Freud: neither for nor against!

Submitted by Anon on 16 July, 2006 - 10:59

I WAS glad to see Solidarity celebrating the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birth in Thomas Carolan’s article (3/93) and Lynne Moffat’s rejoinder (3/95), though I feel there are problems with both their positions.

Freud was an extraordinarily innovative thinker who constructed a materialist psychology unfettered by Victorian moralism on sexuality. He provided a language to talk about psychological processes freed from religious dogma. Although I believe he missed the theoretical significance of it, he valued the ‘simplest’ of human processes, namely listening to the other and trying to make sense of the other’s meaning. His theories were grounded in his clinical observations, and while he did not follow the narrow Popperian view of falsifiability of hypotheses, he emphasised the importance of testing interpretations with the patient.

The importance of Freud is attested to by the vast scientific and academic literature he has inspired and by the development of psychotherapy as a significant means of enabling individuals to make sense of their specific inner turmoil – and to liberate some (too few!) into political activity.

At the same time there are many aspects of his theories which have serious flaws: the craziness of the concept of penis envy; his theory’s inevitable incorporation into the dominant ideologies; the elitist practice of many psychoanalysts in relation to human need; and the authoritarian nature of many of the Psychoanalytic Institutes which preserve and ossify Freud’s writings. There are many justified critiques of Freud from a macro-political point of view but they lack real cogency through failing to challenge Freud on his own micro psychological ground.

The central challenge to Freud does not lie in the contentious argument that cognitive behavioural therapies work better (the key finding from psychotherapy research is that the therapeutic relationship, regardless of therapeutic orientation, is the most important predictor of outcome), but rather in the observations of infant research. Freud had the merit of developing a testable theory of infant development at a time when a scientific understanding of infancy was still waiting to be born, but did not have the technological means to do so (and, it has to be said, would probably not have had the interest).

Like Vygotsky, the Marxist psychologist who died of TB in Stalinist Russia in 1934, Freud took the dominant view of the time that infants were born in an autistic like state with little connection with the world and in need of a “protective shield against stimuli”. Vygotsky expresses this viewpoint very clearly in Ape, Primitive Man and Child: “[The infant’s] world is, of course, full of noises and shapes, but his sensory organs are still of no use to him; he is still unable to distinguish individual impressions, he cannot recognise objects and can single out nothing among this general chaos. For him, the world of known, perceived things does not exist, and he lives in the midst of all this like a hermit.” It is this view of the infant as initially out of touch with the world and dominated by instincts that led Freud to his famous separation of wishes (Id or ‘it’ based drives) from reality testing (ego or ‘I’) and, later, from the super-ego.

In the last thirty years, modern infant research with the advantages of detailed observation afforded by modern technology paints a very different picture of a highly relational and connected infant aware from birth of those around her/him. It is an exciting picture which provides the groundwork for a psychology which socialists might begin to recognize as not largely reflecting dominant social relations. Within the first hour of birth an infant is capable of both initiating and imitating tongue protusions, mouth openings and certain sounds. They can track a ball moved by a caregiver with movements of their whole body.

Researchers argue that the infant is biologically structured to be social and seek relationships. Colwyn Trevarthen, for example, argues that the new-born seeks conversations as the primary psychological drive – this is essential for personal and social development as it is through conversations with others that we internalize the enormous wealth of congealed knowledge and experience that is available. He distinguishes between Primary and Secondary Intersubjectivity. Primary Intersubjectivity is concerned with ‘person-person’ relating and is present from birth. Secondary Intersubjectivity, concerned with person-person-object relating, emerges from about nine months of age. This distinction should be of vital interest to Marxists, as it gives a window into how humans internalise their mastery of objects and tools through co-operative activity with another. The work of infant researchers generally highlights the complexity of relating which is normally (and necessarily) taken for granted.

In conclusion, I hope it is possible for there to be a continuing debate within Solidarity of the issues raised by Freud’s anniversary. I hope it is also possible to move beyond the stale simplicities of being for or against him. Neither position gives an adequate historical account of his place in science as we know it.

Of course only history will tell, but I suspect that part of the struggle for socialism requires a much more grounded knowledge of the micro level of human relating to inform and deepen our political activity. The existing split between the psychological and the political forms of activity serve only to perpetuate the divisions which keep the world firmly in an inhuman, brutal and oppressive position.

Lawrence Welch, Leeds

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