On Being a Marxist Psychoanalyst (and a Psychoanalytic Marxist)

Joel Kovel, ecosocialist activist and ex-psychoanalyst, wrote this classic article. Introduced by Ian Parker.


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Joel Kovel, who died in April 2018, was co-author, with Michael Löwy, of the Ecosocialist Manifesto. He trained as a psychiatrist and worked as a radical psychoanalyst before visiting Nicaragua and then turning to Marxist and ecological politics, becoming a prominent member of the Green Party in the US. Joel worked closely with the Fourth International, and wrote influential books on the climate crisis and on Palestine.

This article is reprinted, with thanks, from an early issue of Free Associations journal, which, from the mid-1980s, attempted to shift the centre of gravity of British psychoanalysis to the left, under the editorship of Robert M Young who wrote a tribute to Joel Kovel in Free Associations while republishing the article upon Joel’s death. The article explores connections and contradictions between Marxism and psychoanalysis.

On Being a Marxist Psychoanalyst (and a Psychoanalytic Marxist)

It is a dubious distinction, but I am probably the only officially graduated practitioner of classical Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States who is also a Marxist — at least in my generation, and at least of ‘my kind of Marxism’. There is another analyst about my age who espouses Soviet-style Marxism, and is, I think, a member of the Communist Party of the USA. We are on friendly terms but don’t have much to do with each other. Then, of course, there are other sorts of psychoanalysts who call themselves one kind of Marxist or another, along with progressives who are psychoanalytically inclined but not, so to speak, fully trained. There are many ways to slice these things, and not much point in doing so.

What counts is that there is in no sense any coherent movement of Freudo-Marxists in the United States who practice psychoanalysis or even psychotherapy along psychoanalytic lines. There have been a number of attempts during the past decade to launch one by pulling together like-minded people. A few years ago, one such venture in New York seemed to be getting off the ground. But it suffered from egoism and careerism; intra-group squabbling ensued, and the project sputtered and crashed. It survives now mainly as a psychotherapy group-practice in Greenwich Village. Contrast this with the standard, apolitical practice of psychotherapy (and psychoanalysis) in the United States. Now, everybody knows that bourgeois psychoanalysis is washed up and basically good for nothing except satire. Yet this sterile discourse shelters countless movements and sects, and keeps a substantial portion of the technical intelligentsia busy and gainfully employed.

The reason is that psychoanalysis, bourgeois style, serves a social need and generates exchange value for its practitioners. Since capitalism, despite its need for artificially generating and even appearing to tolerate opposition, is not about to actually reward anything which calls its legitimacy into question, a seriously Marxist psychoanalysis is more than doomed to marginality: it also teeters on the edge of self-liquidation. I do not in fact see how it can ever exist as a movement; its particularistic, petit-bourgeois elements are inevitably strengthened by any motion toward institutionalization, and drive out what is radical. This observation may only be true for the United States, where the left is weak as a movement, and psychologism is rampant. I certainly hope so.

Yet whatever its prospect for organized development, the logic of Freudo-Marxism cannot be set aside. I am not claiming that the really existing Freud or Marx were right in every respect. Nor do I care here to get into the question of the correct line of interpretation within historical materialism or psychoanalysis. I am only saying that there is a twofold truth, a radical truth about psyche and a radical truth about history, that they are not the same (nor the ultimate) truths, and that frameworks going under the name of Freud and Marx are the best way of describing those truths, or at least of pointing us in the direction, that we now have. I don’t see how anybody who is serious about confronting the human condition can avoid this, difficult and problematic and incomplete as it may be. At least I can’t … which more or less consigns me to isolation. A partial, decent, respectable isolation, but isolation all the same. I suppose this in some way suits me even as it distresses me, but that is another matter. I think I feel this most acutely with respect to my psychoanalytic practice, which is small, and in good measure kept small because of my isolation.

One reason analysts flock together and become so self-referential is to recuperate from the effects of the work. To do psychoanalysis properly requires that one listen absolutely, so as to become open to the desire of the other person. The analytic self is an empty receptacle into which desire is poured and which, becoming shaped by desire, can be the vehicle of rendering desire toward consciousness. Such is the logic behind the much misunderstood silence of the analyst, which is not a matter of coldness — although it may be construed as such — nor technocratic viewing-at-a-distance — although it often enough turns into this. The analytic attitude is rather a praxis defined by losing one’s being in that of the other. Its silence is the sign of self-effacement. It is not a ‘technique’, but a way into subjectivity, i.e., a reclamation of subjectivity as object. But it can be maddening to dissolve one’s self and fuse with that of the other in all the latter’s hatred and despair.

One wants to come up for air after a while of doing this. When the other has stolen into the self and set him/her self within, one becomes other to oneself. This is a condition to escape, not surprisingly, in the company of colleagues who both understand what one is going through and can provide mediations, such as seminars, conferences, etc., in which conscious reflection on the work can take place. If, as is the case with me, however, participation in such rituals is shut off because of a rejection of the social interests they necessarily entail, then analytic practice had better be limited, lest it become a bed of nails. In my experience at least, such is its greatest limit and most distressing feature.

What is customarily thought of as the greatest impediment to a Marxist psychoanalysis, namely, the class-bound character of analytic practice, is a secondary factor in my own work. In part this is because I keep my practice small, and in part because, given my reputation, I generally end up seeing people committed to progressive causes, for whom it can be cogently argued that analytic therapy, by lifting neurotic burdens, will make them more effective in their good work. Of the seven people I currently work with on a regular basis, five are out-and-out leftists, one is highly sympathetic but does nothing political, largely because of narcissistic disturbances, and one is vaguely liberal and works in a public setting, delivering services to a poor population. Thus, it can be argued that my psychoanalytic clinical work actually plays a constructive role in class struggle.

There is a countervailing argument, that treatment of this sort ‘sicklies o’er the native hue of resolution with the pale cast of thought’, i.e., that the self-absorption into which one is necessarily plunged by being in analysis draws one away from attacking social evil or expressing revolutionary solidarity. This may be an arguable position in the abstract. However, it does not stand up, at least in light of my experience. There may be episodes of withdrawal from the world in an ongoing analytic treatment. But these are usually both transient and limited. They eventuate either in a greater commitment to radical practice, or, failing that, to a withdrawal occasioned by the discovery that one’s allegiance to the left has been a piece of false consciousness — again, a good thing for the movement. From another angle, it would be the worst kind of Marxism which denied to people, whether in the movement or not, the space, opportunity and right to self-reflection. But there is another, more basic, level to the class-bound argument, and one which my analytic practice has been quite unable to overcome.

You may count the seven patients of my current practice, and riffle through the file of my past experience, without coming across the name of a single proletarian whom I have engaged in extensive psychoanalytic therapy -and few names of anyone whose skin color is other than white. In other words, if my analytic practice helps in the class struggle, it is through the medium of the white radical intellectual. Perhaps someone else will be able to figure out how to do an authentically proletarian psychoanalysis. I can’t. Whether or not it is possible to do so, I am not sure that there is much good in developing a psychoanalysis for workers, beyond the dubious boon of salving the guilt of radicals (which is not the same as radical guilt). Psychoanalysis is a practice which belongs to bourgeois experience in late-capitalist urban society. It is not a particularly good therapy, if by therapy we mean something that can induce behavioral change; but it can be a way of making the experience of a brutal and alienating society intelligible, and of allowing certain individuals to find their true voice in it. That is a not inconsiderable good — but it is predicated on an already bourgeoisified existence, of the kind lived even by those intellectuals who consider themselves radicals.

The political radical is enough in the bourgeois world to be marginal to it, and so qualifies culturally for psychoanalysis. The fact that other classes and ethnicities do not take to psychoanalysis — indeed, that they find it without interest — does not deny them either an inner life or the prospects for alleviation of neurosis. It only recognizes that they are beyond the margin of bourgeois culture. They are affected by it but do not identify with it. There is no disgrace in the fact that psychoanalysis is a bourgeois practice. To the contrary, it contains some of the best of the bourgeois tradition, and should be encouraged on that account alone, the way the best of paganism or feudalism is preserved. I try to practice in this spirit, without illusions that I am doing more than consoling a few privileged individuals (even though they be leftists) and making them better able to be who they are. Nor should the following go unstated: that I also practice psychoanalysis to make money, i.e., to reproduce myself and my family in this selfsame brutal bourgeois world.

Thus my clinical work is no labour of love, even though I often find it enjoyable. Moreover, it goes against the grain of a restless, radical and somewhat romantic spirit. It is, I must admit, hard to see how slender are the gains that are won through this work, how easily people slide back, and how obdurate and negativistic is the human spirit, at least as it has become misshapen by life under capitalism. But this piece of unpleasantness is also part of the truth, and should be preserved as such. It has always struck me that the common trait of all who practice psychotherapy in ease (and this should include the great run of psychoanalysts of whatever persuasion) is that they turn their eyes away from the harsh fact of human negativity. Undoubtedly this wins many friends in the world and greases the wheels of one’s practice. Indeed, it would be the very sine qua non of accommodation to the bourgeois world. But it is also a banal and ultimately repressive view of the human condition. In this respect at least, I am congenial with Freud’s skepticism.

In fact, I feel rather akin at times to the Christian emphasis on original sin. Without dressing it up in ecclesiastical categories (and leaving a great deal of room for changes as a result of social transformation), I would agree that we are ‘fallen’. More, psychoanalysis, properly done, discloses this fact precisely. Good psychoanalysis (even in the attenuated form of face-to-face, one or twice-a-week psychotherapy, which is pretty much all that economic reality allows) can be profoundly helpful — but it is anti-therapeutic, if by therapeutic we mean something along the lines of the medicalized discourse of cure and disease. In this sense, too, good psychoanalysis is a revolutionizing practice. It reveals the depths of our disturbance, and illuminates the fatuous, illusory hope of rectifying this within the given reality. It poses the radical choice of either reconciling ourselves to the given reality (which can be helpful, inasmuch as the self so reconciled has attained greater consciousness and internal harmony) or of transforming reality, and of accepting the pain this entails.

Far from being apolitical, psychoanalysis sharply draws the need for revolution — even if it does little to build our hopes for revolution’s success. The second, radical alternative is what I have embraced, for reasons I wonder about (psychoanalytically, of course) yet cannot ultimately explain (in part because I do not think the explanation lies within psychoanalytic discourse). And if I feel, on the whole, fairly good about what I am doing at this time in my life, it is because I have been willing to accept the isolation of being political and an analyst. I could not feel this way, however, were it not that the left has been able to replace that lost association with the analytic community. Despite the objectively miserable condition of the left at this time, my associations within it have substantially made up for my isolation from the psychoanalytic profession.

Again, I feel my role to be an exceptional one, though without the sense of alienation that comes with psychoanalytic practice. There remains a great deal of resistance in left circles towards appreciating the depth-psychological dimension. I find that radicals have much difficulty in seeing people as more than tabulae rasae. The notion that humans are deeply irrational, or negativistic or self-destructive, or in any way not perfectible through history sits ill among them. They will give it abstract credence, or even recognize it in their own lives, but cannot admit it systematically into their politics, either in theory or in practice; it is as if facing up to our craziness would invalidate the radical project. This misconception has fairly disastrous consequences. It more or less cedes the psyche to the right — witness Reagan’s manipulation of the American people, which repeats in soft but deadly fashion what Hitler did to Germany (It is as if nothing has been learned from the Mass Psychology of Fascism.); and it makes the essential synthesis between feminism and socialism impossible. Finally, the critique of science itself requires an appropriation of subjectivity — for it is at the underside of the psyche that nature emerges as human nature. Needless to add, a very tall order. But unlike the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, not an internally self-contradictory one. There is still a chance to keep psychoanalysis from becoming an instrument for reproducing an intolerable society.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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