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Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Chris Byron, a frequent commentator on this blog, asks me “How do you square your Freud with your Marx? Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of An Illusion (especially the first chapter) are wholly antagonistic to ANY decent form of socialism or Marxist project.

This raises [perhaps unintentionally] an extremely interesting and important question about how to read and what to make of what one reads.  As is my custom, I shall answer these questions personally and subjectively, by describing how I read and what I make of what I read, but in this case, I really do mean to suggest that this is the right way to read, not just my way.

In student papers, one often comes across this sort of locution:  “In this part of my paper I use Rawls …”  The implication is that Rawls is one of a number of tools one has lying around, which one can pick up and use for some purpose or other.  But Rawls, Plato, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are not tools, instruments, hammers, levers, pry bars, or chisels.  Nor are Freud and Marx.  They are authors who have written books in which they presented arguments in support of various theses, analyses of various concepts, reports of assorted research.  I may be informed, enlightened, provoked, inspired by these arguments, analyses, and reports [or confused, misled, bored, or depressed by them, needless to say], and when putting my own arguments, analyses, or reports of research in written form, I may wish to pay my respects to an author with a footnote [although that is really only a form of homage, and not in any way a strengthening of the argument, a sharpening of the analysis, or a lending of credence to the research]. 

Some of the authors to whom I pay my respects in my writings may be, as it were, my comrades in a grand struggle for liberation or social justice.  Some may not.  But I do not deny myself the benefits of such inspiration or enlightenment as I may derive from reading an author merely because he or she is not in that sense my comrade.  And regardless of my relationship to the authors I cite, I take full responsibility for whatever arguments I advance, and never seek to hide behind the reputation of those who may have been so kind as to provide me with inspiration or enlightenment.  Thus it is that, apparently to the surprise of some of my readers, I often pay my respects to Michael Oakeshott, from whom I have learned, despite the fact that he was a Tory.

Which brings me to Freud and Marx.  From Freud I have learned much about the structure and functioning of the human mind, about motivation and self-deception and obsession and the existence and role of the unconscious.  What I have learned from Freud on these matters is so thoroughly integrated into my understanding of human motivation that I would be hard put to delineate the outer limits of what he has taught me.  I have learned even more from Marx, as I am sure I have made clear on numerous occasions on this blog.  But because I have made what I learned from Freud and Marx my own, integrating it into my larger understanding of the social world, I and I alone am responsible for the truth of what I now believe.  It would never occur to me to hide behind the enormous reputations of those authors by saying, when challenged, “I was using Freud there” or “I got that from Marx,” as though by reading their books I had acquired hit points from them, as my sons used to say when playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Thus, the question “How do you square your Freud with your Marx?” betrays, in my judgment, an entirely misguided notion of how one should think of the authors from whom one has learned.  In particular, I am in no way compelled to embrace Freud’s musings on religion or culture as the price of learning from him about the unconscious.  That way of thinking is a secular version of religious sectarianism, and I abjure it completely.

However, there is a large and important question here that is sometimes alluded to in shorthand as “making Freud compatible with Marx,” a question that engaged the efforts of some of the most interesting graduates of the Frankfort School for Social Research.  Freud was a doctor who spent many hours every working day seeing patients.  [I have written about this at some length in my tutorial, The Thought of Sigmund Freud.]  As a medical specialist, a neurologist, he constantly tested his generalizations about the mind against his clinical observations and the success or failure of his treatment of his patients.  From his clinical experiences, he formulated generalizations about the mind that he hoped would apply to persons other than those whom he had treated.  These were bold, far-reaching generalizations, but they were always about the ways in which the individual human mind works.  As a neurologist, he believed that eventually it would be possible to find the physical causes and correlates in the nervous system of everything he had discovered in his clinical practice, but during his lifetime, the equipment to undertake the investigation of those physical correlates did not yet exist.  Nothing in Future of an Illusion or Civilization and its Discontents follows in any rigorous or logically necessary way from his clinically grounded discoveries about the individual human mind.

Marx undertook the most extensive empirical research into the operations of a capitalist economy of anyone up to and including his own day, drawing on a wide range of data, and elaborating a sophisticated and powerful theory of capitalism that remains even now illuminating and valuable, despite the fact that much more is known now about the functioning of a capitalist system than could have been known in his day [and despite the fact that capitalism itself has changed considerably in the intervening 147 years.]  He also speculated brilliantly about the subjective experience of capitalism, both in his early writings and in Capital.  But he had nothing remotely like the fully worked out theory of the human mind that Freud developed.

A number of social theorists associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research attempted to bring the insights of Freud and Marx into fruitful conjunction, none more brilliantly, in my judgment, than Herbert Marcuse, whose notion of “surplus repression,” set forth in his 1955 work Eros and Civilization is a masterstroke of invention and synthesis in the service of a radical socialist vision.  Anyone who wonders how to square Freud with Marx would do well to start there.


Chris said...

Thank you. I've had the Marcuse book garnering dust in my storage closet for some time. I suppose it's time to give it a read.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Just wondering, why is it that when it comes time for Marx to write about the illusions of life in a society dominated by production for the purpose of exchange, he has to write ironically, that is, given the ontology of his object, but when Freud is confronted with the task of writing about the illusions of life with an unconscious, he writes like the envy of the enlightenment? What's with the ontology of Freud's object that he is not burdened in the way that Marx was? Or, is it that there is something up with Freud's writing too?