Eli Zaretsky: Political Freud

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The Three Faces of Political Freud


Eli Zaretsky


Political Freudianism– the use of the theory of the unconscious to understand politicsfirst appeared in late nineteenth century Europe. The context was the waning of classical liberalism and the emergence of mass society. As Carl Schorske showed, nineteenth-century Viennese liberals erected a statue of Athena in front of Parliament to symbolize the focus on rationality, inner psychological structure (Bildung) and autonomy that classical liberalism required.  By contrast, mass or group psychology emerged when the masses entered the political process, especially in such forms as crowds, working class strikes, and mass demonstrations, populist politics (often anti-Semitic at that point) as well as in the form of mass or celebrity culture. The first important work of non-Freudian mass psychology, Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, sought to show how credulous groups were, how easily rumors, false prophets, and irrational fears or passions misled the masses. Le Bon created the template for mass psychology: the conservative putdown of the supposedly mindless masses. Political Freudianism, by contrast, was typically allied with the Left; it did not reject the masses, but rather asked what psychological forces propelled them into populist, fascist and xenophobic directions.

What gave this question special force was the emergence of a generation of dictators– such as Mussolini and Hitler– who drew on the mass media and other forms of mass organization to project themselves as father-figures to enthralled nations. The first figure that used psychoanalysis to analyze what appeared to be widespread longings for authority and protection was Wilhelm Reich. In the last nineteen twenties, as the Nazis became the second largest party in Germany, Reich predicted that the middle class would support the Nazis. Likening the white-collar worker to an eldest son with a powerful father, he wrote, “While subordinate to the top, he is to those below him a representative of…authority and enjoys, as such, a privileged moral (not material) position. The arch personification of this type… is to be found in the army sergeant.” This view of fascism as rooted in especially male desires for both power and submission has had a long history, most recently represented in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (1983)

In the Freudian theory of fascism or mass society, what was crucial was not only the father symbol but also the relations of the members of the crowd or mass to one another. In Freud’s argument, men and women in a fascistic crowd sought to suspend their own individuality– their egos– and substitute for it not only a leader, such as Hitler, but also forms of group belonging, like nationality and ethnicity. Accordingly, the first wave of political Freudianism lent itself not just to the study of dictators but to other forms of irrational mass behavior, most importantly, the lynch mob in the United States. In his 1940 autobiography, WEB DuBois recalled that as a young man he had thought of the “Negro problem as a matter of systematic investigation and intelligent understanding. But then: “a poor Negro in central Georgia, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord’s wife. I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to the Atlanta Constitution office. . . . I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store . . .” “In the fight against race prejudice,” Du Bois realized, “we were not facing simply the rational, conscious determination of white folk to oppress us; we were facing age-long complexes stuck now largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge.” Criticizing his earlier view that “race prejudice [was] based on wide-spread ignorance,” Du Bois concluded that he had not been “sufficiently Freudian to understand how little human action is based on reason.”

If Freudianism could be used to analyze the fascist crowd or the racist mob, it also encouraged psychological approaches to the failures of the revolutionary left. Here, too, Reich was a pioneer. In his view, the working-class family too was “a factory for authoritarian ideologies and conservative character structure.” Attacking socialism’s “sexual abstinence” literature, he called for the sexual liberation of youth and women. While fascism mobilized the secondary drives, such as sadism, envy and greed, a psychoanalytically informed revolution would penetrate to the deepest layer, the instincts themselves, or so he argued. Freud, however, and most Freudians, opposed this. In their view, those who suffered from authoritarianism or racist or anti-Semitic scapegoating could not merely throw off their repression and revolt, but rather had to work through their experience in the process of building emancipatory movements. This dichotomy– the throwing off of repression vs. working through– led to a second stage in the history of political Freudianism, one that centered on the role of self-reflection both in radical or revolutionary politics, but also in consumer society itself.

Unlike the first stage, which unfolded against the background of European fascism and Southern racism, the second stage developed against the background of American style mass consumption of the 1920s–youth revolt, a loosened attitude toward sexuality, bobbed hair, short skirts, and jazz. In that climate, Freudianism exemplified the idea, as one coed put it, that “the average young person of today is not bound by the strict conventions” of the past. “I’m hipped on Freud and all that,” explained another. In the popular understanding of young Americans in the 1920s, Freudianism promised the Sexual and Cultural Revolution– the overthrow of Puritanical or Victorian restraints– that Reich was agitating for in Europe! This gave rise to the second stage in the history of Political Freudianism, the critique of mass consumption on the part of Freudian-influenced intellectuals.

The second stage of political Freudianism was very close to Freud’s own thought. Although Freud had intermittently advocated releasing the instincts from excessive, “civilized” demands, he spoke more often of sublimating the instincts, which required “abstinence” (a favorite term) or delayed gratification in order to transform sexual and aggressive energies into insight. Repression, in other words, could maintain itself not only through the suppression of a desire but also through its release. In fact, Freud’s famous slogan, “Where id was there shall be ego,” can be restated as, “Where release was, there shall be sublimation.” Political Freudianism, then, could not be equated with the gratifications of mass culture, but was in fact a critique of it,

To appreciate the second stage of political Freudianism, it is necessary to understand the special role of intellectuals and artists. Emerging with mass consumerism and mass culture, this was a class of organic as opposed to traditional intellectuals, who drew on Freudianism in their effort to sustain what Lionel Trilling called an “adversary culture.” The quality of this second stage is suggested in Lincoln Steffens’ recollection of the iconic evening in 1911 at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Greenwich Village salon, when Freudianism was introduced into the current of American radicalism. The discussion, Steffens wrote, “introduced us to the idea that the minds of men were distorted by unconscious suppressions… There were no warmer, quieter, more intensely thoughtful conversations at Mabel Dodge’s than those on Freud and his implications.”  The critique of mass politics continued, as in Walter Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion, but Freudianism was also enlisted in the Young Intellectuals’ discussions of the role of the artist and intellectual in American life, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s well known critique of “the culture industry” or Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. In this phase, which prevailed until the 1960s and 70s, the Marxist critique of capitalism was complemented by a Freudian critique of culture.

The third– present– stage of political Freudianism began in the 1960s as an effort to avoid both the absorption into mass culture, on the one hand, and the elitism and marginality, on the other, to which earlier versions of political Freudianism tended to succumb.  After World War Two, the market society appeared to have become an “administered society,” replete with teachers, psychologists, guidance counselors, urban planners, medical doctors, therapists, juvenile court justices, and religious counselors, all of whom shaped conduct and motivations. Freudianism became integral to what Michel Foucault called “productive power,” dispersed, expertise-based forms of power, that worked “not from the outside but from within,” not by repressing individual desire but by molding and guiding desire. Meanwhile, a demotic, antinomian market-based culture, emblematized by blue jeans, rock music, drugs, and a desocialized technology of color TV, and electronic games emerged and found political expression in the New Left. Targeting the “Victorian” Freud, who supposedly accepted such backward ideologies as innate aggression, the patriarchal family, and women’s inferiority, the New Left sought a hidden, revolutionary trend in Freudianism in what Herbert Marcuse’s 1955 Eros and Civilization called primary narcissism: the timelessness of earliest childhood, the infantile well of union and merger with the mother’s body, the inseparable connection of the ego with the external world, the pre-traumatic state of unconditional perfection.

If the social basis of the first Political Freudianism was the industrial working class, and if the basis of the second was early mass consumption and related new expressions of culture such as the Harlem Renaissance and modernist novel, the basis of the third lay in the “altered states of consciousness,” (drugs), be-ins, the blurring of identity, huge crowd formations, and demotic world of the 1960s. Communes, attacks on monogamy, rock music, the onstage performance of backstage behaviors, such as nudity, informal dress, and self-disclosure, as well as an activist culture, whose only regulative ideal was “participation” constituted the social basis for the reconstitution of the self. Articulating the utopian element in narcissism, Marcuse identified artists and homosexuals as the vanguard of the forces breaking down the administered society. Both found expression in the poet/musician Orpheus, who rejected “the normal Eros, not for an ascetic ideal, but for a fuller Eros.”

The sixties’ regression to primary narcissism reflected what Lou Andreas-Salomé called narcissism’s potentiality for “conjugation and fusion.” This was the moment when societal and gender distinctions dissolved, the antinomian moment, which abstracts the individual from their social context and brings them face-to-face with God. Kristin Ross has called this New Left moment, “dis-identification,” writing, “May ’68 had little to do with the social group—students or ‘youth’—who were its instigators. It had much more to do with the flight from social determinants, with displacements that took people out of their location in society, with a disjunction that is, between political subjectivity and the social group.” Ross also calls this “a shattering of social identity that allowed politics to take place.”

Political Freudianism, in this moment, merged with a series of new departures. These included Jacques Lacan’s rereading of Freud as a theory of ideology and discourse, but also the rise of feminist and gay liberation movements, which sought to explode the traditional family and traditional sex-roles. Feminists loosened the ties that bound women to men, while strengthening those that bound women to one another. The earlier New Left fantasies of primitive merger prepared the way for the explosively growing women’s community, which was based on the idea of the “woman-identified-woman,” whether overtly as lesbianism or in the sublimated form of women’s loyalty to women.  Similarly, in 1970 the Gay Liberation Front was formed, describing itself as “a nation-wide coalition of revolutionary homosexual organizations creating a radical counter culture … Politically it’s part of the radical ‘Movement’ working to suppress and eliminate discrimination and oppression” Homosexuals now began to think of themselves as persons with a distinct way of life, persons who belonged to a historically specific community. Homosexuality, then, became an identity.

It is often said that our present-day politics has its roots in the nineteen sixties, but as this overview shows its lineage lies deeper. In the nineteenth century, patriarchal authority, which provoked both rebellion and powerful, counter-currents that longed for protection, was still prevalent in Europe and America. As the old regime gave way to democracy and mass societies, men and women developed a sense of their own interiority and forged a new subjective or personal language. By the time the present century emerged, politicized searches for identity, recognition and interpersonal communication occupied the field previously held by interiority.   We need to understand all three of these moments if we are to forge a new politics, adequate to the present.



PoliticalFreud -bookcover

Zaretsky_Eli - portraitEli Zaretsky is Professor of History at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis, and Why America Needs a Left.  His book, Political Freud, from which this article is adapted, has just been published by Columbia University Press.




Banner Image:  Composite based on details from a historical photograph of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt (1927, public domain) and a contemporary picture of Freud’s former home in Berggasse 19 in Vienna, which serves today as a museum (open daily 10 am to 6 pm) (Gryffindor, Creative Commons 3.0) (The Editor, 2016).



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