"Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis"

Maurice Brinton
"Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis"1972
Published: in Solidarity, VII, 3 (1972)Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren

Socialist Reproduction are to be congratulated for popularizing
this little-known text of Wilhelm Reich's which appeared simultaneously, in
1929, in Unter dem Banner des Marxismus (the theoretical journal of the German
Communist Party) and in its Russian equivalent Pod Znameniem Marxisma.[1] It is a symptom of the void in both psychoanalytic and
meaningful radical literature today that we have to thread our way back for more
than four decades to find a sensible discussion of these interesting
Unlike previous texts of Reich's to which we have referred in either
the review
of What is Class Consciousness? or the pamphlet The Irrational in Politics,
"Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis" is of no immediate relevance to an
understanding of human needs or of the founts of human action. It is something
very different: an attempt by Reich to reply to some of his critics (in both the
psychoanalytic and Marxist movements).
It is important to situate the text in
the Germany of the late twenties. In 1929 Reich's break with Freud was on the
horizon, its roots clearly understood. Personal relations with Freud, however
were not as yet embittered. The break with the Stalinists was also in the
offing. Relations were bitter but had not as yet been traced back to their
ideological source. In 1929 Reich is walking two tightropes. He uses Freud to
argue against Freud and the Freudians - and Marx to argue against the Marxists.
It is a difficult endeavour, as we have learned from our own
Reich starts by pointing out (rightly in my opinion) that most of
those on the left who were criticizing Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxism were
doing so on the basis of an inadequate knowledge of either - or both. He sought
to define the proper object of psychoanalysis as "the study of the psychological
life of man in society", an "auxiliary to sociology", "a form of social
psychology". He defined limits for the discipline. He freely admits that the
Marxists are right when they reproach certain representatives of the
psychoanalytic school with attempting to explain what cannot be explained by
that method. But, he points out "they are wrong when they identity the method
with those who apply it ... and blame the method for their mistakes".
psychoanalysis and Marxism are seen by Reich as "science" (psychoanalysis as the
science of psychological phenomena and Marxism of social phenomena) and by
implication as unarguably valid. That the categories and values of science might
themselves be products of historical evolution is barely envisaged. In this
whole approach Reich is echoing the "scientific" ethos of the epoch, which had
its roots in the rise of the bourgeoisie and its drive to control and dominate
nature, rather than to live in harmony with it.
Reich vigorously defends
psychoanalysis against the charge of being idealist. To the indictment that it
arose "during the decadence of a decaying bourgeoisie" he retorts that Marxism
did too. "So what?", he rightly asks. He dismisses those who crudely attack all
knowledge as "bourgeois knowledge". "A culture", he points out, "is not uniform
like a bushel of peas ... the beginnings of a new social order germinate in the
womb of the old ... by no means everything that has been created by bourgeois
hands in the bourgeois period is of inferior value and useless to the society of
the future". Reich attacks the simplistic mechanical materialism of those who
would claim that psychological phenomena as such do not exist, that "only
objective facts which can be measured and weighed are true, not the subjective
ones". He sees this as an understandable but nevertheless misguided reaction
against the Platonic idealism still dominating bourgeois philosophy. He
demolishes Vogt's once popular thesis that "thought is a secretion of the brain,
in the same way that urine is a secretion of the kidney". To dispose of this
nonsense Reich calls Marx to his rescue, the Marx of the Theses on Feuerbach,
the Marx who wrote that it was not good enough to say that "changed men were the
products of ... changed upbringing" because this forgot "that it is men that
change circumstances". Psychological activity, Reich correctly insists, has a
material reality and is a force in history that only the most short-sighted
would deny.
There is no reason, Reich argues, why psychoanalysis should not
have a materialist basis. He boldly plunges the Freudian categories and concepts
into the reality of the class society around them. "The reality principle as it
exists today", he writes, "is a principle of our society". Adaptation to this
reality is a conservative demand. "The reality principle of the capitalist era
imposes upon the proletarian a maximum limitation of his needs, while appealing
to religious values such as modesty and humility ... the ruling class has a
reality principle which serves the perpetuation of its power. If the proletarian
is brought up to accept this reality principle - if it is presented to him as
absolutely valid, e.g. in the name of culture, this means an affirmation of the
proletarian's exploitation and of capitalist society as a whole". Reich submits
other Freudian categories to the same kind of historical and sociological
critique, while seeking to retain their essence. The "unconscious" too, he
points out, may acquire new symbols in an era of technological change.
Zeppelins, in dreams, could assume the same sexual significance as
Having argued, more or less convincingly, that there can be - and in
fact that there is - a materialist basis to psychoanalysis and that the subject
requires no roots in metaphysical morality, Reich goes on to try and show that
psychoanalysis is also dialectical. And here he comes unstuck. Like Lysenko and
his genetics, Reich has to "tidy up" the rich reality of his insights (not to
mention Freud's) to make them fit into a ludicrous mould of "unity of
opposites", "transformations of quantity into quality" and "negations of the
negation", all drawn straight from the simplistic pages of old pop Engels's
Dialectics of Nature. Paul Mattick laid this particular ghost a number of years
ago and it is sad to see Socialist Reproduction resurrect it without comment.
Those pages are certainly the Achilles' heel of the whole essay. For all his
protestations that psychoanalysis is an empirically verifiable set of
propositions, Reich shows that he is nevertheless caught in a methodological
trap of his own making ... and that he is not really an unhappy prisoner.
Someday, someone should write about the anal-eroticism of the system-makers,
from Marx and Darwin, via Trotsky, to Reich. Why did they all suffer badly from
Reich finally discusses the sociological position of psychoanalysis.
He is here on firmer soil. Like Marxism, psychoanalysis is a product of the
capitalist era. It is a reaction to that era's ideological superstructure, the
cultural and moral conditions of modern man in society. Reich brilliantly
analyses the ambivalent relations to sexuality of the nascent bourgeoisie and
the role of the Church during the bourgeois revolutions. The bourgeoisie now had
to barricade itself against "the people" by moral laws of its own. Double
standards of sexual morality emerged, well analyzed in other of Reich's
writings. "Just as Marxism", Reich concludes, "was sociologically the expression
of man becoming conscious of the laws of economics and of the exploitation of a
majority by a minority, so psychoanalysis is the expression of man becoming
conscious of the social repression of sex".
In lines of great lucidity, but
already seeded with that bitterness that was later to consume him, Reich even
foresees the frenetic commercial exploitation of a debased psychoanalysis.
Capitalism rots everything. "The capitalist mode of existence was strangling
psychoanalysis, both from the outside and the inside". "In bourgeois society
psychoanalysis was condemned to sterility, if to nothing worse, as an auxiliary
science to the science of education in general". Psychoanalytic education would
only come to fruition with the social revolution. Psychoanalytic educators who
believed otherwise were living in a fool's paradise. "Society is stronger than
the endeavours of its individual members". They would "suffer the same fate as
the priest who visited an unbelieving insurance agent on his death bed, hoping
to convert him, but in the end went home with an insurance policy".
pamphlet is well produced. There is a good introduction, marred only by the
fatuous statement that "through the twenties ... Leninism in the hands of Stalin
was rapidly becoming transformed into the ideological litany of the new
managerial class that was being established throughout Russia". Alas, Leninism
was not "becoming" anything. It had been just that for many a year - certainly
since October and probably from much earlier. Whether we discuss Lenin's views
on sex (see The
Irrational in Politics
) or his views on the virtues of "one man management"
(see The
Bolsheviks and Workers' Control
) the clues are there for those who can read

Wilhelm Reich, Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (London: Socialist
Reproduction, 1972).

vir: http://marxists.org/archive/brinton/1972/reich2.htm