Ideas & Ideology

Political Freud: an interview with Eli Zaretsky

Interview by Ken Fuchsman with an introduction by Andrew Whitehead

The spectacular eruption of Donald Trump into the American political landscape has been accompanied by the evident failure of political commentators there to explain this phenomenon. Eli Zaretsky, professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York, argues that this suggests the need to resurrect the once-flourishing tradition of political Freudianism. In his book Political Freud: A History, published in 2015 by Columbia University Press, Zaretsky explores the manner in which twentieth-century radicals and intellectuals used Freudian thought to understand the political developments of that turbulent century. Professor Zaretsky expounded on this in an email interview conducted by fellow historian Ken Fuchsman, which informs an article Dr Fuchsman has written for the Fall 2016 issue of Psychohistory News. With their permission, History Workshop is pleased to post a transcript of that e-interview.

Ken Fuchsman: Describe what you mean by political Freud, as you do not restrict the term to what Freud said about politics.

Eli Zaretsky: By “Political Freud” I mean the uses to which Freud was put by twentieth-century radicals and political intellectuals. For reasons that my book explores, these were mostly on the left. As I argue, there were three main political uses to which Freud was put: first, his themes of the father complex and group psychology were used to analyze both the dictatorships of the last century and racism, especially its quintessential form — the lynch mob. Second, Freudian thought was mobilized by the Frankfurt School, and by native-born American radicals to criticize mass consumption society. Both of these critiques went quite deep and are still relevant today. Finally, Freudianism was used by the New Left and the women’s movement of the 1970s, which internalized Freud’s ideas even as they turned them against Freud to define a new politics, today’s feminism, multiculturalism and gay liberation.


KF: You say that that psychoanalysis was the spirit of twentieth-century culture, at least until the mid-1970s. In what ways was this true, and what led it this to change from the mid-70s on?

EZ: Mass consumer capitalism, of the sort that the United States introduced in the 1920s and that swept the world after the 1960s, required an ethic and a cultural hermeneutic that broke with the repressive, patriarchal discipline and reliance on tradition that had characterized earlier forms of capitalism. The changing place and meaning of the family was crucial to this shift. Family-based capitalism rested on the Protestant ethic, which stressed asceticism, compulsive obedience and hypocrisy, in the sense of a focus on outward acts rather than motivation. Mass consumption made possible but also entailed a new ethic based on self-gratification, freedom from guilt and honesty and directness in place of hypocrisy. Along with modernist art, Freudianism supplied that ethic up until the 1970s. What happened then is a complicated story. In a nutshell, the psychoanalytic orientation was absorbed and generalized, so it lost its leading role. The profession of psychoanalysis endured, but the role it played both among intellectuals and in the culture more generally faded.

KF: How did political psychoanalysis help figures such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others understand racism’s impact on family life and sexuality?

EZ: African-American history provides a counterpoint to the sunny, optimistic picture of American freedom, which so many textbooks and political orations recycle. In dealing with that history African-American intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois, Wright and Ellison, as well as Afro-Caribbeans like Frantz Fanon, had to reckon with slavery and trauma, not just freedom and opportunity. As a result, African-American collective memory acquired a special character, a sadness and depth, lacking in mainstream American culture. The Blues, which are central to jazz, gospel and rock-and-roll, exemplify this character. But the Blues preach a sort of wisdom literature — there is a certain passive acceptance built into their irony. As a result, the intellectuals who forged African-American collective memory have had to go “Beyond the Blues,” which is to say beyond wisdom and acceptance, and into a revelation of the unbearable harms that a people suffered. In that process, African Americans encountered “resistances,” which the psychoanalytic focus on the unconscious helped them to work through. Examples of the kinds of moments when “resistances” surfaced are the attempt to move beyond the celebratory aspects of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s, the confrontation with the limits of Black Marxism in the 1940s, and the discovery of the links between fascism and racism, which unfolded during World War Two. At such moments, psychoanalysis became extremely important to African-American intellectuals.

KF: Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, as you say, is difficult to interpret.  How does this book shed light on pair bonds, father headed families, psychoanalysis, and the tragedy of World War II?

EZ: In my reading, Moses and Monotheism proposes a general idea of spiritual and intellectual progress, and elucidates the difficulty of retaining any such advance. Freud does this by drawing a parallel between Hebrew monotheism and psychoanalysis. In both cases there was a conceptual advance linked to heightened self-respect on the part of those who made the advance. In both cases the advance produced guilt and ambivalence, which led to its rejection, although the original message never died.

The book appeared in 1939, the year World War Two broke out, a time when many wondered whether the spiritual and intellectual gains of the West — freedom, individual liberty, republican government and the like — could survive the rise of Nazism. In my view it is one of the most important books we have about the general civilizational crisis that World War Two embodied. It provides a new way of understanding the role of regression in history, and the problems of survival.

As to gender and the family, Freud argues that an important part of monotheism was the birth of what he calls the father-headed family, in place of a mother-centered era, in which paternity was not noted or known. Freud’s critics have cited this formulation as evidence of Freud’s sexism, and no doubt there is some validity to this charge. Still, it misses the main point. For Freud, the conceptual advance involved in the idea of a single, un-representable, transcendent God was linked to an anthropological advance, namely paternalization or the recognition of the father’s role in reproduction, something that could only be accomplished conceptually, not empirically.  Freud, then, was bringing out the link between the emotional and cognitive knowledge that the sexes have of one another and spiritual progress in general. Feminists, in my reading, complement this view through their stress on power; they do not or should not contradict it.

KF: War and death became part of Freud’s thought with his responses to the first World War, and both subjects remain prominent in political Freudianism. You trace the alterations in political Freudianism in the two World Wars and the response to the 9/11 attacks. How does the contrast between focusing on vulnerability and strengthening the ego in times of trauma show the different strands of political Freudianism?

EZ: The fundamental idea that underlies psychoanalysis is the prolonged nature of human infancy, the interpersonal forms of dependency that infancy entails, and the persistence of those forms throughout the life cycle. I show that this notion of human vulnerability has come to the fore in analytic studies of war, especially in three historical moments: first, Freud’s theory of the ego, and especially of the “striving for the active role,” formed in response to the shell shock crisis during World War One; second, Melanie Klein’s theory of the infant’s vulnerability, which influences understandings of individual responsibility, collective solidarity and the British welfare state during World War Two, and, finally, Judith Butler’s analysis of the American response to 9/11, which focuses on the wound to American narcissism, and a manic reaction to that wound.

This is a very powerful tradition of anti-war thought. All three moments have much to teach us, especially when they are viewed together. Nevertheless, this tradition embodies a trajectory. There has been a shift in analytic thinking from the ego to the self, a shift already apparent in Klein’s work that emerged full force by the time we come to Butler. It is certain that this shift from Freud’s still classical Cartesian or Kantian belief in a rational, independent, “bounded” ego to today’s view that the ego is formed through recognition, object relations, and language, represents an advance but it also entails a loss. To capture this loss we need to explore the meaning of the sense of human vulnerability that underlies all three moments. At the start, vulnerability is a genetic concept; it explains the origin of the psyche. By the end, it has become a normative concept, embraced as an ideal. In short, I argue that we still need the concept of an ego that cannot be reduced to the self and that has the capacities of reality-testing, language and rational thought, especially self-observation, that Freud ascribed to it.

KF: Political Freudianism in the 1960s had different strands with people such as Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown, employing Freud to strengthen radical approaches to understanding humans and move towards liberation. On the other hand, radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were divided between seeing Freud as a symbol of women’s oppression or the psychoanalytic tradition work helping to illuminate women’s condition. In your view what were the benefits and limits to understanding and political activism of the male Freudian left and radical feminism? How did the divisions of the 60s and 70s and the travails of Marxism and political Freudianism lead to the rise of a regressive neoliberalism?

EZ: Both the New Left and the Women’s movement had the idea that what Freud thought was intra-psychic was actually social and inter-personal. Undoubtedly, this was true and was an important part of all varieties of political Freudianism, not just those of the 1960s and 70s. However, the New Left and feminist versions of this idea were often unnecessarily crude and reductive: the mind was seen as a “reflection” of societally based power relations. In fact, as I have argued in various works, psychoanalysis emerged precisely because there was a new dis-homology between the intra-psychic and the social, and humanity needed to understand intra-psychic life in its autonomy, as part of a general theory of society and history.

KF: Both the New Left and the early women’s movement had a profound, even intimate relation to Freudian thinking, so much so that it is impossible to understand those movements without understanding the role that psychoanalysis played. This relation was one of ambivalence. These movements felt not only that they needed to destroy the Freudian influence but also that they needed to perpetuate and recreate it in their own likeness. Like their Freudian predecessor, too, these movements were grappling with the changed character of mass consumption capitalism. Just as Freudianism helped initiate the consumerist era so the New Left and the women’s movement completed the process of creating a new spirit of capitalism.

EZ: We can illuminate the path by which this occurred by grappling with New Left and feminist ambivalence. If the first stage in working through that ambivalence was the redefinition of the intra-psychic as external, the second phase was the supplanting of the theory of the ego and the unconscious by a theory of the self. To understand the new spirit of capitalism that characterizes the neo-liberal order Michel Foucault coined the phrase “productive power,” meaning power that works from within the individual, not from without. Social scientists and economists call this “rational choice.” The New Left and feminist struggles with psychoanalysis helped give rational choice or productive power a libidinal, especially narcissistic basis.They assisted in the process by which the unconscious lost its character as a critical concept and was leashed instead to the mobilization of quasi-rational, but truly deeply irrational market forces.

KF: In the last 40 years, what has undermined the tradition of political Freudianism and why is it still essential?

EZ: In my view the feminist struggles with psychoanalysis destroyed the charisma and jeopardized the tradition of political Freudianism. The later blows, such as the Freud-bashers, the drug companies, the new claims made by neuroscience and the like all presupposed the feminist discrediting of Freud as a “sexist,” which, as I have said, was misleading. More broadly, the New Left and feminist struggles with psychoanalysis helped usher in a massive, antinomian cultural shift that rejects the idea of human depth and valorizes image, surface and appearance. This was of course a complex process but if we look at the aspects that involved the discrediting of psychoanalysis we can see that the ideas that were destroyed or discredited — such ideas as those of the unconscious, repression, regression and the ego — were the very ones we need today if we are to understand the shift itself, its positive and negative character, the ideas we need if we are to move forward.

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