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Neil Faulkner, who died of aggressive leukaemia on 5 February, was a revolutionary Marxist, an acclaimed archaeologist and, it is clear from this little book published the day he died, a Freudian. For Neil, Freudian psychoanalysis was a science of the mind that needed to be taken seriously and, where necessary, integrated into Marxism as a science of political-economic history.
Fascism was a case in point, a case where we need psychoanalysis alongside Marxism to explain the hold of destructive and self-destructive ideas on people. This book shows how personal-political processes underpinned the rise of fascism in the 1930s and how an attention to the forms of pathology that psychoanalysis specialises in describing and treating can help us understand better the grip of creeping fascism today.
I have to declare a personal-political interest in this. I commented on a version of the manuscript for this book, and Neil copyedited my Radical Psychoanalysis and Anti-Capitalist Action that will also be published by Resistance Books, adding, where appropriate, he told me, ‘Oxford commas’. Along the way we discussed some differences of approach, and we planned to set up a public meeting with other invited activist analysts to open up these issues to political debate. I will return to some of these differences in a moment, but first, the argument of the book.
We live, Neil argues, ‘in a world threatened by a surge of fascist irrationalism’. This manifests itself in many ways, and many of those involved ‘display symptoms of psychotic rage’. That is, the violence is ‘internalised in millions of minds’, and so fascism must be understood as a ‘social disease and political threat’ and also as a ‘psychological affliction’. The book then gives an account of the alienation we suffer under capitalism and shows how that contains the seeds of hatred of ‘others’ and self-hatred.
There is a good clear account of Freud’s ideas about the split between conscious understanding of the world and unconscious irrational forces. And this keys us into not only Freud’s own account of what can go wrong, how we can be fixated on past traumatic events, but also a host of other psychoanalysts, many on the left, who provided their own readings of what was happening around them with the rise of Nazism.
The sweep of the book is dramatic and compelling, and you will be drawn along into the argument that there is something deeper and more insidious about the racism and sexism that capitalism feeds on and regurgitates. It is exactly as if fascism unleashes the worst of what we are as human beings, vomiting up all of the most brutal and irrational aspects of life before ‘civilised’ capitalist society locked us into place as good citizens.
It is indeed as if Trotsky, who was himself very sympathetic to psychoanalysis, was absolutely right when he wrote in 1933 about Nazism, about the way that all forms of religious and mystical nonsense was resurfacing inside and against scientific reason: ‘Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up undigested barbarism’.
Neil, and Trotsky here, makes it seem as if Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are each, in their different ways, hard-core sciences that solve the riddles of history and the mind. It is if, now we have these sciences we can understand the normal development of societies and individuals, and we are bit by bit edging towards a more rational description and treatment of barbarism and pathology.
I think the description Neil gives is right, but I muttered two or three times a page to myself as I was reading it ‘under capitalism’. That is, what Freud, and Neil, describes as the enclosed space of the patriarchal nuclear family is something specific to this kind of society, not universal. My worry was that he made it seem as if there really was a clear-cut universal distinction between ‘normal development’ that would lead to us being happy well-adjusted people (and to being revolutionaries who want to change the world, why not) and abnormal development that is mostly the rule nowadays and that turns us into creeping fascists.
Neil was clear that he thought that I was wrong to suggest that either Freud or Marx were historically-specific frameworks. No, he said, and I’m quoting from what Neil wrote to me before he died, ‘to argue that Freud invented psychoanalysis and that therefore it didn’t exist beforehand and therefore isn’t really applicable to earlier societies and perhaps contemporary societies outside the Western cultural sphere is wrong’. We must not, he said, fall into the trap of ‘denying the scientific status of psychoanalysis. I would insist that psychoanalysis is the science of the mind in the same sense as Marxism is the science of history/society’.
This makes clear some underlying assumptions in this book, that psychoanalysis is, as Neil put it ‘a method of analysis of universal validity (as all truly scientific projects must be). I haven’t the slightest doubt, for example, that Alexander the Great was psychotic, that medieval Madonna and Child images reflect mother-fixation, or that Shakespeare’s Othello is a study in psychosis, that of both Iago and Othello. I think not to defend the scientific integrity of psychoanalysis looks like a collapse into postmodernism.’
Then, when we come to fascism, the main focus of Neil’s book is about our understanding of fascism as a real pathology. For Neil ‘the system makes people sick in a generic sense – anti-social, narcissistic, psychotic, etc – in a way that provides fascism with a mass psychic base.’ He acknowledged that it ‘may be necessary to draw a sharper line here – between the pathologising of what are essentially healthy human responses to alienation, oppression, etc, and what are unquestionably mental disorders.’
These are sharp rapidly-written email points, but they neatly sum up some assumptions I disagree with, that we clearly disagreed on. I’m not even sure that what we call ‘mental disorders’ in this sick political-economic system, capitalism, are not merely different ways of coping that adapt us to the system and then make us seem sick too. I’m convinced that Marxism was developed under capitalism to grasp the nature of capitalism and show the way to overthrow it, but not that it is a science of all history.
As far as psychoanalysis is concerned, I replied to Neil: ‘fascism is a political problem not a mental disorder, and I think sliding into psychiatric diagnosis is a dangerous move, one that will cut against us on the left. Well, that’s why I say Freud ‘invented’ psychoanalysis, it did help key into some underlying shapes of subjectivity under capitalism, but it is not a psychiatric diagnosis or treatment, it is not bedrock ‘medical’ approach concerned with illness or organic disorders (there are organic brain disorders, for sure, but that is just not within the remit of psychoanalysis to speak about or help us speak about).’
Well, Neil said, then maybe you would not like my Marxist History of the World (sympathetically reviewed with replies by Neil), because it reads Marxism back into all historical development. We were arguing as comrades, as comrades should, rehearsing lines of argument. I said I loved that Marxist history of the world because it showed a deep sensitivity to exploitation of all forms, it is a history that stands with and speaks for the oppressed. A nice humanist could sympathise with those poor people before the development of capitalism, but only a Marxist could situate that in a historical understanding of where we are now and what we need to do.
Capitalism is poisonous not only because it is engaged in ruinous exploitation of people and the planet, exploitation that is now leading to mass misery and mass extinction. Its alienating power also forces its way into us, gets inside us, messes us up so that we often feel powerless to challenge it, coming to believe that it is impossible to change things, to overthrow it.
This is the barbarism that Rose Luxembourg, a key figure in the political tradition Neil came from, pointed to. If there was not a socialist alternative developed to capitalism, and fast, then there would be barbarism; barbarism as vicious competition for resources managed by brutal regimes tearing us apart.
There was always an urgency in Neil’s approach to revolutionary politics that was driven by this conceptual framework, urgency that energised us and that enabled us to believe that it was still worth fighting, fighting to overthrow capitalism. We had a brief debate about the title of this book just before it was published when I raised the question as to whether it would be offensive. Neil insisted that this was exactly what he was analysing in the book, and on that he was right. Capitalism fucks us up and fascism will finish the job, unless we stop it, now.