Monday Book: A battle between Marx and Freud

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CAN FREUD be reconciled with Marx? Interestingly, the ideologues of both superpowers during the Cold War said no, and in the US it was fashionable to use Freud as a weapon with which to "refute" Marx. In the Soviet Union, for 60 years from 1924, the official line was that Freud's doctrine represented both "idealist mystification", and "bourgeois individualism".

It was left to the Frankfurt School, especially Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, to underline the many significant ways in which Marxism and Freudianism converged, and to argue convincingly that the very last belief-system for which psychoanalysis could act as a support was capitalism. Only at the very beginning of the history of the Soviet Union, during Lenin's New Economic Policy, and at the very end, during Gorbachev's glasnost, did the id, ego, superego and the unconscious gain a foothold in the USSR.

Freud originally hoped that he would find an apostle to take the gospel of psychoanalysts to Russia - someone who would rival Jung in Switzerland, Ferenczi in Budapest, Abraham in Berlin and Ernest Jones in Britain. He had great hopes for Nikolai Osipov, who pioneered the application of Freud's theories to Russian literature, especially Tolstoy, but Osipov had two drawbacks. He was influenced more by Jung and the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Dubois, and he had no stomach for a fight.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Osipov fled to Prague, leaving Russian psychoanalysis in the hands of Tatiana Rosenthal. When she committed suicide in 1921, the movement was without a leader until Sabina Spielrein, one of Freud's most brilliant students and a former lover of Jung's, returned to her native Ukraine. She was initially aided by the favourable attitude of both Lenin and Trotsky, but already the Stalinist clouds were gathering.

Martin Miller's scholarly volume concentrates on the period until 1924, analysing in detail the writings of Bernard Bykhoysky and M A Reisner, and the years after 1953, focusing particularly on the work of the subtle psychologist Omitri Vznadze. About the Stalinist era there is little to say. Psychoanalysis was declared a bourgeois heresy, incompatible with Marxist-Leninism, and four main reasons were adduced.

First, Stalin's doctrine of "socialism in one country" meant that any movement with an international dimension was regarded as "antisocialist". Secondly, sexuality or Eros was seen as an aggressive instinct incompatible with the new brotherly love under socialism. Psychoanalysis was also thought to be "soft on homosexuality", which the Stalinist regime viewed as criminal depravity. Finally, the vulgar Marxism of Stalin postulated an utopia where human misery and conflict would wither away, whereas Freud saw them as ineradicable aspects of the human condition.

By the 1930s, it had become much too dangerous for any Russian to attempt a fusion of Freudian and Marxist thought. It became the party line that Pavlov was the last word in psychology, and that psychoanalysis should he consigned to the rubbish dump of bourgeois garbage, along with Gestalt psychology, relativity and quantum theory. Discouraged by the failure of psychoanalysis in the Soviet Union, Freud hit back at his Bolshevik critics, accusing them of naivety: human beings were not perfectible and there was a limit to what social amelioration could do for individuals.

Freud was nettled by charges that Freudianism was simply a new religion and, as such, merely a new opiate for the people. Freud replied that it was Marxism that replicated the worst faults of Christianity: the salvation and the Second Coming, the intolerance of unbelievers and the use of the Inquisition to silence dissenters.

Martin Miller's political perspective on the Soviet Union reads like unreconstructed John Foster Dulles-speak from the 1950s, but there can be no denying his erudition, nor the clarity with which he differentiates his four distinct epochs: 1917-24, the Stalin years, 1953-85, and the Gorbachev age of "openness". The flaw with the book is its dry, disinterested quality. Miller is content merely to report the various attempts to reconcile Freud and Marx, but he does not seem to find the issue of any intrinsic interest and there is an above-the-battle flavour to his treatment of the Russian psychoanalysts, as if they were specimens in a laboratory. Miller, alas, proves the truth of the maxim that scholars are rarely intellectuals, and American academics seldom committed.

The reviewer's latest book, `1066: the Year of Three Battles', is published by Cape