Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review


A block on understanding

Sabby Sagall's article on Freud (July/August SR) was a masterly exercise in concise exposition of a vast and complex body of ideas. Nevertheless I believe socialists have to take a much more sharply critical view of the founder of psychoanalysis.

While there can be no denying Freud's stature as the thinker who opened up the territory of the unconscious, the fact remains that his theories are in many respects profoundly flawed and reactionary in the way they reinforce the assumptions and norms of the bourgeois family.

In particular I think we have to take very seriously the criticism made of Freud by Jeffrey Masson (and others). In The Assault on Truth: Freud and Child Sexual Abuse Masson argues that when Freud came to the conclusion that child sexual abuse was a major cause of mental illness, he was making a discovery of enormous significance. But in 1897 Freud rejected his own theory, insisting from then on that his patients' accounts of childhood sexual assaults were in fact fantasies­expressions of their unconscious desires for sex with their parents (the Oedipus Complex).

Masson maintains that his renunciation of the seduction theory, as it was called, was in bad faith­a capitulation to societal pressure, not a result of new scientific evidence­and that it had devastating consequences for the whole development of psychoanalysis. It meant that for decades psychoanalysts encouraged and induced their patients to disclose their abuse as children while at the same time holding a theory which predetermined that these disclosures would not be believed. In this way Freudian theory and therapy both reinforced the invalidation and suffering of patients and blocked off a very important avenue of research for the understanding and treating of mental illness.

John Molyneux


The ghost in the machine

Sabby Sagall's uncritical reading of Freud (July/August SR) is completely unhelpful in assessing Freud's contribution to the socialist tradition. Freud's case histories are a catalogue of unprofessional behaviour and unscientific interpretation. Psychoanalysis is no more effective in alleviating mental problems than any other type of therapy, or none at all. Most of Freud's ideas are not just unproven, they are actually wrong.

Sabby cites the case of 'Dora' who ceased her psychoanalysis after a couple of months when Freud failed to convince her that she was in love with a family friend. Freud himself did not dispute that the man had actually assaulted her at 14. Freud also misinterpreted Dora's affection for the man's wife as latent homosexuality. No evidence for either is presented apart from Freud's assertions.

Freud's pyschoanalysis is not the only 'talking cure'. Modern counselling, for all its problems, is an unpretentious and sometimes effective way of helping individuals having difficulty coping with a hostile world. It is true that Freud shifted from an organic theory of mental problems to a psychological one. But his explanations became so riddled with arcane notions as to virtually negate any progressive component.

Freud gives his dynamic unconscious such autonomy that it becomes a scientific version of the ghost in the machine and leads to a 'crypto-dualism'.

Furthermore, his 'universal, unchanging mental structure and fixed psychic drives rooted in our biological make up' (Sabby Sagall) are a form of sociobiology.

The Oedipus Complex is an unecessary and unproved piece of poetic metaphor based on the fairly obvious fact that overbearing fathers are often resented by their sons. It has no explanatory value for the problems associated with the nuclear family under capitalism.

There is no lifelong subterranean battle between pleasure and reality in our minds. The compromises which individuals make between immediate self gratification and the needs of others are both (usually) quite conscious. And both are the result of socialisation which takes place early in life. Freud did not found the 'last great bourgeois science' but a petty bourgeois sideshow in an era eager for the novel and the weird. What really needs explaining is how his ideas came to have such an influence throughout the 20th century­and on socialists who should know better.

Dermot Smyth


Mystical notions

Sigmund Freud should be considered by Marxists as one of the great 'realist' thinkers of the last century and a half. Where Marx and Darwin brought thoroughgoing 'realism' into our understanding of human history and biology, respectively, Freud did likewise for our understanding of the mind. Just as Marx debunks such notions as the 'invisible hand' of the market, and Darwin's theory of natural selection deals likewise with creationism, Freud disposes of many of the mystical notions concerning the psyche which had influenced thinking concerning the nature of the mind.

Sabby Sagall's article on Freud (July/August SR) rightly states this importance, deepening as it does our understanding of 'how external structures of exploitation and oppression are internalised into the mind of the individual and how this distorts our relationships.' That Freud's discovery of the unconscious was the result of his studies of human sexuality perhaps should come as of little surprise to us. As John Parrington notes elsewhere, it is hard to think of another area of people's lives where the discrepancy between public pontificating and private feelings and practice is more stark than that concerning sexuality.

For Freud not only did the study of sexuality provide a 'unit of analysis' but the centrality of sexual drives themselves means that for him they underlie every aspect of our mental life. As he asserts in the Clark Lectures,

'Psycho-analytical research traces back the symptoms of patient's illness with really surprising regularity to impressions from their erotic life' and 'among the influences leading to the illness the predominant significance must be assigned to erotic disturbances.' Sabby makes this point, albeit in a less strident manner, when he characterises Freud's thought as stating that 'sexuality can be a prime mover for much of our behaviour'.

However, there is a great deal of ambiguity in Freud's writings concerning the notion of sexuality. In the Clark Lectures, Freud is obviously referring to sexuality as the erotic, but elsewhere sexuality is used in a much wider sense to refer to the whole of sensuous life, to the human need for food, warmth, shelter and erotic sex. The latter notion is one that we should accept, for, as Marx and Engels note in The German Ideology, 'Life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things.' Further, consequent upon the fulfilment of these sensuous needs, 'the first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.'

However, the notion of sexuality as simply the erotic is one that should be rejected. For although sexual drives are patently very important in our lives, to give them primacy as explanatory engines of the workings of the human mind is to reduce human history to biological determinism.

A Marxist theory of the mind must take on board Freud's method, understanding the meaning of a person's choice in terms of their individual life experience.

His broadly construed notions of sexuality can be incorporated into an active picture of the human mind, the wider notion of self activity and the fight for socialism; the narrow view of sexuality must be rejected, entailing as it does a passive and mechanical view of the mind and ultimately collapsing into biological determinism.

Terry Sullivan


A timely interruption

Debates are an unsatisfactory way of conducting a discussion. They allow the participants to build up a whole complex edifice of argument upon a premise that could have been demolished by a timely interruption in the first paragaph. The debate between John Rees and Professor Giddens (July/August SR) is no exception.

Anthony Giddens, for instance, mentions the fact that Marx considered it to be of fundamental importance for the growth of socialism that people should understand history. Giddens argues that in the mid-19th century it was true that almost no one understood historical processes. Marx's hypothesis, then untested, might have held some credibility. But now, he maintains, 'we' understand the workings of history and yet socialism has not materialised. Marx must have been wrong!

Who does he mean by 'we'? If he means historians at the leading edge of research, I think he has misunderstood Marx on the subject. Surely he can't mean the whole population! If so, he has taken no account of the alienation of school children from the school process, which has always made it impossible for the majority to learn anything relevant about history, even in those heady days when a few liberal historians were allowed to teach their version of history in schools.

He has taken no account of the rigid control of history syllabuses that has characterised the years of Tory rule, nor of the wholesale destruction of the new, 1960s inspired, sociology departments in schools and colleges over the past 20 years­a process clearly aimed at preventing people from understanding the historical process.

He takes no account of the lengths to which the media have driven themselves in their efforts to throw sand in the eyes of the most willing to learn. The whole process of understanding history is riddled with class struggle, the ideas of the ruling class being inevitably predominant.

So programmes about 'Iron Age Britain' for instance, lay emphasis on the means by which people used to grind their corn and build their houses, with no reference to the social structure of class dominance within which these lives took place. And we are told that 'we in the West' are causing terrrible ecological damage, for which we must all take responsibilty. Yet, as far as I remember, none of my oil tankers has ever crashed into the rocks, polluting the oceans, nor have any of my chemical plants poured toxic waste into the environment!

Because most people are not encouraged, or even allowed, to understand history, it is still necessary for our party to lay emphasis on the past, as Marx advised; to attempt to interest people who may have disliked history at school in the processes that shape their lives. This is why Marxism each year is sprinkled with meetings in which various key historical times are shown in a totally new light, an opportunity that for many people does not arise in any other circumstances. It is utterly ridiculous in the 1990s to assume that 'people' now have a clear understanding of history. This may never happen on a wide scale until after­or possibly during­the revolution!

Muriel Hirsch


On the level

I would like to make a few points regarding Kevin Ovenden's article on Europe, 'The Bosses Fading Star?' (July/August SR).

The Maastricht 3 percent criteria: capitalism attacked the welfare state long before the 3 percent criteria was dreamed up. The class options to meet the 3 percent are either (a) cutting the welfare state or (b) raising top rate and/or corporate taxes (which the Jospin government has just been forced to do) and/or raising employers' social insurance contributions, or some combination thereof. It's a question of the balance of class forces.

Why assume, as most of the left implicitly does, that capitalist government debt is inherently an advantage for the working class? The debt repayment, plus interest, usually falls on their shoulders­whether it does or not again is a question of class forces.

The figure of £18 billion to meet the 3 percent Maastricht criteria is correct but the impression that this means that yet another £18 billion of cuts will have to be imposed between now and 1999 is not. Given a smidgen of creative accounting the 3 percent is already a fait accompli.

The differences in the level of welfare state spending (as a percentage of GDP) between Britain and the other major EU economies are ignored. Yet they are surely at least as important as the level of debt for monetary union? In Britain, with its 'low tax economy', such spending is some 10 percentage points below the average of Germany, France and Italy.

Not only are British pensioners' incomes well below the rest of the EU but much of their income comes from investment funded occupational and personal pensions. This funded system hardly exists in the rest of the EU where pensions are paid directly from pay-as-you-go social insurance contributions by employers and workers, with employers paying the lion's share.

British pension funds, worth some £700 billion, own half of all the City's stocks and shares and largely account for the size and dominance of the British financial sector relative to other EU economies.

More than a decade ago Thatcher despatched Leon Brittan to the EU, as commissioner for financial services, to transform their pensions into funded pensions on the British model, in the hope that this would result in yet more input to the City. Thanks mainly to the resistance of the continental trade unions, the project has been largely defeated. This has helped to fuel the City's opposition to EMU. Hence the present euroscepticism of the Tory right. I do not think that monetary union is possible without considerable harmonisation of welfare states, and especially pensions, across the EU. Taking into account the relatively small weight of the British economy in the EU and the greater strength of the working class movement on the continent, EMU would imply some upgrading of the British welfare state (and pensions in particular) and some curbing of the power of the City.

Taking the above into account, plus the pledge by the Blair government to defend the interests of British financial services, it seems very unlikely that Britain would join EMU­if it ever happens anyway.

Therefore there seems very little reason to campaign against EMU but the issue does open up the opportunity to raise the question of why the British welfare state lags so far behind the rest of the EU. Apart from which there is a grave danger of being associated with the xenophobia which dominates the anti-EMU campaign­to be avoided like the plague.

Hugh Lowe


Not faulty but guilty

I disagree with the review by Ian Allinson of Noreen Branson's book History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-51 (July/August SR). I don't feel it gets to the heart of the matter. When Branson concludes that the Communist Party's analysis of the political situation in Britain was 'faulty' and its 'main mistakes arose from its attitudes to the Soviet Union uncritical support', this is one hell of an admission.

The last line from the Comintern was a somersault from the pact with Hitler to, in Stalin's words, alliances with 'freedom loving nations and patriots' who would fight the enemy of Russia, which meant effectively junking the politics of class confrontation. So the British CP could argue to work within the Joint Production Committees, designed to get bosses and workers together to solve production problems for the war.

They could use their influence in the rank and file, at its height in the early 1940s, to prevent strikes. Pollitt, the party's general secretary admits their policy was unpopular with many workers but the need for war production came first.

In 1943 the fascist Mosley was released from prison on a spurious health excuse, which the CP rightly opposed. Workers were livid, there were threats of strike action in war factories, petitions and delegations besieging the government. The CP's role was to be 'heavily engaged in trying to channel the anger into actions that would not damage the war effort'. Against protest strikes, they posed delegations to Downing Street. This at a time when trade union membership had gone up from 4.5 million before the war to 7 million at its end and disputes during that time from 900 odd to 2,300.

What Trotsky argued was that of course workers felt Hitler was the enemy of everyone but alliances across the classes would tie workers' hands from fighting independently for socialism. But it was the Stalinist CP whose ideas had hold in the best sections of the working class.

It was not 'faulty' but rotten politics that had the British CP arguing in 1945 to continue the coalition government, albeit with a Labour majority, as 'national unity' was a method that could solve peacetime problems too. Yet the war years had led to a massive shift to the left in workers'

consciousness and Labour got a landslide. The CP had to admit afterwards that it had made a mistake which one member said 'disarmed the party at a crucial time'.

But as early as 1944 the CP was committed to changing parliament, not abolishing it. In 1947 its chief aim was to criticise the Labour government to get it to change course, though not withdraw support for it, and then in 1948, the CP argued for it to be replaced with a government of the left.

Books on how the CP operated are not merely an interesting read. Precisely because it was an organisation which had at its peak 50,000 members, a daily paper, two MPs and over 100 local councillors, which led many campaigns and had roots in workplaces, socialists can learn from it. But bad theory leads to bad practice.

We celebrate that the domination of those politics has gone from the movement and we can build an organisation in the best traditions of socialism.

Helen Shooter


Where are the ethics?

How much longer should the public wait before being told the whole truth about Gulf war syndrome and its causes? It was only a few months ago that we had to witness the blatant declarations of non-responsibility from Portillo's MoD following their own enquiry. Should we be any more optimistic now that a new enquiry has been promised by the Labour government?

Certainly, any serious enquiry should begin by admitting the use of depleted uranium (DU) explosives in Kuwait and Iraq. A first breach in the wall of silence surrounding the use of such weapons has been made by the US government, who recently put forward formal apologies to Japan for firing 1,520 DU bullets on an island near Okinawa. More DU, between 300 and 800 tons, has fallen upon Iraq and Kuwait in the course of operation 'Desert Storm' with disastrous consequences for the local populations as well as for the Allied troops.

Needless to say, there is no talk of clearing the contaminated areas in Kuwait and Iraq from the radioactive waste. It has been estimated that to clean the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana (USA), an area of 500 acres in which about 60 tons of DU have been exploded, would cost between $4 and $5 billion. It is simple enough to understand that carrying out a similar decontamination in Iraq and Kuwait on an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles would cost tens of billions of dollars.

DU bullets are unlike any other conventional weapons. It is only thanks to the presence of uranium that these bullets are so exceptionally forceful, capable of penetrating a steel wall of about 6 centimetres. Each time a DU bullet hits the target, flames follow which release a chemically toxic radioactive dust that can be carried by the wind, infiltrate into the ground and contaminate underground water.

Quite clearly, that same dust can be inhaled, ingested or enter the food chain. The battlegrounds contaminated by the hysotope 238 will then remain radioactive for 4-5 billion years. Would this not be enough to explain the mysterious illnesses suffered by Gulf War veterans and passed on through imperfect genetic patterns to their children? Would this not be enough to explain the steep increase in the rate of cancer in areas like that surrounding Bassora?

Even more shocking is that the use of DU is on the increase. According to Serb sources, confirmed by the American pacifist movement, DU bullets have also been used in Bosnia during the 1995 US/Nato operation 'Resolute Response'. According to Serb military authorities, in the course of two weeks the US air-fighters A-10 fired thousands of tons of DU explosives which hit military bases as well as houses, hospitals, factories, bridges and nurseries killing 152 civilians and wounding 273 more. Should we expect more mysterious syndromes? And for every veteran and soldier, how many civilians will unknowingly work and play in contaminated areas?

The offenders have now become the victims, and so it will remain to come unless action is taken to ban the use of such weapons. Will the new 'ethical' foreign policy of Robin Cook start a reconsideration of the sale of uranium ammunitions, of which Great Britain is­together with the US and France­the manufacturer? With more and more countries buying DU weapons­the list includes Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Turkey­the risk of a widespread contamination to last 4-5 billion years is ever more real and can only be averted by an international agreement to ban the use of such weapons.

Sergio Jovele


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