On: Politics and psychoanalysis
“I believe that what separates us all from one another is simply society itself, or, if you like, politics… The whole history of the world has been governed by nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa” — Eugene Ionesco
Ionesco was understanding something profound when he wrote that the human condition directs the social condition. In some perceptions of an ordered life there is an “idealogically enforced split” (Layton, Hollander and Gutwill, 2006) between the political order and personal life. In this paper, I attempt to argue that psychoanalysis is not free of politics, and moreover should not be, because none of our lives are free from politics. Our politics are core to us as manifestations of our drives. Modern day United States understands that ‘MAGA’ is an appeal to feelings, to the emotions, not the intellect, and yet, it was seduced by it. So, our politics are often the consequence of our feelings, rather than rationalisations. This essay has a Freudian drive theory foundation, although it resists the idea that somehow psychoanalysis represents anything finite. It demonstrates that the post-Freudian world has shown that there is still more we can learn psychoanalytically, just as man’s other scientific fields are not boundaried. If, as I maintain, we are driven by needs, desires and wants that are often irrational, we may seek satisfaction of our needs with political alliances. I consider whether psychoanalysis leans to any political preferences and later, also develop the theme of neutrality. I do not specifically conclude that it might ‘lean towards a particular politics’ because I think that requires the context of the era in which it is being contemplated, such as Communist Russia, Nazi Germany or Cold War United States, but I do think that from the intimacy of the earliest session of “the talking cure”, to today, psychoanalysis is about the particular drives inside the individual. No two individuals are alike, and so philosophically, it is hard to argue that psychoanalysis itself can somehow be co-opted, and therefore might ‘lean’ to a particular politics. Its ubiquity means it can be drawn into any politics, I suggest.
In developing this argument, I think it is helpful to define a couple of the critical terms. First, what is psychoanalysis? In, and out of the clinic, it is a way of knowing things. The International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) defines it as a theory of the human mind as well as a therapy. It adds that it is also a research method and a means of viewing social and cultural phenomena, of which politics is one. The British Psychoanalytical Association (BPA) defines it as “a process of deep exploration of the unconscious psychic processes of the individual, within the relationship between the analyst and patient in the consulting room.”It is a ‘body of knowledge’ too, as elegantly asserted by Bell, (1999) and he writes, that it is as such, that it ought to be judged. For today’s adults in Britain, the polarisation of society, the manipulation of the collective psyche by modern media, the political attempt to sell a vision of exceptionalism and isolationism, the response to the coronavirus, anxiety and grief, and the decisions taken for us by our leaders, frequently dominate conscious thoughts. Layton, Hollander and Gutwill (2006) highlighted that “a traumatogenic environment is constituted when individual and group physical safety, social security and symbolic capacities are all simultaneously assaulted. Psychoanalysis, which is devoted to analysing what it means to people when their experience is traumatic and then rendered unnameable and unspeakable, can illuminate this phenomenon as it occurs in the relationship between the individual and society.”
Politics ought to be easier to define. It is derived from the Greek word, politika, and meant “affairs of the cities”. Today it is associated with group decision-making, with distribution of power between individuals and a wider distribution of resources and status. Samuels, (2003) noted that “political power is experienced psychologically; in family organisation, gender and race relations, and in religious and artistic assumptions as they affect the lives of individuals.” Today, it is the way people make, maintain and update the laws under which they live. That serves to define politics in the nation state, but politics operates at more personal levels too; in the workplace, the family and even in couples. Even in these more micro examples it is about power, and therefore about conflict and cooperation. It is sometimes conflict resolution. To politicise something is to make its contrast with an alternative, explicit. As psychoanalysis shows, through drive theory, people have needs that require satisfying. However, not all needs can be satisfied simultaneously. If we have conflicting needs and a scarcity of resources, we inevitably have politics. To suggest that psychoanalysis, or indeed any body of knowledge is free of politics, would be to make it unique.
This brings us to the response to the first part of the essay question — is psychoanalysis free of politics? I aim to show with some selected examples how the young science of psychoanalysis inevitably became political and then how the circumstances of its development coincided with its importance in understanding the politics of the societies in which it operated. In the second half of the essay I use the example of Marie Langer, to personify how psychoanalysis, or certainly a psychoanalytic life, is not free from politics. If Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, with respective nods to the likes of Charcot, Janet and Breuer, then it is informative to think about Freud’s attitudes to politics. My assertion is that in his determination to preserve and to develop his discovery he was prepared to act politically. His splits with the likes of Jung, and with Adler, are both psychoanalytic splits, pushing away that which he could not tolerate, as well as political splits, maintaining a pure ideology. Jung accused Freud of treating his pupils like patients, and criticised him for not having been in analysis, other than self-analysis, whereas Jung had been analysed. There was some personal antipathy, Freud writing, “I propose that we abandon our personal relations entirely. I shall lose nothing by it”, but the main differences appear to be theoretical, and I suggest, political. Drive theory, the Oedipus Complex, castration complex had to hold sway — any dilution of Freudian principles might undermine his confidence in his own principles.
Another split was with Willhelm Reich. Reich was briefly a follower of Freud and was inducted into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. He worked at the Vienna Polyclinic, established by Freud for less affluent patients. Reich offended some of his peers with his work on orgasms, and others with his socialist and Marxist politics. His publication of “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” in 1933, embarrassed Freud, who had wanted to keep politics and psychoanalysis apart. Reich had suggested that fascism was the political expression of patriarchal family structures, amongst other assertions. Freud encouraged him to leave for Berlin. I see this as a political action by Freud, ironic given it was a means of disguising the inevitable psychoanalytic and political connection. Reich had been bold enough to criticise Freud’s ‘death instinct’ hypothesis, when considering masochistic behaviours. Freud magnanimously advocated that Reich’s paper and view were published, but he was bothered that he himself interpreted Reich’s view of the death instinct as being a feature of the capitalist system. In 1934, ahead of a psychoanalytic conference in Lucerne, Reich learned that he had been expelled from the German Psychoanalytic Society. One might argue he is the best example of a political victim of psychoanalysis. He is not alone though. Decades later the IPA expelled Lacan. Politics lends itself to analysis. In democracies, the need to persuade a majority of the polity to vote one particular way means understanding the collective psyche is fundamental.
In 1913 Freud worked to oust Jung from his positions as president of the IPA and his various editorial positions. He had achieved this goal by the spring of 1914 and published the polemical History of the Psychoanalytic Movement in the summer. It is thought to be his reckoning with both Adler and Jung and is therefore, overtly political. Gay (1989), in his introduction to The Freud Reader makes clear that this paper, known to Freud’s cohort of friends and supporters as “the bomb”, was part of a campaign of “pointed acts of explanation and aggression” and that these were designed to rally his followers. It was from these beginnings that psychoanalysis “grew from a cluster of scientific ideas into a movement”. Freud had defined thoughts, political or otherwise, as a “trial run of action”, and I think this is among the most helpful phrases to support the idea that psychoanalysis is not free of politics, because in converting unconscious impulses and feelings to conscious thoughts we are preparing something actionable. All actions (and inactions too), have political consequences. Surely societies that turn on intellectuals are inimical to something like psychoanalysis? If so, should psychoanalysis effect a non-political stance, as part of a means of preservation? This would support a refutation for psychoanalysis notbeing free of politics. History, suggests otherwise, bringing up the question of neutrality.
Neutrality is fundamental to Freudian psychoanalytic technique. It is also fundamental to political strategies. How does neutrality work under the state-induced paranoia of a repressive regime? After the National Socialists came to power in Germany, many psychoanalysts, because they were Jews, left the country. The Nazis had two difficulties with psychoanalysis — it was perceived as a “Jewish science”, and if society was purged of minorities and a complete Aryanisation of the populace could be achieved, why would a master race need help for mental anxiety? Jews were ‘primitive’, hence the focus on sexual drives. A master race was above all of these manifest weaknesses. The Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, set up in 1920, was politically left wing in orientation as well as dominated by Jewish members. It is the perfect example of how psychoanalysis might be made to ‘lean’ politically, albeit ironically for Aryan ideals, to do so, it became psychoanalytically impure. To preserve psychoanalysis, Freud agreed to Felix Boehm and Carl Muller-Braunschweig opening negotiation with the Nazis, notwithstanding that his own books had been publicly burned.
Muller-Braunschweig was convinced psychoanalysis could ‘remodel’ people and be of service to the political leadership. Psychological health was a ‘duty’. When Goring became leader of the German psychotherapists, what became the Goring Institute in 1936, he might have had ‘leaning’ in mind when he said “we are called to educate children and adults in the right spirit”. Without concluding that psychoanalysis is, or should be malleable, it can be seen in the example of 1930s Germany, that it can be made to ‘lean’ towards a particular politics. Can it be made to lean in the opposite direction? After the Revolution in Russia in 1917, psychoanalysis briefly thrived. It had the support of leading figures like Trotsky, and had some state funding. That changed with the emergence of Stalin. Until about 1930, it benefited from the export of ideas from Vienna and many of its leading early exponents had studied with Freud, some with Jung. These included Sabina Spielrein, Nikolai Osipov and Vera and Otto Schmidt. Tatiana Rosental was responsible for establishing psychoanalysis in St Petersburg, whereas other early practitioners were Moscow-based. Tragically she took her own life in 1921. Others were leaving the country, but in 1922 the Russian Psychoanalytic Society was formed and the Detski Dom was opened. This was a school and children’s home, and a kind of laboratory. It predated the Nazis’ Aryanisation approach to psychoanalysis, but had a similar motive, in this case, to build a model Communist man. It was run by Vera Schmidt and attempted to harmonise Freudianism with Marxism. It was closed in the months after Lenin’s death in 1924.
Anna Freud, writing to Ernest Jones in 1933 had opined that “psychoanalysis has no part in politics”. She was writing about Reich, whom she thought her father had believed had “forced psychoanalysis to become political”. This, of course, is different from psychoanalysis being free from politics. This returns us to the concept of neutrality. It is axiomatic that in a Freudian analysis, where the patient is to free-associate, that the analyst does not reveal themself in terms of preferences, background, personal habits, circumstances or biases. That does not mean that one has no politics, merely that the analyst leaves them aside for the purposes of the work. One might argue, in a Freudian context, that they get repressed. However, Anna Freud’s own tussles with Melanie Klein are evidence of how politics associates itself with psychoanalysis at all times. This famously led to ‘The Controversial Discussions’ in 1943–4; a political tug of war between Freudians and Kleinians. Anna Freud’s position, and I think, her father’s are frequently linked to the idea of ‘neutrality’. This seems to support the idea that somehow politics can be left out of the consultation room, or of the conference hall. Klein herself might suggest it is a form of splitting. Indeed, her work on the paranoid-schizoid position is the foundation for the apolitical — political ideas are pushed into the ‘bad breast’. Nonetheless, Laubender (2017) suggests that Anna Freud’s papers on child analytical technique were heavily invested with the politics of the era. Anna Freud was focused on childhood dependence and the positon of authority. “Far from being removed from the socio-political order, Anna Freud’s clinical writings affirm that the psychoanalytic clinic is always already in conversation with the historical context in which it is embedded.”
Anna Freud was friends with social and educational reformers, and therefore familiar with political developments. One such example was Maria Montessori. Children’s education could be a site for freedom from historic oppression and oppressive hierarchies. Child analysis became a vehicle to challenge psychoanalytic orthodoxy. Laubender notes that the political turmoil of the 1930’s was inspiring Freud himself to write his own most political papers, notably Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), and quotes Zaretsky, from his psychoanalysis history, Secrets of the Soul: “In contrast to those that had propounded the classical liberal separation of public and private life, the thinkers of the 1930s recognized the unavoidably psychological and cultural character of modern politics, and thus the impossibility of separating the problems of democracy from those of personal autonomy, gender and sexuality, group identity, and the commodification of everyday life.” In a similar vein, Rose (1993) thought that the question of identity was the “central issue through which psychoanalysis enters the political field”.
We apply neutrality to politics and to analysis. Neutrality is never passive. It is an active position, designed to improve a situation for a longer-term benefit. It starts in the nursery, when an infant is projecting all its frustration and hatred upon the mother. The mother contains this projection and presents a neutral object. The importance of neutrality is that it allows for development. In his Observations on Transference Love, Freud wrote “our control over ourselves is not so complete that we may not one day go further than we intended…we ought not to give up the neutrality toward the patient, which we have acquired through keeping the counter-transference in check.” He added, “The more plainly the analyst lets it be seen that he is proof against every temptation, the more readily will he be able to extract from the situation its analytic content.” Can one be neutral despite a political orientation? Hanna Segal’s left wing politics did not affect her analytic contributions. However, she did feel that psychoanalysis had an active contribution to make. She was appalled by the governmental response to the threat of annihilation from nuclear attack. She co-ordinated meetings of the British Psychoanalytical Society to address the collective denial of reality of nuclear attack. Bell (1999) explains that when she gave her paper ‘Silence is the real crime’ at the inaugural conference of the International Psychoanalysts for the Prevention of Nuclear War, she showed that denial and splitting led to destruction, paranoia and helplessness; a sort of collective psychic ailment. What would she have done if she was working with a patient who believed in the policy of deterrent?
Before I leave the argument that psychoanalysis is not free ofpolitics, I want to examine what happens in the clinical setting, such as might have confronted Segal. How should an analyst respond to politics being brought into a session, and how should the analyst treat their own politics in the transference? Samuels (2003) authored a questionnaire, exploring what political issues came up in therapy, sent to fourteen professional organisations in seven different countries with over 2000 recipients. The worldwide response rank for what comes into the sessions is led by gender issues for women, followed by economic issues, violence in society, and fourth equal, national politics, gender issues for men, and race or ethnic issues. International politics came next. Recall that this was done in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His survey of the therapists and analysts revealed that almost half (44%) preferred to keep politics out of the session. Obviously, that means that the majority engaged, many indicating that having an engagement with the external world is part of growing up, of individuation. One survey respondent wrote “We are political animals. Everything we are and do takes place within a political framework. It is impossible to divorce this from the inner world of either our patients or ourselves.” If analysands do not show any apparent concern over political issues eg governance of the pandemic response, climate policies, addressing social and economic inequality etc. does that have meaning? Layton, Hollander and Gutwill (2006) describe it as a defence; “the psychodynamics of terror and aggression and the unconscious defences employed to deny reality offers powerful insights into the microscopic unconscious way that ideaology is enacted and lived”.
The final part of this essay is psychoanalysis’s availability to different types of politics and whether it naturally leans in a particular political direction. I use the example of Marie Langer, as the personification of political leaning. Psychoanalysis does not choose its subjects, or its politics. Whether we live in a socialist or communist era, it is chosen to explain, just as it was regarded by Nazis and the Bolsheviks as having a place. The question is whether or not an understanding of drive theory is more inclined to an association with the political right or left. Sports are often regarded as a socially acceptable way for people to expel and express their aggression. It is of interest to me, therefore, that politics is often described as ‘the great game’. I see politics as a means of handling drives in a socially acceptable way. Whether I support a blue team or a red team, in a sporting or a political contest is irrelevant, it is still how I relieve the psychic impulse. Either side of the Atlantic a kind of fundamentalist conservatism v liberalism appears to have evolved. Thinking about the idea that psychoanalysis might lend itself to one particular political direction, is wrapped up in projecting intolerance, othering, and repression on to the more conservative group and somehow elevating, idealising, the perceived more tolerant, progressive, empathic traits with liberalism. Oddly it is now the political right that has adopted a ‘freedom’ mantra, despite its general trend to be authoritarian and law setting. This seems to be evidence of both projection and introjection.
The probability of psychoanalysis’sparticular politics leaning one way is largely
an accident of timing. It emerged at a time of radical politics, but the unconscious and politics already existed. Freud himself talks about how philosophers and poets got their first. Thinking about the unconscious is not the preserve of Freudians, however psychoanalysis, because of Freud’s breakthrough work and writing, emerges from its own developmental stages and latency right into a century of conflict and neuroses. Wars, pandemic, political ideologies — Communist or Fascist — and then the post-war, Cold War threat of annihilation, which might be analysed as the triumph of the death drive. Does it, should it ‘lean’? Roazen (2003) highlighted that the International Psychoanalytic Association prioritised the survival of analysis in the trying 1930’s era and was willing to compromise with the demands of right-wing regimes. I do not think that is evidence of ‘leaning’, but of a defensive pragmatism.
One of psychoanalysis’s greatest gifts has been the attempt to explain the emergence of fascism; what made Nazism so effective in colonising the unconscious? Another concept is ‘resistance’. Resistance to fascism is properly lauded, but it may have left the impression that as a body of knowledge, it is inclined to a harsher view of extreme right-wing politics than of extreme left wing. Today, it is sometimes described as ‘progressive’ but not in a complimentary way, but in the sneering way that is attached to the term ‘wokeism’. Another Ionesco quote seems apt: “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together”. In Katz’s (2006) essay, she wonders if people are unable to connect present events with history and are being overwhelmed by ideology, which is designed to frighten us to a primitive psychic state. This is akin to the paranoid-schizoid state identified by Klein at the very start of life. I conclude that psychoanalysis adapts to the politics of its time, perhaps sometimes adopts them, but does not have an inherent bias.
One thing about exploring if psychoanalysis is free of politics is to think about the many people who claim to have no interest in politics, or to have rejected it. They think of themselves as apolitical. Yet, they neglect the politics in their personal lives. The Oedipal Complex is framed by power and the political, in my opinion. One example that fascinates me is a major psychoanalytic figure, who was very interested in politics in what might be regarded as the grand scale. Her politics were of ideology and of international breadth. Why this is of interest is that she attempted to leave the political behind, and yet it reappeared to dominate the latter decades of her life. That woman was Marie Langer. In the film Chasing the Revolution, she is portrayed as a political and psychoanalytic exemplar, seeking change in society, but also described as “having avoided politics for half her career”. She was a co-founder of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association, but left it in protest against its unwillingness to abandon political neutrality when confronted with a repressive regime.
She had been Viennese born (1910) and trained, joined the Communist Party and just as shifting international politics had taken her from her home as a young woman, she subsequently had to leave the home she had made in Argentina, for her own safety, settling in Mexico. Communism took her to Spain to support the International Brigades fighting fascism. Escaping Spain took her to Uruguay just before Europe became a battleground again, and four years later to Argentina.
Argentina was ruled by Peron and by what seemed to her to be a familiar nationalistic fascist playbook. She therefore ‘dropped’ her politics, ostensibly to focus on analysis and maternity. However, her ‘repressed’ political identity manifested itself in a focus on women’s psychological difficulties. In the period of her life when she was devoted, as she seemed to see it, more to maternity than to politics, she was expressing her interpretation of neutrality. In so doing she offended feminists who thought her views of maternity and the family were ultra-conservative and suited the regime. Her ‘neutrality’ was simply a different expression of the political. By the beginning of the 1970’s she was ready to publicly denounce neutrality and to re-adopt a more active political stance aligned with her youthful ideological positions. She brought her international politics to the psychoanalytic world and presented a paper at the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) that challenged its hierarchies and training methods. The IPA refused to publish it and she resigned. For me, Langer, who went on to get involved with politics in Mexico and Nicargaua, personifies the way that psychoanalysis is not free from politics. Just as the Kleinian baby comes into the world with love and hate, so psychoanalysis, always and everywhere is political.
In this essay, I have considered the politics of the era when considering if psychoanalysis is free from politics. I have given examples of highly politicised states like 1920’s Russia, and 1930’s Germany, and 1970’s Argentina as well as considering the Cold War period, to examine how politics intrudes on psychoanalysis. I have also considered how politics is part of the psychoanalysis field itself, by highlighting Freud’s splits with Jung and Adler, his appeasement of the pro-regime analysts in Germany, and his daughter’s political fight with Melanie Klein. Psychoanalysis is not free from politics in my view. I am less inclined to believe it naturally leans in one political direction or other, and think that it reflects its time and location rather than influences. I have considered the concept of neutrality, politically and psychoanalytically. I do think it is availableto be drawn into a particular politics, including sexual politics and feminism. This, I believe, is one of its many great strengths.
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