RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Psychoanalysis and Marxism

Psychoanalysis and Marxism

Stefan Hain and Andreas Wintersperger

Platypus Review 148 | July/August 2022

On January 22, 2021, Platypus Affiliated Society members Stefan Hain and Andreas Wintersperger gave the teach-in “Psychoanalyse und Marxismus,” during the second German-speaking Platypus Affiliated Society Conference, the video of which is available at <>. It has been translated into English by Leonie Ettinger and Tamas Vilaghy.

Part one

SINCE PLATYPUS IS A PROJECT primarily concerned with the question of Marxism and the Left, other questions lay close at hand: what is psychoanalysis? Why should the Left take interest in it? What is the historical relationship between psychoanalysis and Marxism?

Psychology as an independent discipline developed in the 19th century. It concerned itself with the physical and biological foundations of psychological apperception, “introducing the content of consciousness into the sphere of study” — but also as Völkerpsychologie, often translated as cultural or ethnic psychology, with separate foundations for each cultural group.

Freud was the first, however, to offer a natural-scientific conception of the unconscious, a concept previously reserved for art and philosophy. In the course of his medical work, he came to the recognition that the mind could not be immaterial, or essentially independent of the body. He examined how freedom and subjectivity were both generated and inhibited in concrete forms by a mental division running through people. For Freud, the psyche was the connection between body and spirit. It was founded upon two basic driving forces: Eros, which aims to unite and expand life, carrying it to higher complexity; opposed to Thanatos (from the late Freud), the death drive which determines life as finite.

These two fundamental drives represent real abstractions for Freud, which never present themselves independently of a given form. Drives are psychical representations of the biological nature of mankind: originating in, but also proceeding beyond it. Psychology and consciousness, according to Freud, would never be explained through either biology or philosophy. The psyche was itself mediated.

Freud’s science of the unconscious was thus intentionally oriented in a different direction than, for example, the behavioral research of Ivan Pavlov: Freud wanted to consciously formulate a natural science of human beings as modern individuals. He hoped to detect the bases of consciousness in myth, art, and everyday phenomena, whereas Pavlov’s research objects mentioned above were glands, nerves, and reflexes. Freud wanted to formulate more than just another therapy, clinical application, or medical theory through his work. He saw his theory, after those of Copernicus and Darwin, as “the third affront to humanity”: scientific proof that “man was not the master of his own house.” Freud understood his theory, without having any such intentions, as the last form of radical bourgeois self-critique. Radical, in going to the root of things: sexuality as the source of life and interpersonal relations. In the words of Chris Cutrone, Freud did not formulate a sexual theory of neurosis, but a neurotic theory of sexuality. He kept the basis of society in sight: the constraint and suppression of the basic desires of its members was the foundation of all previous society. Freud de-naturalized the foundations of bourgeois society: the status quo was not the natural ideal condition of man, but rather the product of culture, phylogenesis, and ontogenesis (i.e., both the historical development of the species and individuals’ development within this process). The concept of the self-determining bourgeois subject, insofar as it remained part of the history of man’s repression, also remained a surface phenomenon. It was not wrong, but rather did not capture what was essential to mankind and its culture. “Cultural discontents” were rationally grounded for Freud, a symptom of immemorial repression. The human mind resisted with the force of a raging beast when this repression was explained as socially necessary.

This led, says Freud, to the disintegration of the mind, and to the formation of a psychic apparatus with components opposed to each other: the id, the representative of the drives; the superego, the internalization of cultural commandments and prohibitions; and lastly the ego in the dreary middle, the I whose task it is to mediate between both these tyrants and the exigencies of the outside world. Freud presented this situation as essentially inharmonious — but also as a product of history. In their present form the drives promise no absolute freedom, no guaranteed happiness, and no resolution to contradiction. One can take this as a deep philosophical pessimism, or alternatively as a parallel to Marx and Engels’s critique of history, where freedom, at its core, always meant the domination of man.

For Freud, and later Marcuse, a hope for the fate of the drives (Triebschicksal) lay in their polymorphous-perverse, or manifoldly deviant, character. Their nature was such that neither their aim nor form could be fixed. The basis for the strangest and most painful deviations of the human mind also formed, in their essence, the potential to change bad norms. Freud recognized, like Marx, that in the catastrophe of humanity lay hidden the fragments of liberation.

Freud’s combination of scientific accuracy and cultural understanding quickly transformed psychoanalysis into an unforeseen potential for social control and organization. Freud himself recognized, not without fear, what it meant that society continued to centralize and concentrate in capitalism: the organization of soldiers in the First World War directed him not only, at first, to the concept of the death drive, but also to the question of which mental mechanisms lay at the basis of mass cultural formation. Freud recognized the authority-seeking mass forms of capitalism as the natural / unnatural counterpart to the neurotic isolation of individuals. Maybe the most interesting encounter between psychoanalysis and Marxism took place at the end of the 1920s over the question of masses and politics. But first one step back.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky learned of psychoanalysis in Vienna through a close colleague who was being treated by Alfred Adler. The socialist Adler, a former student of Freud’s who disavowed this connection, had begun to develop his own “individual psychology” around 1911. He was perhaps the first “revisionist” of psychoanalysis.

With an ironic nod to Freud, Adler postulated a primary “aggression drive.” Freud’s later discovery of Thanatos appeared to confirm Adler’s theory, although Freud insisted that his death drive was something qualitatively different, with aggression being a secondary phenomenon. Freud was skeptical, if not opposed, to socialism. Adler came into contact with revolutionary Russian politics through his wife Raissa, and knew the writings of Trotsky before the latter met him. We will discuss Adler again later on.

Trotsky himself saw psychoanalysis not only as one of the most advanced areas of human culture and productive capacity, but also thought that Marxism and psychoanalysis had more in common than perhaps Marxists cared to admit. Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Trotsky that up until he was murdered, Trotsky had “been studying psychoanalytic problems deeply and systematically.”

In 1927, three months before he would be kicked out of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s orders, Trotsky wrote in “Culture and Socialism” about the cultural significance of psychology, for example. In his view, Pavlov’s science of reflexes proceeded according to the methods of dialectical materialism, and showed how it arrived at an awareness of reflexes. With each step, Pavlov remained experimental and scientific. Trotsky continued:

The school of the Viennese psychoanalyst Freud takes a different approach to the problem. It assumes in advance that the driving force behind the most complex and refined psychic processes is physiological need. In this general sense it is materialistic, if we leave aside the question of whether or not it places too much emphasis on the sexual element at the expense of others, for this is already a debate within the confines of materialism. But the psychoanalyst doesn’t approach the problem of consciousness experimentally, from lower phenomena to higher, or from simple reflex to complex; he tries to take all these intermediate steps with a single bound, going from the top down, from religious myth, lyrical poem or dream — straight to the physiological foundation of the psyche.

Idealists teach that the psyche is independent, and that the “soul” is a bottomless well. Both Pavlov and Freud consider physiology to be the bottom of the “soul.” But Pavlov, like a diver, descends to the bottom and painstakingly investigates the well from the bottom up. Freud, on the other hand, stands above the well, and with a penetrating stare tries to capture or guess the outlines of the bottom through the turpid, ever-changing surface of the water. Pavlov’s method is the experiment, while Freud’s is conjecture, sometimes fantastic supposition. The attempt to declare psychoanalysis “incompatible” with Marxism, and to simply turn one’s back on Freudianism is too simple, or more precisely, simplistic. But in no case are we obliged to adopt Freudianism. It is a working hypothesis which allows for deductions and conjectures within the frame of materialist psychology. The validity of the suppositions will be proven in due time through experiments. We have neither the grounds nor the right to impose a ban on the psychoanalytic path. Even if it is less certain, it still tries to anticipate the conclusions that will be reached more slowly by the experimental path.[1]

In the same month that Trotsky published “Culture and Socialism,” another student of Freud’s, the 30-year-old Wilhelm Reich, became politicized through the July Revolt in Vienna in which 84 workers were shot dead, and 600 wounded. Reich, whose area of specialty was sexology, joined the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) in 1928. Victor Cova of Platypus recently led a teach-in on Reich’s critique of fascism which I would recommend to anyone interested. The following excerpt provides a short summary of Reich’s efforts to connect Marxism and psychoanalysis:

For Reich, it is the disintegration of the Marxist party from 1914 onwards which makes it both possible and necessary to rely on Freudian concepts; primarily to understand the workers’ authoritarian personality structure which led to that disintegration in the first place. Yet such a use of Freudian concepts should have led, properly, to a rediscovery of orthodox Marxism, not to its replacement or complementation with a heterogeneous theory.[2] 

Reich’s scientific object, the sexuality of individuals and the subjectivity of masses, was thus in no way freely chosen. It was consequent to the Marxist party’s crisis and disintegration in the catastrophe of the First World War. The masses did not disappear after the war, but transformed into another social form, and since in the Soviet Union this phenomenon came to mean collectivization, the solution had to look different in the open capitalist countries. The appropriate instrument was found in Freud’s psychoanalysis.

In his documentary series The Century of the Self, filmmaker Adam Curtis lets Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, have his say. Bernays, who was a psychological adviser to Woodrow Wilson after the war in Europe, found an unexpected niche for analysis in the early 1920s: as the theoretical basis for marketing luxury articles. Ads should no longer aim to advertise a product, but the feeling which the acquisition of the article promised — often freedom and the absence of constraint. Bernays soon saw that what was possible with material products must be possible with ideas as well: advertisements as propaganda. Bernays’s rationale was so simple, it was genius: “If man can use propaganda for war, he can certainly use it for peace.”

Bernays was a democratic prelude to totalitarian catastrophe: even before Goebbels and other fascists could make use of psychoanalytic foundations for their propaganda, Bernays came to these ideas in a democratic framework, which he called “the engineering of consent.” It was these tendencies to which Herbert Marcuse referred in his 1955 work, Eros and Civilization: “Our epoch tends to be totalitarian, even in those places where a totalitarian state has not developed.”

Bernays’s daughter Ann states in the documentary that “democracy was a wonderful concept for my father, but I don’t think he felt that people have reliable judgment. They can easily vote for the wrong person, or want the wrong things, and because of this, they have to be led.”

Freud also began asking himself, what motivated the seeming liquidation of the individual in mass society, and what did this mean? His mass psychology grew out of the critique of contemporary concepts via the drive-based psychical structure of individuals. In “Mass Psychology and Ego-Analysis” (1921),[3] Freud explained in almost dialectical terms how people, driven by libidinal demands that could not be handled within the individual, purposefully albeit half-consciously shed part of their individuality. The organized mass was not a spontaneous natural phenomenon but a product of society, a half-conscious social form to satisfy the desires of deeply suffering and unfree individuals. The mass of individuals relinquished their individuality to some sort of leader, be it an idea or a person; Freud used the army and the church as examples of organized masses. As a mass coalesced, it became unified for an imagined Other: a figure who knows what’s going on, and what to do. All that it desired was devotion to the common principle. This relieved the tension from authority-driven, inner-drive conflicts in the short term, and let the individual become something else without requiring the individual to essentially change themself. Mass psychology is ego psychology.

The young intellectuals who came across Marxism in the 1920s encountered a different world than Trotsky, a radical of the pre-war Social Democracy. Their world was deeply shaped by the failure of the world revolution and the splintering of the workers’ movement and its parties. The social essence of the masses was constitutively and irreversibly changed. When psychoanalysis does not serve the revolution, it serves the counterrevolution.

In 1930 Wilhelm Reich traveled from Vienna to Berlin, where he joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There was already another young psychologist from Vienna living there: Manès Sperber, who had interrupted his Abitur exams to become Alfred Adler’s personal assistant. Sperber, eight years younger than Reich, was politicized in “Red Vienna” as an adolescent, and sent to Berlin by Adler as the ambassador of individual psychology in 1927, where he also joined the KPD within the same year. With Adler’s daughter Valentina, who had already joined the party in 1921, he worked in the local group for individual psychology. While Reich continued his work at the “orthodox” Freudian Institute for Psychoanalysis, engaging with the likes of Karen Horney and Erich Fromm in Marxist working groups, Sperber remained a convinced follower of Adler’s theories. Sperber taught in the Marxist workers’ schools, hoping to formulate a Marxist individual psychology which “would strengthen people in their feelings of self-worth and sociability, and comprehend them in their social connections instead of the fluctuations of their drives [Triebschicksal] — paying attention to tomorrow, not yesterday.” Despite being neighbors in Wilmersdorf, members of the same party, and hence sharing a common political goal, each psychologist would maintain that his theory was irreconcilable with the other’s. The Stalinist tragedy would unite them in the end, but only as dissenters and renegades, as the following years would entail the death of psychoanalysis in the workers’ movement and the communist parties.

Reich was kicked out of the KPD during the rise of National Socialism as a “pornographer” — not least because his theory of orgasmic disorder in the party masses was met with little comprehension. Sperber broke with Adler over the question of revolution. Reich wrote Trotsky from his exile, although the two men never met. In the course of his life Reich retreated more and more into esoteric sexual theories. Ending up in the U.S. after his flight from fascism, Reich was followed by the FBI, his books were burned, and he ended up dying in prison in 1957.

Like Adler’s daughter Valentina, Sperber became an agent of the Comintern. His thousand-page novel Like a Tear in the Ocean speaks of the horrors of Stalinism in which Sperber himself participated. In the course of the 1937 show trials, in which the last surviving participants of the October Revolution were physically and socially liquidated, he broke with official Communism for good. Valentina Adler and her husband, not least because of the family’s friendship with Trotsky, also fell victim to Party “cleansing” and died in internment camps. Sperber’s nonetheless Leftist anti-communism would eventually be popularized by the heroes of the New Left in their long march through the institutions: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Joschka Fischer,[4] and Wolf Biermann were fascinated by this dissenter. It bothered them very little that Sperber himself saw the New Left as spoiled, adventurous, and unpolitical.

What did it mean that the Party was unwilling or incapable of using the energy of its young leaders to hinder National Socialism? And where could one formulate theory, if not in the Party? These questions from 1923–24 led to the foundation of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Erich Fromm, already mentioned above, came to the Institute in 1930. Under the direction of Max Horkheimer, Fromm contributed to the work of the Institute with the first psychoanalytically-grounded theories on characterology, social psychology, and authority. Unlike Wilhelm Reich, Fromm lay very little emphasis on sexuality. Even in 1930, according to Reich, Fromm’s work was characterized “neither by sexual-economic questions, nor with contemporary political connections. In a detailed conversation from that time, Fromm accepted my sexual-political interpretation. It became clear to him that only the [concept of] sexual energy was adequate to the clarification of mass-psychological dynamics.”[5]

What Fromm learned from Reich’s psychoanalytic Marxism remains as unclear as history itself, whose true image “flits by.” Reich later came to wonder how Fromm,

in his publications on authority and the family, the fear of freedom, etc., would completely suppress the sexual life of masses, its connection to the fear of freedom, and the desire for authority. I could never comprehend this, as I had no reason to doubt Fromm’s fundamental sincerity. But the denial of sexuality in social and private life displays some tricks which are inaccessible to rational comprehension.[6]

This point by Reich hits upon the central critique formulated by Theodor Adorno towards the work of his colleague Fromm: “He treats the concept of authority too lightly, without which we really can’t grasp either Lenin’s avant-garde or the dictatorship. I’ll urge him to read Lenin,” he wrote to Horkheimer in 1936. Fromm proceeded with his critique that Freud had handled his patients with insufficient love. An ethical and humanistic psychoanalysis was needed to bring out mankind’s true cooperative, peaceful, and healthy nature. Adorno saw here the danger of psychoanalysis being deprived of its deepest source of strength: sexuality, which constituted the critical core of psychoanalysis in the form of the drive theory. For only through psychoanalysis would the contradiction which lay in the origins of human subjectivity be expressed: that the freedoms of society grew out of the restriction of the (sexual) freedom of individuals. From the beginning of civilization, to be human has meant needing to suppress and taboo what is human in oneself and others. Like Reich, Adorno worried that Fromm condemned authority without recognizing how deeply it was already entangled in freedom. This was no philosophical question, but one upon which all of the central political questions which Lenin and Trotsky attempted to radically realize depended. The First World War, the self-destructive betrayal of Marxist social democracy, indeed became the last time that Lenin, Trotsky, or their comrade Luxemburg saw the opportunity for a proletarian social revolution. How should Marxism, whose political core was the self-emancipation of the working class, now get around the fact that the masses let themselves be led into servitude and annihilation without a fight? These questions entered into Adorno’s work through psychoanalytic terminology, most prominently in The Authoritarian Personality and Dialectic of Enlightenment.

For Adorno, the contradiction which found expression in Freud’s orthodox psychoanalysis and in orthodox Marxism existed in the world. Only when the unfreedom and barbarism of civilization was fully perceived could it be revolutionized in freedom.

This contradiction was not propaganda, but real; it could only be overcome by enduring it — and not by leaping over it. Lenin and Freud would have to be taken up in their full ambivalence, not blunted as an adaptation. For Adorno, this was also true for the relationship between psychoanalysis and Marxism: the potential (Spannungsverhältnis) of either theory could only grow out of their nonidentity. The desire to force upon them a synthesis in order to liquidate their differences, according to Adorno, was a reconciliation through blackmail.

“Nothing is true in psychoanalysis except its exaggerations,” he wrote in Minima Moralia.

Fromm and the Institute quietly parted ways at the end of the 30s.

Psychoanalysis achieved notable public acceptance in the U.S. in the 1950s. It entered into the pages of women’s magazines, self-help books, and Hollywood scripts. Before using LSD to explore his individuality, Cary Grant underwent analysis. A crisis in behavioral psychology gave further credence to psychoanalysis’s claim to the basic concepts of clinical psychotherapy. While Fromm went on writing quasi-theological self-help books, Karen Horney rose to prominence, along with her colleague from her time in Berlin, Melanie Klein, as one of the leading figures of the psychoanalysts who had broken with Freud. Like his erstwhile colleague and partner Horney, Fromm longed for a more loving form of psychoanalysis, more focused on social circumstances. They thereby formulated concepts which bear a strong resemblance to the social-democratic individual psychology of Adler. The drives, the libido, and the Oedipus complex disappeared; the superego became conceptualized as a pathological expression, not as a norm. According to their nature, people were healthy, happy, and complete in themselves. It was only external social pressures which interfered with the actually functional ego.

This meant nothing less than the “revision” of psychoanalysis for Adorno — an allusion to the revisionist dispute within the Second International. Just as then the Marxist theory of the political crisis of capitalism was made to disappear, so here sexuality. The problematic of the contradiction was diverted either psychologically or sociologically: pushed back into the individual as in Klein, or out into society with Horney and Fromm. What both extremes shared was one-sidedly resolving a tension between subject and object which was not resolved in Freud or Marx; one which, according to them, could not be resolved theoretically. For Adorno, this attempt would cause violence to theory, humanity, and reality itself.

In revised psychoanalysis, the tension between individual and society was simply severed theoretically. The two stand opposite each other as unmediated antipodes. Maybe the most important lesson Adorno took from Marxism, and its failure, was that if concepts like subject and object, man and world, mankind and history, proletariat and capitalism, party and class, belonged together, it was only in their nonidentity. Because if one were to change the other, and therefore both were to mutually change themselves, they must be differentiated but held in relation, and not ontologically eternalized as separate. This thought figures in Freud’s theory, but in that of none of the psychoanalytic revisionists — they renaturalized the psyche. What appeared for centuries as God-given or “natural” to humans was drawn by Freud into the glare of the Enlightenment. Adorno, who recognized that psychoanalysis had itself become mass deception, enlisted himself, in his own way, to Freud’s dictum: “where id was, ego should be.”

Adorno recognized in this sentence a last stirring of hope: where now only anti-capitalist discontent reigns, there theoretically could and should again be the development of consciousness: class consciousness, which would be the consciousness of the history of mankind.

Part two

In the 1950s and 60s, the process of integrating psychoanalysis on a larger social scale continued. So-called “focus groups,” in which randomly selected target groups of consumers were invited to participate in free-association exercises about their impressions of products, became widespread, especially in the American mass production of consumer goods.[7] Public and private advertisers utilized these insights into the libidinous drive structure of the masses for more targeted manipulation and control strategies. Additionally, within psychoanalytic practice itself, the so-called neo-Freudians increasingly blurred the fine line between therapy aimed at bettering the individual through strengthening the reality principle of the ego, and therapy directed at adapting to a bad social reality.[8]

Psychoanalysis experienced an unprecedented social expansion in the decades following World War II, after the bourgeois scientific establishment had vehemently opposed it in the late 19th century. However, this came at a cost. In the early 50s, Adorno criticized the neo-Freudians and their “revisionist” psychoanalysis. Like all radical bourgeois thinkers, Freud left unresolved the contradictions between consciousness and the unconscious, individual and society, and ego and id. However, in the hands of the revisionists, psychoanalysis gradually transformed into a tool that integrated psychic impulses into the social status quo, cultivating adaptation instead of emancipation.[9]

First, I would like to talk about another critic of the Freudian revisionist school who probably influenced the Left in subsequent decades more significantly than Adorno: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

With the crisis of Stalinism and the emergence of the so-called New Left in the second half of the 50s, many Leftists became increasingly interested in psychoanalytic theory. With the disintegration and degeneration of radical student associations, such as the Socialist German Student League or the Students for a Democratic Society in America at the end of the 60s, this interest, or rather, the interest in a particular interpretation of psychoanalysis reached a new peak. It was the interpretation of Jacques Lacan.[10] Although Lacan neither wanted his theories to be associated with specific Leftist movements nor made explicit political claims, they influenced numerous “Leftist” political theorists in the following decades, ranging from Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, and Cornelius Castoriadis to Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Yannis Stavrakakis, political scientist and professor of political theory and discourse analysis, refers to this group as the “Lacanian Left.”[11] So what is it about Lacan’s theories that so many different thinkers on the Left seek to make productive? As mentioned previously, these are theories which, being interpretations of Freudian psychoanalysis, do not claim to be affiliated with any kind of Left-wing politics. Is Lacanian Leftism really a “re-politicization” of psychoanalysis that has arrived in the center of society? To address these questions, it is necessary to take a closer look at a few of Lacan’s basic ideas.

One of Lacan’s essential and frequently recurring motifs is that the unconscious is structured like a language.[12] He thus builds on foundational assumptions of structuralism, an intellectual movement that peaked in the 60s and 70s. A basic tenet of structuralism is the idea that objects can never be understood in isolation, but only through their position and connection to others, as part of a whole, system, or structure. Accordingly, knowing an object only becomes possible through recognizing its meaning as a sign within a certain structure, whereby language serves as the central paradigm. For structuralism, language, understood as a system of signs or symbols, becomes the fundamental model for explaining reality.

Lacan radicalized these basic assumptions of structuralism by assuming that the whole –– the system or structure –– from which the sign’s meaning may arise, is itself incomplete. Language can thus never generate a closed system, or a self-contained context of meaning, but is characterized by a lack.[13] Language as a structure –– an ensemble that creates meaning –– remains incomplete. Consequently, the meaning of symbols also never fully captures what they symbolize. For Lacan, the split between conscious and unconscious psychic life is marked by a fundamental non-identity between the social symbols, the signifiers of our reality, and this reality itself, which Lacan calls the “Real.” Moreover, this gap between the signifier and the signified is constitutive. The acquisition of language, the coupling of words with things, therefore, also gives rise to an incapacity: the incapacity to grasp what the word actually stands for. Thus, according to Lacan, the origin of the unconscious lies in the acquisition of language. The subject’s psychological individuation process –– that is, the development of the infant’s or toddler’s personality –– is, therefore, a necessary alienation, the inevitable splitting of the psychic life into conscious and unconscious parts. Language serves as a coping mechanism to help deal with the father’s intrusion into the mother-child relationship.[14] In other words, it always primarily serves to invoke the absence of a libidinously cathected person. This raises the question if, for Lacan, the alienating function of language is an expression of the Oedipus complex within the nuclear family’s social organization, or if it describes the unchanging nature of human psychic life independent of social factors.

The essential basic assumption is that the object of desire is always already lost. However, its always-already-lostness is constitutive; that is to say, it is the very root of all human activity and drive. We never get what is promised to us and what we expect from others. It is, in fact, impossible for us to get it. This hypostasized impossibility keeps our desires and activities, as well as history itself, alive.[15] Herein lies the ontologization of the “nature” of desire, that is, Lacan’s rigid fixation of the essence of the human’s unconscious drive structures.

For Freud, however, the symptoms which express unconscious desires and impulses (dreams, so-called slips, or neuroses) were part of an economy. That means repression or general symptoms are always expressions of an attempt to comply with and escape from censorship at the same time.[16] This dynamic of an economic conception of human drives makes it possible to understand censorship as mediated by society. Accordingly, that which may become the content of a person’s consciousness can enter into a different relationship with societal norms and, in the broadest sense, society’s material organization, rather than appearing as predetermined by nature –– thus ontology. Lacan answers quite clearly what this means for the question of social progress: “there is no such thing as progress. Everything one gains on one side, one loses on the other.”[17]

In Lacan’s work, the tension –– the nonidentity of subject and object –– turns into an insurmountable negative ontology without a sense of and connection to what ought to be.

Where does this leave the so-called Lacanian Left?

I would like to say a few words about Cornelius Castoriadis. Castoriadis was a co-founder of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie and its eponymous journal, which had considerable significance for the New Left, especially in France. At the same time, he was one of the first well-known Leftist theorists to engage with Lacan as early as the early 1960s. Although Castoriadis eventually broke with parts of Lacanian psychoanalysis, they are very similar in their basic assumptions. Both assume that not merely our reality, but also the subject itself –– or the basic categories in which we perceive ourselves –– are socially constructed. This socially constructed sphere of meaning is opposed by a pre-social nature that limits and resists the social capacity to generate meaning. It remains outside the fundamental discourse that establishes what we call reality. The similarity to what Lacan calls the distinction between reality and the Real is unmistakable. Moreover, the nature of the interaction between these two different spheres is virtually identical. The socially constructed reality and the Real or the pre-social nature are incommensurable with one another; there is an insurmountable gulf between them. Although both thinkers draw different conclusions from this view, their ontological apparatus remains the same.

For Slavoj Žižek, arguably one of today’s most popular critics of capitalism, the negative ontology of Lacanian psychoanalysis is an indispensable cornerstone. According to Žižek, the possibility of a radical reordering of the Symbolic, that is, of the sociopolitical institution of society as a whole, arises through an “authentic act.” This act becomes possible when there is an intervention of the Real.[18] The Real, as defined by Lacan, constitutes a sphere distinct from the Symbolic, which represents the ineffable, the unconscious. This means that what is supposed to be expressed by means of language can never be completely absorbed by it. However, the notion of the insurmountable gulf between the order of the Symbolic and the Real, borrowed from Lacan, remains a prerequisite. We have to sacrifice the Real as a price, so to speak, to gain access to the Symbolic order, that is, to the socially constructed reality.

The question arises why it was the interpretation of psychoanalysis by Lacan, who never considered himself part of the Left, let alone Marxism, that influenced so many thinkers on the Left during his time and in the following decades. Whence the underlying attempt to politicize Lacan’s interpretation of psychoanalysis, which made no serious attempt to be political? Why insist on utilizing the constitutively deficient Lacanian subject for the transformation of society?

Perhaps Lacan’s interpretation is an attempt to respond to a more fundamental problem facing psychoanalysis in the late capitalist, administered world: the depersonalization of the primordial images that guide the development of the superego.[19] Herbert Marcuse describes this in Eros and Civilization as follows:

Formerly the superego was “fed” by the master, the chief, the principal. These represented the reality principle in their tangible personality: harsh and benevolent, cruel and rewarding, they provoked and punished the desire to revolt; the enforcement of conformity was their personal function and responsibility. . . . But these personal father-images have gradually disappeared behind the institutions. With the rationalization of the productive apparatus, with the multiplication of functions, all domination assumes the form of administration. . . . The sadistic principals, the capitalist exploiters, have been transformed into salaried members of a bureaucracy, whom their subjects meet as members of another bureaucracy. The pain, frustration, impotence of the individual derive from a highly productive and efficiently functioning system in which he makes a better living than ever before. Responsibility for the organization of his life lies with the whole, the “system,” the sum total of the institutions that determine, satisfy, and control his needs.[20]

One can see: reinterpreting this system described by Marcuse in terms of Lacanian negative ontology is perhaps not all too great of a leap. In its essence, however, it is concerned with the whole.

To conclude, I would like to return to Lacan. Stravakakis quotes him:

“Why couldn’t the family, society itself, be creations built from repression? They’re nothing less” . . . . The unconscious ex-sists, is motivated by the structure, by language, and in that sense repression and the superego (logically) pre-exist their crystallisation in “discontents (symptom) in civilization” . . . . For this reason, to attribute the lack of (total) enjoyment to “bad societal arrangements” can only be described as foolish.[21]

Lacan thus explicitly assumes that the repressive agency logically precedes the symptoms that it produces in the respective institution of society, and even suggests that it exists completely independently of social order. Thus, the unconscious dynamics of human drives that Freud describes as an expression of the entanglement between individual and society becomes an ontology that lies outside society, for Lacan, a doctrine of being or non-being.

Let us contrast this with a remarkable quote by Freud from his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis: “The motive of human society is in the last resort an economic one; since it does not possess enough provisions to keep its members alive unless they work, it must restrict the number of its members and divert their energies from sexual activity to work. It is faced, in short, by the eternal, primeval exigencies of life, which are with us to this day.”[22] One notes that precisely these eternal, primeval exigencies of life which continue in the present –– the development of culture as a constant denial of the full satisfaction of needs –– are, according to Freud, ultimately an economic problem, and not the product of a linguistically constructed reality. Finally, although Freud also thought that culture as such is not possible without oppression, “he upholds the tabooed aspirations of humanity: the claim for a state where freedom and necessity coincide.”[23] For Adorno, the Frankfurt School, and the best Marxists before them, the fundamental historical framework of this problem of freedom concerned the problem of capital.[24] The contradictions Freud uncovered within the psychic life of bourgeois individuals thus appear as inseparable from and bound to the historical-Marxist conception of capitalism: as a crisis and contradiction of bourgeois society itself. A society that “with its senile lunatic form, is thematic in a phase in which control over others’ labor continues, even though humanity no longer needs it for its self-preservation.”[25] Today we are faced with the legacy of this defeated and utterly failed tradition, the critical core of which was the struggle for a new society in which its individuals could be themselves for the first time.[26] The Left is dead! Long live the Left! |P

[1] Leon Trotksy, “Culture and Socialism” (1927), republished at World Socialist Web Site, October 23, 2008, available at <>.

[2] Victor Cova, “On the Marxist use of psychoanalysis to understand fascism,” Platypus Review 140 (October 2021), available online at <>.

[3] More commonly translated into English as “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.”

[4] German Foreign Minister, 1998–2005.

[5] Wilhelm Reich, People in Trouble (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), 136.

[6] Wilhelm Reich, Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1971), 221.

[7] See Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self, Part 3: There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must be Destroyed (2002), available online at <>.

[8] See Chris Cutrone, “Adorno and Freud,” Platypus Review 24 (June 2010), available online at <>.

[9] See T. W. Adorno, “Revisionist Psychoanalysis,” trans. Nan-Nan Lee, Philosophy and Social Criticism 40, no. 3 (2014): 326–38.

[10] See Andrew Collier, “Lacan, psychoanalysis and the left,” International Socialism 2, no. 7 (Winter 1980): 51–71, available online at <>.

[11] See Yannis Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

[12] Collier, “Lacan, psychoanalysis and the left.”

[13] Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, 39.

[14] Collier, “Lacan, psychoanalysis and the left.”

[15] Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, 47.

[16] Collier, “Lacan, psychoanalysis and the left.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, 112.

[19] See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 99.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, 28.

[22] Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVI (London: Vintage, 1999), 312.

[23] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 19.

[24] Cutrone, “Adorno and Freud.”

[25] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), 250.

[26] Cutrone, “Adorno and Freud.”