Friday, 19 November 2010

Freud, Fascism and the Death Instinct

Fascism glamorises and obsesses upon death, submission and authority. Many neo-Folk and post-Industrial groups, whether Fascist or not, share these obsessions. Since an understanding of the psychology of Fascism also helps us recognise and deal with it (and maybe because we recently published parts of an interview by 'Lustmord') Muzorewi offers this take on Fascism and the death drive. This should be the first of a number of posts dealing with these issues. It's quite long, and the author originally suggested breaking it into a series of smaller sections, but I think it easily worth treating as a whole - Strelnikov


Classical Freudianism can reveal a great deal about the psycho-dynamics of fascism. This is not to claim that only classical Freudianism illumines fascism but simply to say that Freud’s oeuvre provides powerful tools for explaining fascism as a social phenomenon. This post concerns Freud’s theory of the Death instinct (or Thanatos – a term Freud never actually used). Also there is a brief excursus on the libidinal economy of masochism and sadism for the light they throw on the mainsprings of fascism. This post is the first of series whose centrepiece is an analysis of Wilhelm Reich’s pioneering study The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1934).

Firstly, let's lay our cards on the table: Freudianism is, here regarded as part of the broader scientific critique of capitalism and of particular relevance to the formation of the self. So Freudianism is regarded as essential to any enlarged, properly critical, dialectical Marxism. However, rehabilitating Freudian Marxism – fallen into disuse when the global revolt against late capitalism (including the bourgeois family) foundered in the 1970s – certainly overstates our ambition. But it is assumed that those Marxists who attempted a radical alloy of Freud and Marx (whether Reich, Benjamin, Bloch, Fromm, Adorno, Horkheimer or Marcuse), pioneered a critical approach to fascism that is, again, increasingly relevant.

The Scandal of the Death Instinct

Ironically Wilhelm Reich’s ‘affirmative’ conception of psychoanalysis led him to abandon Freud’s gloomy speculative vision of the Death instinct by the early 1930s. Yet where Freud’s most audacious concept was concerned Reich was not alone. In 1934 Reich was expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association (the year before he had been expelled from the German Communist party – the KPD) but his expulsion was unrelated to a lack of fidelity to the Death instinct1. Initially the Institute of Social Research – busy arranging a union of Marx and Freud – was sceptical. Horkheimer was witheringly dismissive while Erich Fromm, assigned the role of elaborating the Institute’s position on Freud in the Zeitschrift, also rejected the Death instinct2.

Many Freudians within the IPA baulked at Freud’s Death instinct. Originally Freud introduced the notion in Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920). The germ of the concept went back to Freud’s encounter with Wilhelm Stekel (see below). Freud’s biographer and follower, Ernest Jones, observed that the idea of the Death instinct typified Freud at his most philosophical, speculative and bold whilst BTPP (1920) remained unique in Freud’s canon. BTPP (1920) was also noteworthy for being the work that received little acceptance from Freud’s own followers3 Freud himself presented the Death instincts as a tentative hypothesis and only became convinced of its reality over time.

Theorisation of the Death instinct belonged to Freud’s late period increasingly dominated by speculative reflection on the genesis of civilisation and religion and their relation to character formation. Difficult to observe directly, the existence of the Death instinct was to be inferred metonymically from its effects. As Terry Eagleton noted recently, Freud’s Death drive with its proposition that "human beings unconsciously desire their own destruction" marked the "true scandal of psychoanalysis – not infant sexuality"4. The basic proposition was that human beings unconsciously desired their own destruction. Lodged at the core of the self, the immanent telos of the Death instinct was to deliver to struggling life its quietus and return it to the inorganic from which it had emerged. Origin (or Death as Schopenhauer put it) was the goal of life. Naturally, the Ego constantly sought to deflect the Death instinct from its path and this was the basis of the destructive and aggressive instincts of humanity which, ominously, could be directed internally and externally.

It is important to be aware that Freud’s theories have enjoyed many adventures in the course of their absorption by the universal culture. Concerning this afterlife we explore principally, Wilhelm Reich and, tangentially, the so-called Frankfurt School. The reader is warned that Lacanian theory is ignored. You might say, that with Lacan, Freudian theory was liberated from the ballast of Freud’s starting point: the organic and the biological following its vertiginous freefall into the Symbolic Order of language.

Yet at least the Death instinct survived in Lacan as an aspect of the Real which resisted and escaped the Symbolic Order. The post-war years of growth and stability in the heartlands of late capitalism, were hardly congenial to the reception of a theory such as the Death instincts. Post-war neo-Freudianism, especially the influential school of Attachment theory developed by John Bowlby at the Tavistock clinic, explicitly repudiated Freud’s biologism and dismissed Freud’s underlying drive theory as redundant5.

The issue of the redundancy of Freud’s Death instinct and his drive theory cannot be addressed for space. But concerning Freud’s biologism we note Herbert Marcuse’s position that Freud’s theory was at its roots historical and that neo-Freudianism revisionism was mistaken in offering a new cultural dimension or trying to shift the theoretical emphasis from the unconscious to the conscious or even allowing the therapeutic goal to obscure the telos of Freud’s life work from: "the development of a theoretical construction which aims, not at curing individual sickness, but diagnosing the general disorder"6.

Freudian metapyschology, the topography of the primary and secondary processes rested on a model of the accumulation and discharge of energy that flowed through the organism. Freud’s instinctual drive theory draw on the evolutionary biology of his times shortly before the pivotal watershed of the 1930s-40s when many outstanding issues of evolutionary development were resolved with the synthesis of Darwin and Mendel. Significantly, Freud often underlined the provisional nature of most of his speculative arguments and identified the reason: the many unresolved scientific issues in the natural sciences.

Freud’s Theory of the Death Instinct

The following – for lack of space – concentrates on Freud’s mature metapsychology, the role of Pleasure principle (henceforth Eros), the Death instincts and their role in the self’s formation and the evolution of civilisation, as outlined, primarily, in Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930). This means certain issues are skated over, ignored or telescoped.

Eros and Thanatos
The notion of a Death instinct or drive (trieb) was introduced into the small circle of psychoanalysis by Wilhelm Stekel in 1910. In a study on anxiety Stekel suggested the suppression of the sexual instinct in society paralleled the advance of a Death instinct. Stekel who coined the term Thanatos (death instinct) was also the first to reflect on death symbolism in dream life. Freud had a strong personal aversion to Stekel and was sharply critical of his weak scientific method though he acknowledged Stekel’s intuitive gift for interpreting dream symbolism7.

Appropriately Freud first began to reflect on the Death instinct during the First World War and started writing Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920) in 19188. Essentially, Freud believed the primary mental processes were dominated by Eros whose immediate aim was gratification. Eros was extremely archaic and had probably emerged when organic life arose. If the libidinal drives of Eros represented life instinct the Ego was the seat of self-preservation. However Freud argued that the Ego was not fully autonomous and its boundaries were blurred. The Ego was heteronomous. Where Ego ended and Id began was difficult to determine. Freud’s late metapyschology proposed a tri-partite model of the self: Id, Ego and Super-Ego with the three sets, so to speak, overlapping one another. However, the underlying basis remained dualistic with the self shaped by the dialectic of two poles: Eros and the Reality principle9.

Life was shaped by Ananke (necessity), compelled to adapt to its environment to ensure self-preservation and inevitably this struggle demanded the renuniciation or sublimation of the libidinal instincts. The deflection, inhibition and repressive sublimation of Eros sprang from the refractory nature of the Cosmos while the renunciation of the libidinal instincts, of immediate gratification, set in motion the development of civilisation.

Indeed civilisation rested on misery despite the universal striving for happiness. Echoing Schopenhauer, Freud asserted it was nonsensical to attribute a purpose – in the metaphysical sense – to human existence. The striving for genital eroticism or Love was universal but Love had the capacity to render people defenceless and unhappy. Many features of the universal culture such as religion or aesthetic sensibility were sublimated expressions of the libidinal drives. Yet they left suffering untouched because they were either illusory or compensatory. Civilisation generated the demand for global reform but suffering could at best be mitigated and never overthrown. The apparent social sources of unhappiness obscured the intractability of suffering ultimately rooted in humanity’s psychical constitution. Freud’s sour view was remote from the affirmative endorsement of bourgeois civilisation. Freud ventroliquised modernity’s critics who complained that giant strides in mastering nature were accompanied by the continued fission of misery. As Freud observed: "a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals." Such a view practically rendered the therapeutic goal nugatory10.

Rather, Freud maintained: "the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start...yet its programme is at loggerheads with the world" 11. Humanity faced three sources of suffering: (i) physical decay and dissolution, (ii) the external world which "may rage against us", and, (iii) the most gratuitous and painful, other people12. The instinctual drives of Eros were repressed and displaced toward different goals compatible with maintaining the basis of humanity’s newly emerging social order.

In the extraordinary Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud outlined how he thought the communal foundation of civilisation had arisen from the primal horde. In the patriarchal ‘primitive family’ the brothers had banded together to overthrow their severe Father by killing him13. Totemic culture was a result of new taboos (the first laws) regulating inter-personal relations: "The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity and the power of love which made man unwilling to be deprived of his sexual object – the woman -, and made the woman unwilling to be deprived of the part of herself which had been separated off from her – her child"14. To begin with, taboos prohibited incest but other restrictions followed. Child sexuality was suppressed while the limitation of the sexual object in maturity to the opposite sex enjoined treating extra-genital sexuality as perversion. Unsurprisingly, the instinctual power of Eros was too strong to be entirely suppressed – occasions for a return of the repressed - so civilisation looked past many transgressions but still left sexual life "extremely impaired"15. The displaced libidinal instincts manifested themselves in a number of ways. The most important, and crucial to the establishment of civilisation, was work which required a great deal of psychical energy and aim inhibited affection (contra genital eroticism) that fostered ‘friendships’ and the love of family members.

The Origins of Violence and Aggression

In the most arresting remark of C&ID Freud writes: "I know that in sadism and masochism we have always seen before us manifestations of the destructive instinct (directed outwards and inwards), strongly alloyed with eroticism; but I can no longer understand how we can have overlooked the ubiquity of non-erotic aggressivity and destructiveness and can have failed to give it its due place in our interpretation of life"16.

Freud unflinchingly exposed the barely suppressed aggression woven into the very fabric of society. For Freud, civilisation’s history merely confirmed the truth of the Roman playwright Plautus’s dictum: "Man is a wolf to man." From Genghis Khan, to the Crusades and the First World War, the sombre truth was that civilisation was constantly threatened with dissolution due to chronic aggression. A high level of energy was expended curbing aggressive instincts utilising psychical reaction formations and the aim-inhibited relations of love. Unsurprisingly Freud was sceptical that communism could usher in a new pacific social order because although the abolition of private property would deprive aggression of "one of its instruments", aggression had pre-dated the institution of private property and would surely survive its abolition17. Similarly the abolition of the family and the ‘liberation’ of Eros were unlikely to spell real inroads into human nature’s most indestructible feature.

Freud’s reflections on the Death instinct began during the First World War when he encountered men suffering traumatic neuroses and was struck by their compulsion to repeat. Freud also noted the conservative nature of this behaviour. The tendency of Eros was to push outward, seek to reproduce and coalesce into larger units but Freud realised there must exist a contrary instinct immanent in organic life that to sought to return to the inertia of the primeval and inorganic.

In BTPP (1920) Freud observed "we cannot escape the suspicion that we have come upon the track of a universal attribute of the instincts...It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces...the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life"18. Life moved forward but continually glanced backwards for intimations of what lay ahead when the organic – in essence instinctually conservative – was inorganic. The conservative instinct to self-preservation was closely allied with the Death instinct and ensured the organism followed its own immanent path to its inevitable terminus ad quem19.

Freud wondered if his vision of a struggle between Eros and the Death instinct was the "secret of organic life itself"20. As Paul Ricoeur adumberated Freud: life’s aim was death (Schopenhauer); the return to origins like the salmon returning to their spawning grounds. Organic life developed and adapted to an ever changing environment but immanently desired repetition (death). Organic life had a covert instinctual analogue to salmon returning to their spawning grounds to spawn and die21.

Pursuing Schiller’s aphorism that ‘hunger and love move the world’ Freud pointed to the antithesis between the ego-instincts (self-preservation) and the object-instincts (Eros). To underline the instinctual energy of the object-instincts Freud introduced the term libido (in a 1895 paper). Of the object-instincts one in particular stood out: the sadistic instinct. Remote from love but clearly partially attached to the ego-instincts due to an affinity with mastery they nevertheless clearly belonged to sexual life. But the decisive step for Freud was the introduction of the concept of narcissism in 1914. Here Freud suggested the Ego was cathected with libidinal energy, that the Ego itself was the libido’s original home. The narcissistic libido turned toward object universe became object-libido. The concept of narcissism helped to render traumatic neuroses intelligible. However Freud felt there was a danger that if the ego-instincts were libidinal all instinctual energy could be characterised as libidinal (the solution Jung proposed). Freud resisted this solution and it is here that the existence of conservative instincts revealed by the compulsion to repeat put Freud on the scent of the Death instincts22.

Mutually hostile, Eros and Death embraced and their struggle explained all the phenomena of existence. Eros was manifest but the Death instincts sought dissolution by stealth. In his boldest masterstroke, Freud suggested that elements of the Death instinct were pressed into the service of Eros and directed at the external world where they were revealed as the instincts of destructiveness and aggression. Instead of destroying its host the Death instincts were now intent on destroying the external whether organic or inorganic. Sadism – its sexual component common knowledge – was an alloy of Eros and Death. Masochism was also an alloy of the two opposed instincts albeit directed internally23.

Freud was not surprised his supposition of the existence of the Death instincts in BTPP encountered resistance and disbelief. Sadism’s co-option of the sexual instinct was evidently its most obvious manifestation. But even where it emerged without any overt sexual purpose its blind destructive fury revealed a high degree of narcissistic enjoyment that illumined the Ego’s most archaic wish for omnipotence. The aggressive instinct was the handmaiden of the Death instinct.

The tendency of Eros was to libidinally tie people together in community. Yet "man’s natural aggressive instincts" were an impediment to civilisation. The question arose: how could civilisation domesticate the aggressive instincts? Freud’s surprising answer was that the aggressive instinct could be introjected or internalised and sent back to the place it had come from – the Ego. There it was taken in hand by a separatist section of the Ego and raised up as Super-Ego (conscience) and aimed as aggressively at the Ego as it had hitherto been orientated toward the external world. Thus, civilisation had succeeded in placing a "garrison in a conquered city" in order to gain mastery over the individual’s aggressive instincts. External authority was internalised with the establishment of the Super-Ego. However unlike external authority, the Ego could not conceal ‘bad intentions’ from the Super-Ego and so the distinction between wishing to do bad and actually doing it, disappeared, and guilt, minatory guardian of the Super-Ego emerged24.

The sense of guilt had two sources: fear of authority and fear of the Super-Ego. Both demanded renunciation but the Super-Ego also demanded severe punishment for an Ego unable to conceal its wish. Phylogenetically, renunciation for fear of aggression from an external authority came before a renunciation of desire for fear of the internal authority – conscience. Yet the renunciation of desire lost some efficacy with the arrival of the Super-Ego. Virtuous continence was no longer rewarded with the love that represented protection against aggression. Anxiety and unhappiness were now universal. Freud proposed the probable phylogenetic logic as it had unfolded: initially conscience was the cause of instinctual renunciation but then the relation was reversed. Renunciation reinforced conscience strengthening its severity and intolerance.

Freud recalls that in T&T he had previously suggested the Oedipus complex had strengthened an already existing sense of guilt. But in C&ID’s Freud proposed that the murder of tyrannical father by his sons was the occasion for the appearance of the Super-Ego. Yet the band of brothers had felt remorse (as distinct from guilt) for killing their father. How? Why? The brothers had ambivalent feelings toward their father – both love and hate. The instinctual hatred was expatiated in killing their father but their act also aroused their love and provoked the Super-Ego’s entrance. Crucially, from the beginning the Super-Ego was identified with patriarchal authority while ambivalent feelings of remorse mirrored the internal psychical conflict between Eros and the Death instincts25.

We noted the omniscience of the Super-Ego meant there was no significant difference between intent and action. This gave rise to a number of effects including the growing inhibition of overt aggressive instincts and the inflation of anxiety. As Marcuse observed, civilisation and the self were shaped by the archaic heritage of the Oedipus complex and distilled in the Super-Ego. This archaic heritage was the link between the self and mass psychology. In a key sense, the individual did not exist for itself because it was a "frozen manifestation" of the repression of humanity. Recoined in Marcuse’s Hegelian Marxism, Reason and self-consciousness had shaped the historical world and made great inroads into the realm of necessity but they had done so repressively. Though the freedoms of the bourgeois revolution were tangible, Reason had also served domination, both of internal and external nature, and of man by man. Freedom had grown from the soil of unfreedom and retained its congenital defects (though Marcuse might have added that that freedom had its own internal limits). Disturbingly for the reigning ideological consensus the ‘autonomous individual’ was shown to be groundless by Freudian metapsychology. Freud demonstrated that the self was the product of pre-individual factors of historical development, more powerful for being unconscious and repressed. As Marcuse summarised the idea "the past defines the present because mankind has not yet mastered its own history"26.

Thus Freud draw the important conclusion "...the price we pay for our advance in civilisation is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt"27. The Super-Ego vis-a-vis the Ego was a strict, ever watchful censor. Anxiety sprang from the Ego’s fear of the Super-Ego and under the latter’s sadistic influence fostered the Ego’s masochism. Indeed an "erotic attachment" grew between the two poles of the self28.

Freud felt the Super-Ego too readily disregarded the instinctual strength of the Id and the happiness of the Ego. So therapy was obliged to expose the Super-Ego and lower its demands. Similarly, what could be called the cultural Super-Ego too readily assumed the Ego enjoyed unlimited command over the instincts. Thus, the cultural Super-Ego’s imperative to ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ lacked realism given the underlying strength of humanity’s aggressive instincts and in a similar vein Freud ventured that ethics – concerned with right life and how to live it – provided little more than a substitute narcissistic gratification.

Finally C&ID ends with Freud speculating whether it is legitimate to ask if civilisation or humanity might be considered ‘neurotic’ as a whole. Despite the methodological obstacles (where is your normative benchmark?), Freud believed such a project was in principle possible. Such a question on Freud’s part fleetingly opened up the vista where his metapyschology stepped out onto the terrain of history.

EXCURSUS: The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924)

The existence of masochism is a mystery given the ascendancy of Eros over psychical life. Masochism implies pain can be an aim and that it is not merely reducible to providing warnings of possible harm. Freud accepted the major principle ruling psychical life was the ‘tendency towards stability’ or what Barbara Low called the Nirvana principle where the psychical structure tried to reduce the level of free flowing energy. On this view, pleasure was derived from lowering stimuli and unpleasure from the increase in stimuli thus increasing tension29.

But Freud realised such a picture could not be entirely accurate. Death’s aim was to relieve life of life. If Eros simply aimed to lower the flow of instinctual energy it would be rendered a servant of the Death instinct. But sexual arousal was only the most obvious example where Eros increased stimuli. So the distinction between pleasure-unpleasure on the basis of the quantity of energy present, could not be the whole picture. Eros and the Nirvana principle should not be treated as one. Freud suggested the three major principles, Eros (libido), Nirvana (as an expression of the Death instincts) and the Reality principle coexisted and, occasionally, conflicted with Eros retaining the dominant role over life30.

Similarly masochism fell under three types, (i) erotogenic – or pleasure in pain. Erotogenic masochism was the basis of the other two types. Typically it involved sexual phantasies of being beaten, bound, humiliated (often theatrically) and so on, and had a strong regressive infantile component. Castration anxiety was also evident with men playing the passive feminine role. A sense of guilt could also be present and functioned as a bridge to moral masochism.

Erotogenic masochism grew out of infantile physiological responses such as sympathetic libidinal excitations that allowed infants to cope with pain. However this could not explain all the phenomena and another derivation for masochism was possible. While part of the Death instinct remained ‘bound’ libidinally within the Ego, the libido diverted another part of the Death instinct towards external reality. This destructive instinct was also an instinct for mastery and power with a strong sexual component. In sadism, Eros and Death – opposed principles were intimately bound together. Unfortunately, Freud does not really discuss sadism further as masochism remains his primary object but its relevance to the subject of the roots of aggression in general and fascist violence in particular, is clear.

However Freud’s further discussion of the roots of masochism is relevant to the conception of the ‘authoritarian personality’ that emerged later in social scientific discussion and research on the mass psychology of fascism in the 1940-50s . Why was the Ego afraid of its ideal, the Super-Ego? The Super-Ego was as much a product of the Id as external reality. As we noted above, the Super-Ego had first arisen through the introjection into the Ego of the first libidinal objects of the Id: the parents. In the usual course of development this relation was deflected as the parents were desexualised. Thus the Oedipus complex was overcome: "The Super-Ego – as conscience at work in the ego – may then become harsh, cruel and inexorable...Kant’s Categorical Imperative is thus the direct heir of the Oedipus Complex"31.

The Oedipus complex survived via the Super-Ego as stern patriarchal representative of the external world; source of both the self’s ethical sense and an ideal for the Ego to imitate. Child development usually saw the direct influence of the parents recede though the imagos our parents left behind reinforced our receptivity to figures of authority in adult life (teachers fulfilled a bridging function). Respect for authority and a strong internal ethical sense were the bedrock of moral masochism but in the acutely sensitive conscience the normal extension of morality exercised by a sadistic Super-Ego was taken even further as the Ego’s own masochism demanded punishment. In other words, this character type (in the ideal typical sense) might develop a deferential attitude to figures in authority. Phantasies such as the wish to be beaten by the father (and play the passive feminine sexual role with him) indicated that in moral masochism the Oedipus complex was revived and morality sexualised. Now a non-virtuous cycle might be said to have been established with ‘sinful’ actions followed by sadistic chastisement of the conscience. Crucially, Freud argued the Super-Ego’s sadism occurred where the "cultural suppression" of the instincts prevented the aggressive and destructive instincts from being exercised.


Freud’s portrait of the Death instincts, masochism and sadism, of the ubiquity of aggression and violence rooted in the instinctual realm of human nature, is profound and provocative. Clearly, in light of many millennia of barbarism and class society, the violent rise of capitalism, the ravages of imperialism and the fury of fascism, Freud’s views have the merit of realism. This is perhaps the answer to those instinctively repelled by Freud’s apparently chilly weltanschauung. Certainly, Arthur Schopenhauer, admired by Freud, was a major influence as many Freudian staples – about death and the impossibility of reconciling our desires and civilisation and so on – were anticipated by Schopenhauer. Similarly with Nietzsche – many pointed to the parallels in the thought of the two thinkers, not least Freud’s own students who continuously tried to draw Freud’s attention to Nietzsche. But unlike Schopenhauer, Freud resisted reading Nietzsche chiefly because he wanted to arrive at his scientific insights independently32.

In a thought provoking essay on evil (2010) - the lower case is significant – Terry Eagleton makes the case for the reality of evil - a this worldly, secular and banal evil; an evil that is never less than evil despite the case that Eagleton wishes to make as a Marxist, that evil has social and historical roots, has roots in a psychical constitution intelligible from the standpoint of Freudian theory. Evil, then, is not theological (though theologicians, unsurprisingly, generally have the most interesting things to say about Evil). Such a position does not deny the "terrifying positivity" of evil or diminish the gravity of the Nazi concentration camps. Rather psychoanalytic theory, Eagleton suggests would allow "us to maintain that evil is a kind of deprivation while still acknowledging its formidable power. The power in essentially that of the death drive, turned outward so as to wreak its insatiable spitefulness on a fellow human being. Yet this furious violence involves a kind of lack – an unbearable sense of non-being, which taken out on another"33.

But perhaps Freud’s metapyschology is not congenial to a perspective orientated on uprooting everything that generates the evils of class society, violence, genocide, fascism? Perhaps Freud is too reductive or too tainted with biologism? We have already noted Marcuse’s conviction that Freud’s metapyschology is, at bottom, inherently historical and social. This conviction was shared by a small group of Marxists in the inter-war years who sought to trace the dialectical mediations between Freud’s incendiary vista of the repressive development of the self with the larger canvass of class society’s genesis outlined by historical materialism.

On the parenthentical issue of Freud’s biologism, it might be thought this belongs to a reactionary essentialism or outmoded idea of human nature. However, Marx himself had a conception of human nature – or philosophical anthropology – that assumed people were embodied, material beings with real need and desires. Indeed, Marx’s constant references to people’s needs would have been incoherent without such an underlying philosophical anthropology that assumed the existence of a relatively ‘enduring’ or defined ‘nature’ that existed by virtue of nature rather than a historically specific form of society. In The German Ideology (1846), Marx asserted that those who ignored the real basis of history and excluded from the historical process "the relation of man to nature" created an "antithesis of nature and history." Marx was not only referring to external nature but also humanity’s internal nature. In The Holy Family (1845), Marx criticised Bruno Bauer for not recognising "any power of human nature distinct from reason"34.

Another related issue concerns Freud’s ‘pessimism’ in relation to any putative synthesis of psychoanalysis and historical materialism. Clearly Freud was highly critical of bourgeois civilisation (Freud was also acutely aware of anti-semitism) – a powerful critical thrust that waned with the retreat of neo-Freudianism from the large issues which had preoccupied its founding father. But as we noted above Freud was sceptical that any alternative social order would be able to put aside repressive sublimation or leave the reigning misery of the social order behind. Marcuse, Reich and Fromm all took Freud to task for his position and posed the possibility of a non-repressive civilisation or concrete utopia that in transcending the horizon of capitalism, destroying global imperialism and uprooting its hierarchical relations of domination and subordination, smashing the bourgeois state would destroy the social conditions that generated war and fascism. Crucially, the chronic aggression and violence that was a global feature of present day class society would be drastically diminished.

Concrete utopia would, by and large, be extremely pacific and would grow even more so in time. Yet it is not hard to imagine a certain level of inter-personal aggression derived from humanity’s instinctual, material make-up, remaining. Again Eagleton is judicious in weighing up the problem: "Virtue depends to some extent on material well-being. You cannot enjoy decent relationships with others when you are starving. The opposite of materialism here is moralism...Radicals do not believe that to transform those surroundings would be to produce a society of saints...[t]here are plenty of reasons, Freudian and otherwise, for believing a fair amount of human nastiness would survive...It belongs to any authentic materialism to be conscious of the limits of the political, which includes an awareness of how things stand with us as a material species. Even could be feasibly much improved for a great many people"35.

Finally, we have said little directly about fascism (further posts will remedy this) but it should hopefully be clear from the foregoing that Freud’s account of the Death instincts is pregnant with many implications for understanding the psycho-dynamics of fascist aggression and violence, the ‘authoritarian personality’ and its cultivation in the psychological soil of late capitalism. However, the existence of fascism as a phenomena is not reducible to the Death instincts, though these instincts certainly nourish fascism. However, we think the Death instincts capture the truth of a specific level or aspect of fascism which married to a critical Marxism, allows a full comprehension of fascism’s danger. That alone is enough to justify the interest in Freud.

1. For an account of Reich’s expulsion see Myron Sharaf’s Reich biography Fury On Earth (1990) pp175-91.
2. Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (1984) p.204. Later there was a shift in the appreciation Freud’s Death instinct on the part of Institute members and Fromm’s synthesis was itself attacked.
3. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1961) p.505.
4. Terry Eagleton, On Evil (2010) p.108.
5. Bowlby was a student of Melanie Klein and his starting point was the Kleinian focus on the child-mother relation. Despite useful insights, Bowlby concluded Klein’s approach was in need of a critical overhaul. Thus, with a number of collaborators, the influential corpus of Attachment theory was developed drawing on ethology, cybernetics, information processing and developmental psychology. Bowlby basically proposed the primacy of attachment relations within the family, especially between child and mother. This position was in sharp contrast to the established psychoanalytic view that libidinal ties between mother and child were established on the basis of need satisfaction (oral stage). Bowlby also rejected other elements of Freud’s account of infant development such as the Oedipus complex.
6. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation (1955) p.25.
7. See Paul Roazen’s account in Freud and His Followers (1975) pp.231-32.
8. Freud had initially been an enthusiastic supporter of Germany and Austria’s war effort.
9. Roazen pp.224-34.
10. C&ID p.275.
11. C&ID p.263.
12. C&ID p.264.
13. Again space precludes examining the basis of Freud’s anthropological speculations about humanity’s prehistory and the survival of its archaic heritage. Marcuse notes the difficulties involved in scientific verification of Freud’s phylogenetic hypothesis but defends their "symbolic value" and the essential truth of the broad vista of the dialectic of domination, repression and civilisation moving together in lock step. See E&C pp.57-58.
14. C&ID p.290.
15. C&ID p.295.
16. C&ID p.311.
17. The proletarian revolution swept across mitteleuropa following the First World War with the defeat of Germany in the war. As soldiers and workers councils sprung up the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. Freud and his family were impoverished by the hyper-inflation of post-war Vienna where the Habsburg empire collapsed. From the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire, arose the shortlived Soviet republic in neighbouring Hungary in 1919. Psycholanalysis was courted assiduously by Bela Kun’s government.
18. ‘Beyond The Pleasure Principle’ (1920) in Freud Pelican Library 11: On Metapsychology pp.308-09.
19. BTPP pp.311-13.
20. C&ID p.333.
21. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophical: Essay on Interpretation (1970) pp.289-90.
22. C&ID pp308-09.
23. C&ID p.310.
24. C&ID p.316.
25. C&ID pp324-26.
26. E&C pp.55-56.
27. C&ID p.327.
28. C&ID p.330.
29. ‘Economic Problem of Masochism’ (1924) in Freud Pelican Library 11: On Metapyschology pp413-14.
30. EPoM p.415.
31. EPoM p.422.
32. Though Nietzsche’s notion of the "eternal recurrence of the same" appeared in BTPP.
33. OE p.127.
34. See Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983) pp.61-62)
35. OE p.150.


  1. The name of Church of Satans magister James Sass's power electronics project Necrofascist is a direct mockery of these sorts of ideas.

  2. Boil the kettle mother21 Nov 2010, 23:16:00


    After all that, which spectre raises it head?

    "Marx himself!"

    Vater Marx, our father whose art is theory, hallowed is thy name. Ridiculous, as if his word is enough to cast away any doubts we may have of Freud's, "biologism," (as if we ever ceased to be anything but biological anyway). After all that preceded it, to find such a base crypto-theological projection of the super ego onto His Infallibility is almost laughable (I thought it might be a joke at first but then I remembered how dogmatic the faithful can be).

    I did have a serious point to make but then even bigger lulz at Anonymous and the idea that, "James Sass's power electronics project Necrofascist," is anything other than a direct mockery of anything othr than itself had me pmsl.

  3. "as if we ever ceased to be anything but biological anyway"

    Of course we have ceased to be merely biological. Your digs about Marx's infallibility don't really work either since Marx, for obvious reasons, had nothing to say about Freud and the unconscious as such. Marx did, however, have interesting things to say about those ideologists and apologists of Capital who read into biology 'the struggle of all against all', thereby turning nature itself into an image of, and justification for, Capitalism.

  4. Boil the kettle mother22 Nov 2010, 13:33:00

    "Of course we have ceased to be merely biological."

    But it is also naive to think that we are in some post-biological. Dude, seriously, no one is uploading their consciousness into tinternet just yet. Your meat is REAL, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari and all the other chancers are just starry-eyed dreamers whose bad poetry was in the right place at the right time to launch a 1000 second rate PhDs.

    "Your digs about Marx's infallibility don't really work either since Marx, for obvious reasons, had nothing to say about Freud and the unconscious as such."

    You make the same mistake as the author. My dig was at the author who had written pretty interestingly about Freud's later, social analysis. And then he revealed his own masochism through the phrase, "Marx himself." What is the, "himself," at work here? Rhetorically it suggests that all possible comment ends with the great Himself, before whom all should submit. It was the author's masochistic tendency to submit to Marx's (imagined) intellectual Authority that I was pointing to. By leaping to Marx's defence and not the author's you reveal the same tendency to defer to this Father of Thought. But hey, we all go through it at some point.

    Imo, capitalism thrives on this continued willingness to submit, as does fascism and other old skool C20th totalitarian scams.

  5. "it is also naive to think that we are in some post-biological"

    Well, yes - hence the need for Freud. If we were post biological then post-structuralism wouldn't be stupid. Perhaps we are even agreeing.

    "Marx himself"

    I'm sure that the author is treating Marx as an 'authority', but I don't think that undermines his argument - it just makes it suitably reflexive. I mean, Marx can be treated as an authority (among Marxists0 without being an 'authority figure', yes? If not then the whole of intellectual life starts looking much as the post-structuralists imagine.

  6. @ Boil The Kettle Mother

    It is naive to think we are merely biological or post-biological (clearly the latter position is not one myself or Strelnikov take).

    I think we perhaps do agree. There are two polemical targets: biological reductionism, on the one hand, a staple of much C19th scientific thought across Europe and North America that had real affinities with social Darwinism etc and the sorts of social theory that are blind to the material basis of human existence or deny the fact that humanity is part of the natural world (though not identical with it in the way animals are). Marx grasped this but some interpreters or readers of Marx do not. That sort of blindness prevents them from taking the claims of Freudianism seriously.

  7. It was around the 23rd of Walk within the year 1900 in which Erich Fromm was given birth to from Frankfurt are Key, Hesse-Nassau, Prussia; Philippines. Inside 1918, Fromm started off the a couple semesters of jurisprudence on the School of Frankfurt are Key. Inside 1919, Fromm started to be students of sociology rather than jurisprudence and also started off on the School of Heidelberg. They ended up being well guided and also motivated in the field of sociology by simply renowned personas for instance Karl Jaspers, Heinrich Rickert and also close friend from the well-known Greatest extent Weber; Alfred Weber. Psychoanalyst Fromm

  8. I think Freud is on to something but as brillant as he was I think he might have missed this the. Germans were developing a science of creative destruction like heavy water the nuclear bomb like all their other chemical explorations they could gone over the line and not only caused a psychosis all through out those who administered the chemicals. And those who were exposed to them in short they where killing them selves and enjoying. Them selfs like a genius child playing a detail chemical set

  9. Darwin introduced "red in tooth and claw" scientifically and Marx tried to dedicate Capital to him. Marx is not God: he was only human. "Destroy the structures" and presumably some people with them, a classic aggressive destructive drive. Freud is risky for Marxists. But having watched a program sandwiched between two gassings by Coronation Street where an actor admitted the purpose of some advertising had been to lead boys away from their mother. In plain sight. Another experiment to see if anyone is awake. So, if Thanatos leaves his cage and leads these boys into heroin addiction and other risky behaviours are we ready to admit it? One is a not very good Christian but have seen interest by others in Marcuse. So, they mess with Eros but liberate Thanatos. One is sceptical Marxists understand the nitroglycerine they play with but if commerce has made in the words of the Police "the lost generation" this time it has signed up with the Devil. So, yes Fascism will rise and is doing so now.


Please at least use a pseudonym so it's possible to follow your argument if you make multiple posts