Revolutionary Desire


Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis was a major milestone in psychological thought. Its main thesis, that there is an unconscious reservoir of sexual energy behind all thought, carried as its consequence the shocking awakening to sexual behavior in the nursery, as well as “sublimated” or desexualized and converted energy in groups like militaries. The quantification of psychical energy is remarkably similar to the labor theories of value found in the classical economists (reaching their peak with Karl Marx). Where Marx sees quantified labor-time as the baseline for commodities’ value, Freud sees sexual energy as the underlying force in all psychical activity (despite the sublimation—desexualization—it undergoes in the Freudian theory).

This widening of the doors of sexuality came as a consequence of Freud’s work with hysteric patients in the 1800s. Psychoanalytic theory arises around the interpretation of hysterical symptoms as expressions of an insufficient degree of repression of unconscious desires, leading to partial discharge. Repression is posited as mechanism for countering unconscious drives, yet it must be divided between social and psychic repression. That is, the repression faced in the family and in school serve the same ends as the psychic repression Freud finds. This tie makes detailed study of Freud’s theory essential to Marxists, for the essential truth Freud discovers is that everyone is neurotic, and everyone is repressed. Moreover, each represses oneself.

Freudo-Marxism is a somewhat heterogeneous body of theoretical work attempting to bridge the divide between Marxism and psychoanalysis. On the one hand, Freudo-Marxism emerges as a corrective to the fact that psychoanalysis had been largely blind to social factors. Many psychoanalysts have had outright reactionary positions on various issues, certainly, but this was usually on a wide spectrum—with the Freudo-Marxists among the furthest left as a counter-tendency. On the other hand, many of the project’s writers are preoccupied with a question quite threatening to orthodox Marxism and Stalinism: how could fascism be desired by the masses? As it was clearly a mass phenomenon, this had to be explained, and yet the Communist policies also clearly failed to stop the fascist takeovers on far too many occasions—so what of their explanations? Freudo-Marxism seriously calls into question all the theories of fascism, and this question serves to illustrate the grave stakes of the issues under dispute.

Given the nature of this theoretical encounter, it is very interesting to examine the history of the Soviet Union in relation to psychoanalysis. Martin A. Miller’s Freud and the Bolsheviks sketches a practical (not theoretical) history of Soviet psychoanalysis, moving from notable advances in the early years of the Revolution to significantly hostile reception toward the end of the 20s. Of the Bolshevik leaders, Leon Trotsky is one of the most known for his sympathy to psychoanalysis, though he expressed his feelings about it quite cautiously. [1] Vladimir Lenin expressed interest in examining psychoanalysis further, but in matters of sexuality he seems to have been a prude. [2] The Bolshevik encounter with psychoanalysis, however, was cut short partly by history and Russian isolation from the European hotbeds of analysis. On the other hand, the Stalinist reaction which emerged attacked not only the gains made in sexual liberation by the Revolution as well as the small footholds psychoanalysis had managed to obtain. Reich’s work The Sexual Revolution, in sections mostly uncovered by this study, goes into the sexual revolution and counterrevolution in the Soviet Union.

However interesting, the history of the Soviet Union is merely incidental to the broader Freudo-Marxist theoretical corpus. This study, covering a cross-section, focuses on theoretical writings by Otto Fenichel, Wilhelm Reich, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—of these, only Deleuze is not in fact a psychoanalyst. Despite its broad philosophical and anthropological ramifications, psychoanalysis remains primarily a clinical method with a theory derived—not quite positivistically—from the experience of its practice, and hence the authors examined are mainly analysts. Moreover, psychoanalysis’s sociological revelations about repression, sexuality, pathology, and the family, have been preserved and maintained to a great extent by the Freudo-Marxists. On many occasion they have defended these gains from psychoanalysis itself. It is this theoretical body which is the object of investigation, despite all of the participants’ varied practical work. Fenichel’s “Children’s Seminar” circle of radical analysts, Reich’s revolutionary Sex-Pol organizations with their mass work for sexual health, and Guattari’s work redefining ward relations at the La Borde clinic—all of these are notable examples of practical work, both deriving from and giving rise to the theoretical outlooks which are examined herein. Thus, the works privileged in this study preserve a clinical and political dimension to a theoretical exposition of Freudo-Marxism.

First, Freud will be placed side by side with secondary texts to sketch out a brief outline of psychoanalytic theory. Some issues, like the death instinct and psychic repression, jump out immediately as focal points in the encounter between analytic and revolutionary theory. Overall, though, the intent is first to clear up terminology because in many ways psychoanalysis is an entirely new language.

Otto Fenichel, a hallmark of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, briefly explores some of the main theoretical questions of pressing importance to Freudo-Marxists and psychoanalysts with a project of defending their body of inquiry from revisionists who threaten it at every turn. Fenichel offers merely a starting point, but the fact that a revolutionary could see his main function as to defend what he saw as the revolutionary nature of psychoanalysis says much. To Fenichel and others, psychoanalysis is itself a revolutionary project, with its own internal ideological class struggles.

These internal disputes led to Wilhelm Reich’s expulsion from the International Psychoanalytical Association (which must surely be attributed to his status as a Communist amidst a period of fascist reaction) just as his mass sex-therapy and radical theories on sexual liberation were the threat responded to by those who pushed for his expulsion from the German Communist Party, beholden to the interests of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Reich, for a few years, had a decidedly Freudo-Marxist period, but his separations from both of the broader organizations spurred him off in his own direction. His research led to a theory which ends up seeming more like a religious mysticism than science. On the other hand, he only went insane by taking aspects of Freudianism and pushing them to their extremes, something Fenichel knew. [3] Yet Fenichel also apparently implied that Reich had become psychotic. [4] Is this a reason to avoid dealing with Reich’s work? Reich must be taken alongside his quirks, for he offers both a series of critical responses to psychoanalytic and Marxist orthodoxy as well as a warning (by example) against the danger of replacing mysticism only with new mysticism.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari respond to Reich. They praise him for asking the crucial question as to how the masses could desire the repression of their own interest, but they do not believe he provides a sufficient answer. In many ways, they formulate a theory of desire and a new revolutionary analytic practice which attempt to answer Reich’s question. Their project leads them in a charge against orthodoxy of varied stripes: Leninist, Freudian, Lacanian. They propose a theory that essentially sees Marx and Freud as exploring the same economy (social/political and libidinal) in different modes of functioning. This strong departure from orthodoxy is supported to some degree by Jean François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, which takes seriously their notion of an immediately libidinal and social economy, but is unfortunately not clinical enough for this project.

Joel Kovel, a practicing analyst, has written quite a bit on Marxism and psychoanalysis. For the sake of limiting the scope of this study, he will only be selectively mentioned. As Douglas Kirsner points out, Kovel’s The Age of Desire could have benefited from a discussion of Deleuze and Guattari. Still, it is a wholehearted attempt at preserving what is radical in psychoanalysis amidst a stifling bureaucracy. See also Kovel’s article “The Marxist View of Man and Psychoanalysis” for a short summary, similar in form to Fenichel’s “Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialistic Psychology” and Reich’s “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.”

Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism will also be used selectively. Mitchell’s approach does remain fairly open to Marxist insights, but in the end her solution is simply a feminist revolution alongside a proletarian revolution. This approach at least attempts to solve the gender and sex questions, as opposed to much of the Marxist tradition which has treated the problems as if they would simply go away, but Mitchell does not go as far as Deleuze and Guattari who apply their critique of libidinal economy to gender difference itself. Mitchell is in fact too psychoanalytic, which limits her understanding of gender and keeps her at the level of supplementing, rather than radically challenging, the Marxist approach. Her work will therefore only be dealt with insubstantially.

Another partial inclusion is Michael Schneider, whose Neurosis and Civilization, offering a Freudo-Marxist synthesis, summarizes quite a few empirical findings in order to draw strangely varied theoretical conclusions. Many of the ideas proposed are interesting, but the work as a whole is quite speculative. It offers a wide critique of psychoanalytic clinical practice, with many valuable insights, but it does not offer a practical clinical model. Schneider will be used occasionally when he is sufficiently relevant.

Julia Kristeva, who helps put Deleuze and Guattari in context, is a practicing analyst with radical ideas, but she is unfortunately rather easy to discount for statements like the following: “Freudianism has no political problems since it is interested above all in the psychic malaise of people.” [5] The psychoanalytic project is not a directly political project for Kristeva, so she will not be studied in detail.

In addition, a few notable, near-total exclusions stand out. Herbert Marcuse’s work, particularly the mainstay Eros and Civilization, is essential to a complete study of Freudo-Marxism. In particular, Marcuse’s approach tends to envision a radically new society with less repression in place. In a sense he attempts to explain alienation and the Marxist answer in Freudian terms, and he contributes an understanding of psychic repression as a mechanism of extracting surplus value. However, Marcuse was not a psychoanalyst, and his work is burdened by lengthy Hegelian philosophical segments, which, while interesting, do not necessarily do much to advance a clinical perspective. His work is worth examination, despite its fealty to the death instinct and to Freud’s “band of brothers” Oedipal mythology.

Also from the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm also credits social factors in his psychological theories. But to arrive at this gain he had to abandon the theory of the instincts and sexuality, and in the end, his work is neither Marxist nor Freudian enough for this study. For a discussion of the overall themes involved in the Freudo-Marxist encounter, though, see Beyond the Chains of Illusion.

Jacques Lacan, a deviant psychoanalyst who saw his project as a “return to Freud” but ended up formulating his own language, is perhaps best seen as a crypto-Freudian, but certainly not a Marxist. However, notable works from philosophers within the Lacanian tradition do engage with the project of a Lacanian-Marxism. [6] Louis Althusser, who was very personally affected by his psychoanalysis, saw this Marx-Freud-Lacan merger as quite an important project, but offers only meager bits of theory along these lines. For Althusser’s personal reflections on psychoanalysis, which are quite moving considering the dark circumstances of his wife’s death, see The Future Lasts Forever. For his collected theoretical writings on psychoanalysis, see Writings on Psychoanalysis. As it is, he figures in this study only tangentially.

Also emerging from the Lacanian philosophical tradition are Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, who are both excluded as not being practicing analysts. Badiou’s Theory of the Subject is interesting, but remains chained to a Maoist outlook—despite its advanced inquiries into topology and theory—and all the while poses the valid question of whether the bond which ties workers to the party might not be the same violent bond of analyst and analysand. Žižek, on the other hand, is far too unMarxist for this study.

Clearly, there are many roads not explored. Some themes can be traced, however, through the authors who have been selected, which may be useful to a more comprehensive endeavor. Freudo-Marxism, it turns out, is not only a richer and wider field after first glance, it is also much more deeply problematic as well. The issues raised by various Freudo-Marxists not only raise huge ontological questions, they also help push Marxism and Freudianism to what Deleuze and Guattari term autocritique. This frenzied study borders at times on a paranoid search for the cops inside, and perhaps it is not possible to do it a full revolutionary justice. On the other hand, the points of tension emphasized can serve as indexes for more radical projects. At any rate, the questions are deep and the stakes are high, and to sort out the details it is necessary to consider the fragments in dialogue.


1 Perhaps Trotsky says more here than anywhere else: “Psycho-analysis, with the inspired hand of Sigmund Freud, has lifted the cover of the well which is poetically called the ‘soul’. And what has been revealed? Our conscious thought is only a small part of the work of the dark psychic forces. Learned divers descend to the bottom of the ocean and there take photographs of mysterious fishes. Human thought, descending to the bottom of its own psychic sources must shed light on the most mysterious driving forces of the soul and subject them to reason and to will.” — Leon Trotsky, “In Defence of October.”

2 See Jacquy Chemouni, “Lenin, Sexuality and Psychoanalysis.”

3 Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth, 247.

4 Ibid, 248.

5 Julia Kristeva, Revolt, She Said, 103.

6 Guattari, trained by Lacan, did not criticize him much, and Anti-Oedipus was apparently highly regarded by him. For more on their relationship, see Daniel W. Smith, “The Inverse Side of the Structure.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: