Why should socialists think about psychoanalysis?

Following a series of rs21 meetings this autumn, Marianne Kelly, who organised the series, considers what we gained from our discussions of therapy, the mental health industry and psychoanalysis as a tool to critique capitalism.

Hundreds gathered to oppose abuse of psychiatric patients, celebrate Mad culture, and call for psychiatric abolition.
Opposing the abuse of psychiatric patients, Mad Pride, July 2022

Psychoanalysis is a mental health treatment involving regular one-to-one conversations between a patient and a psychoanalyst. When psychoanalysis was first invented by Sigmund Freud at the start of the twentieth century, it meant having sessions on an almost daily basis. Nowadays patients are much more likely to see their analyst once a week, usually for fifty minutes. The patient is asked to talk about what bothers them while the analyst, more often than not, helps make connections between the patient’s past experiences and their present emotional difficulties.

This autumn, a group of around fifteen rs21 members came together to talk about the relationship of this kind of mental health intervention to socialist politics. Over five sessions we discussed psychoanalysis in relation to psychiatry, consumerism, gender and racism, and finally heard a talk by practising analyst and member of Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Ian Parker. Ian spoke about his work with the Red Clinic, a communist psychotherapy practice which aims to radicalise therapy by making it affordable, and by combining psychoanalytic and anti-capitalist theory.

The meetings opened up a space for mental health workers, carers, people in therapy, and people who have been institutionalised in the mental health system to think about psychoanalysis from a socialist perspective and grapple with some of its contradictions. Together we considered whether a discipline which takes the individual as its first point of reference could have useful things to say about our collective aspirations.

People were keen to discuss the fact that psychoanalysis usually locates emotional problems in early infancy rather than wider forces of social alienation. Despite the fact that when we talk about family we’re necessarily talking about patriarchy, heteronormativity and social reproduction, analysts in practice rarely pay attention to these issues. Most practitioners assume that a baby’s first experience of care transcends the social, cultural and historical specificity of the way their family is organised. Some people described how therapy helped them with their family relationships but did not equip them to challenge the political pressures underpinning these issues.

Starting from the premise that we all share some fundamental psychological needs can, however, lead to radical conclusions. Thinkers like Erich Fromm, for example, used psychoanalytic theory to show how capitalism fails to meet our needs for connection, community, education and creativity. Similarly, Melanie Klein’s account of child development offers a vision of people as inescapably enmeshed with, and constitutive of, one another. Her ideas about the ubiquity of loss and its accompanying psychological defences can give insight into our capacity not to want what is good for us, to favour simple dogma over complex experience and to feel threatened by change. Used like this, psychoanalysis can help to ground radical politics in a recognition of our inescapable vulnerability to one another.

That said, a psychoanalysis that rests on any kind of essentialism is ill-equipped to explain how emerging socio-economic forces affect us: when you start talking about ‘universal’ needs you’re quickly drawn into talking about supposedly ‘universal’ human nature. People were quick to bring up the fact that psychoanalysis’ founding theories originated from Freud’s treatment of bourgeois women in early twentieth century Vienna, meaning that his ideas might be more specific to a particular time, place and social group than he liked to admit.

Ian Parker’s preferred thinker, Jacques Lacan, tries to side-step the risks of essentialism by imagining our internal lives as being coded through language, thereby locating the unconscious in the realm of changing cultural signs. Whether this results in a practice informed by anti-capitalist struggle, however, depends on the practitioner. Many people pointed out that psychoanalysis, like the rest of the mental health industry, is often repurposed to the needs of the workplace – something that is widely thought about in socialist and radical organisations, including in a project Ian Parker is involved in, Asylum Magazine, and on our own site.

One thinker who addressed the relationship between material exploitation and emotional distress explicitly is Frantz Fanon. Beginning his career as a psychiatrist in Algeria in the 1950s, Fanon used psychoanalysis to understand the violence inflicted on racialised people’s sense of self. He was adamant that while racism has its roots in material exploitation, we can’t ignore the emotional complexes that give it shape, or the impossibility of addressing these complexes in a society still dominated by capitalism and imperialism. For Fanon, and for our discussion group, effective psychotherapy must be accompanied by revolutionary social change.

While it was rewarding to think about the politics of psychoanalytic theory, it was also important to discuss the material barriers to accessing therapy which has usually made it the preserve of the wealthy. It was interesting to hear Ian talk about radical strands in the history of psychoanalysis, including the provision of free therapy by groups in Vienna and Berlin after the First World War. Freud himself turned his attention to the problem of access at that time, recognising that the traumatised veterans returning from the front were in dire need of treatment but could rarely afford it. The Red Clinic takes up this tradition, recognising that the people most brutalised by capitalism are often also the least likely to receive effective treatment. It tries to offer a service which politically dignifies people’s discontent, while avoiding turning therapy into a crude form of consciousness-raising.

Overall, Ian’s talk and the preceding meetings were useful for exploring both psychoanalysis’ shortcomings and its potential. At its worst, psychoanalysis is yet another way of pacifying discontent and squeezing it into the categories offered by the medicalised mental health industry. At its best it can help us think about the ways in which individuals both absorb and rebuke social pressures, seeing symptoms as arising from not only personal history, but social and political context as well. Psychoanalysis can shed light on the tendency to desire political and personal outcomes not in alignment with our apparent self-interest, and ground our political project in a richer understanding of human needs and conflicts.

Suggested reading

Here are links to some of the articles we read in the group: 

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