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Freud the Socialist, Freud the Revolutionary


Famously, Sigmund Freud – the founder of psychoanalysis – was concerned with the individual psyche in relation to his work as a psychoanalyst. However, to argue that Freud was solely concerned with the individual and the intrapsychic at the expense of the social would be a mistake. Throughout Freud’s oeuvre, there is an implicit concern with the social, particularly if one takes into consideration the mutual co-constitution and feedback loop that exists between the individual psyche and the social and, further, takes on the interpretation that understanding the individual psyche and its complexities is key to improving the social and vice-versa. The link between the individual and the collective is made unequivocally clear by Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), where Freud argued that:

‘It is true that individual psychology is concerned with the individual man and explores the paths by which he seeks to find satisfaction for his instincts; but only rarely and under certain exceptional conditions is individual psychology in a position to disregard the relations of this individual to others. In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent, and so from the very first individual psychology is at the same time social psychology as well—in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the word.’

Relatedly, as Sabby Sagall succinctly argues, ‘Freud did not reject the importance of external factors in the origins of mental illness, but argued that external factors were filtered through the inner world of the victim.’[1]

At heart, psychoanalysis is a radical project, or as Herbert Marcuse put it in Eros and Civilization, a ‘radically critical theory’[2], insofar as it forces us to acknowledge deeply uncomfortable truths about ourselves. For Freud, as a species we have a preponderance to be, at root, aggressive, conflicted, and significantly unaware of some of our deepest intentions and desires.

Moreover, beyond this, Freud also made explicit arguments that revealed him to be concerned with social justice. This is the case in, amongst other places, The Future of an Illusion (1927), where in spite of arguments that are deeply pessimistic about human nature and in which he characterizes the masses as fundamentally lazy and unintelligent, Freud emerges as a latent socialist and pro-revolutionary (and not necessarily in a violent sense). In relation to the repression of instinctual impulses in the service of civilization, Freud argues that:

‘If […] a culture has not got beyond a point at which the satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another, and perhaps larger, portion – and this is the case in all present-day cultures – it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share. In such conditions an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed people is not to be expected […] It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.’  

Freud also re-asserts similar sentiments in a footnote to Civilization and its Discontents (1930), where he argues that: ‘Anyone who has tasted the miseries of poverty in his own youth […] should be safe from the suspicion of having no understanding or good will towards endeavours to fight against the inequality of wealth among men and all that it leads to.’

Admittedly, Freud is highly suspicious of the communist project. As he argues in Civilization and its Discontents:

'The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbour; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbour; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear amongst men.’

However, Freud is not suspicious of the communist project on economic grounds – he says as much explicitly when he argues in Civilization and its Discontents that ‘I have no concern with any economic criticism of the communist system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous.’ Freud’s criticism is premised in psychology. Freud admits that in abolishing private property, ‘we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments’ – but human nature, aggressive as it is, remains fundamentally unchanged. This is the crux of Freud’s criticism, and forms the basis of his doubt – that communism will not eradicate human beings’ preponderance to be hostile and aggressive towards each other. However, what needs to be noted here is that being sympathetic to a redistribution of wealth or to socialist ideals does not necessarily mean a wholesale conflation with communism. Further, Freud may have been pessimistic in his view of human nature, but that still does not negate the ethical validity of his latent socialist arguments highlighted earlier.

I recently re-read The Future of an Illusion at around the same time that I came across an article that exposed that ‘just nine of the world’s richest men have more combined wealth than the poorest 4 billion people’[3]. No matter how many times I read and re-read the headline, the disparity in wealth between just 9 men and 4 billion other people gets no less striking. Such a world makes little sense to me. It only makes me sympathize with Freud’s arguments even more, which demonstrate an explicit, continuing relevance in the 21st century, and not just on moral terms.

Linda Roland Danil completed her PhD at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds in 2015. Since then, she has published sole-authored articles in journals such as Law and Critique, Law, Culture and the Humanities, and Critical Studies on Security. She has also acted as guest editor for a Critical Studies on Security special issue.

My thanks to David Livingstone Smith for his helpful comments in developing this piece.

[1] Sagall, S. (2015) In defence of Freud’s innovation. Socialist Review. [Online] Available from: http://socialistreview.org.uk/405/defence-freuds-innovation

[2] Marcuse, H. (1966): Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston: The Beacon Press, p.238.

[3] Jacobs, S. (2018): Just nine of the world's richest men have more combined wealth than the poorest 4 billion people. The Independent. [Online] 17 January. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/richest-billionaires-combined-wealth-jeff-bezos-bill-gates-warren-buffett-mark-zuckerberg-carlos-a8163621.html s