Revolutionary Desire

Reclaiming Otto Fenichel


Otto Fenichel is perhaps best known for his classic orthodox work The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, the appearance of which “was as if some modern-day Noah had tried to herd every psychoanalyst onto an ark in preparation for the Flood.” [1] Indeed, this is the impression the book naturally leaves, and this is perhaps a good estimate of Fenichel’s aim in writing the piece. Yet behind Fenichel’s studious psychoanalytic orthodoxy lies a deep, perhaps even inseparable, tie to revolutionary Marxism. Fenichel’s path led him to be one of orthodox psychoanalysis’s staunchest defenders, yet his reasons for accepting this role were far different from those of other psychoanalysts. Addressing cothinkers, he offers a motivation for involving themselves in the scientific study and organizational matters of psychoanalysis: “we are all convinced that we have in Freud’s psychoanalysis the core of the future of dialectic-materialistic psychology, and we are convinced for that reason that the care and expansion of this science is critical. If we didn’t believe that we would not be psychoanalysts by profession.” [2] To Fenichel, psychoanalysis itself was worthy of struggle in order to preserve its scientific gains and ensure its survival. In the context of the defeats of proletarian revolutions across Europe, giving rise to the power vacuum that let fascists seizer power in multiple countries, and then in the wake of the destruction wrought during World War II, Fenichel believed his most important role was to defend psychoanalysis from within, against theoretical devolutions—such as those of the neo-Freudian revisionists—that were in part connected to these tumultuous and disastrous world events.

Fenichel’s Children’s Seminar, “a locus of activity for younger dissident analysts,” survived until psychoanalysts of the Berlin Institute went into exile under threat of persecution by the Nazi takeover. [3] Exile took its toll on intellectualism of all kinds and particularly on psychoanalysis, a science that not only directly challenges bourgeois morality but also holds an intimate connection to radical critiques of fascism—such as that of Wilhelm Reich—and thus a clear target for the fascists seeking to consolidate their stranglehold on power.

Yet fascism and world war are merely the context, not the subject of a search for common ground between psychoanalysis and Marxism. The fascist takeovers in Europe were demoralizing blows not only to revolutionaries of the highest mettle but also to psychoanalysts and other individuals who would fluster in the void of organized revolutionary leadership. The flight from Europe to America was undoubtedly traumatic for Fenichel and the countless others escaping the death grip of the Nazis. The American prohibition on lay analysis undoubtedly worked to prevent immigrant analysts like Fenichel, who, possessing a European medical degree, were unable to practice medicine in the United States. The boys-club American medical establishment was undoubtedly a factor preventing more women from becoming psychoanalysts.

Surely, Reich’s expulsion from the International Psychoanalytical Association gave Fenichel pause to making more public the struggle for a Marxist psychoanalysis. It unquestionably reduced the number of his allies in that fight. Fenichel responded, though, with what he clearly believed was a tactical retreat. He engaged with collaborators in a series of circular letters of striking intensity and frequency, the Rundbriefe, which will not be dealt with because of their limited availability and multiple (blind) authorship. As if Fenichel’s Marxist influence had not shown through his earlier work in elaborating “social factors,” his work ceased exploring the waters unchartable by psychoanalysis without Marxism. Implicitly, it is as if the defeats of the day signaled to Fenichel what they did to others: fascism and domination cannot be defeated without a restructuring of human nature, or at least of the nature of the psychic apparatus. Fenichel turned toward psychoanalysis as he came up against the weakness of his own position as an individual analyst lacking political organization or widespread support. Even if he had been in the Communist Party at any point, Reich’s expulsion from that organization surely forced his hand to some extent. The effect remains: Fenichel was organizationally isolated, yet retained his ties to the International Psychoanalytical Association. Moreover, compounded by the new theoretical deviations he was encountering in psychoanalysis from the neo-Freudians who threatened to rob Freud of his radical edge, Fenichel clung steadfastly to orthodox psychoanalysis in what constitutes a display of remarkable loyalty and of a confidence in the discipline’s revolutionary spirit being rediscovered. At the same time, hiding his political views represents not only a vast personal failure of Fenichel, it also gives significant pause to the project he set out on and whether orthodox psychoanalysis may be a kind of ideological trap for Freudo-Marxists. Perhaps it is rather that Freudo-Marxism needed Fenichel as the index of orthodoxy, not positioned at the end of a journey but at the beginning. Fenichel, far from having said everything, perhaps offers a starting point and generally cautious method of investigating psychoanalysis.

Bridging the Gap

Fenichel’s keystone essay “Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialistic Psychology,” though not published until 1967, is a monumental pioneering work from the perspective of a Freudo-Marxist synthesis. Fenichel sets out to demonstrate loosely the overlap between Marxism and psychoanalysis, not only to convince psychoanalysts of the need to apply Marxist categories, but also to show Marxists the advantage of employing psychoanalytic understanding to political situations. He sees both as scientific, and neither is satisfied with surface phenomena: “Both are unmasking sciences, which means that they are distrustful of what appears on the surface and view it as the result of hidden forces. Both are convinced that what is offered as the motive for an occurrence is a pretext designed to hide the actual connections and the true cause.” [4] Conflict underlies both mental and economic phenomena. More, though, the synthesis of psychoanalysis and Marxism also provides a powerful critique of bourgeois morality.

Fenichel establishes a connection between human needs, which underlie economic production, and the realm of the psychic, which represents to the person his or her somatic needs. [5] This establishment of the psychic realm as a particular realm of nature justifies a scientific psychology to examine it. Fenichel cautiously posits that the science needed would fulfill three main conditions: it must align to developments in other natural sciences and fulfill their laws with its own particularities; it must not make mere description but investigate general psychical laws; and “A materialistic psychology must be absolutely free of value appraisals.” [6] Fenichel’s relatively simple and straightforward requirements essentially stipulate that a psychology compatible with Marxism must be scientific.

For psychoanalysis to be scientific, however, it requires a Marxist framework. Indeed, when psychoanalysis is applied to group psychology, which can find common psychological characteristics among members of a group, it still leaves a void in explanation of what factors are responsible for these commonalities. In the Marxist view, which seems to be compatible with psychoanalysis for group psychology, these are, “In the last analysis, economic conditions.” [7] This is basically the form in which psychoanalysis and Marxism tend to overlap: Marxism offers a mostly complete theory of social structure and revolutionary change, while psychoanalysis offers—relatively late in Marxist theory’s existence—a framework that demonstrates materialistically and dialectically how the individual psyches fit into the class structure still best explained in Marxian terms. Indeed, to lose connection with these terms would open psychoanalysis to all sorts of idealist deviations and mystical speculation.

Psychoanalysis has primarily been applied for one-on-one treatment of psychoneurosis (and sometimes psychosis). Lacan considers that psychoanalytic treatment can be to no end other than that of training the analysand to become an analyst himself or herself. Fenichel, though, considers the prophylaxis of neurosis to be one of the utmost important potential applications of psychoanalytic knowledge. The road to prophylaxis leads its traveler toward “a recognition of the whole pathological character of our society.” [8] Marxism has no need to shy away from this; indeed, any psychology that does not find—or rather ignores—a society utterly rent by conflict, should likely be suspect from the perspective of science. Indeed, while some would make psychoanalysis conform to the norms of capitalist society (and indeed even to fascism!) it appeared to many like Fenichel, particularly during its early development, as a science that carries a revolutionary weight.

As Fenichel points out, the Marxist critique of education is strong in class terms, but psychoanalysis reveals—through its critique of the family—how intimately tied to childhood development the bourgeois education system really is. He believes that the Marxist critique of education can link with a psychoanalytic critique of the very family forms in which childhood development is preconditioned for the bourgeois education system. Not that childhood leads invariably to this road, but rather, the education system lines up to take advantage of the repressive mechanisms already internalized (unknown to Marxists) by the family. [9] This, Fenichel aims to correct; as will be shown, his insights on the nature of the Oedipus complex go a long way toward a view that is both Marxist and psychoanalytic.

Accepting Marxist presuppositions, he points to the need for a materialistic psychology to be one of drives, that is, a dynamic psychology wherein drives mediate between the external material reality and the internal psychic reality. [10] The psychic apparatus is built on top of its basic drives in such a way as to be partially independent from them yet structurally determined by their interplay. A dynamic psychology adequately weighs both internal human needs and the external—social—reality that shapes their frustrations and opportunities for fulfillment. This dynamic conception is indeed an advantage of the psychoanalytic method, which allows it to conceive of a dialectical interplay between a drive structure that “must be considered as a natural constant lying at the base of the means of production.” [11] What makes his view of the base-superstructure model a dialectical one, though, is clearly that it allows that “the needs in turn are changed by the practice of production, just as the climate and soil in which one produces are subject to such change.” [12] He directly attacks the traditionally rigid analysis of the base-superstructure which conceives only hunger as a basic biological need. Instead, psychoanalysis conceives that sexuality is itself based on a biological, but displaceable, drive responsible in the last instance for all cultural production. “Here, Marxist practice will have to learn from psychoanalysis the correct way to evaluate the significance of sexual events in all human thought and action.” [13]

Fenichel understood well, however, that psychoanalysis could only inform Marxism as long as it maintained its own claim to scientific authenticity. Fenichel, understanding that psychoanalysts’ material contexts (particularly World War II) provide grounds from which to make theoretical concessions to idealism, staunchly defended the drive theory. This is, in the Freudian-Marxist perspective, the essential bridge linking psychology to biology—a connection that cannot be severed while preserving the general scientific outlook of psychoanalysis. [14] Indeed, Fenichel would criticize Fromm for wrongly counterposing social factors to instinctual sexuality. [15] But he would not only remain one of orthodox psychoanalysis’s staunchest defenders; he would also offer scathing criticism when he believed it deviated from its materialistic foundations.

The Critique of the Death Instinct

The death instinct marked an idealistic deviation in Fenichel’s view. He sees proposing instincts as a tool to be used cautiously for its practical value, in order to “grasp various actual psychological phenomena most easily and with least contradiction”. [16] Aggression, seen as an outward turning of the death instinct in Freud’s later instinct theory, is an undeniable clinical fact. Fenichel also does not doubt that destructive instinctual aims are opposite to sexual ones; yet, for reasons that will be examined, he does not agree that the death and sexual instincts should be classified separately. Instead, Fenichel posits that destructiveness or aggression could be “a mode in which instinctual aims sometimes are striven for, in response to frustrations or even spontaneously.” [17] Moreover, he allows for the effect of “external influences” coming to alter the expression of certain destructive drives. Interestingly, Fenichel uses this expression both in his Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis and in “A Critique of the Death Instinct” upon which the relevant section of the former is clearly based. He does not appear to elaborate by which external factors the mode of operation of the instinct could come to be changed, except through instinctual frustration—which would, in the context of the Oedipus complex, clearly be a major influence in the family. Nor does he explain why he thinks it possible that instinctual aims could be strived toward destructively out of pure spontaneity.

He has, however, solid theoretical ground from which to question the introduction of the new instinct. To begin with, Freud has offered up the physical process of the dissimilation of the cells as a somatic source for the death instinct. Fenichel opposes this because, contrary to Eros which seems to operate according to the Nirvana principle by aiming to reduce stimulus, the death instinct cannot be striving to “remove the somatic changes at the source of the instinct” because it seems to effect, rather, further cellular dissimilation, that is, displaying a craving for stimulus. [18] It does seem possible that it is oversimplified to say that the two principles cannot both be operative in distinct instincts, but despite this, Fenichel’s real theoretical linchpin is concluding that, “the craving for stimulus must be derived on genetic-dialectic lines from the Nirvana principle, as a principle which is at the present day antithetic to the Nirvana principle.” [19] There would then be a unity of the drives in only one fundamental drive—though perhaps another term than Eros could be used, suggesting both Eros and the possibility of its opposite—made by the conditions of the world (including those of human civilization) to seek reduction of stimulus through self-destructive or outwardly destructive means. Indeed, it would seem that aggressive behavior has all the attributes of instinctual behavior, that is, it can be both highly sexualized (as in sadism and masochism) and yet can also serve to reduce sexual stimulation by driving away the potential objects of the sexual drives. It would seem that instinctual action of this kind cannot properly reduce the stimulation of the sexual instincts, at least not to the extent that real sexual gratification does. In this sense it would be a substitutive satisfaction. This contradicts Freud, though, who writes, “Our views have from the very first been dualistic, and to-day they are even more definitely dualistic than before—now that we describe the opposition as being, not between ego-instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts.” [20] Fenichel’s view would seem to prefer the sexual mode of the instinct to the apparently less effective destructive mode. Freud, however, avoids privileging either of the two instincts, perhaps making his “dualistic” view, at least in these terms, somewhat closer to the “genetic-dialectic” view Fenichel seeks.

Fenichel, though, seems to offer the best criticism in terms of pure theory. He points out that when it became known that quantities of instinctual energy were capable of displacement between the sexual instincts and the then so-called ego-instincts—with for example, narcissism wherein the ego is taken as a sexual object—psychoanalysis was forced to acknowledge that both of these two categories derive from a common instinctual root. He questions why the new hypothesis of qualityless energy has not implied the same reconceptualization. [21] Indeed, Freud himself postulated this theory in terms that could seem to imply that a concept beyond libido would be needed, one to represent a more neutral energy that is capable of cathexis under either the death or life instinct: “We have reckoned as though there existed in the mind—whether in the ego or in the id—a displaceable energy, which, neutral in itself, can be added to a qualitatively differentiated erotic or destructive impulse, and augment its total cathexis.” [22]

Perhaps even stronger is Fenichel’s opposition to Freud’s shift to considering narcissism to represent the ego acting on behalf of the death instinct by taking itself as object and thereby highjacking, in a sense, certain quantities of libido. Fenichel recalls the more traditional psychoanalytic theory that would have such a regression occurring under conditions of external frustration. [23] Yet Freud also characterizes regression to earlier stages of development by a defusion of the instincts; conversely, progressive development means “an accession of erotic components.” [24] For Freud, growth means the subjugation of the death instinct by the life instinct, making his theoretical position favor Eros over the death instinct. Fenichel’s position is that Eros is dominant when the drives are fused. Wyss, however, appropriately questions why the fusion of the drives would not “have led to some form of neutralization.” [25]

After agreeing with Reich on the potential dangers of the death instinct theory, Fenichel argues that the instinct could give rise to a tendency to avoid fully analyzing phenomena where the self is taken by the analysand as object of destructive behavior, relying excessively on the new destructive instinct, assuming the behavior to be “a primary biological fact”. [26] That is, with the death instinct, masochism could lose its sexual basis and meaning. The problem is in fact quite serious; it shifts the neurotic conflict from one between individual desire and frustrating external world to one between the two instincts, thus mitigating the radical stance toward social repression adopted by psychoanalysts like Fenichel and Reich. “Such an interpretation would mean a total elimination of the social factor from the etiology of neuroses, and would amount to a complete biologization of neuroses.” [27] The clinical impact could also be disastrous: by including the death instinct in their overall interpretation schema, psychoanalysts could effectively undermine the analysand’s legitimate struggles against the social system.

On “The Drive to Amass Wealth”

After addressing the death instinct so strongly privileged in Freud’s instinctual schema, it is possible to move forward into Fenichel’s perspective on a higher-level instinct, a so-called “drive to amass wealth.” Such a drive would be immediately clear to Marxists as an inexhaustible source of confusion to psychoanalysts not entirely sure of how to approach social phenomena. Marxists know that there could be no capital accumulation until there was capital, which is not an object but a social relation. Capital is a meaningless concept unless it can be reinvested in order to reap more capital in return; this necessitates the value added by labor and the resulting surplus that is appropriated by the capitalist. If all human behavior is rooted in instinct, then this must also apply to a drive toward capital accumulation, though the process itself does not have an inherent, instinctual meaning; capital accumulation is only possible under capitalism, a system rife with historical particularity and the deep legacy of prior and specifically capitalist class struggles. The question, then, is the degree of interaction between the human instinctual base and the social context that gives instinctual acting its meaning. “Not only do social influences alter the instinctual structure, but the thus modified instinctual structure reacts again upon social reality through the actions of individuals.” [28] Instincts and social reality thus engage in a dialectical interplay.

While Fenichel’s angle is psychoanalytic and not political-economic, he establishes at the outset that there is in capitalism a compulsion forcing capitalists to strive toward higher levels of investments in order to maximize profit and competitiveness. His economic remarks are quite limited, but he points to the absolutely structural necessity to reinvest capital at increasing rates, and he connects this striving toward higher profits to a diminishing “purchasing power of the masses” [29] This deserves correction: under the conditions elaborated by Marx, the general technology level or organic composition of capital will rise, decreasing the rate of profit (thus increasing the urgency of the drive to reinvest) and increasing the rate of surplus-value extraction, or the rate of exploitation. This does not mean that consumption levels diminish; on the contrary, commodity values will decrease as technology increases. It is clear, though, that the falling rate of profit offers the capitalist an increasing incentive to attack workers’ standard of living by increasing the rate of surplus value. For Fenichel, though, the importance of the economic field can here be summed up as a capitalist’s drive to amass wealth.

Having established the reality of the drive for the bourgeois, Fenichel implicitly appeals to Marx, nearly word for word, which allows him to assume as a matter of course that the established drive spans class lines. In The German Ideology, Marx describes the ideological cloud that serves as axiomatic to Fenichel’s addition: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.” [30] For the purpose of generalizing the drive, a Marxist psychoanalyst could simply assume that, in the face of these facts, the drive must be present in the exploited classes who fall prey to bourgeois ideological confusions—and in this case, instinctual manipulations—of all kinds. This is necessary for obvious reasons: though class society is held together fundamentally by force, this is reinforced by modifications upon the instinctual structure in order to ensure that certain sectors of society act contrary to their interests. The drive to amass wealth, which is merely a sick joke to the conscious proletarian who possesses no opportunities for accumulation, is one such creation. It is an ideological cloud over class relations, based for the masses in an illusion that serves to enable identification with the rich. [31]

In connection it is worth considering the words of Adam Smith, that great classical economist whom Marx respected and criticized so much. Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, examines the question of why one would, in an economy seemingly dominated by self-interest, express concern, or “sympathy” as he calls it, for the wellbeing of others. Through the workings of what Smith calls the “Impartial Spectator,” and Robert Heilbroner (who elsewhere cites “The Drive to Amass Wealth”) rebrands as the superego, we are compelled to consider the sufferings or general situations of others. [32] Smith uses metaphorical language that psychoanalysis would most definitely take literally on the level of psychic reality: “By the imagination we place ourselves in his [our brother’s] situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. . . .” [33] Smith’s concept of sympathy depends on an incorporation of the body into that of the brother (and perhaps it is also useful to take him literally on “brother” despite his metaphorical meaning). Given the psychoanalytic knowledge about superego formation, perhaps Smith has it somewhat backward: now it is known that the creation of the conscience is more of an introjection of the father into the subject than of the subject into the brother. [34] Still, the fundamental mechanism Smith describes is that of identification. When he describes the identification of those of lower social standing (what we might consider the working class or oppressed) with those of the upper classes, he notes that it “more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will.” [35] This is just as the child identifies with the omnipotence of the parents (and especially of the father). Smith could be Fenichel. And despite that Smith is committed to sustaining the existing order—just as is Freud—he could again be Fenichel when he points out that the maintenance of the broad social structure is not the motivation for this identification. Yet, “Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them [“the rich and the powerful” or “our superiors”], we can hardly bring ourselves to do it.” [36]To return to a psychoanalytically oriented approach, despite all Smith has in common with it, it is important to consider how this identification plays out in the social realm—clearly, the reality is more nuanced than the mostly ordered society Smith defends. Fenichel, in examining the specific process which establishes the primacy of money and its accumulation, finds that an urge to collect stems from anal-erotic instinctual needs. Yet there is still no money per-se at this level: the object to be collected must be found in the external world and therefrom draw its meaning.

Let us consider, for example, how a child reared in present-day society becomes familiar with money in everyday life and develops his attitude towards it. Money matters must impress him as a secret; he encounters money as a gift, as possession, and finally as the epitome of value. Not only does an interest in money arise from the primitive conflicts of anal eroticism, but the interest in money which is and must be instilled in the child also increases his anal eroticism and in turn arouses the conflicts which formerly raged about the latter. [37]

Taken in this way, money at first is an object, and as the child proceeds through his or her development and interacts more with the outside economic world, it will be discovered that money is not simply a gift or possession but the universal commodity: an object which under capitalism has use-value precisely because it can be exchanged for any and all other commodities, with their multitude of use-values. Money under capitalism is the means to fulfill all human needs.

Fenichel’s contributions offer nothing new to Marxist political economy, but they are a strong corrective to psychoanalysis. One of the fundamental divides among psychoanalysts in disputes about social factors is from whence social institutions and structures derive. Against Ferenczi, he points out the rational necessity of the capitalist to accumulate capital: “a social system of this kind makes use of and strengthens erogenous drives that serve the necessity for accumulating. Of this there can be no doubt. There is considerable doubt, however, as to whether the existing economic conditions of production were created by the biological instinct in order to provide opportunity for the satisfaction of the instinct.” [38] It must be recalled that the drive itself has no natural or inherent object—therefore, wealth must be seen as an objective means for the fulfillment of other instinctual needs. In terms of consumption, this suffices; and when we examine the realm of production, we enter the Marxist domain. Pre-bourgeois wealth was not capital and did not imply the same class relations as does the wealth desired under capitalism.

Fenichel cautions Marxists, though: “It would be a fatal error if the Marxist theory that economic reality governs the world were interpreted to mean that an instinctual drive to become wealthy governs it.” [39] This is because the drive’s very presence depends on social conditions; it did not always exist and it will cease to exist in the future. Here, given his leanings, Fenichel is seemingly implying that the drive’s presence is mediated by the class struggle and the socialist revolution. Through this process, the objects of the drive could be eliminated from society entirely. The examination of this drive (which is “an expression of the fear of bodily injury”) and its evolution leads to a study of political economy and social revolution, or as Fenichel says, “The fear of bodily injury must also be investigated with respect to the social conditions of its origin, with respect to the questions when and why, that is, under what social circumstances the older generation begins to cultivate in the succeeding generation a fear of bodily injury.” [40] Even the need to accumulate possessions is itself indicative of the pathological nature of class society.

Situating the Oedipus Complex

In his analysis of the drive to amass wealth, Fenichel makes passing reference to his conception of the Oedipus complex. Just as the drive to amass wealth is not innate or biological, the Oedipus complex too must be seen as resulting from social factors. Despite that the father is much-used as a model for the adult citizen’s relations to the state, “This naturally does not mean that the Oedipus complex must have created the state in the image of the family, but that within the state an educating institution, the family, has arisen, suited to rear authority-fearing people, altered in their structure in the manner desired at the present time.” [41] “Authority-fearing people” is a theme that connects to the most central topic in psychoanalytic Marxism: the question of why the masses can act against their own material interests in supporting fascism. Fenichel finds a connection between the personality alterations made by the family and class. “This fact is most apparent in those layers of society where the ideological influence of the family is still strong, thanks to the economic anchorage of the institution of the family—that is, among peasants and petty bourgeois more than among proletarians.” [42] The class ambivalence of the petty-bourgeois, so brilliantly labeled “collective neurosis” [43] by Leon Trotsky, seems to be correlated to the petty-bourgeois’s own familial ambivalence, which is rooted in the economic dependence on the family that is more pronounced for the petty-bourgeois. Both contribute to making the petty-bourgeois the base for fascism, and it is interesting that the entrenchment of the family is stronger in the petty-bourgeoisie than in the proletariat, which has by its class position found itself more vulnerable to market fluctuations and migration patterns that rend apart the family.

Interestingly enough, though, Fenichel indicates that children like orphans who are raised outside the institution of the family still display an Oedipus complex. The family is not invisible to those outside its bounds. These children’s Oedipus complexes are simply grounded more in fantasy and less in reality than those of other children. [44] This clinical finding is highly interesting: while Freud had originally moved away from a trauma theory of neurosis to a theory of psychoneurosis and the role of fantasy, these children indicate the intense overlap between the two. There are certainly traumatic neuroses just as there are psychoneuroses. Yet despite the important role of fantasy in psychoneurosis, it seems that the historically determined structure of the family itself could be a major factor in the etiology of neurosis—even when it is absent from a child’s development.

Freud’s work toward formulating a psychoanalytic mythology tends to historicize and eternalize the Oedipus complex and the patriarchal family from which it results. Freud does not necessarily biologize Oedipus but rather projects the patriarchal family backward in history, and the Oedipus complex must follow. Fenichel’s position is, psychoanalytically speaking, more moderate and less speculative; at the same time, it is more revolutionary. The extent of disagreement between the two is unimportant. What is striking is that Fenichel is a strong opponent of the mystification of Oedipus; for him, there can be no Oedipus complex without the family, and as shown, the family is not at all axiomatic to Marxism. “If the institution of the family were to change, the pattern of the Oedipus complex would necessarily change also. It has been shown that societies with family configurations different from our own actually have different Oedipus complexes. Efforts to explain different family configurations as ‘repressions of the Oedipus complex’ seem to have failed.” [45] The latter reference is clearly an anthropological one, but it would be similarly absurd to suggest that abolition of the family under communism would be a repression of Oedipus. Nay, the only ‘successful’ outcome of sexual development under the patriarchal family and class society is castration and the repression of Oedipus! The abolition of the family, tied with a replacement by socialized reproduction, would likely engender new complexes and psychological disorders. These would certainly be affected by the historical legacy of the Oedipus complex, to the extent that the new forms will coexist for some time with the old family form. But it would be quite a stretch to call them neuroses, or to suggest that there will simply be a new form of Oedipus complex. The abolition of classes and the accompanying necessary abolition of the family indeed will not repress Oedipus, as does the castration complex. Oedipus will not simply be replaced, as was Laius; Oedipus will be overthrown, destroyed, and the despotic reign will end.

Under capitalism, though, the Oedipus complex is crucial in establishing the identification with the father that is the earliest prototype for the identification with the ruling class (and it is not to be supposed that the members of the ruling class themselves are not also subjected to such a process of psychic identification). [46] The class of the young Oedipus does not seem to matter all that much: “The impression nevertheless prevails that the objectively important factor of the social standing of the family finds less reflection in the form of the child’s Oedipus complex than one might expect. This is rooted in the fact that the same set of morals (or even the same uncertainties in regard to morals) is effective in different social strata of one and the same society.” [47] At first glance, Fenichel appears to be at odds with Trotsky, who sharply distinguishes between bourgeois and proletarian morality:

Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution. [48]

But to assume that the proletarian revolutionary morality is always and everywhere the guiding morality of the proletariat is wrong. The proletariat is less burdened by economic ties to the family than is the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie; given the mechanisms operative in the family, it is thusly clear that there must of necessity be less bourgeois morality active in the proletariat or in those sectors of the oppressed (for example immigrant workers) who are most violently torn from their families. At the same time, though, weakened family ties are still ties, and so to varying degrees, the revolutionizing proletarian is still forced to break with the bourgeois inside. While proletarian families, all the moreso those with greater class consciousness, undoubtedly pass on elements of proletarian morality to their children, the family remains a repressive bourgeois apparatus. A certain amount of bourgeois ideology seems to be an inherent feature of development within its confining walls.

Fenichel offers an entry point into a Freudo-Marxist theory of ideology and repression, as well as maintaining the findings of orthodox psychoanalysis in the face of all sorts of revisions. Yet in the end, his main offering remains The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, contributing much to preserving the legacy of orthodox psychoanalysis but little to a Marxist critique. Certainly, though, his reaction to the death instinct is telling from one so orthodox, and his attention to the bourgeois family is also picked up and expanded by others like Reich.


1 George Makari, Revolution in Mind, 457.

2 Ibid, 410.

3 Russell Jacoby, The Repression of Psychoanalysis, 66. It is interesting, too, to note that nearly half of the participants of the Children’s Seminar were women; this is consistent also with the fact “that Fenichel’s own circle of political analysts consisted—with a single exception—only of women.” This is in stark contrast to the reality faced by the field, particularly in America where lay analysis was not allowed for quite some time until it was legally required to be, thus for some time requiring medical degrees for practicing analysts and thereby reducing the number of women analysts. On women in the Children’s Seminar see The Repression of Psychoanalysis, 148. On the effect of the lay analysis requirement in the United States, where many exiled psychoanalysts turned, see 17-18.

4 Otto Fenichel, “Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialist Psychology,” 300.

5 Ibid, 292.

6 Ibid, 294.

7 Ibid, 307.

8 Ibid, 299.

9 Ibid, 298-9.

10 Ibid, 295.

11 Ibid, 302.

12 Ibid, 302.

13 Ibid, 306.

14 Ibid, 306.

15 “Freud says: Man is an instinctual being, driven by innate forces. Fromm says: Man is first a social being. There is no contradiction between these two statements.” — Otto Fenichel, “Psychoanalytic Remarks on Fromm’s Book Escape from Freedom,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, Second Series, 260-277.

16 Otto Fenichel, “A Critique of the Death Instinct,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series, 366.

17 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 59.

18 Otto Fenichel, “A Critique of the Death Instinct,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series, 366-7.

19 Ibid, 367.

20 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 63.

21 Otto Fenichel, “A Critique of the Death Instinct,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series, 369.

22 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, 42.

23 “Does not psychoanalytic experience teach us that such ‘regression to narcissism’ represents ‘a substitutive gratification’ of a sexual instinct which has suffered external frustration, and that it therefore conforms to the “purposes of eros”? Or does it make sense to say that the id (that is, the compendium of all the instincts) “defends itself” against eros by satisfying its demands? — Otto Fenichel, “A Critique of the Death Instinct,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series, 370.

24 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, 39-40.

25 Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 190.

26 Otto Fenichel, “A Critique of the Death Instinct,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series, 370.

27 Ibid, 370-1.

28 Otto Fenichel, “The Drive to Amass Wealth,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, Second Series, 90.

29 Ibid, 92.

30 Karl Marx, “The German Ideology.”

31 Otto Fenichel, “The Drive to Amass Wealth,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, Second Series, 93.

32 Robert Heilbroner, Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy, 58.

33 Adam Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in Robert Heilbroner, Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy, 59. [Emphasis mine — BP.]

34 Melanie Klein emphasizes introjection in the formation of the super-ego. Interestingly, she holds that the Oedipus complex is operative pregenitally, though this is too tangential to fully engage here. Klein writes: “My findings [. . .] show that the sense of guilt associated with pregenital fixation is already the direct effect of the Oedipus conflict. And this seems to account satisfactorily for the genesis of such feelings, for we know the sense of guilt to be simply a result of the introjection (already accomplished or, as I would add, in process of being accomplished) of the Oedipus love-objects: that is, a sense of guilt is a product of the formation of the super-ego.” See Melanie Klein, “Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict (1928),” in The Selected Melanie Klein, 69-83.

35 Adam Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in Robert Heilbroner, Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy, 65.

36 Ibid, 66.

37 Otto Fenichel, “The Drive to Amass Wealth,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, Second Series, 103.

38 Ibid, 99.

39 Ibid, 108.

40 Ibid, 97.

41 Ibid, 94.

42 Ibid, 94.

43 Leon Trotsky, “Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It.”

44 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 96-7.

45 Ibid,, 97.

46 Freud’s description of the complete Oedipus complex, with both its positive and negative poles, was a major step forward in separating gender from biological sex. Yet in Freudian theory the Oedipus complex usually refers to the positive complex, not the negative one. According to Fenichel, this is a reflection of the typical outcome of familial development under patriarchy: “It is true that in accordance with the “completeness” of the Oedipus complex, everyone bears features of both parents in his superego. Under our cultural conditions, however, generally for both sexes the fatherly superego is decisive; in women, moreover, a motherly superego is effective as a positive ego ideal. [. . .] The outstanding identification takes place with that parent who was regarded as the source of decisive frustrations, which in a patriarchal family is usually the father but which in exceptional cases may be the mother.” — Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 104.

47 Ibid, 96.

48 Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours.”

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