Freud and the Bolsheviks

Peter Myers, July 26, 2001; update October 28, 2010. My comments are shown {thus}.

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The early "Trotskyist" period of the Soviet Union was favourable to Freud, and Freud co-operated with the Bolshevik system then, but Stalin ousted the Freudians after Trotsky's expulsion.

Martin A. Miller, Freud and the Bolsheviks, Yale University Press, New Haven 1998.

{p. 60} Freud was clearly impressed by the activities and plans which the Moscow Institute reported to him in Vienna. At the congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) which met in Berlin September 25-27, 1922,

{p. 61} Freud proposed "that the group in Moscow should be accepted as a member." However, there was opposition within the international association's leadership. Ernest Jones, who presided at the congress, sought to delay a decision on the Russians for "administrative reasons."

{p. 62} To put it starkiy, having won Freud to their side, they now needed Lenin's approval. The Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute could not have functioned so visibly without either tacit or explicit support from the party. Despite the comparative openness of this era and the acceptance (if not encouragement) of experimental trends in the arts which bloomed, aibeit briefly, the fact that the psychoanalysts were publishing Freud's works in the press of the State Publishing House and operating a children's school in the capital at a time when most educational activities were already under party control suggests that more than mere tolerance was involved. There have aiso been indications in various published documents that certain key party leaders were favorably disposed toward psychoanalysis. This has been successfully demonstrated in the case of Trotsky (which I shail examine below), and suggested without evidence in the cases of Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, and Adolf Ioffe. Newly available archival materials from Moscow, however, make it clear that the involvement of the party occurred earlier and was far more widespread than had been assumed.

By the summer of 1922, negotiations were well under way between the Moscow psychoanalytic group and the presidium of the scientific-pedagogical section of the State Scientific Soviet. The section of the Soviet reported directly to Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar of Enlightenment and Education, who had very close ties to Lenin. Each side was seeking something rather concrete from the other. The Freudians wanted official approval as well as financial support from the Communist authorities, without which it would have been virtually impossible to function. The government was in the process of formulating its ideological position regarding the field of psychology in general, and in addition, needed practical guidance in coping with the large problem of the homeless and orphaned children who had been victimized by the violence of the civil war. Because the psychoanaiysts had already started an experimentai school for disturbed children, party officials were willing to listen to a proposai which included that institution as part of its overall activities.

{p. 63} About a week later, Ermakov submitted to the government on behalf of his colleagues the "Charter of the Psychoanalytic Society." ... The last clause, which would later prove to be of great significance, indicated that "in the event of the

{p. 64} necessity to liquidate the Society," the government retained the right to control its activities. In this manner, the unique institution of state psychoanalysis was established.

{p. 67} Clearly the years 1921-1923 were the high tide of the psychoanalytic movement in Russia. Apart from the one major casualty - the closing of the school for disturbed children - psychoanalysis achieved spectacular successes at this time. 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 (with all the implied ironies,

{p. 68} given what was to come later) that no government was ever responsible for supporting psychoanalysis to such an extent, before or after.

It was no accident that all of this occurred during the New Economic Policy era. Lenin's program, which permitted the reintroduction of private enterprise into the Communist experiment on a limited basis, was very beneficial for psychoanalysis. It ensured a certain measure of tolerance for the radical individualism in which Freudian theory was so rooted, at least for the time being.

{p. 69} {quote} Theoretical Marxism, as realized in Russian Bolshevism, has acquired the energy and the self-contained and exclusive character of a Weltanschauung, but at the same time an uncanny likeness to what it is fighting against. Though originally a portion of science and built up, in its implementation, upon science and technology, it has created a prohibition of thought which is just as ruthless as was that of religion in the past. Any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic Church. The writings of Marx have taken the place of the Bible and the Koran as a source of revelation, though they would seem to be no more free from contradictions and obscurities than those older sacred books. {end quote} - Sigmund Freud, "The Question of a Weltanschauung " (1932)

{Note however that this anti-Communist position by Freud came after Stalin ended the earlier "Trotskyist" period, which was more favourable to Freud}

{p. 87} The case for Trotsky is far less ambiguous, for his writings contain numerous references to Freud. In 1923 (September 27), Trotsky wrote in a private letter to Pavlov: "During my years in Vienna, I came in rather close contact with the Freudians, read their work and even attended their meetings." He expressed his belief that Pavlov and Freud were working toward a similar theory of the mind from opposite points of departure. The Freudians, he stated, had made "a series of clever and interesting albeit scientifically arbitrary conjectures about the properties" of the human mind. Although he stopped short of an endorsement of psychoanalysis in the letter to Pavlov, he did not hesitate to say in his book Literature and Revolution that he believed that "the psychoanalytic theory of Freud ... can be reconciled with materialism." In another statement on the subject in 1926, Trotsky defended the work of Freud's Russian followers against the growing determination of the party to take action against it.

{quote} It would be too simple and crude to declare psycho-analysis as incompatible with Marxism and to turn one's back on it. In any case, we are not obliged to adopt Freudianism either. It is a working hypothesis. It can produce, and it does produce deductions and surmises which point to a materialist psychology. In due time, experimentation will provide the tests. Meanwhile, we have neither reason nor right to declare a ban on a method which, even though it may be less reliable, tries to anticipate results towards which the experimental method advances only very slowly. {end quote}

Although Trotsky's interest in maintaining psychoanalysis as part of the continuing debate over the establishment of a Marxist psychology was politically helpful to the Soviet Freudians during the mid-1920s, his association with

{p. 88} them (however indirect it was in reality) soon became a fatal liability once Trotsky himself fell into political disfavor.

{p. 95} The party's reaction to Kollontai's sexual ideology was clear but cannot be entirely separated from her involvement with the Worker's Opposition groups, whose advocacy of worker autonomy was even more threatening. Still, Kollontai's ideas, published in newspapers as well as in novels, were perceived by her critics to resonate widely in the society as a whole. Moreover, the resumption of prostitution under the less restrictive conditions of NEP, the apparent rise in the rate of suicides, especially high-profile cases like the death of the poet Sergei Esenin, and the presumed excesses of sexual behavior that took place in the student population all fed the flames ignited by Kollontai's very public discussion of the potential values of love and sex for communism. Added to this was the trial in December 1926 of twenty-six defendants charged with gang-raping a young woman in Leningrad, an event which was covered very openly in the press and interpreted as a graphic illustration of the epidemic of sexual depravity against which the party had to take decisive action. The rape case in Leningrad was especially disturbing because the perpetrators were members of the Communist youth organization (Komsomol). Punishment was severe to make an example of the convicted defendants - six were sentenced to death and nineteen others received jail sentences.

These years also produced regulatory legislation on marriage, divorce, and abortion, committees to combat prostitution, and discussions in the press and Bolshevik party meetings about the need for greater moral vigilance. The Freudians became directly involved in this reaction when a member of their own community published a set of essays in which he offered a program to combat the sexual menace. Aron Zalkind hypothesized that sexual desire was a fixed amount of energy in each individual which could either be wasted in acts of depraved, excessive, and self-gratifying sexual relations or be utilized in

{p. 96} healthier "collectivist activities" which would benefit the working class and the party.

{p. 97} Freud himself, though obviously unable to follow the debate about his theory in the Bolshevik journals, was well informed about the demise of psychoanalysis on the clinical level in the Soviet Union. In an unpublished letter of February 23, 1927, he wrote about this situation to Osipov in Prague: "Things are going poorly for the [psycho]analysts in Soviet Russia, by the way. From somewhere the Bolsheviks have gotten it into their heads that psychoanalysis is hostile to their system. You know the truth that our science cannot be placed at the service of any party, but that it needs a certain liberal-mindedness [Freiheitlichkeit] in turn for its own development."

During the late 1920s, Freud made further statements on what he saw as the implications of the Soviet experiment with socialism and revolution. In his Future of an Illusion (1927) and more directly in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), he expressed serious reservations about the future prospects of a communist society in which private property was abolished and the bourgeois class made into an officially approved enemy. "The psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based," he wrote, "are an untenable illusion.". Human aggression has not been altered in its fundamental nature in this process and will probably only be rechanneled into new areas of social conflict. "One only wonders, with concern," he concluded, "what the Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeoisie."

For Freud, Marxist political ideology played the role of religious commitment in Soviet Russia. While Freud conceded that Marx's ideas had "acquired an undeniable authority" in recent times, he was skeptical of the notion that societies developed through different stages as a "process of natural history," and of the concept of a "dialectical process" of class confict operating in history with lawful consistency and regularity. In Freud's view, "the class structure of society goes back to the struggles which, from the beginning of history, took place between human hordes only slightly differing from each other. Social distinctions were originally distinctions between clans and races. Victory was

{p. 99} decided by psychological factors ... and by material factors." but not by the latter alone, as Marx had argued. ...

Human nature was to be fundamentally altered in the "new order of society" under communism where work would supposedly be undertaken without compulsion or oppression.

Such a transformation, Freud wrote, was most doubtful. What would more likely occur was a shifting of the "instinctual restrictions which are essential in society," a diversion of "the aggressive tendencies which threaten all human communities" to enemies elsewhere while encouraging the hostility of the poor against the wealthy and "of the hitherto powerless against the former rulers." Bolshevism had to compensate its believers and followers for suffering in the present by promising a radiant future of complete gratification. Such an emotional paradise cannot exist, and thus new conflicts were bound to emerge. ...

In spite of these concerns, Freud acknowledged the boldness and courage of the country in its efforts to carry out "the tremendous experiment of producing a new order of this kind."

{p. 100} Still, Freud worried that the Bolshevik "message of a better future" would fail because it had been undertaken prematurely: "A sweeping alteration of the social order has little prospect of success until new discoveries have increased our control over the forces of nature, and so made easier the satisfaction of our needs. Only then perhaps may it become possible for a new social order not only to put an end to the material need of the masses but also to give a hearing to the cultural demands of the individual. Even then, to be sure, we shall still have to struggle for an incalculable time with the difficulties which the untameable character of human nature presents to every kind of social community."

{p. 103} The underlying goal of Zalkind's project was to allow party supervisors to manage the problems which had been defined by the Freudians as crucial to development, while making it clear that all psychoanalytic concepts were to be repudiated. ...

{p. 104} Nevertheless, the war against Freud went on without any public advocates willing or able to defend psychoanalysis. It was no longer a debate, but a search for the most effective criticism to discredit psychoanalysis. The only question was how devastating the attack would be. The answer came quickly. The first example of this coordinated attack appeared shortly after the 1930 Congress on Human Behavior had completed its deliberations. Titled Dialectical Materialism and the Mechanists, by A. Stoliarov, this book went through five editions in a matter of months. In one of its chapters, called "Freudism and the FreudoMarxists," the author not only criticized psychoanalytic theory, but, more important from the party's point of view, also denounced communists who had been propagators of Freud's work in the Soviet Union. This was a classic Stalin-era witch-hunt, with professional reputations destroyed overnight by publications like this one.

{p. 105} The most damaging trend in this official assault on psychoanalytic theory was the association of Freud directly with counterrevolutionary political trends in the Soviet Union.

{p. 106} Trotsky's main difficulty, the authors continued, was his physiological reductionism, the belief that all psychological phenomena were reducible to the laws of physics and biology. Moreover, they argued that Trotsky had obliterated Lenin's notion of "the relative boundary between thought and matter," between mental processes and brain functions. Apart from scoring ideological points, the authors mainly criticized Trotsky's attempt to unify the theories of Freud and Pavlov, as evidenced by Trotsky's letter to Pavlov, and his admission of involvement in Freudian circles while in Vienna before the revolution. Quoting the Klara Zetkin memoir where Lenin mentioned that Freud's theory was a "faddish mode," the authors concluded that Trotsky had "capitulated to bourgeois psychology." Thus, Shemiakin and Gershonovich joined Freud's work and Trotsky's politics as "harmful to Marxism-Leninism," recommending that they both had to be countered vigorously on "the psychoneurological front."

To buy this book from Amazon:

Freud as Jewish Avenger: freud.html;

Sex in the Soviet Union: sex-soviet.html.

The Freud-Einstein correspondence on ending war (i.e. World Government): einstein.html.

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