Revolutionary Desire

Classical Freudian Psychoanalysis

The Unconscious and Repression

Psychoanalysis offers a theory of how to understand the laws governing mental processes, including the parts hidden from the facilities of consciousness. It is the latter which is the first thing that really distinguishes psychoanalysis as a theory: the “unconscious” which it claims to discover.  Yet the unconscious is not tangible—by definition, it is inaccessible. Indeed, the contents of the unconscious cannot be directly shown, but psychoanalysis attempts to infer them by assuming a deteriministic position on thought. If unconscious material continues to exert an influence on the conscious mind, it may be possible to infer some of these contents by speaking and consciously releasing control over what comes out; the resistances which nonetheless emerge are thought to be indicative of the repressed material against which they defend. The psychoanalytic method attacks the barricades between the hidden unconscious and the conscious mind normally considered to be the sum of mental activity. “It defines what is mental as processes such as feeling, thinking and willing, and it is obliged to maintain that there is unconscious thinking and unapprehended willing.” [1] Freud, through a detailed categorization and exposition of psychical mechanisms, finds that the unconscious—an assumption upon which psychoanalysis rests—is actually quite demonstrable in daily life and psychoanalytic practice.

In order to delineate the unconscious from the conscious, the unconscious is defined descriptively as simply that which is not conscious. Yet the terms ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ say nothing about the trajectory of a thought. Freud notes, “consciousness is in general a highly fugitive state.” [2] That is, a thought can pass relatively easily between conscious and unconscious states. At the same time, some thoughts enjoy from the unconscious to the conscious state an easier passage than do others; they can simply be considered ‘preconscious’, or “capable of becoming conscious”. [3] Freud here makes a rather dialectical observation. That is, barring external influence to which the psychic apparatus responds, any conscious thought must have already existed in a latent preconscious state before becoming conscious. Thought exists in a dialectical continuum with conscious thought on one extreme, and on the other, “psychical processes and psychical material which have no such easy access to becoming conscious but must be inferred, recognized and translated into conscious form”; and thus, the description of unconscious can be applied. [4]

Terminologically, this conception of the unconscious seems clear enough. However, Freud’s description is connected to his early topographical conception of the unconscious as a distinct system obeying its own laws, rather than as a simple descriptive adjective that could apply independently of the various systems involved. Freud would eventually come to a second topographical model of the mind that moves back toward the descriptive definition of unconscious, one which would be capable of applying to parts of the various psychical apparatuses he would elaborate.

In Freud’s first topographical framework, though, what is crucial to be understood of the unconscious is that “Its ‘contents’ are ‘representatives’ of the instincts,” and that “Strongly cathected by instinctual energy, they seek to re-enter consciousness and resume activity (the return of the repressed), but they can only gain access to the system Pcs.-Cs. [Pre-conscious—conscious] in compromise-formations after having undergone the distortions of the censorship.” [5] Though “instincts” are not yet elaborated here, “cathexis” is simply used to designate the attachment of a specific quantity of “psychical energy.” [6]

The question of censorship, though, arises at an opportune moment. Psychoanalysis explains the qualitative distinction between pre-conscious and unconscious by reference to the concept of repression, a process by which various thoughts (not at all randomly!) are actively prevented from achieving consciousness. If it is to be accepted that unconscious thought in fact exists, then it must be understood that the process of repression operates to prevent objectionable thought (how this determination is made by the psychic apparatus is not yet summarized) from passing through the preconscious and into consciousness. Indeed, to apply the description ‘unconscious’ to psychical material that is given conceptual room for real existence, necessitates a concept like repression to explain the incapacity of this particular material to move fluidly through the preconscious and into the conscious. Wyss explains the process of repression as biphasic:

Clearly the process of repression must take place in two phases: a first phase, in which the energy is split off from the idea, is followed by a second phase, in which the repression is maintained. This is made possible by a counter charge (counter cathexis) of the repressed idea either from the conscious mind or from the pre-conscious. [7]

Interestingly, it seems the repression could itself be sustained either in the conscious or the pre-conscious mind. And, using the economic model, it is established that the unconscious idea does indeed have a quantity of energy cathected to it, tending to push it toward consciousness. Thus repression is established as an active process that operates by re-cathecting the energy attached to the objectionable content.

Freud, though, cautions that while repression makes unconscious certain psychical content, there is of course also material that is unconscious without necessarily undergoing the process of repression. And though the unconscious could thereby lose some of the special significance established by the finding of repression, “the property of being conscious or not is in the last resort our one beacon-light in the darkness of depth psychology.” [8] With this fundamental distinction established, it becomes possible to move toward penetrating the unconscious, the darkness, in order that its contents may be elaborated and its mechanisms understood.

The Instincts and Their Theoretical Implications

It has earlier been said that the unconscious contains representatives of the instincts. It would go a long way toward clearing up this vague statement to give definite expression to what is meant by the instincts. The concept has faced serious revision over the history of psychoanalysis, and it becomes immediately necessary to jump ahead to Otto Fenichel, who notes that “instinct” is in fact a poor translation of the German Trieb, better translated as “drive”:

Inherent in the concept of instinct is the idea that it represents an inherited and unchangeable pattern; in the German concept of Trieb this unchangeability is by no means implied. On the contrary, the Triebe obviously are changed in aim and object under influences stemming from the environment, and Freud was even of the opinion that they originated under the same influence. This incorrect equating of instinct and Trieb has created serious misunderstandings. [9]

Indeed, psychoanalysts have at various times stooped to biologizing the instincts excessively, perhaps excessively ignoring social or individual factors. Yet it also must be noted that it is impossible to follow Lacan, who despite correctly polemicizing against those who would use the concept of instinct to assert “the existence of morals in nature,” incorrectly writes that the drive in Freud’s work “has nothing to do with instinct”. [10] If Lacan is correct to discard the concept of instinct in favor of the more precise “drive,” he is wrong to assume that there is no connection. After noting “the impossibility of thinking its [Trieb’s] precision theoretically,” as opposed to a conceptual imprecision, Althusser quotes Freud explaining drive as “a limit concept between the somatic and the psychical”, remaining optimistic that biology and historical materialism will one day be capable of scientifically elaborating the contents of the unconscious. [11]

Though this advances the theory of instincts or drives, this differentiation is thus far insufficient to explain the concept of instinct or drive, but with the translation danger in mind, it becomes possible to read Freud with less linguistic prejudice. [12] He describes the instincts as representing “the somatic demands upon the mind.” [13] That is, the instincts are firmly rooted in biological demands, inherent tendencies in the organism. Yet science has so far failed to provide full explanation for the connection.

Fenichel explains how psychoanalysis breaks the concept down into aim, object, and source:

The aim of an instinct is its satisfaction or, more precisely, the very specific discharge action which dispels the physical condition of excitement and thus brings about satisfaction. The object of an instinct is that instrument by which or through which the instinct can attain its aim. The source of an instinct is the chemicophysical status which causes a sensory stimulus to bring about excitement. What instincts are to be distinguished and how many depends on whether the aim, the object, or the source is chosen as the basis of classification. In terms of aim or object an infinite number of instincts might be described. However, psychoanalysts know how readily interchangeable objects and aims can be. (This very fact makes it paradoxical to attribute to Freud the opinion that “instincts” represent entirely unchanging rigid patterns.) Thus a classification according to source would be the preferable one. Unfortunately, physiology here disappoints us; the instinctual sources are a purely physiological problem, and in this field our knowledge is not yet sufficient. [14]

So it is clear that the psychoanalytic concept of instincts as somatic demands functions to establish a biological basis for instincts, yet it does not attempt to penetrate the veil of biology in order to solve the question of the sources of instincts. This is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the psychoanalytic drive theory: at once materialistic, positing a biological source for the psychological drives it examines, it stops short of hubristically explaining the sources of these drives beyond noting their simple dependence on biology in the last instance.

Also notable is that because the instincts posited are freed theoretically from direct determination by their biological base—at least according to present knowledge—they can be used and discarded as needed. Yet theory and practice are not the same. In the field of theory, psychoanalysis must strive toward the simplest possible categorization. When Freud does this in his later theory of the instincts, the findings are remarkable. Instincts can change aim through displacement and replace one another with “the energy of one instinct passing over to another.” [15]

In his final theory of the instincts, Freud offers only two basic instincts from which all other instincts are derived: Eros or the life instinct, and the destructive, or death instinct. [16] Eros strives toward and preserves higher unities. It is the sexual instinct, and it is also the source of libido, “Energy postulated by Freud as underlying the transformations of the sexual instinct with respect to its object (displacement of cathexes), with respect to its aim (e.g. sublimation), and with respect to the source of sexual excitation (diversity of the erotogenic zones).” [17] The death instinct, analogously to the physical process of entropy, tears apart connections and thus destroys: “In the case of the destructive instinct we may suppose that its final aim is to lead what is living into an inorganic state. For this reason we also call it the death instinct.” [18]

Both instincts are to be found in all the corners of the mind, in all the agencies of the psychical apparatus. The energy provided by Eros is libido, present in the initial state of the mind as undifferentiated, outbalancing the energy of the death instinct (for which there is no term comparable to libido). [19] Libido is capable of a desexualization, transforming it into the source of cultural energy. But conceptually it provides a fundamental aspect of the economic hypothesis, which sees the mind as engaged in a movement of instinctual energy that is capable of quantification. [20] Fenichel notes that this quantification is perhaps a purely practical maneuver, not necessarily scientifically accurate, but nevertheless rather helpful. [21]

Libido provides instinctual energy that is assigned in the process of cathexis to ideas. It has already been established that representatives of the instincts are present in the unconscious mind, cathected with libidinal energy but counter-cathected in repression. The resistance holding the material unconscious means, “Unconscious material under such high pressure has only one aim: discharge.” [22] Fenichel also describes how the energy is “directed according to the ‘primary process’; that is, it is unburdened by the demands of reality, time, order, or logical considerations”. [23] It is assigned only based on possibility of discharge. This mode of functioning is active both in the archaic mind, before differentiation establishes the “secondary process,” and in the unconscious mind.

Freud’s instinct theory is highly speculative. But it carries fascinating biological implications:

If we assume that living things came later than inanimate ones and arose from them, then the death instinct fits in with the formula we have proposed to the effect that instincts tend towards a return to an earlier state. In the case of Eros (or the love instinct) we cannot apply this formula. To do so would presuppose that living substance was once a unity which had later been torn apart and was now striving towards reunion. [24]

Eros strives toward new creation, as a progressive force, while the death instinct is literally its reactionary opposite, tearing apart the organism or being turned outward toward external objects as a destructive instinct. Given that the dividing lines between the instincts are merely theoretical or practical postulates, it is also true that both instincts can be satisfied at times in the same aims or objects.  If the instincts are in fact bound together in fusion, this “sheds light both on the destructive nature of certain moral ideas and on the masochism of those who submit to them”; there is a fundamental tie between masochism and aggression on one side, and erotic desire on the other. [25]

The introduction of the death instinct was new to Freud’s final version of the instinct theory. It was highly contentious, indeed a focal point of debates around synthesizing psychoanalysis and Marxism. There is perhaps a bit of truth to Stiler’s assertion: “The Freudian concept of human nature is based on static, immutable, absolute instincts.” [26] Freud’s dualism of the instincts, based in biological sources, seems indeed to be all three, and Freudo-Marxists would strongly attack the theory of the death instinct not only for its theoretical implications but also its possible harm to clinical practice as well.

In Freud’s work, the death instinct is an implied part of a criticism on Marxism. Freud acknowledged his own ignorance despite cautiously offering psychological criticism. [27] He notes that private property offers aggressiveness an outlet of expression, while the aggression itself is the primary phenomenon. If aggression is denied outlet in economic matters in a communist world, it is bound to be expressed all the more violently in sexual relations, or rather, in the currently existing organization of sexual and reproductive relations, the family. [28] Frederick Engels’s work “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” suggests the possibility that, when the family is freed under communism from the economic basis upon which it was created, monogamy itself could not only be sustained but more effective. Yet, Engels also suggests the opposite, that there could be “a gradual rise of more unrestrained sexual intercourse,” and that “monogamy and prostitution in the modern world, although opposites, are nevertheless inseparable opposites, poles of the same social conditions”. [29] And elsewhere, in the “Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels write:

Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty. [30]

Freud’s argument addresses this possibility of communism doing away with the family (“the germ-cell of civilization” [31]) entirely and instituting sexual freedom: “we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.” [32] Freud’s argument could imply that human aggressiveness makes communism an impossibility; on the other hand, it could simply mean that communism will of necessity find some new forms of expression for aggression. At any rate, Freud’s argument implies that there is a fundamental aggressive aspect of human nature; the specific implications for communism can only be speculative. The question of a primary destructive instinct turns out to be a focal point for dispute, particularly because of its potential political consequences.

The Topology of the Psychical Apparatus

With the instincts established firmly in psychoanalytic theory, it is possible to examine where they fit into the structure of the mind. Once again, it is easiest to start at the latest version of the structural theory in order to avoid a lengthy evolutionary discussion of concepts that have undergone radical transformations since their introductions. Freud divides the mind into three agencies: id, ego, and super-ego. The undifferentiated mind is only id, which is unconscious and representative of the instincts: “a portion of them being hereditary and innate, a portion repressed and acquired”; the id is the “prime reservoir of psychical energy” in the economic model. [33] As earlier said, this psychical energy strives only toward discharge and release, a lessening of tension.

The growth of an individual is a differentiation of the mind into disparate agencies fundamentally rooted in the id. It is this process that allows for consciousness. Out of the id develops the ego, the agency of consciousness, though itself not entirely conscious. [34] The ego, which develops from the id, is situated in Freud’s view between the id and the incoming perceptions from the external world. As Freud writes, “the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id. For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to instinct.” [35] There is quite a bit of truth to the common phrase “blind instincts,” in that interaction with external reality is what gives rise to the ego, while the id itself ignores these external conditions. The ego becomes responsible for self-preservation, not only through meeting the instinctual demands of the id but also by judging, through the reality principle, whether the attempt to meet those demands could in itself mean danger. [36]

The differentiation of the id is possible because the external world is not a haven for instinctual gratification. Daily existence requires instinctual renunciations of all kinds. This is felt most profoundly by the infant in its forced separation from the mother, the all-provider. Before the development of the ego, there can be no conception of self or other, indeed no object differentiations at all, because such a categorization has as its prerequisite consciousness. The forced differentiation of self and other allows the infant to begin to understand its status of instinctual gratification or nongratification. Yet, this is an imperfect and highly dialectical process:

It is this original identification of the ego in the inverted and perfect whole of the other that is the basis for all later identifications – for example, those of inter-subjectivity, such as the child’s later identifications with its parents. But this first identification with the image clearly suggests that it is not only the mirror that is a reflection, but also the very ‘identity’ the child forms. This identity is an imaginary construct based not on a true recognition but a mis-recognition; the self is always like another, in other words, this self is constructed of necessity in a state of alienation: the person first sees himself in another, mother or mirror. [37]

Mitchell’s description of the mis-recognition in the inauguration of the ego illustrates a very complicated dialectical process. The infant, whose instinctual need to feed and be loved can only be met in the external world by the mother, must learn to differentiate self from object through the inevitable frustrations to these demands. In the figure of the mother is seen not only the fulfillment of the instinctual demands but also the seemingly omnipotent ability to withdraw the needed sustenance. Put in a simple way, as it recognizes this fundamental difference with the mother, the infant begins to develop its ego, conceived as an object distinct from other objects. This process as described is reminiscent of Lacan’s mirror stage, which is of notable importance for Marxism and will be addressed again in a later discussion of the Althusserian notion of ideology.

Yet Mitchell also brings us tantalizingly close to the introduction of the final agency of the psychical apparatus, the super-ego, a unique section of the ego. To arrive at a phenomenological description of the functions of the superego (even if its origins and full meaning may remain temporarily shrouded), we can move through Freud’s note that the ego not only faces danger from the outside world should it attempt instinctual gratification; indeed, instincts themselves can present a danger to the ego. “In the first place, an excessive strength of instinct can damage the ego in a similar way to an excessive ‘stimulus’ from the external world. It is true that the former cannot destroy it; but it can destroy its characteristic dynamic organization and change the ego back into a portion of the id.” [38] So the ego must not only attempt to change the external conditions in order to make them more favorable to instinctual gratification, it is also forced at times into direct conflict with the instinctual demands themselves. The condition of this struggle is the ego itself, the individual as encapsulated in the agency of consciousness.

As Freud describes the task of the ego, “An action by the ego is as it should be if it satisfies simultaneously the demands of the id, of the super-ego and of reality—that is to say, if it is able to reconcile their demands with one another.” [39] The ego finds itself mediating the demands of reality as perceived, the super-ego, and the instinctual demands pressuring it from below, so to speak. It is known that the ego must act to block certain instinctual satisfaction; this is also the primary responsibility of the super-ego. [40] Fenichel offers an account of the highly interesting manner in which the super-ego can at times seem to be acting instinctually in blocking instinctual discharge:

The energy with which the ego carries out its instinct-inhibiting activities is drawn from the instinctual reservoir of the id. A portion of the instinctual energy is changed into counterinstinctual energy. A certain part of the ego which inhibits instinctual activity develops on the one hand closer to the instincts and on the other hand is in conflict with other parts of the ego that are hungry for pleasure. This part, which has the function (among others) of deciding which impulses are acceptable and which are not, is called the super-ego. While the ego is also a representative of the outside world, here again we have a special representative of the outside world within the first representative. [41]

Thus, the ego comes at various times into conflict with external reality, the id, and the super-ego. Psychoanalysis is certainly a conflict theory; in fact, even its prior conceptions were conflictual in nature, despite the later development of the second topographical model. The psychoanalytic view of the nature of the conflict, however, has changed. Now, as Fenichel notes, the conflict is not thought of as being between differing kinds of instincts, that is, between ego-instincts and sexual instincts; instead, the ego (and inside it, the super-ego), despite being in conflict with its instinctual underbelly, derives all of its instinctual energy from the id. [42]

Figure 1: Freud's “Dissection of the Psychical Personality” [43]

Freud points out that the super-ego derives its contents from the influence exercised in the development of the child by the parents and the later authority figures such as teachers who, in this schema, substitute for them. The super-ego, he explains, shares with the id a fundamental link to the past primarly unknown to the rest of the ego: “the id the influence of heredity, the super-ego the influence, essentially, of what is taken over from other people—whereas the ego is principally determined by the individual’s own experience, that is by accidental and contemporary events.” [44] The super-ego has a “historic role whereby parental stances and the law of the father are transmitted,” as it is “formed by a complex identification with the objects to which the libidinal impulses of the id were most attached and the prohibition of these desires”. [45] The super-ego is in its essence a conservative influence inside the psychical apparatus, at once the earliest reality-checker [46] and yet in conflict with the reality-perceiving capabilities of the ego—which, for its part, defends self-preservation in order to guarantee future instinctual satisfaction for the demands of the id. The super-ego, the bearer of culture and tradition, would seem to be of importance to a Marxist synthesis with psychoanalysis because of its conservative influence, and moreover, its exaggerated role in the neuroses. In order to approach such a study, the genesis of the super-ego, rooted as it is in the erotic desires and frustrations of the family, must be critically examined in greater detail.

The Oedipus Complex

It seems that the super-ego is poised to be the psychical axis around which the institution of the family revolves. What psychoanalysis knows about the process of psychical development that introduces the super-ego into a mind which does not contain it from birth, alongside the fact that the family has not always existed as the means for reproduction of the species, indicates that to examine the genesis of the super-ego would offer insight into the historical specificity of psychical development in the family. Psychoanalysis offers much along these lines; indeed, this is precisely the crux of the psychoanalytic contributions. Buried in the unconscious is discovered a terrible secret.

The nature of childhood development is such that parents are seen as omnipotent because of their ability to offer and withdraw the satisfaction of the child’s needs. It is only natural, therefore, that the mother, the first caretaker, be taken as object by the child not only for the instinct of hunger but that of erotic desire as well. The situation is in fact quite a bit more complicated. We can label the following the Oedipus complex:

Organised body of loving and hostile wishes which the child experiences towards its parents. In its so-called positive form, the complex appears as in the story of Oedipus Rex: a desire for the death of the rival–the parent of the same sex–and a sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex. In its negative form, we find the reverse picture: love for the parent of the same sex, and jealous hatred for the parent of the opposite sex. In fact, the two versions are to be found in varying degrees in what is known as the complete form of the complex. [47]

In the positive form, the same-sexed parent is seen as a competitor to the little Oedipus, who thereby recognizes a need to eliminate this enemy in order to achieve sexual satisfaction with the desired object. Clearly, the question of the differing roles of the parents, that is gender, becomes highly important in the Oedipus complex. As the child enters what is known as the phallic stage of development, the sexual instinct finds in the phallus—which these not-yet-gendered children assume all to possess—a locale at which all sexual energy can be concentrated for release. [48] The girl, being raised in a phallocentric world, assumes her clitoris to be the phallus perceived to be a necessary component of sexual desire. [49]

Children of both genders find, though, that the social rules governing their familial existence prohibit the actualization of their sexual desire. It is the father who comes to enforce this prohibition, “it’s the father who represents the censor, the cause of unconscious repression, and it is he who is desired unconsciously by the little girl; she desires, in sum, he who forbids all desire”. [50] Repression has been previously examined. It is not enough, though, to say simply that the father-as-censor is its cause. It is known that the super-ego carries out a process of repression on certain instinctual demands emanating from the id. From whence, though, the super-ego? It is introduced into the child in the process of reconciliation that supposedly resolves the Oedipus complex:

As the positive Oedipus complex of the boy is shattered, he gives up his mother as object, but identifies with his father – this new type of identification must be distinguished from the earlier (or simultaneous) ones that replaced a lost object. Freud suggests a new term for it – the ‘superego’. The superego stipulates that the boy must be like his father, but not too like him – i.e. he must not wish to take his place with the mother. [51]

Because the Oedipus complex is in fact more complete than the version given by Sophocles, the boy’s super-ego must also contain identification with the mother as well. But it is the male’s identification with the father that forms the primary basis for the reconciliation of his Oedipus complex. Yet things turn out significantly differently for the girl, who must inevitably discover that she does not actually possess the phallus that will come to define her gender by this very dispossession. Here there is a commonality between male and female, a term, “castration,” that can describe the process for both sexes, despite operating in a basically opposite way. The girl, who discovers that her clitoris is not indeed the phallus, is required to activate her vagina as her primary sexual organ, fusing sexuality with reproduction; this shift is the way in which the girl is given her gender, which is particularly problematic given that, as Mitchell notes, it is not always fully carried out, and at any rate, the advantages in patriarchal society of being male are so numerous as to raise a formidable counter-tendency to this process. [52] To the extent that this is successful, she transfers her sexual desire from her mother to her father, incorporating his prohibitions similarly to how the boy will, into her super-ego. “On the contrary, possessing a penis, the boy does not have to experience the feeling of already having been castrated, but instead must face the fear of its being carried out on him, particularly by his father as a punishment for his unforgivable feelings of desire for his mother and aggression against his father. Castration, however, is not typically a real threat but rather a symbolic one, which the boy can accept (just as the girl can accept her real castration) in order to transcend the Oedipus complex and move toward adulthood. One day, the boy will grow to be an adult like his father, with a penis as large, and moreover, a sexual object, a wife, of his own. [53] This is “the end of the long forced march to childhood”—or at least, the psychoanalytic theory of it. [54]


Freud’s early work with hysteric patients (who suffer from a particular neurosis) found a prevalence of traumatic sexual experiences with determinant roles in the formation of the disorder. A trauma theory of neurosis provides a tidy explanation, necessitating a search through the patient’s history seeking a specific causal event. “In economic terms, the trauma is characterised by an influx of excitations that is excessive by the standard of the subject’s tolerance and capacity to master such excitations and work them out psychically.” [55] Clearly, such events could trigger a neurotic disorder as a response. Here we can see allusion to the necessity of Freud’s break from the trauma theory toward a broader theory of neurosis:

One hundred years ago, Freud had ample evidence to suggest that widespread, pervasive cruelty to children — and, in the case of the neuroses, sexual abuse — could well be the universal aetiological agent behind the disease. Yet he was uneasy about his theory. In the spring and summer of 1897 he complained to Fliess that hysteria was not coming out as he wished. And this it could not do because sexual abuse is not the only form of violence of aetiological significance for hysteria. [56]

The confusing part of this story is that Freud’s patients continued to relay traumatic sexual experiences. While he has been heavily criticized for supposedly refusing to believe these stories, it is clearly true that the early theory of trauma was insufficient to explain some neuroses.

In some ways, Freud’s new theory was more revolutionary than his earlier one. Now, the traumatic experiences relayed to Freud were to be taken for their psychic reality, not necessarily their material-historical reality. That is, the new theory offers a role for the patient’s fantasies, and it seeks to explore their position in the material offered up for analysis. In order to differentiate the origin of a neurosis and therefore its typology, the early theory of traumatic neurosis is essentially preserved despite the new findings opened up in the study of what are known as the psychoneuroses. Paradoxically, according to Fenichel, the cause of a psychoneurosis is a “relative traumata,” stimuli which would not be traumatic except in the context of the “neurotic conflict, [. . .] one between a tendency striving for discharge and another tendency that tries to prevent this discharge.” [57] The ego, as shown, is the agency which acts to block these drives from achieving discharge. With the Oedipus complex elaborated, it is possible to see how a particular section of the ego, the super-ego, which is inaugurated fully by castration, carries out the largest part of the blocking involved in this neurotic conflict, in the name of the morality inherited from the parents.

Psychoneurosis bears an intimate connection to the Oedipus complex. The passage through the Oedipus complex and into the acceptance of castration is not an easy one. The process, successfully culminating, ends in the repression of the Oedipal urges. Yet the repression of the complex is only a matter of degree, for it is never fully eliminated. [58] Thus, consequential to the interconnected theories of the Oedipus complex and the theory of psychoneurosis is that, to varying degrees, the psychoneurotic conflict is present in all seemingly normal individuals.

The neurotic conflict—between the drives of the id and the demands of reality and the ego—is capable of producing symptoms that neither characterize an over-defense against the fulfillment of the drive nor a defeat of the defensive mechanisms by the drive. Rather, as Fenichel notes, both occur:

Compromises are found in which the objectionable impulse finds some substitute outlet, but the substitute outlet may help to ward off the remainders of the original impulse. A part of the dammed-up energy is discharged, but in such a way as to intensify the defense against the rest. The typical neurotic symptom expresses drive and defense simultaneously. [59]

The neurotic symptom is a dialectical synthesis of the two opposing psychical tendencies involved in the conflict that engenders it. The outcome is a compromise between a substitutive satisfaction of the drive and the need to block the drive. The symptom, then, is characterized by the return of the repressed material, which strives for discharge in the face of a cathexis of energy to its repression. [60]

Some neuroses, however, are apparently asymptomatic. A character neurosis is one in which “the defensive conflict, instead of being manifested by the formation of clearly identifiable symptoms, appears in the shape of character traits, modes of behaviour or even a pathological organisation of the whole of the personality.” [61] Just as it is possible to generalize aspects of the meanings of various frequently occurring symptoms, character types can be categorized. As Laplanche and Pontalis also note, character types can be considered in terms of the dominant type of neurosis—with all its particular fixations and regressions—or in terms of the predominant erotogenic zone that typifies the regression involved in the character neurosis. In psychoanalytic treatment, character neurosis manifests as a broad resistance to the process effected by the typical responses of the analysand. These responses serve the purposes of defense against the unconscious material, and therefore a so-called character analysis must aim at a sweeping restructuring of the personality. For Reich, a pioneer of character analysis, the method elaborated becomes a crucial part of his overall social understanding and explanation of fascism.

Character analysis, which will be discussed later, does not really impact the clinical aims of psychoanalysis, which remain the exposition of unconscious drives and the freeing up of libidinal energy. In the course of psychoanalytic treatment of the psychoneuroses, a phenomenon known as transference arises which appears to be deeply connected to the nature of the disease’s etiology itself. In some ways, character might be seen as a resistance to transference, but transference is in fact almost universal to the neuroses. The patient’s feelings toward and behavior with the analyst become subject to unconscious processes:

On the contrary, the patient sees in him [the analyst] the return, the reincarnation, of some important figure out of his childhood or past, and consequently transfers on to him feelings and reactions which undoubtedly applied to this prototype. This fact of transference soon proves to be a factor of undreamt-of importance, on the one hand an instrument of irreplaceable value and on the other hand a source of serious dangers. This transference is ambivalent: it comprises positive (affectionate) as well as negative (hostile) attitudes towards the analyst, who as a rule is put in the place of one or other of the patient’s parents, his father or mother. [62]

The idealization that accompanies transference, insofar as it sets the patient into a devotion toward the analyst, “becomes the true motive force of the patient’s collaboration”. [63] The ambivalence of the relation, though, means that transference is always both positive and negative from the perspective of effecting a successful cure. It becomes not only a force powering the healing process; it also serves the patient’s resistances as a potential obstruction. In the delicate balance of the transference lies the psychoanalytic situation; in essence, psychoanalysis depends on this misrecognition of the past in the present.

Some psychoneuroses, however, are characterized by an inability of the sufferer to establish a transference relationship to the psychoanalyst. As opposed to the transference neuroses, these narcissistic neuroses are typically called psychoses. In psychoses, there is a withdrawal of libidinal cathexes to objects, and instead, the libido is cathected to the ego. [64] This process prevents the development of a transference relationship and contributes to the inadequacy of psychoanalytic treatment for the psychoses. Withdrawal of libido from objects is a more precise way of saying that the psychotic regresses to a state in which his or her ability to judge objective reality is lost; “the majority of manifest symptoms, and particularly delusional construction, are accordingly treated as secondary attempts to restore the link with objects.” [65] Freud describes two processes which establish a psychotic break from reality: “either by the unconscious repressed becoming excessively strong so that it overwhelms the conscious, which is attached to reality, or because reality has become so intolerably distressing that the threatened ego throws itself into the arms of the unconscious instinctual forces in a desperate revolt.” [66] Dreams are not to be sharply distinguished from psychoses because they involve a total withdrawal from the world of objects; instead of libidinal cathexis to objects, instinctual demands can be satisfied in this state only through “hallucinatory satisfaction,” that is, through the fantastical creations of the ego. Just as everyone enters the psychotic state of dreaming every night, the narcissism of the psychotic is not thought to be all that far-removed from normal psychical development. Narcissism, likely in Freud’s view to be “the universal and original state of things,” corresponds to the sexual activity of auto-erotism, describing the behavior itself as opposed to the libidinal implications carried by “narcissism.” [67]

The question of psychosis raises an interesting conceptual dilemma. Though different theoretical schools address the issues in varying ways, the insistence that psychosis is a break from reality remains a linchpin. This is paired with the difficulty of establishing transference repertoires with psychotic patients. Yet Freud has directly contrasted the transference situation to that of reality. [68] It is as if the psychotic is undesirable for psychoanalysis because the treatment’s course involves and necessitates transference: its own break from reality. The transference, the analysis of which was Freud’s point of departure with hypnosis, is at any rate a fundamental question for psychoanalysis, which is not given a serious enough place in the Freudo-Marxist literature.

Freudo-Marxism, however, is at some points not too far removed from the overall schema of orthodox Freudianism sketched out thus far. This is particularly true in Fenichel, who does insert Marxist language into some psychoanalytic writings. For Fenichel, as for other Freudo-Marxists, the death instinct is a source of anxiety, but the relationship between social and psychic repression is a primary concern. Psychoanalysis, to Fenichel, is in constant danger of self-liquidation, and so it must maintain a sociological awareness and not blind itself to what goes on beyond the analyst’s couch. Questions of repression aside, this simple wish for psychoanalysis to open itself up to the oppressive, miserable realities of the world—and to not serve as a cover for them—is really the centerpiece of the Freudo-Marxist banner and a thread running all the way through it.


1 Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 25-26.

2 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 31.

3 Ibid, 32.

4 Ibid.

5 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 474.

6 Ibid, 62.

7 Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 125-6.

8 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, 10.

9 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 12.

10 Jacques Lacan, “On Freud’s ‘Trieb’ and the Psychoanalyst’s Desire,” in Écrits, 722.

11 Louis Althusser, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, 102-3.

12 While it is clear that there are vast potential theoretical problems in diction, this work will use “instinct” as opposed to “drive,” with the caveat that the full meaning of Freud’s Trieb is intended. “Drive” will be used when social factors must be emphasized more strongly, though this is intended only to shift emphasis, not to imply that these factors are not present—perhaps even determinatively—in cases where “instinct” is used.

13 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 17.

14 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 55.

15 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 17-18.

16 The death instinct is referred to by some, including perhaps Freud conversationally, as Thanatos. In order to err with the side of conservatism, “death instinct” will be used in this work to respect Freud’s terminology and scientific care in word selection. Thanatos could well be a highly suitable name, but this question cannot be addressed here. See J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, “Thanatos,” in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 447.

17 Ibid, 239.

18 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 18.

19 “There can be no question of restricting one or the other of the basic instincts to one of the provinces of the mind. They must necessarily be met with everywhere. We may picture an initial state as one in which the total available energy of Eros, which henceforward we shall speak of as ‘libido’, is present in the still undifferentiated ego-id and serves to neutralize the destructive tendencies which are simultaneously present. (We are without a term analogous to ‘libido’ for describing the energy of the destructive instinct.) At a later stage it becomes relatively easy for us to follow the vicissitudes of the libido, but this is more difficult with the destructive instinct.” — Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 19.

20 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 127.

21 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 14.

22 Ibid, 15.

23 Ibid.

24 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 18.

25 Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 156.

26 Robert Stiler, “The Politics of Psychoanalysis: Discussion and Rebuttal,” 26.

27 ”Karl Marx’s investigations into the economic structure of society and into the influence of different economic systems upon every department of human life have in our days acquired an undeniable authority. How far his views in detail are correct or go astray, I cannot of course tell. I understand that this is not an easy matter even for others better instructed than I am.” — Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 218-19.

28 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 71.

29 Frederick Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” in Selected Works Volume Three, 248-9.

30 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Selected Works Volume One, 123.

31 Freud’s expression seems to carry a positive bias, but the family is in fact organized to conservatively strive toward recreating the existing society; it is not a source of new social growth but of stillbirth and decay.

32 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 71-2.

33 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 197.

34 “Consciousness comes into being at some point in the process of systematization. This process depends on the ability to utilize memories. Memory traces are remnants of perceptions; they apparently arise on a second level below that of the perceptions themselves. The ego broadens out from the layer of these memory traces, called the preconscious. The differentiation of the ego is a gradual process. There are deeper layers of the ego which are unconscious. The transition from ego to id is a gradual one and is only sharp at those points where a conflict exists. However, where such conflict does arise, even highly differentiated forces of the ego become unconscious again.” — Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 17.

35 Quoted in Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 153.

36 “Its psychological function consists in raising the passage [of events] in the id to a higher dynamic level (perhaps by transforming freely mobile energy into bound energy, such as corresponds to the preconscious state); its constructive function consists in interpolating, between the demand made by an instinct and the action that satisfies it, the activity of thought which, after taking its bearings in the present and assessing earlier experiences, endeavours by means of experimental actions to calculate the consequences of the course of action proposed. In this way the ego comes to a decision on whether the attempt to obtain satisfaction is to be carried out or postponed or whether it may not be necessary for the demand by the instinct to be suppressed altogether as being dangerous. (Here we have the reality principle.)” — Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 86.

37 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 40.

38 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 87.

39 Ibid, 15.

40 Ibid, 17.

41 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 18.

42 Ibid, 57.

43 Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, 98. Image obtained from View full size image.

44 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 16.

45 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 72.

46 Jacques Lacan, “Variations on the Standard Treatment,” in Écrits, 278.

47 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 282-3.

48 Ibid, 309-11.

49 “At first one feels as though Freud has neglected to follow through the logic of his own insights and assume that if, in this brief moment, the boy takes the world to be male, the girl must likewise take it to be female. [. . .] Girls do transfer to men, women and boys their notion of their own sexuality; but at this stage it is clitoral genitality alone that they experience and as the clitoris is homologous and analogous to the penis, they too assume a phallic world.” — Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 54.

50 Louis Althusser, Writings on Psychoanalysis, 100.

51 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 71.

52 Ibid, 87.

53 Ibid, 79.

54 Louis Althusser, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, 27.

55 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 465.

56 Joseph Schwartz, Cassandra’s Daughter, 75. Cassandra’s Daughter is a concise, interesting history of psychoanalysis. For general history, see also George Makari, Revolution in Mind.

57 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 129.

58 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 88-9.

59 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 193.

60 See J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 398-9.

61 Ibid, 67-8.

62 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 52.

63 Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 53.

64 Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 515-7.

65 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, 370.

66 Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 19-20.

67 Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 517.

68 “The patient is not satisfied with regarding the analyst in the light of reality as a helper and advisor who, moreover, is remunerated for the trouble he takes and who would himself be content with some such role as that of a guide on a difficult mountain climb.” — Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 52.


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  1. Kamal Nepal said, on June 17, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    Is it possible to get the name of the Writer/ Author who prepared this article with such worthful and wonderful work?

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