January 10, 2009

The best proof of that comes not from Freud but from Trotsky

Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism By Frank Brenner It is my aim in this paper to show that a familiarity with the basic concepts and major discoveries of Freud’s psychoanalysis can be of great value to Marxists... 11:45 AM

Trotsky on the autonomy of the psyche
To approach the mind as an autonomous phenomenon is the necessary starting point of a materialist psychology. The best proof of that, in fact, comes not from Freud but from Trotsky. His remarks on this subject are contained in some notebooks from the mid-1930s which were discovered only relatively recently in the Trotsky archives at Harvard University and published in 1986.9 The relevant passages are from a discussion about the interrelationship of consciousness and nature and it will be useful here to present Trotsky’s train of thought in some detail. Trotsky is arguing that this interrelationship needs to be understood "as an independent realm with its own regularities." This is because: "The dialectic of consciousness is not ... a reflection of the dialectic of nature, but is a result of the lively interaction between consciousness and nature and - in addition - a method of cognition, issuing from this interaction."10

Before this statement is misread as a lapse into idealism, it is necessary to emphasize that Trotsky’s point is about the dialectic of consciousness, i.e. about the process rather than the content of thought. Indeed, a few paragraphs later when he invokes one of his favorite analogies – "Consciousness acts like a camera" – it is perfectly obvious that he holds to the materialist viewpoint that thought reflects reality. But how does that reflection take place? – that is the issue Trotsky was trying to get at. The process at work in the mind (like the process at work in the camera) isn’t identical to the process of the reality it is reflecting. To argue otherwise isn’t materialism but rather Hegelian idealism: "Since cognition is not identical with the world (in spite of Hegel’s idealistic postulation), dialectical cognition is not identical with the dialectic of nature."

The camera analogy demonstrates this point: still photography "tears from nature ‘moments’ [while] the ties and transitions among them are lost"; motion pictures are more like nature in their "uninterruptedness," but the latter is an illusion created by "exploit[ing] the eye’s imperfection," i.e. by stringing together separate moments (or shots) with breaks between them too short for the retina to register. [...]

Kautsky’s ‘social instinct’
Marxists are forced to live in enemy territory; a gap in theory can therefore constitute a breach in their ideological defenses. The Freudo-Marxists claimed that this was the case with psychology: for lack of an adequate theory, Marxists were often led "to inject a private, purely idealistic psychology in this empty place,"19 Indeed, this is just what Marxists would expect to happen once we accept the basic premise. Examples of this are most often to be found in those writings where Marxists have, as it were, left the beaten track by trying to tackle matters such as ethics, art, sexuality, family relationships, etc.: sooner or later one reaches the limits of historical materialism as a theoretical guide in these matters and then the only available recourse is to start improvising a psychology, which almost always means smuggling in an idealist one.

Fromm mentioned one of Kautsky’s works as an example of this tendency and it is well worth considering here. The book is called Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History and it was published in 1906, which is to say, long before Kautsky’s apostasy from Marxism. Indeed, Kautsky’s strengths are evident in the book’s early chapters as he provides a broad historical overview of the development of ethical conceptions that takes in the ancient world, the Christian church, the Enlightenment and Kant. The latter was of particular importance to Kautsky since his purpose in writing the book was to counter the growing influence of neo-Kantianism inside the socialist movement. The Kantian conception of ethics was an ahistorical one based on the famous "categorical imperative," a philosophical restatement of the old Christian precept – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Kautsky was easily able to demolish Kant’s claim that this imperative was derived from pure reason and that it had nothing to do with historical reality; in fact, it represented a protest against feudal society, the ethical counterpart of the political ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.20

But when Kautsky tried to put forward a materialist alternative to Kant, he quickly got into trouble. He postulated the existence of a "social instinct" with some rather extraordinary properties: "In the first place naturally comes altruism, self sacrifice for the whole. Then bravery in the defence of common interests; fidelity to the community; submission to the will of society; then obedience and discipline; truthfulness to society whose security is endangered or whose energies are wasted when they are misled in any way by false signals. Finally ambition, the sensibility to the praise and blame of society. These all are social impulses which we find expressed already among animal societies, many of them in a high degree."21 These impulses, as he went on to say, are "nothing but the highest virtues, they sum up the entire moral code." Moreover, even conscience was rooted in instinct: "We have no reason to assume that conscience is confined to man."22 The "social instinct" provided Kautsky with his ultimate refutation of Kant: "What appeared to Kant as the creation of a higher world of spirits, is a product of the animal world ... An animal impulse and nothing else is the moral law."23 [...]

Kant had taken the Christian ‘golden rule’ and turned it into an ahistorical "imperative"; Kautsky took his ‘virtues’ – essentially a belief that man is naturally good – and similarly turned them into an ahistorical "social instinct." Thus, the latter was little more than a categorical imperative by another name. It also had similar historical roots, i.e. Rousseau and the bourgeois democratic revolution. And it also had the fatal flaw of all ahistorical conceptions of morality: it was incapable of explaining how people born with virtuous instincts end up in a vice-ridden world. Kautsky knew he had a problem here and tried to extricate himself from it later in the book by drawing a distinction between the social instinct and "moral codes," i.e. the particular forms of morality, which were entirely subject to historical change. But this historical factor had no discernible bearing on the ahistorical ‘core’ of morality, i.e. the social instinct, which remained "that element of human morality which, if not independent of time and space is yet older than the changing social relations ... [it] is just that which human morality has in common with the animal."

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