The Eupsychian Impulse
Psychoanalysis and Left politics since ’68
My purpose here is to offer some reflections on the part flayed
by psychoanalysis in Left politics in Britain since 1968. I will
attempt a broad and critical characterisation of the major uses
to which psychoanalytic theory has been put in political discourse during this period. There will be very little in this that
readers already familiar with this field will have not read elsewhere, or concluded for themselves (though they may disagree
with my evaluation of those uses). However, I think that the issues of political vision involved here are important enough to
justify a review of the field, even one as summarily crude as
the following. 3
This account is based in part on retrospective research into
the publications and activities of this period, and in part on my
experience of involvement (since 1974) in work concerned
with the problems and challenges posed by psychoanalytic
thought for Left politics, and vice versa. Since 1984 my main
context for this work has been the journal Free Associations;
for about six years before that its primary support was in a
‘Freud-Marx’ reading group linked to the Radical Science
Journal. 4 This inevitably partial experience means that some
areas of work are given less detailed attention than others in
what follows, but this will detract from my argument only if I
. have misrepresented any of the positions discussed. I hope to
use personal report illustratively and as an expository convenience rather than as a substantive basis for argument. It
would though be an odd thing if some personal reflection did
not have an important place somewhere in any intellectual engagement with psychoanalysis.
comment In 1915, the year that Freud published ‘Thoughts for
the times on war and death’, Jones also published two papers
on war (Jones, 1915a and b), thus initiating in British
psychoanalysis a tradition of writing about socio-political matters. Jones himself, Edward Glover and Roger Money-Kyrle
were subsequently leading contributors to this tradition, for
which war remained a major concern and in which a spectrum
of reforming ambitions were represented (see Richards, 1986a,
for an account of some of this work).
SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The use of psychoanalytic thinking in political philosophy and
in analyses of specific political situations dates back to the
earliest phase of the psychoanalytic movement The
Psychopathology of Everyday Life, published in 1901, was
concerned mainly with mundane phenomena in the life of the
individual, yet was also a first systematic demonstration by
Freud of how psychoanalysis could be used to examine nonclinical domains. The second step in its development as an instrument for the analysis of political life was its application to
collective phenomena in Freud’s first sociological essay,
“‘Civilised” sexual morality and modem nervous illness’
(1908). Here Freud argued that the limitation of legitimate sex
to monogamy, the product of civilisation’s tendency to increasing sexual restrictiveness, was probably not worth its costs in
increased neurotic misery.
In Britain the leading Freudian Ernest Jones was quick to
see the potential of psychoanalysis as a framework for political
It is in its links with more revolutionary ambitions, however,
that psychoanalysis is best known as a contribution to political
thought, particularly in the forms of Wilhelm Reich’s FreudoMarxism and the Freudian cultural critique of Herbert Marcuse
and other members of the Frankfurt School of ‘critical theory’.
The writings of the Frankfurt School do not though point onedirectionally towards revolutionary politics as the requisite
framework for psychoanalytic insights. Also, the work of more
recent American writers such as Philip Rieff (1959; 1966) and
Christopher Lasch (1979; 1984), linked in some ways to critical theory, has established powerful claims for more liberal and
democratic-socialist directions for psychoanalytic cultural
theory. In the history of psychoanalysis itself such directions
can also be traced; for example in the minor tradition in British
psychoanalysis already referred to, and in the Austro-German
beginnings of psychoanalysis. Russell Jacoby’s explorations of
these (1983) have brought to light the less well-known contributions to political Freudianism of Otto Fenichal and others
in Russia, and of mass support for fascism in Germany. If successful revolutions were so difficult to achieve, then perhaps
there were deep intrapsychic impediments to them which
needed to be understood and which psychoanalysis could illuminate.
In other words the turn to psychoanalysis can be seen as
either positively or negatively produced by ’68, as a direct
development of it or as part of the attempt by a new New Left,
sadder and wiser, to make a fresh start in the aftermath of ’68. I
will argue that in general the first of these explanations
provides the more basic truth, though it is importantly qualified
by the truth, at a certain level, of the second.
I will first of all consider two very different kinds of possible reasons for intellectuals (of any political stripe) to turn
from the end of the First World War to the 1950s, and indicate
the variety of socialist and communist, revolutionary and
reformist politics with which the development of
psychoanalysis was closely interwoven until the Second World
This evidence of the diversity of political perspectives with
which psychoanalysis has been associated should make clear
the inadequacy of any dichotomisation between ‘revolutionary’
and ‘reactionary’ applications of psychoanalysis in political
thought. A substantial amount of Left intellectual effort has
been expended within the terms of this dichotomy, usually in
order to recruit Freud, despite himself, from the side of reaction
to that of revolution. This effort has been comparable to the
Marxist inversion of Hegel in order for his insight into historical change to be of service to revolutionary politics. While
Hegel had to be transposed from idealism to materialism, Freud
has had to be removed from the pulpit of ahistorical bourgeous
fatalism and repositioned at the barricades such that his message reads not downwards as a ruling class prescription disguised as natural law, but upwards as a demand for libidinal
freedom or the recognition of desire.5 The notion that
psychoanalysis is essentially ‘ambivalent’ (lngleby, 1984) improves upon the seizure of its essence for one side of the other,
but still does not reflect the complexity of its political
In the early 1960s some paths which could have led towards
psychoanalysis were struck by some on the emergent New
Left, notably Ronald Laing and David Cooper in early articles
in New Left Review. However, it is since 1968 that increasing
numbers of people who would identify themselves as of the
radical Left have turned towards psychoanalysis, or have
sought to bring together in some way what might otherwise
have been their disconnected or divergent interests in socialism
and psychoanalysis. Two simple, apparently competing explanations for this development suggest themselves. One is that
there was something, in the cluster of political, cultural and
philosophical forces which have been identified as comprising
the ‘moment of 68’, which prescribed or pointed towards a
political appropriation of psychoanalysis. The other is that the
turn to psychoanalysis was a post-’68 phenomenon, part of a
reaction to an experience of the failure of the millenarian ideals
of ‘May 68’. An analogy here would be with the reasons for
Herbert Marcuse and others becoming interested in
psychoanalysis in the 1930s, in response particularly to the experience of what seemed to be the corruption of the revolution
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF
In many cases the decision to enter psychoanalytic therapy, as
opposed to seeking some other form of therapy or eschewing
all expert help, is determined by a pre-established familiarity
with and sympathy for psychoanalytic discourse. However,
there may well be some people for whom the experience of
therapy came first, and was followed by an interest in
psychoanalysis as a theory and as an input to politics. My own
impression is that such people are few, which is not surprising
given the relatively small and circumscribed scale of
psychoanalytic practice in Britain, and the tendency for
patients to be already familiar with some ideas about
Whether for any particular individual the experience of
therapy is the cart or the horse, it is clear that therapy and
politics can become intertwined in the lives of some individuals, such that the work of therapy (whether as therapist
or patient) becomes experienced as part of a political lifeproject (though probably in some tension with other, more
conventionally political, parts of that project). The growth of
‘feminist therapy’ is the most important example of this
phenomenon, but this takes us largely beyond the sphere of
psychoanalytic work, within which it is not usual to recognise
such a sociologically-defined specialism. Within psychoanalytic work, the only distinctions which can be recognised
are those which depend on what the analyst or therapist brings
(in theoretical orientation, personal technique) or on the clinical context (e.g. whether long- or short-term work is planned,
what the institutional setting is). Otherwise, each patient is unique, and the socio-political categories within which the patient
lives (and the therapist), and the belief-systems with which the
patient may try to interrogate the therapist or the therapy, are
basically material for the analytic work of interpretation.
Thus at least in the case of orthodox psychoanalytic practices, there is a considerable distance between the experience of
analytic therapy, and the political project of engaging with
psychoanalytic insights and their implications for understanding society. In those few cases where there is some direct and
major initiation of an intellectual/political interest by
therapeutic experience, it is likely to be in a non-specific way,
in that, for example, a helpful therapy may establish
psychoanalysis in the mind of the patient as a good thing, a
tradition to be regarded with respect.
In his sustained analysis of the relationship between his
clinical work as a psychoanalyst and his political commitment
as a Marxist (and psychoanalytical) intellectual, the American
writer Joel Kovel (1981; 1984; forthcoming) presents an un-
resolved contradiction, in which the problem is not one of mere
distance but one of disjunction: ‘Psychoanalysis is a practice
which belongs to bourgeois experience in late-capitalist urban
society’ (1984, p. 152). ‘Perhaps someone else will be able to
figure out how to do an authentically proletarian
psychoanalysis. I can’t’ (ibid.).
One need not share Kovel’s historical judgement on
psychoanalysis to concur in his practical judgement that
psychoanalytic therapy and political work are at the least separate spheres, and may in some way be incommensurable or
immiscible. We can take his failure to synthesise his clinical
work with his politics to be definitive, and not only for the
Marxist position which Kovel represents. In my own case the
experience of a (Kleinian) analysis was itself a very important
factor in bringing about a shift of outlook, from viewing the
world in the totalised terms of a Marxism tending towards the
monolithic, to a more pluralistic conception of the- autonomy,
within historical contexts, of specific social practices. Here in
the session, and in the analytic process as a whole, was an instance in which the primacy of the conflict between class interests clearly did not obtain. A practical struggle about being
honest with oneself has little to do, for practical purposes, with
class struggle (though it may be possible to describe some of
its phases in terms of their mediations through class, gender
and other social-structural relations). In the intensity of its
refusal to become preoccupied with the ‘real event’ ,
psychoanalysis may be more easily the vehicle for such a
change of outlook than would other less reclusive practices, but
its autonomy is not of a fundamentally unique kind, being
based as it is on a technical procedure, more or less rigorously
I am not claiming the complete autonomy of technique
from social context (that would indeed be a volte face for
someone once active in a collective one of whose slogans was
‘Science is social relations’); my point is rather that
psychoanalytic therapy has a technical interior which, though
historically produced and not fully insulated, has a large degree
of discursive autonomy from its currently prevailing political
exterior. This point helps to explain the generally low participation of psychoanalytic therapists in the public domain, notwithstanding their spontaneous political sympathies (Richards,
1986b). It will also hopefully clarify that the personal change
of outlook to which I referred above was not the result of my
becoming imbued with a radical-Kleinian doctrine of the pure
endogeneity of unconscious phantasy, since specific theoretical
positions of that sort are not necessary to establish the technical
specificity of psychoanalysis as an interpretive exploration of
personal meaning and self-deception.
At the same time I do not want to imply that psychoanalytic
experience has no relation to politics; a particular school of
clinical work may dispose its participants more towards some
political concerns, and less to others. Also, my self-example
above illustrates how the acquisition of a particular political
conception-of the practical autonomy of social spheres–was
facilitated by analytic experience. Moreover I subscribe to the
complaint that one of the most serious weaknesses in much of
the discussion about psychoanalysis in political theory is that it
is cut off from clinical work, and from the major developments
in psychoanalytic theory which are-in the empirical, though
not unproblematically so, nature of psychoanalysis-closely
tied to the clinical literature. While radical theorists have been
re-arranging some earlier Freudian concepts, freezing them at
one stage or another in the process of their formation and
change, many actual psychoanalysts have been transforming
the theory in practical contexts. It is only in some areas of the
interchange between feminism and psychoanalysis that clinical
experience (which is not necessarily understood by those involved in it as ‘feminist therapy’)–has been at the heart of the
theoretical effort, as evidenced by the recent collection of essays from the Women’s Therapy Centre (Ernst and Maguire,
Overall, then, some personal experience of psychoanalysis,
and strong links between the communities of clinicians and of
intellectuals, are prerequisites, or at least very desirable conditions, for interesting and useful work on psychoanalysis and
politics. Yet the clinical and political domains are fundamentally distinct, and simple, direct movement from one to the
other is not on the whole possible.
THE SEARCH FOR A PHll..OSOPIDCALLY
Philosophical debate about psychoanalysis has tended to be
mainly in the philosophy of science, which is perhaps
symptomatic of the general cultural response of marginalising
the substantive and moral questions raised by psychoanalysis.
Nonetheless, the debate about scientificity has provided for
some people an approach to psychoanalysis. For myself, an attachment to a particularly scientistic form of MarxismLeninism, which persisted until the mid-1970s, meant that I
was looking for scientific truth, and hoped to find that
psychoanalysis was epistemologically more sophisticated and
sound than other schools of psychology, trapped as they were
in empiricism and positivism. (It was of course very helpful in
this that the judgement of bourgeois philosophy on
psychoanalysis was in general so damning.) Accordingly I attached great importance to the advocacies of psychoanalysis
found in the Left scientism of Louis Althusser (1965) and the
feminist scientism of Juliet Mitchell in 1974. A little later I
found that the realist philosophy of Rom Harre (1974; 1977)
and Roy Bhaskar (1975) expanded and improved the
philosophical armamentarium with which to instal and defend
psychoanalysis in the citadel of science.6
However, this kind of philosophical preference can serve
only as a rationalisation obscuring other reasons for turning to
psychoanalysis, or as the basis for an empty and formalistic
approach to it. I had already become interested (through experiences in training as a clinical psychologist) in varieties of
psychoanalysis (the Kleinian and object-relational schools)
which are very little troubled by the question of scientificity.
They occasionally advance a claim to a particular scientific
method (e.g. in Harry Guntrip’s formulation of what a
‘psychodynamic science’ should look like7), but on the whole
they are notable more as expressions of a certain kind of
psychological humanism. By this I mean that they tend to
stress elements of human need and feeling which for most practical purposes can be regarded as universals; that they see the
individual subject as a basic entity, as potentially coherent and
as a moral agent; and that they at least implicitly support the
notion that the most fundamental kind of discourse is moral.
Of course none of these features is necessarily incompatible
with some kind of concern with scientificity. However, there is
an important difference of emphasis, and the compassionate
understanding and emotional truth of this humanism came to
seem of greater value for me than the search for scientific truth,
notwithstanding the tendency of some object-relations writers
particularly to slip into somewhat sentimental and rhetorical
styles of humanism, in which the individual or Self is
naturalised and elevated into an absolute principle, rather in the
manner of Rogerian ‘humanistic psychology’.
Moreover, despite the growing interest in realism, the issue
of scientificity has now lost some of.the topicality it had on the
Left in the 1970s, insofar as that was generated by the Althusserian influence. Work on a number of fronts continues,
however, and the characterisation of psychoanalytic method
and epistemology remains an important task. The consideration
of psychoanalysis in terms of realist theory has been carried
forward by David Will (1980; 1986), Andrew Collier (1981)
and Michael Rustin (1987). An explicitly humanistic perspective, proposing biography as the core discipline of
psychoanalytic human science, has been put forward by Robert
Young (1986; 1987). And while the Althusserian flame may
have flickered, the torch of Lacanianism which it helped to
light continued to burn quite fiercely, such that from some
viewpoints one of the main commendations of psychoanalysis
is its allegedly anti-humanist theory of the subject, or its
claimed potential for circumventing the humanism/antihumanism debate (Henriques et al, 1984).
One other bridge from philosophy into psychoanalysis must
also be mentioned, since it is part of a body of work which has
been steadily gaining influence since 1968. This is the work of
J urgen Habermas, who in fact provides the most explicit and
elaborated model for a philosophical appropriation of
psychoanalysis. Habermas (1968; see also McCarthy, 1978)
proposes that psychoanalysis is the only example of an emancipatory, self-reflective science, or rather that it is once shorn of
Freud’s theory of biological instincts, a physicalistic misunderstanding by Freud of his own discoveries. Russell Keat
(1981) provides a critical discu~ion of Habermas’ use of
psychoanalysis, arguing that he departs from Freud in ways
other than those which he announces. Joel Whitebook (1985)
makes a similar criticism of the neglect of the body by Habermas, whose ‘etherealised’ picture (Keat) of the psyche, in
which the unconscious functions only as the source of distortions of communication, is certainly far removed from the pic~
tures of mental life found in British psychoanalysis (and, in a
different way, from the Lacanian picture). This may partly account for the lack of impact here of his reading of Freud
Despite the interest in his work as a whole, it has not been a
springboard for a wider engagement with psychoanalysis.
THE MULTIVALENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS
Thus neither personal experience of therapy, nor philosophical
commitments, are in themselves likely to provide much of a
basis for a political appropriation of psychoanalysis, and if for
particular individuals they are important factors then they may
each be linked with one of a number of very different kinds of
psychoanalytic politics. This was the conclusion drawn from
the brief historical background sketch given earlier, namely
that psychoanalysis is available to diverse and often quite
divergent political appropriations. There is a notional common
element in all these appropriations, which is some kind of
stress on unconscious interiority. Mitchell (1974), however, argued persuasively that in the cases of Reich and Laing no real
conceptual commonality with Freud existed, since the
genuinely interior, unconscious and psychological dimensions
were lacking in the work of the more ‘political’ thinkers.
Jacoby (1975) offers a somewhat similar critique of the Adlerians, neo-Freudians and ego-psychologists as well as the
Laingians. Even if this commonality is not regarded as superficial, it is very secondary in political terms. What can be the
political significance and value of a concept of ‘the unconscious’ if it can be inserted with equal conviction into both historical materialism (e.g. Schneider, 1973; Lichbnan, 1982) and
classical liberalism (e.g. Badcock, forthcoming)?
This is actually the wrong question, although it is based on
a fact which must be observed, namely that psychoanalysis
does not bear with it a stable set of political values which act as
a constant factor in different combinations with other intellectual elements. It does not follow from this though that it has no
political effectivity; although it has no general political impact,
it is at least potentially important in the specific contributions it
makes to particular political outlooks, in the ways it may extend, inflect or enrich them.
These contributions are not a matter of logical affinities
between abstract forms of discourse (e.g. the question of the
philosophical compatibility, or otherwise, of psychoanalysis
and Marxism) but of whether there are the people around able
and willing to do the intellectual work required to establish
cooperative relationships between psychoanalytic thinking and
any particular kind(s) of political perspective (e.g. the question
of whether sufficient philosophers are interested in establishing
the compatibility of psychoanalysis and Marxism). In other
words, the political value of psychoanalysis is a historical, conjunctural matter, its content and impact open to negotiation
between contending social forces. Of course” the particular
forms of psychoanalysis may lend themselves more easily to
certain kinds of appropriation, and some political traditions
may be hostile to all forms of psychological thought, but these
limits are very broad ones, and even quite well-defined schools
of psychoanalysis have been claimed by very different political
The right question to ask is therefore an empirical one:
what has been the political significance of psychoanalysis in
those theoretical appropriations of it which have been made?
There are, I suggest, three very broad problematics or
political agenda from which people have sallied forth to lay
hands on psychoanalytic theory. They are distinct and will to
some extent be discussed separately, though the main argument
advanced here is that at an important level they draw upon a
common source, psychodynamically and ideologically. Empirically, they have no doubt been frequently associated with each
other in individuals’ political outlooks. For each I will suggest
an alternative (and in my view, preferable) reading of
The feminist interest in psychoanalysis has been one of the
main reasons for its coming to be placed on the agendas of the
Left. This interest, to the extent that it has been a positive one,
was at first mainly in psychoanalysis as an instrument for the
critique of patriarchy and for the promotion of anti-familism.
Work here was mainly around the classical Freudian texts, and
was usually either part of the Lacanian ‘return to Freud’ (see
below) or was seen to involve an inversion of Freud similar to
that described above, though here the emphasis was on Freudthe-patriarch rather than Freud-the-bourgeois (if such a distinction were recognised). Partly through the influence of Kleinian
and object-relational ideas, the feminist critique of gender difference shifted its focus to mothering and to the gendered division of labour in child-care (Dinnerstein, 1976; Chodorow,
1978), developing a highly influential rationale for the abolition of that division as the key to the general subversion of
gender identity and the overthrow of patriarchal power.
For almost everyone, the first Other is a woman. In Dinnerstein’s view, influenced by Klein, the infant’s first experiences of the Other necessarily bring terrifying intimations
of its separate individuality and mortality. As a defence against
this, the realm of sensuous experience embodied by the
(m)other is rejected in favour of rational worldly activity.
Hence the splits between heart and head, feeling and reason,
private and public. Woman is continually invested and reinvested with the first half of each of these splits, and man with the
second, so that both gender identities are dangerously impoverished and fearful. Chodorow’s thesis is similar, but stresses the mother’s different cathexes of boys and girls. Daughters
are more narcissistically identified with, while sons are related
to as different others. Thus boys are driven back into a harsh
separateness in which they cannot adequately feel with or for
others; girls are unable to differentiate themselves sufficiently
and to transcend their pre-Oedipal mother-love.
It was in these forms that the feminist appropriation of
psychoanalysis was, for a period around the end of the 1970s, a
major influence upon many of us interested in the political
meanings of psychoanalysis. However, these ideas, despite
their still current dominance on the Left and their popularity
beyond, have been subjected to powerful criticism. For example, Jean Elshtain (1984) found these uses of psychoanalysis to
be schematic and prescriptive, while a paper by Jane Temperley (1984) showed that a more thoroughgoing engagement with
Kleinian theory can see specific patterns of early psychic
development, not intrinsic to the general structure of
heterosexually-differentiated parenting, as major sources of the
damage represented by adult ‘femininity’, or rather by particular organisations of femininity. (And it might be said that
the clinical literature has always been replete with evidence
that this is the case for ‘masculinity’.) Thus some alternative
positions are being articulated, linked to wider and more sympathetic re-evaluations of gender difference, and more concerned with clinically-observed qualities of parenting than with
abstract notions of patriarchal power. In many readings of it,
psychoanalysis teaches that gender is the most fundamental
dimension of identity, and that a model of cooperative complementarity, based on good relations between the sexes, can
be posited as an ideal for human relations generally.
cepts. Psychoanalysis was thought to promise to deliver the
mediations; the concepts of internalisation, introjection and
identification, for example, seemed to offer a vocabulary for
talking about the political and historical constitution of our inner worlds. The concept of the unconscious was the key to a
new way of understanding the totality of our social life, in that
it could illuminate how the social outside gets into the psychic
inside, and vice versa, and provide the most sophisticated account of how the personal and the political are interwoven. The
essential unity, beneath our segmented experience, of all oppressive structures, and of personal and political domains, is
implied by this view, which thereby is a point of convergence
of an otherwise disparate set of libertarian, (post-)structuralist
and critical theory perspectives.
However, this project from the start was in a deep tension
with itself. The attraction of psychoanalysis was that it
provided the most radically personal and internal account of
subjectivity, in comparison with which most other theories of
personality seemed banal. But for that same reason it was
likely to buck the theoretical burden it was being required to
carry, whether that was the Marx-Freud synthesis or some other
programme of specifying an inner-outer dialectic.
Psychoanalysis has a radical disinterest in the external. (I am
referring here to its core conceptual range, not to the interest
shown, in particular cases, in the significance of external events
by individual practitioners, who mayor may not be justly
criticised for one-dimensionality.) This leads to several points
of tension in the project of totalisation.
‘THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL’
One, already discussed above, concerns the relationship of
therapeutic experience to the intellectual agenda. Another is
related to the theory of narcissism, which has occupied (in my
view rightly) a central place in a number of debates during the
last decade about the input of psychoanalysis to social theory.9
The equation of the personal and the political may in some contexts be seen as a narcissistic inflation of the self, consistent
with the non-psychoanalytic criticism of the ‘personalisation’
of politics for which ’68’ is sometimes held responsible (see,
for example, Janice Raymond’s critique of ‘therapism’ and the
‘publicisation of personal life’ , 1986). Not only may individual
misfortune or responsibility be projected out into the public
domain, but personal investments in group and sectional interests and demands may lead to their being presented as a
The hope that the theory of the unconscious could provide a
deeper and more truthful version of this statement was at the
heart of much of the feminist involvement in psychoanalysis,
and was also a crucial element in the motives of those coming
from other, though overlapping, political directions. Earlier
versions of the persona1/political equation had tended to collapse the personal into the political, but as time went by it became clear that this would not do. Working in the mental health
field I was unavoidably impressed by the inaccessibility of personal madness to political analysis, let alone to political intervention, as long as one worked only with a rationalistic
psychology of ‘environment’, ‘stress’ and other similar con-
The third and major difficulty which psychoanalysis
presents for the personal=political formulation stems not from
a particular diagnostic category but from the routine and
general nature of psychoanalytic discourse. Let us take the example of domestic violence, and the view that wife-beating is
no more nor less than a public, political issue, that of
patriarchal violence. This rules out of consideration any
specific familial or personal factors, and exploration of how the
wider societal dimensions are potentiated into violence in some
families and not in others. It empties the particular family of its
own emotional content, immobilises those professionals wishing to make helpful interventions, and liquidates the personal
responsibilities of all those involved for the violence and its
consequences. A psychoanalytic approach is necessarily concerned with putting all these questions back on the agenda, by
examining the psychodynamics of the family as a private, partially bounded domain, and seeing the personal and interpersonal specificity of the situation as crucial to understanding it
In the case of domestic violence, one psychoanalytic
hypothesis likely to be of central importance, both in practical
understanding and in theorising the personal/political
relationship, is that individuals are usually partly responsible
for the relationships which they find themselves in. Another
hypothesis which, when confirmed, points towards the need for
some firm distinction between the private and the public, concerns the conditions for trust and intimacy. In psychoanalytic
theory, deep emotional attachments are generally seen as forming slowly, on the basis of repeated experiences of reciprocity,
security and satisfaction. These experiences are available only
within a bounded (not necessarily physically so) interpersonal
space in which the distinctive qualities of the other, in relation
to oneself, can be registered.
It has been a main feature of some of the techniques of
humanistic psychology that the persona1/political boundary is
breached at just this point The best example is probably the
encounter group, introduced to Britain around 1970, in which
intimacy and confession are demanded in a semi-public setting
of people who may be in contact with each other only for a
matter of hours. In other words, intimacy and trust are demanded when the conditions for their development-essentially
those of longer-term relationships-are absent, and consequently the intimate relating which ensues is necessarily in part
fake. This at least is a psychoanalytic view, and correspondingly it is towards humanistic psychology rather than
psychoanalysis that some radicals who have remained committed to a persona1/political fusion have turned (e.g. in the
‘despair workshops’ undertaken by peace movement activists).10
Thus, far from showing us how the personal and political
are fused, psychoanalysis offers ways of theorising the inauthenticities which result when the public-private distinction
is eroded such that neither domain can sustain the forms of
relationship appropriate to it-authentic intimacy in the private
domain and authentic civility in the public. In this role, which
is one that I would now claim for it, psychoanalysis is at odds
with simple equations of the personal and political, and instead
is in keeping with more pluralistic understandings of where
power is located, and whom it oppresses. This is not to jettison
the insights gained in the more totalising moment, nor to abandon the research programmes which we are now only beginning to project in, for example, the historicity of subjectivity.ll
It is though to introduce a quite different orientation, for which
psychoanalysis is of interest to social theory partly because it
can inform the argument that the personal sphere not only is
but also should be a distinctive segment of social life, and that
in general the principle of boundaries and segmentation is a
crucial element in good social organisation.
THE REVOLUTIONARY PROGRAMME
The most general feature of the Left-political context within
which interest in psychoanalysis took initial shape in 1970s’
Britain was the frustration of the aspirations of ’68’. For many
of us psychoanalysis held the promise of revitalising these
aspirations. A major problem with the revolutionary programmes, it seemed was that they had overlooked the internal resistances to social change and to socialism, resistances which
psychoanalysis could illuminate. Of course this hope had been
entertained before, by Reich, Fromm, Marcuse et al; an important difference was that we could bring the conceptual gains of
more recent developments in psychoanalysis to bear on the
problem, and not be shackled by the limitations of classical
Freudianistn. Psychoanalysis was the theory which could help
to explain why socialism had not yet arrived, and to do so in a
way that sustained the belief that when it does it will enable us
to transcend the world as we know it. Capitalism is still strong
because of its anchorage in inner repression, but if that repression could be undone then an unprecedented condition of
psychic fulfilment and harmony would ensue, as part of the social transformation.
This political appropriation of psychoanalysis cannot accurately be called utopian, since those who advanced it were
generally Marxists for whom the idea of utopia was, at least in
theory, impermissible.12 But to borrow-with due irony-a
term from the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (1965),
it might well be called ‘eupsychian’, since the transcendent
condition to which it aspires, though not necessarily one of social perfection, is one of intrapsychic ease, release and satisfac~a
Two major routes to this condition have been mapped out
One is via the overthrow of the capitalist State and the undoing
of the repression which is the psychic base and effect of its
authority-the Reichian route of which Kovel is today’s most
eloquent advocate. The other is that which leads away from the
capitalist market, and leaves behind the psychic splitting which
is the consequence of engaging in instrumental exchange
relationships with other persons. Erich Fromm (1947) was an
early guide to this route, which takes one through the extensive
post-Weberian critique of rationality, and is one of the main
highways of critical theory. This latter route is sometimes seen
as leading towards the reestablishment of social authority in a
re-moralised world, and may not include a critique of repression, in which case (e.g. Richards, 1984) it would diverge from
the more libertarian path of the first. Often, though, the two
routes are felt by their would-be travellers to be running in
parallel towards the same destination, where the deep psychic
organisation of the majority will be different to what it is now.
This is certainly a simplification, though it falls far short of
parody. I am referring most obviously to Reichian and some
Marcusan doctrines, though I have not indicated the important
differences between the two. Whereas Reich’s attack on the
ego, on ‘character’ and repression was unremitting, Marcuse
sought to salvage ‘basic’ repression, and his hostility to the ego
was historically relative. But there is little argument that Marcuse as much as Reich was interested in a wholesale transcendence of our current structures of repression.
Traditionally posed against this revolutionary appropriation
of Freud is the view that psychoanalysis offers both an analysis
of why ‘revolution’, as theoretically imagined, is impossible,
and a diagnostic critique of revolutionary politics and of the
personal motives at work in them. In many of its specifics
(though not as a general rule) the latter has been welcomed by
the psychoanalytic Left (indeed, has sometimes been seen as
the major contribution psychoanalysis has to make), but the
former, understandably, has not. Yet this kind of selectivity is
hard to maintain, since the two anti-revolutionary arguments
are linked. The theory of the post-revolutionary society is
simply an intellectual expression and a flip-side of the same
delusions and defences which are active in the paranoid
machinations of sectarian politics.
It is not possible here to rehearse the main forms in which
this attack on the revolutionary impulse has been put; I will
however make mention of a recent exchange in which the two
traditional antagonists have once again been tested against each
other. In the mid-1970s, when the Left’s romance with
psychoanalysis was at a peak in France, two analysts working
in Paris wrote a book in which they posited a fundamental opposition between Freudian theory and the ideas of Reich, which
they rejected not only as anti-psychoanalytic but as exemplifying clearly the omnipotence of the revolutionary imagination.
Freud or Reich?, by Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel and Bela
Grunberger, has recently been published in Britain, and a
commentary upon it written by Joel Kovel (1986). Despite the
clinical sophistication and intellectual breadth of the combatants, this exchange demonstrates the limits of this debate as
it has been characteristically constructed. Chasseguet-Smirgel
and Grunberger combine a clear-headed argument for the intrinsic anti-utopianism of psychoanalysis, and an analysis of
Reich’s regressive wish to dissolve the Freudian insistence on
conflict, with an outlandish assertion of the endogenously individual roots of social life. Kovel, on the other hand, disposes
most effectively with the claim for the primacy of internal factors, but does not respond to the substance of the critique of
Even Philip Reiff, the most profound expositor of Freud’s
anti-utopianism, does not provide a fully adequate alternative
to the terms of this debate, since in his account the whole terrain of politics is at risk of reduction to the search for consolation. Nonetheless, to complete the catalogue of shifts in my
personal views with which this article has been laced,13 I must
now report that psychoanalysis has come to seem to me (in part
through my reading of Rieff) primarily to be a doctrine of
tragedy and forbearance-to be none the less political for that,
but to be opposed (at least in the context of the liberal
democracies) to programmes of revolutionary political change.
It is difficult even to allow these programmes the status of innocence, since I think we must now admit, to put one aspect of
the matter rather crudely, that the impulse to destroy a society
is usually a basically destructive impulse, whatever altruistic
and reparative motives it may trick into acting alongside it
Even where a more benign language of social transformation is
used, one which in its imagination of the transformative
scenario does not give licence to envious or retributive
feelings, then a psychoanalytic scrutiny would still be uncharitable, focussing on the grandiosity and denial of the political vision.
This is by no means an apolitical counsel of despair. For
example, Jeffrey Abramson (1984) makes an interesting attempt to proceed from Rieff’s exposition towards the recovery
from Freudian theOry of a more ‘communitarian’ vision of
psychic development in which the satisfactions of public life
play an essential and honourable part. And there are a number
of other suggestions in the literature of recent years about the
directions which a positive psychoanalytic input to political
thought might take.
All three agendas-the feminist, ‘personalist’ and revolutionary-have in common a wish to transcend some existing
set of structures or boundaries. The distinctions between men
and women, private and public, libido and action are all under
attack-to a great variety of ends, but all sharing in some
vision of transcending both oppression and misery. In the Left’s
use of psychoanalysis, from Adler and Reich on, social justice
and individual happiness are characteristically fused together. It
is assumed that a single, psychoanalytically-informed political
project will necessarily change both inner and outer worlds to
the same degree. The construction of a basically non-oppressive social order, it is assumed, will result in (or ‘Could only be
achieved along with) radically different states of mind from
those obtaining at present. This eupsychian prescription is most
obviously spelt out in revolutionary Freudo-Marxism, as noted
earlier, but is also present in the other agendas-in visions of a
healing psychological androgyny, and in psychoanalytic contributions to the study of the capitalist totality and its ‘social
reproduction’. The vision of psychic emancipation, as an integral part of social liberation, is as much a part of the
scholarly and intricate work of Habermas as it is of subReichian banality.
Eupsychian images of fulfilment, wholeness and happiness
therefore underly and unify many of the concerns of the
psychoanalytic Left, including and especially the attacks on
patriarchy and on repression. The lifting of repression promises
to remove not only unnecessary frustration but also the painful
experience of being divided against oneself. The everprovisionally integrated self offered by psychoanalytic therapy
is spurned or devalued as mere palliative; the desire for a
unified self predominates, and may interact with the desire for
an idealised social unity (Alexander, 1984). Any programme
for the dissolution of structures of authority and difference in
the external world may carry, for its proponents and opponents
alike, the unconscious meaning of the dissolution of inner
structures and divisions, whether or not such psychic de-differentiation is explicitly advocated, but in much of the work I
have been discussing the transcendence of inner conflicts is often consciously the aim.
I am here suggesting some psychoanalytic reflection upon
the psychoanalytic Left and its aims, albeit with due caution
and care not to disguise political dismissal as diagnostic in9
At first sight it seems that my argument about the transcensight Chasseguet-Smirgel and Grunberger suggest that underlying Reich’s politics, and any other promises of heaven on dent impulse is not relevant here. A major complaint about
earth, is the narcissistic wish for fusion with the ego-ideal. Lacan has been that far from holding out a promise of a
They advance a strong form of the hypothesis that utopian eupsychian paradise in some future society, he did not even
politics are at root an expression of emotional need, by claim- concede the possibility of moderate psychic improvement
ing that the aim of such politics is the restoration of the ex- through psychoanalysis in the present one. The inevitably fracperience of narcissistic perfection. One does not have to accept tured, alienated condition of the human subject is routinely
their political judg~ments, nor even their specific enunciated in Lacanian texts, and the similarity with an existenpsychoanalytical formulation, to take this hypothesis seriously tialist negativity has been noted (Rustin, 1982).
However, a number of convergences with other strands of
and consider that the eupsychian tone of much radical
psychoanalysis may be the product of deeply regressive the Freudian Left can be noted, some of them at points found
wishes, and of omnipotent beliefs that the pains of separation on the agendas discussed earlier. Firstly, Lacanian theory has
and vulnerability can be avoided. Take for example the closing been very suitable for incorporation into the attack on the
statement of Repression, a book in which Gad Horowitz (1977) patriarchal family, which Lasch (1981) sees as having been the
argues carefully for a moderation of Marcuse’s theory such that central purpose of the Freudian Left. Secondly, the radical
the ego and genital primacy are reestablished as indices of decentring of the subject and the evacuation of the subject into
health, with re-erotisation and pre-genitality envisoned as language is, at a very intellectualised level, a manoeuvre
deployed within the ego’s organisation of libido. Despite these equivalent to the collapsing of the personal/political distinction.
substantial revisions, the wish for transcendence is preserved, Thirdly, the psychoanalytic critique of the market, though most
to emerge fully in his closing description of the ‘communist often associated with critical theory, has received analogous
man’ as one for whom ‘the pain of separation is no longer ex- formulations within Lacanian paradigms (e.g. Gallop, 1982)
via the equation of the Symbolic with the realm of exchange.
perienced as the essence of selfbood’ (p. 214).
This can be seen only as wishful thinking when set against Fourthly, and most importantly, the Freudo-Marxist tirade
the increasingly well-documented post-Freudian conception of against repression and against the ego is profoundly matched
selfhood as intrinsically rooted in the pain of separation, by Lacan, whose bitterness against ego-psychology exceeded
though also–crucially-thereby rooted in the satisfactions and that of Marcuse, and who built upon it a theory of the ego as incompensations that can come from struggling with separate- . trinsically narcissistic and paranoid (e.g. Lacan, 1966; Benness and from building bridges to others. Again, the alternative venuto and Kennedy, 1986; see also Bird, 1982). Also, the
to transcendental eupsychianism is not necessarily reactionary Marcusan critique of heterosexual ‘genital tyranny’ and
despair, since the makings of quite optimistic fortitude are to be celebration of polymorphous sexuality (Marcuse, 1955) is
found in the psychoanalytic tradition precisely as it focusses on comparable, as rhetorical cultural analysis, to the Lacanian
the constitution of subjectivity in the experiences of loss and description of our uncertain sexual identities.
Points of similarity are sometimes noted also between
Lacan and British psychoanalysis, which has also developed a
picture of the ego as necessarily split. Here however the differTHE LACANIAN INFLUENCE
ences are more important: the multiple egos of object-relations
In my discussion so far the main bodies of work implicitly theory are not the equivalent of the shifting identity of the
centralised have been the classical Left Freudianisms of Reich Lacanian subject, but are the dynamically-interrelated agencies
and critical theory, and some psychoanalytic feminism, with a of the mind. Whereas Lacan concluded that if there is incounter-plot emanating from British psychoanalysis. What then evitable multiplicity and conflict within the psyche, then there
about that range of political appropriations of psychoanalysis can be no stable identity nor integration, most other schools of
that emphatically distance themselves from all this? Despite a psychoanalysis (not only ego-psychology) have continued to
growing mood of reevaluation in the British Lacanian con- believe (as, it might be claimed, did Freud) that coherence and
stituency, the French influence is still strong and widespread. stability can be achieved, though they must be continually
Both the journals founded in the 1970s with the aim of incor- reestablished as the dominant moment in the inner struggle
porating psychoanalysis into a politically-defined project (mlf with fragmentation. 1S Since the Lacanians dismiss this hope as
and Screen) were strongly Lacanian, as are some non-clinical adaptationist, humanist fiction, it leaves them with only a
romance of ‘desire’ (equivalent, perhaps, to the lurking
psychoanalytic societies founded in the 1980s. 14
naturalism which Russell Keat  finds in Foucault, and
likens to that of Reich). At worst, it leads to an extravagant
Nietzschean celebration of psychosis (Deleuze and Guattari,
1972). It also leaves them with a shadowy transcendent image
of psychological de-alienation. The locus of transcendence, for
semioticised psychoanalysis, is not so much, for practical purposes, in the political institutions of society as in the literary
and cinematic text and its deconstruction, but it is none the less
transcendent for that, as can be seen in its precursors in the
Surrealist movement (Macey, 1983).
Thus, although Sally Alexander (1984) suggested that
Lacan’s thought may yield insight into the utopian ‘mentality
of transcendence’, this possibility cannot be understood as one
of psychodynamic clarification of a particular pathological
state of mind but as one of reflection upon our collective and
absolute lot-transcendence is largely ruled out on metaphysical grounds as an actual possibility, yet it is all that the
Lacanian political imagination has to work with.
For a number of reasons, then, the Lacanian development is
appropriately included in a discussion of psychoanalytic Leftism and the pursuit of transcendence. Jacqueline Rose (1983,
p. 11) observed that ‘The political use of Lacan’s theory
therefore stemmed from its assault on what English Marxists
would call bourgeois “individualism”.’ The assault is however
not only a philosophical one on the ‘myth’ of the unitary,
coherent subject; it is also an emotional and political one on the
ego and its cultural representatives. Onto the rational ego of the
‘bourgeois individual’ is projected much that is limiting,
bounding, untruthful, frustrating and oppressive, and here we
have the most striking parallel with German and American
traditions. It is useful to refer again to the lucid work of Joel
Kovel, whose most powerful influences are Reich, Marcuse
and his clinical experience, and who has on that basis brought
American Freudo-Marxism and the psychoanalytic castigation
of the bourgeois individual to its most sophisticated form, and
yet who also has absorbed into his language some key
Lacanian terms and thus created a neo-Reichian discourse of
This eupsychian project is not the same as, and cannot be .
hitched to, the socialist project in the liberal democracies. The
latter must include plans for changing the social arrangements
for responding to distress, but it is an error to confuse these
with the totality of the distress and its sources. This is not to
say that much mental disorder in our present society is not socially produced and historically specific in content, but it is to
stress that some considerable part of the social means of its
production may be (to borrow and extend a term from Joel
Kovel) ‘transhistorical’, or pansocial-at least in the universe
of modernity. The management of unhappiness is clearly and
directly a matter of mutable social institutions (and is of great
political significance in that unhappiness may assume many
different political expressions, depending on how a culture is
able to manage it), but the reconstruction of basic forms of the
psyche is something else. This sounds like Freud, though it is
more the Freud of Civilisation and its Discontents than that of
“‘Civilised” sexual morality and modem nervous illness’. It is
the Freud who pointed towards a possibility for uncoupling
political visions of justice from the intolerance of psychic conflict and pain.
SOCIAL JUSTICE AND INDIVIDUAL HAPPINESS
Acknowledgements. Thanks to Michael Rustin and Robert
Young for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Political radicalism is linked to the eupsychian impulse by the
assumption that social oppression and personal unhappiness
more or less reflect each other, with the social as the ultimately
leading moment. Challenging oppressive social relations has
been seen as necessarily involving psychic transformation.
Any social changes which were effective in reducing the
misery of those millions of people in the Third World living in
or on the edge of destituion, or in making life and health more
secure anywhere, would bring in their train inestimable relief
of mental suffering, and reduce the mental disorder which is
the precipitate of suffering. To that extent the causes of justice
and happiness are one. But a measure of security from the
pains of hunger or torture is not by any means the same as the
psychic transcendence. of the pains of loss and guilt The conscription of psychoanalysis by the Left has been in the main
according to this transcendent, distinctly metropolitan, project
(though reports of psychotherapeutic work in Nicaragua have
recently introduced a different note).
This paper grew out of a short talk given at the Radical
Philosophy Conference in London in 1986, as part of a workshop
My focus here is on tendencies in British Left-political culture in
the last twenty years. However, since an indigenous British body
of work in this area has been emerging, rather slowly and
patchily, only since the rnid-1970s, many .of the intellectual
reference points in the following account are non-British (and
most are pre-1968!). For that reason, at least some of the points
to be made here wilI apply to other national contexts as well, insofaras debates there have been organised around the same
sources and paradigms:
No such review seems to have appeared to date, though there are
a small number of widely-read articles defining important
positions, e.g. Rustin, 1982a and b; Lasch, 1981; Rose, 1983.
Part ill of the recent book by Stephen Frosh (1987) covers some
of the same ground as this paper.
Here, as in many other contexts, Juliet Mitchell’s 1974 book was
a starting point-see Waddell et al, 1978.
This inversion of Freud has to be distinguished from the effOJ;ts
of Jacoby and others to reclaim Freud and the early spirit of
psychoanalysis-humanistic, intellectually outgoing and culturally committed-from the fate of professionalisation and
technicisation which, Jacoby argues, overtook it in the exigencies
of fleeing fascism and relocating in post-war America. This historical analysis of the politics of psychoanalysis does not
prescribe any particular view of the psychoanalysis of politics.
This meant that the present incumbents of the citadel-behaviourism and other schools of empirical psychology-bad to
be booted out, which could be accomplished, I hoped, with the
critique of empiricism-WilIer and Wilier, 1973; Richards, 1977.
Guntrip (1961) was particularly explicit about his philosophical
influences, chief amongst whom was the Scottish philosopher of
the ‘personal’, John Macmurray. Radical Philosophy archivists
can find an interesting resume of Macmurray’s thought in Conford,1977.
Compare for example the use made of Guntrip’s work by cultural
critic David Holbrook (e.g. 1972) with that by feminist therapists
Eichenbaum and Orbach (1982).
The best known and most controversial position in these debates
is that of Lasch (1979; 1984). For two different evaluations of his
work, see Barrett and McIntosh (1982), and Richards (1985). See
also the symposium on narcissism reported in Telos 44 (1980).
The ‘despair work’ of Joanna Macy, for example, is a mixture of
humanistic psychology and eco-mysticism. See Macy, 1983;
Victor Wolfenstein’s (1981) analysis of Malcolm X’s autobiography, and the work of Peter Gay (e.g. 1985), are outstanding examples of how psycho-historical work might develop.
It does though seem very appropriate to speak, as does Rose
(1983), of a ‘utopianism of the psyche’ with reference to the call
of Irigaray and some other feminists for a return to a condition of
What I am saying overall at a personal level is that I now remain
involved in psychoanalytically-oriented intellectual work for
reasons which are in some ways the opposite of those which
originally led me to it. I do not assume that others will have as
perverse a relationship to the subject as this, and I am not clear
about the extent to which this personal movement is an agerelated emotional change, a trajectory of the political times, or
the outcome of psychoanalytic teachings. My hope is that these
fragments of intellectual autobiography illustrate some significant moments in the Left’s post-’68 relationship with
psychoanalysis, and the diverse options available for engagement
For example the Cultural Centre for Freudian Studies and
Research in London, and the Oxford Psychoanalytic Study
This view of the self does not though necessarily involve a conception of an original whole, contrary to the implication of
Mitchell’s definition of humanism (1982, p. 4) as entailing the
assumption that ‘the subject exists from the beginning’ .
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