Socialisms and psychoanalysis

Ian Parker discusses the checkered relationship between socialism and psychoanalysis.


My book Socialisms: revolutions betrayed, mislaid and unmade did not concern itself with psychoanalysis. The book is a description and political analysis of eight failed attempts to build socialism in this capitalist world so hostile to collective self-organisation. But these failures do raise questions about the place of psychoanalysis in the world, both as a therapeutic practice and as a form of political critique.


First, there is the claim that psychoanalysis offers a place for ‘free association’ that may threaten regimes that are based on surveillance of their people. This is sometimes even extended to the idea that the political ethos of psychoanalysis leads to the kind of ‘free association’ we hope and aim for in a socialist society. Such an ethos is threatening to regimes that claim to be socialist but are not, that have betrayed fundamental principles of Marxist politics in which, as Lenin put it, we should expect and demand debate and open governmental processes that are a thousand times more democratic than in bourgeois parliamentary regimes.

The issue here is whether or not psychoanalysis connects ‘free association’ and the right to speak freely inside the clinic with a political programme; there are plenty of regimes that do actually seem to believe that is the case, and oppose psychoanalysis for that very reason.

So, in the case of the USSR, there was a first flourishing of psychoanalysis in the 1920s, with prominent psychologists like Lev Vygotsky and A R Luria joining the Russian Psychoanalytic Society, and then leaving the society when Stalin tightened his grip on the apparatus and psychoanalysis was seen as a threat.

I saw minutes of the Russian Psychoanalytic Society signed by Luria, and then a hand-written note from Luria and Vygotsky when I visited Izhevsk, and it was clear that, with the end of the regime there were new possibilities, new openings for psychoanalysis, but within limits.

As the regime shifted from bureaucratic state management to capitalism through the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, we saw, in fact, even greater hostility to what were viewed as aberrant decadent ‘Western’ forms of sexuality than under Stalin. Stalin outlawed homosexuality, and the Putin regime demonises it, and discussions of queer theory in an Izhevsk psychoanalytic congress that I attended were very difficult.

There is another indication of this in the case of Cuba, where, during my second visit that I describe in the book, I attended a psychology congress that included a session devoted to the work of Fernando González Rey, who was head of the Cuban Psychological Society and Vice-Rector of Havana University for many years. González Rey fell out with Castro during a visit to Brazil when his wife needed medical treatment and he defied Castro’s order that he should return to Havana, and for many years after that he was persona non grata in Cuban psychology.

But the congress was a sign that things were opening up again. It should be noted that González Rey had been a key figure in brokering unusual path-breaking meetings which brought together psychoanalysts, both from the International Psychoanalytical Association and Lacanian groups, from outside the country. I guess we could take this as a sign that Cuba has, through the years, been more open to dissent.

Not completely so; it has always been under threat from the US and has had good reason to be suspicious of ‘dissidents’ working for foreign powers, but relatively more open than the Soviet Union. I met with some young Cuban academics, not psychologists, and we went walking through Havana, chancing on a street bookstall near the University on the way, and there was a little book, published in Cuba, of writings of the Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller. Again, perhaps this is a sign of relative openness in a regime that broke from capitalism but is still subject to it, that collectivised key industries but which has now had to relax restrictions, just recently abandoning the ‘dual currency’ that separated tourists and foreign entrepreneurs from the locals.

As well as repression of psychoanalysis as such, which was fiercer in the Soviet Union and the satellite states under its control, there was also some relaxation as the hold of Moscow lessened. In the case of Serbia, for example, the break between Tito and Stalin was, perhaps, more significant than I made it seem in my description in the book. I emphasised more the continuity between Tito and Milošević and then the current regime, which is well on the way to embracing fully-fledged neoliberalism, than focusing on the positive aspects of Tito.

We have to remember that Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was a dominant cultural bloc, was also a place of intellectual ferment, which included more openness to psychoanalysis. Wilhelm Reich’s writings were translated quite early on, and my main guide and friend in Belgrade during my visit was one of those who translated Reich when Serbia was, as she still sees it, ‘socialist’. Slavoj Žižek wrote a lengthy introduction to a Croatian translation of Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism, and, of course, psychoanalysis was a resource for the countercultural movement in Slovenia.

There are now psychoanalytic trainings in these countries, now that they have become capitalist societies, as there are in China, and I have discussed this with friends who studied in the West and then returned to China, during which time, psychoanalysis had blossomed. The trainings are, however, often linked to medical institutions, which is where the training by Western organisations is often pitched.

When I briefly discussed psychoanalysis in North Korea, by the way, I was met with the blankest of faces, and futile attempts to engage with what I was saying – which was rare because those assigned to deal with Westerners very quickly change the subject when conversation touches on things that are out of the tour frame – indicated that they had not the slightest idea what I was talking about. There were no psychoanalytic books in the libraries we were permitted to enter in Pyongyang.

Here again we need to reflect critically on the claim that the existence of psychoanalysis in a society is an indication that the society is ‘freer’. The claim that psychoanalysis can only really function in a democratic society, and that the two – the realm of therapeutic practice in the clinic and the realm of political debate – mirror each other, is often assumed to be the case by liberal and even some radical psychoanalysts, but I am not so sure it is true. We just have to consider, for example, the case of Hungary, where psychoanalysis did flourish under the Horthy regime, before the incorporation of the country into the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and Soviet control, or South Africa, where psychoanalytic associations operated during the years of apartheid. The flipside of this is Argentina, not by any stretch a socialist country, where it is true that some psychoanalysts, like Marie Langer, had to leave the country during the dictatorship, but this did not at all spell the end of psychoanalysis. Other psychoanalysts stepped in to fill the positions of those who left the country, and the practice, depoliticised perhaps, even so survived.

There are two other issues closely connected with this. One is that psychoanalysis is a child of the Western Enlightenment, and, contradictory though it is, and perhaps precisely because it is contradictory, difficult to pin down, make sense of, some regimes are suspicious of it. I heard in several places the claim that psychoanalysis is ‘Western’, and suspect for that reason.

The other issue, which I have already flagged up briefly, is the link with non-normative sex, well the link with sex actually, which is always necessarily in some ways ‘non-normative’. I describe in the book attacks on vegans in Georgia, and the conservative pro-family activists there are as hostile to feminism as they are to psychoanalysis, seeing the two sets of ideas as equivalent.


Alongside claims about whether psychoanalysis is or is not ‘radical’, or even liberal about the need for ‘free association’ – which is no bad thing, to be honest – there are some deeper conceptual questions about the interrelationship between forms of socialism and psychoanalytic views of what subjectivity is. The two are connected, of course, through feminism – particularly socialist feminism in the claim that the ‘personal is political’ – and that is why feminism has been an absolutely necessary and unavoidable bridge-point for many activists and analysts between Marxism and psychoanalysis.

That is one reason, by the way, why conventional so-called ‘Freudo-Marxism’ and the strand of work that eventually led back to the pro-family complaints of the likes of Christopher Lasch failed, why they ended up down conservative dead-ends; hostility to feminism blocks, at some point, possible connections between the idea of socialism and psychoanalytic practice.

One block, one obstacle, to linking the two – or, putting it another way, distorting both – is in the bedrock claims about ‘human nature’ and the spiralling of ideological claims about what the human being is not capable of because of this or that aspect of their nature. It is here that the operation of psychoanalysis as some kind of worldview is so reactionary. There is a key question about ‘socialism’ here, and the way that regimes I discuss in the book often turn Marxism into a worldview.

This was clear in the case of China, where I was told by one Communist Party apparatchik that Marxism was their ‘faith’, and that is why students needed to learn about it. In the case of North Korea, incidentally, this belief system is transformed into something more mystical, the ‘Juche’ idea. One of the cultural-political limitations of the ‘socialisms’ I discuss, is precisely that they were governed by a belief system functioning as if it was a faith. Maybe I am too liberal here, but it is precisely because I am a Marxist that I do not see ‘Socialism’ as being defined by its belief system but by the creative ability of contradictory ideas and practices to work together; that is ‘free association’, an aim if not completely possible.

Likewise, it is because I am a psychoanalyst that I am averse to psychoanalysis being turned into a ‘faith’, and to talk about ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’ and ‘aggressivity’ and ‘jouissance’ being used to tell us what we cannot do as human beings, and so used to sanctimoniously explain why socialism has failed.

Another block, another obstacle is in common assumptions about subjectivity and change that are sometimes actually shared by psychoanalysts and the Left. This is the old hydraulic model of the unconscious that is so popular in psychologised representations of psychoanalysis, and that still seems to be believed even by some psychoanalysts, an idea that has also entered into popular consciousness as an implicit model of the emergence of political resistance and action. Marxism is very clear about this, and in opposition to this point, arguing that the contradictions of capitalism are a function of the specific nature of its political-economic functioning, and that the working class is constituted as a force that will overthrow capitalism. That is, dialectics does not posit the force of upheaval and overthrow as primary but as a function of the system.

Capitalism distorts Marxism, so that even socialists often argue their corner using rhetorical tropes and even historical narratives that are antithetical to it – conspiracy theories being a case in point – and capitalism very efficiently distorts psychoanalysis too, making it seem as if psychoanalysis stirs up the instinctual depths of the individual, exacerbating these when individuals associate with each other and turn into mobs. That returns us to the image of psychoanalysis that so concerns some of these regimes I describe in the book, and returns us to images of Marxism at the same time.


As well as including detailed historical-political context for the regimes I describe, and reportage to weave a narrative about the internal shape of the regimes, the book is about representations and self-representations of different forms of socialism.

I begin the book with an introduction which points out that Marx never offered a blueprint for socialism, and Marxists have usually been careful not to specify exactly what communism would look like. The best nearest accounts we have available to us now are still in the vein of speculative fiction, in the work of writers like Ursula Le Guin. In other words, Marxist political activists do not, as some psychoanalytic conservative accounts would have it, present an ‘ideal’ which they then try to press the real world into some correspondence with.

We have real problems when we are trying to articulate psychoanalytic and socialist accounts of society because the domain of psychoanalysis is the clinic, not society. Attempts by psychoanalysts to generalise their favourite theory of internal psychic processes to society usually stumble over another problem. From Freud onward, psychoanalytic analyses of society are always themselves from a particular political position. Usually that political position is disavowed; psychoanalysts often wield their theory in such a way as to pretend that they are simply neutrally describing reality. Venezuelan psychoanalysts have often voiced opposition to the regime there because they want to defend their practice as something private, available only for payment, a political not a clinical position.

Many of the representations and even self-representations of socialism are, nevertheless, influenced by some version or other of psychoanalytic theory. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that Freud’s ideas have been a staple of popular media for over a century now, ranging from the reference and use and depiction of those ideas in Hollywood film to the motifs that structure novels, either in knowing winks to the reader in high-brow novels or in simplistic portrayals of underlying sexual motives in pulp fiction.

The other reason is that Freud himself picked up and recycled many popular ideas about the mind and worked on them to develop psychoanalysis. This is especially apparent in his accounts of social processes, and in the work of succeeding generations of psychoanalysts. This is especially so in forms of psychoanalysis aiming to adapt their practice and their analysands to society instead of challenging it. There are then dire consequences for images of socialism in psychoanalysis.

Take, for example, images of the crowd. Yes, it is true that Freud re-read and re-worked Le Bon’s 19th century diatribes against ‘the mob’. So, we have in Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego a more sophisticated account of the role of the ego-ideal in the form of a leader or a leading idea structuring identification and idealisation in groups. But Freud also carried into psychoanalysis from Le Bon a distrust of collective action as prone to be pathological, distrust that reflected Freud’s own political position, worry about things getting out of control, worry about irrational forces being unleashed.

So now when we look at representations of socialism, we find some of these self-same ideas at work, ideas that are of a piece with psychoanalytic diagnoses of socialism as a problem. In the case of the recent Netflix series Crash Landing on You, say, which is about a very wealthy young South Korean woman landing by mistake after a freak storm in the Demilitarised Zone and falling in love with a soldier from the DPRK elite, we have quasi-psychoanalytic elements structuring the narrative. According to this South Korean television series, the dictatorial regime north of the border is riddled with corruption and crime, and there are criminals and gangs running riot unchecked by the authorities. There may be no psychoanalysis in North Korea, but there is plenty of it around in the South in academic work and in popular culture.

The series pokes fun at the South Korean elite, yes, with images of wealthy Catholics asking God to intercede, but the North Korean regime is represented as dangerous precisely because there is no such authoritative trustworthy societal structure in place. It is as if South Korea is organised around the figure of the Swiss policeman Freud speaks about – a strict but fair superego to be installed at the end of analysis – and North Korea, in contrast, is ruled by the Russian corrupt cop, a superego that asks to be bribed and then licences self-destructive and anti-social behaviour. There are scenes of North Koreans being tutored in how to articulate their feelings, in the way that psychoanalysts keen on ‘psychological-mindedness’ would approve of. Switzerland does actually figure in Crash Landing on You, and the series was filmed in South Korea, Switzerland, and Mongolia.


What I aim to do in the book is show how and why each form of ‘socialism’ failed, how it was betrayed, mislaid, or unmade, examining the particular circumstances in which the revolutions occurred and the world-historical context in which they struggled to find their way. We need detailed analyses of actually-existing socialisms and analyses of forms of psychoanalysis too, showing how they intersect, how the failure of each reinforce each other, and so working through how the success of each can provide resources for the other.

Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyist and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance. This article is part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements.

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