication, a conception of the mind which equates it with the process of thinking, i.e. with consciousness. But it isn’t hard to show that such a conception is fundamentally inadequate. We aren’t always conscious; on the contrary, there are huge gaps in the continuity of consciousness, most obviously during sleep but even when we are awake. If the mind equals consciousness, then we are forced to the conclusion that it ceases to exist in these gaps, but evidence that this isn’t the case is everywhere: in the fact that we all dream in our sleep, in the fact that we all say things we consciously don’t want to say or can’t recall things we consciously want to remember. The mind clearly does continue to exist in the gaps of consciousness, but this, in turn, can only mean that there are realms of the mind beyond (or, rather, beneath) consciousness.
Let us take a closer look at this evidence for unconscious mental life: dreams, slips of the tongue or of the pen, misreading a detail in a letter or an article, having a name ‘on the tip of your tongue,’ mislaying an object, bungling an action, forgetting an appointment or birthday or anniversary. These are all highly ephemeral phenomena and a seemingly dubious basis for a science of the mind. Couldn’t it be argued that these phenomena (perhaps with the exception of dreams) are so ephemeral as to be insignificant, that they are simply chance events and nothing more? But all too often chance is necessity inadequately understood. Ephemeral phenomena may have important underlying causes; the investigations of modern physics into subatomic particles certainly attest to that. If we tend to overlook these mental phenomena, if we tend not to give them a second thought, this has less to do with their being transitory than with their being subjective.
In other words, we don’t think of them as ‘real’ because they are only something going on inside our heads. Of course this is true in the sense that the mental image of a thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. But why should this mean that the image - or indeed any other mental phenomenon – is ‘unreal’? To believe this is to fall victim to what Freud once called the "illusion of psychical freedom," i.e. the illusion that our apparently random thoughts arise out of ‘free will,’2 that they lack any objective determinacy, that they are, so to speak, fancy free. But it is not only psychoanalysts but also Marxists who must reject such a view because, according to Marxist philosophy, the subjective is also objective, which means that what goes on inside the mind is no less real - in the sense of being an objective material process – than what goes on outside it. (In passing it should be said that Freud’s insistence on the determinism of psychic phenomena no more excludes the possibility of freedom than does Marxist economic determinism: freedom remains the recognition of necessity which in the realm of mental life means making the unconscious conscious.)3
Mechanical materialism and the mind
The crucial point is this: is it possible to understand subjectivity objectively? If we go back to the 1920s where psychology was the subject of considerable debate inside the Soviet Union, many Marxists would have looked not to Freud but to the famous reflexologist Pavlov for an answer to this question. Pavlov’s work fit the image of a materialist psychology much more than did psychoanalysis: it utilized controlled, repeatable experiments and empirical data, i.e. all the trappings of ‘hard’ science, whereas Freud based his ideas on individual case studies (necessarily uncontrolled and unrepeatable) as well as folklore, mythology, art, anecdotes, jokes and other supposedly unscientific sources. Thus it became commonplace in the Soviet Union to hold up Pavlov as an exemplar of materialist science against Freud’s supposed subjective idealism, with Trotsky as one of the few dissenting voices on this issue. Pavlov’s work undoubtedly did have scientific merit, but it failed in one fundamental respect as a meaningful theory of the mind. Pavlov’s premises were purely physiological: he based his psychology on the stimulus-response model of neurophysiology. Of course without physiology there can be no psychology, since the mind cannot exist apart from the body and in particular the brain. But this did not mean that psychology was reducible to physiology any more than, say, chemistry was to physics. In the essay "Dialectical Materialism and Science," Trotsky pointed out the necessary differences that exist between the sciences: "Each science rests on the laws of other sciences only in the so-called final instance. But at the same time, the separation of the sciences from one another is determined precisely by the fact that each science covers a particular field of phenomena, i.e. a field of complex combinations of elementary phenomena and laws that require a special approach, special research technique, special hypotheses and methods."4
Though psychology certainly was physiology in the "final instance," Pavlov’s approach took no account of what differentiated the two. That differential element is society: though we are born with the potential for a mind, that potential is only realized in and through social life. (When members of our species grow up outside of society, such as the ‘wild child’ cases that occasionally crop up, their mental functioning, like their existence, reverts to an animal state.) Thus what pertains to psychology is the field marked out by the interaction of biology and society. It is the interaction that is crucial and that needs to be studied with its own "special approach"; to lose sight of this is to dissolve psychology into one or another of its constituent elements, an error we will encounter often when we come to consider the history of the disputes and splits within the psychoanalytic movement. Pavlov provides a clear example of physiological reductionism and it is ironic that such a doctrine, ignoring as it did the social component of psychology, should have been so warmly embraced by Marxists. The irony was compounded by the fact that when Pavlov did turn to social matters, he insisted that they could only be understood on the basis of his theory of reflexes. Because this amounted to an idealist attack on the validity of historical materialism, Trotsky was forced to publicly criticize Pavlov on this score.5
What was less apparent at the time – in large measure because of the iconization of Pavlov by the Stalinist bureaucracy – was that Pavlov’s ideas on individual psychology were as problematic as his views on social psychology. It was Wilhelm Reich, the leading figure among the Freudo-Marxists, who brought this out in the late 1920s when he took issue with the prevailing (pro-Pavlov) consensus within the Soviet Union...
1 Paul Robinson Freud and his critics, p. 271. 2 S. Freud Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p. 76, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, p. 316. 3 Is every slip of the tongue, misreading, etc. determined by unconscious motives? Certainly some can be explained otherwise, by linguistic analysis for instance, i.e. two words are confused because they sound similar. The present-day campaign to discredit psychoanalysis has made much of this, but Freud never claimed to explain every slip, nor is such a claim necessary to the validity of his theory: all the latter requires is that a large number of such cases can only be explained by unconscious motivation. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud adduced a vast number and variety of cases including ones in which different kinds of slips (or, to use Freud's term, parapraxes) were combined: a man repeatedly forgets to go to a meeting he is supposed to attend on Fridays and finally, when he makes up his mind to go, shows up but on Saturday; a woman having stayed with relatives finds she has accidentally taken home an object she desired and then, having promised to return it, discovers that it has been mislaid and can't be found; a man posts a letter without an address and, when it is returned, posts it again but without a stamp (pp. 290-1). All of us can readily think of similar examples from our own experience. A single error or slip we might chalk up to ‘coincidence’ (as inadequate an explanation as that is) or try to account for it in some other way, but a combination of errors is clearly something more than coincidence and there is simply no other reasonable explanation in such cases except unconscious motivation.
4 L. Trotsky Problems of Everyday Life, p. 214.
5 See "Science in the Task of Socialist Construction" in Problems of Everyday Life, pp. 202-3. Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism