The Political Unconscious

by Laura Engelstein

FREUD AND THE BOLSHEVIKS: PSYCHOANALYSIS IN IMPERIAL RUSSIA AND THE SOVIET UNION • by Martin A. Miller • Yale University Press • 237 pp • $30 • November

News ages fast. A few months ago one could talk of the promise of post-Soviet Russia, as it emerged from the deep freeze of political and economic regimentation into the fierce glare of an unpredictable proto-capitalist economy. A lawless marketplace and an equally undisciplined political scene still promised a better future than anything Communism had offered. If The New York Times focused on needy pensioners and corrupt officials, visitors to Moscow were struck by its dynamic tempo, well-stocked shops, and renovated buildings. A bank on each corner made one wonder, to be sure, just what they were actually up to, but it was easy to sum it all up as a triumph of cultural revival. Freud might have viewed the aftermath of Soviet Communism as confirmation of his belief that repression is never entirely successful and that health is obtained only by coming to terms with the turbulence it vainly tries to keep at bay. The recent economic and political collapse shows, however, just how hard it is for Russia to master the forces it has released and to relinquish habits of deception and coercion associated with the regime that once kept the lid in place.

Among the repressed authors of the Soviet period was the master-theorist of repression himself: Sigmund Freud. Although not explicitly political, Freud's brand of therapeutic individualism was starkly at odds with the Bolshevik project of social engineering--and both parties to the conflict knew it. In 1930, at the dawn of Stalinism, Freud presciently declared, "The psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion." Soviet psychologists returned fire, routinely denouncing Freud's theories as "a typical product of bourgeois ideological reaction in the epoch of imperialism, dupe the masses in the interests of imperialism and as an ideological weapon in the fight against Marxism." In his well-researched and intelligently argued monograph, Freud and the Bolsheviks, Martin Miller, a professor of Russian history at Duke University, traces the fate of Freudian ideas from their suppression under Stalinism to their reemergence as the regime began to break down.

Why didn't they like him? It's true that, as a man of science, Freud shared with the Bolsheviks the expectation that behavior could be understood and even altered through purposeful intervention. The Bolsheviks, however, imagined this transformation as the result of large-scale changes in the social environment that would shift the bedrock of human nature. Freud, by contrast, aimed only for a modest increase in his individual patients' level of satisfaction. Nor did he expect the awareness promoted by his techniques to reform the basic structures of psychic life. The conscious mind was always in tension, he believed, with desires and impulses that could never entirely be overcome. Indeed, these irrational forces were at the root not only of harmful or destructive patterns, but of cultural creativity and personal happiness. Freud's was too individualistic and skeptical a vision of human condition to sit well with the custodians of class consciousness and socialist perfectionism.

For the average Westerner, "Soviet psychology" is virtually synonymous with the experiments with laboratory dogs conducted by the behaviorist Ivan Pavlov, and with the psychiatric hospitals used to intern political dissidents in the 1970s. In fact, as Miller reminds us, Soviet psychologists were never entirely isolated from the ideas discussed by their Western peers, including Freudianism. Freud's ideas had arrived in Russia before the Bolsheviks took power, and were never entirely expunged from Soviet cultural consciousness despite a vigorous campaign to stamp them out As Michel Foucault might have said, this was a very loquacious repression.

Miller's account follows the general outlines of Soviet political history: diversity in the 1920s; repression in the 1930s and after the war; uneven relaxation in the post-Stalin years. What is most instructive about this tale (though not unique to the case of Freud) is that repression not only failed to extinguish debate among psychologists; it required them to remain conversant with the ideas they attacked. Though sensitive to this irony, Miller offers no explanation of its paradoxical effects. Were the ideological watchdogs simply naive, or did psychoanalytic discourse partly survive because wily thinkers used the ruse of contempt to pursue their agendas? Whatever the range of individual and institutional motivations that came into play, the outcome was not simple.

Freud's adventures in the land of the Bolsheviks began auspiciously. In the 1920s, when Lenin's New Economic Policy allowed market forces some leeway and cultural experimentation flourished, the work of pre-revolutionary Russian Freudians continued. Approved for membership in 1924, the Russian branch of the International Psychoanalytic Association also received Soviet government support for a State Psychoanalytic Institute. Practical work focused on the care of children, many of whom had been orphaned and made homeless during the Revolution and civil war. Russian practitioners reported on their findings to colleagues abroad, reflecting on such subjects as "the fate of the Oedipus Complex under conditions of collective education."

Some Russian thinkers, notably the distinguished psychologist Alexander Luria, attempted a synthesis of Freud and Marx, a project that paralleled the thinking of left-Freudians, such as Wilhelm Reich, in the West. Others construed Freudian theory as a form of biological determinism compatible with Pavlov's behaviorist ideas, a view adopted by Trotsky who, like a number of other Party leaders, showed a sympathetic interest in Freud's ideas. In 1925 Luria and the gifted psychologist Lev Vygotskii proclaimed Freud "one of the most intrepid among the great minds of our time." The Psychoanalytic Institute sponsored the publication of Freud's work in Russian translation. As Miller remarks, "it can safely be said (with all the implied ironies, given what was to come later) that no government was ever responsible for supporting psychoanalysis to such an extent, before or after."

Support and control were, in other words, aspects of the same system. And so, even as psychoanalysis benefited from government largesse, the research agenda was driven by--and exceedingly vulnerable to--the dramatically shifting policies of Bolshevism. With the onset of Stalinization, Freud became the object of an intense ideological attack that preempted all debate. The government ceased funding the Psychoanalytic Institute in 1926. The last Soviet work of clinical psychoanalysis appeared in 1927. Three years later, it could be said that psychoanalysis in Russia had "officially ceased to exist."

Throughout the Thirties, many of Freud's erstwhile Soviet defenders hastened to denounce him--and to denounce any colleagues who were suspected of harboring Freudian sympathies. The psychologist Aron Zalkind, who in the Twenties sought to reconcile Marx and Freud, turned against psychoanalysis in the Thirties, but not fast or far enough to escape the reach of self-righteous peers who attacked him for his earlier efforts. Psychologists who continued to speak of the unconscious were especially vulnerable to attack, since this idea emphasized the impact of irrational forces in psychic life. Marxists of the Soviet stripe were sure there was nothing reason could not master. Materialists though they were, the Bolsheviks believed that ideas mattered! A theory that discredited the power of ideas to mold the individual and the world was not a theory that they could afford to treat with benign neglect.

For different reasons, professionals could not ignore it either. In order to attack Freudian ideas, you had to discuss them, in however distorted a form. As Miller notes, although ideological pressures compelled Soviet psychologists to criticize Freud, not all of their objections were ignorant or ungrounded; Luria's critique of Freud's attempt to analyze war and religion with the tools proper to individual psychology coincided with objections made by Freud's Western critics. What is more, the obligatory exercises in ritual abuse were sometimes accompanied by references to the usefulness of Freud's contributions.

After World War II, when Freudianism was identified with bourgeois capitalist America (as well it might have been), official hostility toward psychoanalysis rose to a feverish pitch. And yet, astonishingly, Freud's thinking survived, not only as a point of ideological contention, but also as the unacknowledged foundation for the work of many clinicians, who denounced him in name and followed him in practice. While rejecting the "reactionary bourgeois psychology of the unconscious," one therapist invoked the need to discuss "the role of the past" and the processes which escaped a person's conscious control. The taboo concept of the unconscious remained an intrinsic, albeit concealed element in the therapeutic situation.

In the 1960s the technique of praising with faint damns helped educate the professional world to basic Freudian ideas. The 1958 Moscow conference on "Problems of Ideological Struggle with Modern Freudianism" produced the usual invective, but also serious scholarly analysis. With a pointed lack of fanfare, Russian psychologists were moving toward what Miller calls "the rehabilitation of the unconscious," a process that culminated in the First International Symposium on the Unconscious held in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Scholarly journals discussed the work of Erich Fromm and Jacques Lacan, though it was not yet translated into Russian and was inaccessible in any language to all but a privileged few.

With perestroika, Freud's ideas could finally be discussed without ritual vilification. Freed finally from the obligation to reject Freud's ideas, philosophers and psychologists who had studied (and usually attacked) him for years welcomed him into the pantheon of important modern thinkers. In a flush of enthusiasm, they sometimes used Freudian concepts to interpret the experience of their country's history, asking what psychological features might explain the nation's allegiance or submission to the forces of murder and repression. Were they imitating Freud's own forays into cultural analysis, or perpetuating the habit of thinking in collective terms which Soviet ideology had taught them? Perhaps both. In an act of intellectual revenge, Russians charged the regime that had claimed to represent the workings of historical rationality with falling victim to its own social unconscious. Rhetorical euphoria succeeded rhetorical constraint, as some writers accused the Soviet population of psychic disturbances on a massive scale, including a "social Oedipus complex." Sated as we are with Western psycho-babble, we may chuckle at the diagnostic quick fix, but Miller believes "psychoanalysis played a role of some significance" after the regime finally collapsed in 1991, serving "as a methodology to interpret the past, and as part of the reassertion of the values of individualism in the larger society."

Freud's fate in the land of the Bolsheviks makes a good tale: heroic theory beats the odds and comes out triumphant. It is perhaps a tale too good to be true. The best of post-Soviet Russian intellectuals will not accept Freud's theories wholesale as ready-made guides to the truth, despite their once subversive cachet. Few Western intellectuals (except in English departments) and fewer therapists adopt an unquestioning attitude to Freudian ideas, however fruitful and interesting they continue to be. Miller's suggestion that Russians have at last come into possession of the lost key to mental life removes Freudianism itself from the stream of history. Yet he does leave us with a keen sense of the ironies of repression. Theories of the mind and traditions of clinical practice, among them psychoanalysis, survived the harsh Soviet years as objects of attack but also as occasions for genuine critical engagement. What Russians managed to sustain in the darkest years was some kind of link to a central intellectual and scientific tradition. The fate of Freud in Russia helps make sense of how the country was able to emerge from political and ideological tyranny with cultural resources in the bank, even if its banks now appear to be empty. •

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