[This article was first published in the World Socialist Web Site http://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/jun1999/freu-j11.shtml ]
The nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest recesses of the unconscious, the elemental and the submerged. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of inquiring thought and of creative initiative will move in that direction?—Trotsky
For so much of this century, the real history of the
That psychoanalysis even had a history in the
But nothing could be in more striking contrast to this grim repressiveness than the tremendous surge of social and intellectual energy that characterized the first years of the Bolshevik regime. The astonishing creativity of the arts in this period is well known, but every aspect of culture was swept up in the revolutionary ferment, in the struggle—as the saying went at the time—for a “new life.” On every front only the most advanced ideas would do, and in psychology that meant, to a great extent, the ideas of Freud. This was the atmosphere in which a Soviet psychoanalytic school flourished for a few precious years. What makes this of more than academic interest today are two things: first, it contributes—as every honest account of Soviet history does—to exposing the great lie that Bolshevism was the same as Stalinism; second, the big issues the Soviet Freudians were grappling with—particularly the compatibility of psychoanalysis and Marxism—are still relevant today.
In reviewing this history, something needs to be said about psychoanalysis itself. Freud effected a sea change in psychology; his impact was as profound as that of Darwin or Einstein in their respective fields. For the first time ever with Freud, psychology overcomes the classic antithesis between mind (or soul) and body, an antithesis which condemned previous psychologies to either metaphysical speculation or mechanical reductionism. This is not the place to discuss the significance of Freud's discoveries (e.g., the meaning of dreams, the unconscious mind and the psychosexual nature of family relations) or to deal with the current controversies surrounding psychoanalysis. What does need to be said is that psychology is necessarily a dangerous science in a class-divided society: because it deals with the most personal and intimate aspects of life, it inevitably arouses intense ideological resistance. And the fact is that from its inception at the turn of the century, psychoanalysis was a scandal to bourgeois public opinion and Freud was routinely vilified as a pornographer (and a Jewish one, to boot). Today, the line of attack is more sophisticated, but the impulse behind it is still fundamentally the same—outrage at a theory that presumes to shed the light of reason on the dark secrets of the soul. Freud was once quoted as saying that “psychoanalysis demands a degree of honesty which is unusual, and even impossible, in bourgeois society.” These days that degree of honesty seems in especially short supply.
Psychoanalysis had already established itself as a scientific movement in
But a crucial role in keeping psychoanalysis alive during the incredible
social turmoil of world war and revolution was played by one of the few
analysts politically sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, the psychiatrist Tatiana
Rosenthal. The glimpses we get of her life in Miller's account are fascinating:
having joined the Bolsheviks during the 1905 revolution, she reads Freud while
in medical school, decides to become a psychoanalyst and in 1911 publishes as
her first research paper a groundbreaking study on the relationship of
psychoanalysis and literature, dealing with the work of a Danish writer, Karen Michaelis. A year later, she is at Freud's home in
Another figure worth mentioning, if only briefly, is Sabina Spielrein, Rosenthal's companion on her visits to Freud. Spielrein stayed on in
The early 1920s were the
Indicative of this were the topics of some of the papers read at the initial meetings of the Moscow analytic society: symbolism in the statues of river gods and Greek vases, melancholia in Albrecht Dürer's paintings, the differing sexual characteristics of boys and girls as revealed in their drawings. The Moscow institute was probably the only psychoanalytic training program in the world to offer a regular seminar on the psychology of art, given by Ivan Ermakov, director of the institute's publishing program and author of an important study on Gogol.
“In front of our eyes, a new and original trend in psychoanalysis is
beginning to form in
The Soviet movement was “intrepid” in its practical ventures as
well. The outpatient clinic deserves some mention in this regard. Miller writes
that “it guaranteed the practice of psychoanalysis to anyone in the
population who volunteered or was referred for the treatment of a
disorder.” In other countries, psychoanalysis was available only to
those who could afford it—which meant the middle and upper classes. It
was an issue Freud had raised a number of times (notably in a speech in
In effect, the opening of the
By lifting the financial barriers to psychoanalysis, the outpatient clinics began a process that had the potential to profoundly change psychoanalysis itself, to draw it out of the cloistered office with its stereotypical couch into the turbulent world of the streets, apartment blocks, factories and bars. It would be helpful to know more about the Moscow clinic—about the extent of its practice and the types of psychological problems it encountered—but the fact of its existence is in itself an indication of the unconventional nature of Soviet psychoanalysis.
A lot more is known about another important undertaking of the Soviet
movement—its experimental school. (Actually, there were two such
schools—Rosenthal had started one in Petrograd—but the
The home was run by Vera Schmidt. Her husband, Otto, was a founding member of the Soviet psychoanalytic society as well as being a prominent Bolshevik government official who headed the State Publishing House. Vera Schmidt was what Freud would have called a “lay analyst” in that she had no medical degree. In the Soviet psychoanalytic movement, however, this was no obstacle to her playing a leading role in an audacious experiment, one Reich described as “the first attempt in the history of education to give practical content to the theory of infantile sexuality.” That theory held that children are not asexual until puberty, as conventional wisdom would have it, but rather that they have “a very rich sexual life,” though one that obviously takes different forms than adult (i.e., genital) sexuality. The implications this had for education were profound.
To start with, there were no punishments in the Children's Home and staff weren't even allowed to raise their voices in speaking to the children. Praise and blame were always directed at the action, not at the child: for instance, if there was a fight, the child who started it wouldn't be chastised, but the pain he had inflicted would be described to him. Children weren't “good” or “bad”—such traditional moral judgments (rooted in notions of original sin) only served to foster guilt and inflicted serious psychological damage, a prime cause of neurotic illness in later life. What adults usually condemned as “naughty” behavior (e.g., masturbation, bedwetting, thumb sucking, playing with feces) were unconscious manifestations of instinct, particularly of sexuality.
At the Children's Home, the attitude to such behavior was one of patience and support. A characteristic case was that of a little girl who enjoyed smearing herself with excrement: she was simply washed and changed, without being blamed in any way. Eventually she was given paints to play with. Over time, the smearing of the paints (and later applying them with a brush) replaced her earlier pleasure, which she gave up without any difficulty. As Schmidt noted, the new pleasure was analogous to the old one, but also “culturally and socially superior.” (This is a classic example of what is known in psychoanalysis as sublimation, and, not coincidentally, it also affords us a glimpse of the birth of an artistic impulse.)
To bring about this kind of change in education, the educators had to be reeducated. Obviously Schmidt wouldn't allow harsh and moralistic attitudes on the part of teachers, but it's noteworthy that she was also opposed to excessive shows of affection, such as warm kisses or tender embraces, which she contended had far more to do with the gratification of the adults than the needs of the children. Essentially, these were two sides of the same coin—teachers allowing their subjective feelings (whether negative or positive) to determine their behavior towards the child.
As Reich pointed out, this swinging back and forth between harshness and excessive tenderness was characteristic of conventional child-rearing: “Anyone who feels justified in beating a child also feels justified in living out his ungratified sexuality with a child.... If one does away with the stern treatment and moral judgment of children, it is no longer necessary to heal with kisses the injury caused by a beating.” What Schmidt demanded from teachers was objectivity, a calm and reasonable attitude which took children seriously. This didn't preclude affection, quite the contrary, but it made the needs and wants of the child, not the feelings of the adult, the determining factor.
Pedagogically, the approach was to adapt the learning environment to the child (in terms of their needs and age level) instead of the child to the environment. “If the child's adaptation to external reality is to develop without great difficulties,” wrote Schmidt, “the surrounding world must not appear to him as a hostile force.” A simple idea, but one that ran up against all the strictures of conventional education, indeed all the strictures of a hostile world. As Reich noted, it was an idea that could be “applied beyond the kindergarten to all social existence, e.g., economic needs should not be adapted to economic institutions; rather the institutions should be adapted to the needs.” And, it should be added, this concept—basic to socialism since the time of the utopians like Fourier—could only be fully fleshed out once the discoveries of psychoanalysis had opened the way to a materialist understanding of human needs, including the needs of the child.
It is hard for us today to appreciate how radical a departure this school
was. In some aspects—for instance, the way toilet-training was handled
without provoking anxiety in the child—what was experimental in the
twenties became part of the mainstream in the fifties and sixties (at least in
the West) due to the work of people like Benjamin Spock. (In a larger sense, of
course, the policy of changing a hostile world to meet the needs of the child
remains as radical in its implications as ever.) But Schmidt's Home was on the
cutting edge of changes sweeping education in this period: it opened its doors
the same year that Scottish educator A.S. Neill (also a Freudian and a socialist)
was launching the first of his experimental schools, later to be known as Summerhill, on similar principles. And, it should be added,
Schmidt was breaking new ground psychoanalytically: Freud and leading disciples
like Karl Abraham and Otto Rank showed great interest in the work of the
Children's Home when Schmidt and her husband came to visit them in
This experiment didn't take place in a vacuum. In the
This brings us to the larger question of the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards psychoanalysis. The range of activities of the Soviet psychoanalytic movement in these years would have been inconceivable without the tolerance and active material support of the revolutionary regime. As Miller writes: “An institute with a fully recognized training program was inaugurated, an outpatient clinic was established together with the children's home, all functioning on psychoanalytic principles. The extensive publication of psychoanalytic books and articles was proceeding at a level that was difficult to imagine a few years before. All of these activities were in some measure supported by the state. Indeed, it can safely be said ... that no government was ever responsible for supporting psychoanalysis to such an extent, before or since.”
For Miller, it should be added, the extent of this involvement—making psychoanalysis dependent on the regime and therefore that much more vulnerable to later suppression by Stalinism— is problematic. But that concern only makes sense if one is assuming that Bolshevism and Stalinism were essentially the same thing. The very history Miller records in his book, however, challenges that assumption, because it shows that there was no continuity, but rather a violent rupture, between the Bolshevik policy towards psychoanalysis and the Stalinist one. And the same was true of the overall political character of the two regimes: the violence of the rupture between them is attested to not only by the opposition of Bolsheviks, led by Trotsky, to Stalinism, but also by the tens of thousands of communist workers and intellectuals who fell victim to Stalinist terror.
It was, of course, necessary for the Stalinists to lay claim to the mantle of Bolshevism in order to legitimize their crimes. Thus, in 1925 Lenin (by then safely dead) was enlisted in the campaign against psychoanalysis: remarks of his quoted in a memoir by the German communist Klara Zetkin, in which he seemed to be critical of Freud's theories, were given feature treatment in the Soviet press.
This was an all-too familiar example of Stalinist distortion. As Miller points out, the passage was ambiguous, the reference to Freud a passing one, and the reliability of Zetkin's memory questionable. The record of Lenin's government—an unparalleled level of material support for psychoanalysis, given, moreover, at a time of great economic hardship in the Soviet Union—is the best refutation of this distortion. In the Bolshevik leadership, Trotsky (whose views will be discussed later) was most closely associated with psychoanalysis, but there were others, including Karl Radek and Nikolai Bukharin, who seem to have taken an interest in Freudian ideas. Indeed, the Bolshevik inner circle included a one-time practicing analyst—Trotsky's close friend and leading Soviet diplomat Adolf Joffe.
Joffe had undergone analysis in
Within broader party circles, especially among the intelligentsia, the interest in psychoanalysis was considerable.
The Bolsheviks' tolerance towards and material support for psychoanalysis
raises an important theoretical issue, because clearly implicit in that policy
was the belief that the two doctrines—Marx's and Freud's—were
compatible. No one was under any illusion that Freud was a Marxist (any more
Unfortunately, by the middle of the decade the ascendancy of the Stalinist bureaucracy had made for an increasingly hostile environment for psychoanalysis, the most noticeable effects of which were the cutoff of funding to the psychoanalytic institute in 1926 and the closing down of the Children's Home two years later. As Trotsky complained at the time, much of the heat in the debate over psychoanalysis was being generated, not by the clash of ideas, but rather by sycophancy and kowtowing to the powers-that-be.
Furthermore, the object of criticism in these debates often wasn't Freud, but various interpreters and exponents of his ideas. In the twenties, when Freudianism (of a very superficial kind) became fashionable in the West, such derivative works were legion and the range of quality was vast. Thus, it wouldn't have been hard, in making a case against psychoanalysis, to find any number of hare-brained ideas being passed off as Freudian—for instance, the claim by an obscure analyst (quoted in one of the Soviet polemics against Freud) that the communist slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” was really an unconscious expression of homosexuality. Similarly crude and reductive thinking was evident in a field like literary criticism, where psychoanalysis seemed to involve little more than a hunt for phallic symbols. Nonetheless, a theory as consequential as psychoanalysis deserved to be judged on the basis of its best, not its worst, exponents.
That being said, however, it isn't hard to see that there would be much about psychoanalysis that Marxists would find, at the very least, perplexing. “Pleasure principle,” “reality principle,” a desire to sleep with one's mother and murder one's father (or vice versa), a phantasmagoria of perversions and fantasies—at first glance (which was often also the last glance), all this must have seemed wildly idealist. In reading Freud, wrote one Soviet critic, “we are carried off into the semi-oblivion of a modern Walpurgisnacht, with its wild cries and frenzied dances ... on the waves of the unconscious contours of Prussian logic.”
Such reactions were understandable, but also misguided. At first glance the world looks flat: science exists because, for the most part, things aren't as they seem, the truth isn't transparent. And that also holds for the truth about the human mind: we aren't as we seem to ourselves, there is much about our inner life that we are totally unaware of and that, if uncovered by a scientific psychology, would first strike us as bizarre or even absurd. The best proof of this is in our dreams. Every night we go to sleep and a strange world opens up inside us, a welter of emotions, memories, impulses and fantasies, including any number of “wild cries and frenzied dances.”
© Copyright 2004 by Frank Brenner. All rights reserved.
1. Joseph Wortis, Fragments of an Analysis with Freud (New York: /1963), p. 22.
2. Sadly, Rosenthal committed suicide in 1921 at the age of 36 for reasons as yet unknown.
3. Spielrein is probably best known in psychoanalytic history as a patient rather than as an analyst: while she was being treated by Carl Jung in 1907 they had an affair, an incident which raised important ethical questions about the patient-analyst relationship.
4. Martin A. Miller, Freud and the Bolsheviks ( New Haven: 1998), pp. 56-57.
5. Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, “Introduction to the Russian translation of Freud's Beyond the pleasure principle” (1925) in The Vygotsky Reader (
6. Freud and the Bolsheviks, p. 60
7. Sigmund Freud, “Turnings in the Ways of Psychoanalytic Therapy” in The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud: Therapy and Technique (New York: /1963), pp. 189-90.
8. Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (New York:: /1994), pp. 131-34. Reich's experiences at the
9. Freud and the Bolsheviks, p. 158.
10. Wilhelm Reich, “The Struggle for a ‘New Life' in the
11. Vera Schmidt, “Éducation Psychanalytique en Russie Soviétique,” in Les Temps Modernes 273 (March 1969), pp. 1626-47. This report was originally published in German in 1924.
12. On Soviet education in the early years of the revolution, see Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Commissariat of Enlightenment (
13. Freud and the Bolsheviks, pp. 67-68.
14. Ibid., pp. 85-86.
15. Ibid., p. 46.
16. Leon Trotsky, “Culture and Socialism” (1926) in Problems of Everyday Life (New York: 1973), p. 233.
17. Quoted in René van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, Understanding Vygotsky (
18. Freud and the Bolsheviks, p. 78. The critic was a Soviet philosopher, V. Iurinets.