Psychoanalysts of the Left and Far Left

(Pictured, Otto Fenichel)

Marxism, Socialism(s) and Psycho analy-ism: Comments on Arnie Richards’ Presentation at YIVO, March 22, 2012 by N.  Szajnberg, MD

 Arnie Richards’ presentation at YIVO on March 22 is challenging and provocative in the best psychoanalytic sense: he lays out the hidden history of European Marxism and socialism

among European psychoanalysts and their impact on American psychoanalysis, particularly as the refugees came to the US. How can we make productive use of what he teaches us about this unexamined chapter of psychoanalytic history?

Arnie’s key question early in his essay opens a gateway to greater knowledge: how does this history make better sense of psychoanalytic organizations or institutions?  Rather than listening with voyeurism or Schadenfreude, we can listen while asking, “What can we make of this?”  How do we become wiser about our institutions?

Arnie does for psychoanalysis as a discipline what psychoanalysts value and do in our consulting rooms, in our patient’s inner lives. He lays out hidden history in the expectation and knowledge that knowing one’s more honest history permits one to make sense of oneself and to chart a more enlightened future path.

But, he also knows that opening honest and hidden histories is fraught with anxiety, with attempts to protect oneself from painful knowledge.  In our offices we pursue histories when the time is ripe, with tact, but with persistence, mutual persistence.  How do we apply that to an organization’s life, which also has a developmental history, also is filled with conflicts and hoped for resolutions, also yearns for a productive future versus (the hidden desire) to remain in the past, which means inertia and possible death, or worse, irrelevance?

Interlude: Jonathan Brent, our moderator, asked me how much theory affects my daily clinical work.  At first, I thought little, particularly when working with teens and kids. Then I realized that certain levels of basic psychoanalytic theory guides my everyday work. Autonomy, the Greek for self-rule, is a polestar for navigating analyses.  The idea that not only ultimately, but also bit by bit, the analysand becomes his/her captain and navigator. This means learning where he is in his voyage, the coordinates of his life, and how he got there. And then, where he wants to sail and how to master the sailing, how to avoid the crosswinds and doldrums of the past. Further in this voyage, the sailor/analysand may decide on a new port of rest, on a different path in life.  But, this is done with the freedom that comes from knowing one’s history and present as well as one can.

This applies to Arnie’s ideas about psychoanalytic history and organization.

I comment on only two aspects of Arnie’s history: 1. the nature of true-believers of Marxism and how its Weltanschaung is incompatible with psychoanalysis; 2. the early psychoanaltyic dedication to social welfare and the attenuation of that commitment, paradoxically, in the US , one of the wealthiest nations in the history of mankind. I suggest that these are two related, but different concepts.

First, the Weltanschaung of Marx: that history is dialectical, that it moves mankind in a certain, determined direction and there is little the an individual can do to change the course of history.  The focus, the force, is external.

Psychoanalysis is an internal discipline: in the office (although not in the individual’s life history), the course of life is changeable with ingredients of self-knowledge, compassionate honesty and a guided voyage over several years by someone who has been this route personally and guided others.  The focus — the major forces for change — are internal.  (I am not addressing etiology of neurosis and the trauma vs. fantasy debate.)

Second, the attenuated commitment to societal needs and building a better society that was part of early psychoanalytic organizations. Arnie cites the dozen free clinics encrouaged by Freud (in a change of mind or heart after WWI); but there was also Kibbutz and edcuation and psychoanalysis in Israel after Eitingen’s emigration in 1931;

Aichhorn’s dedication to street children; Blos and Erikson’s “training” in Anna Freud’s nursery as teachers; Anna Freud and Burlingame’s dedication to the orphaned child refugees from Theresienstadt. And, we have in 1940’s-50’s America, Erikson’s sojourn among the  Yurok and Sioux children; Fraiberg‘s innovations with indigent mothers.  Why has this attenuated?

I leave this for our discussion, but suggest that there are two separate forces operating in the psychoanalytic Denkstyl, the thought style that Arnie cites from Fleck’s work on scientific communities. One, a hidden thought style amongst psychoanalysts committed to Marxist thought, a Weltanschauung antithetical to the internal focus of psychoanalysis, may account for the more authoritarian, hierarchical, absolutist stance that these (former) Marxists brought into their new refuge, the American psychoanalytic institutes.  That is, to the extent that the nature of their Marxist beliefs was part of their inner character styles (see Shapiro), then this kind of absolutism, true believer attitude would invade their styles of “political” practice in their new home psychoanalytic institutions. (Whether this influenced their clinical work is harder to assess; that it affected their teaching styles, is easier to assess.)

On the other hand, the commitment to societal betterment through acts of psychoanalytic practice — such as opening free clinics, or the European stipulation that each analyst donate two no-fee cases weekly — may be part of a tone of hopefulness and an enlightened understandings of our universes (inner and outer) birthed at the turn of the twentieth century, when new disciplines also were born (modern physics, socio-logie, anthropology, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, linguistics, and more).  Also born, before WWI and even between the Wars, was a sense that society and humankind can improve, rather, be improved. This resulted in much good and terrible evil (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, who murdered possibly more people than Genghis Khan and all his predecessors.)  To the degree we can tease apart a dedication to the well-being of others (here, by psychoanalysts) from an iron-bound certitude of the True Believer (Eric Hoffer), we can begin to explore what happened to psychoanalysts dedication to societies improvement and well-being (outside our offices) and how to rejuvenate that commitment.

Summary: Arnie’s history is courageous and will likely raise objections. But, clarifying objections, debate that is substantive will only aid in further self-knowledge of this organziation.

Knowing how we were and are built and organized helps us know how to build ourselves for a better future.  Specifically, the self-righteous ideology of Marxism (under the guise of a kind of “professionalism”) will only distort the self-liberating potential of psychoanalysis.

 You will hear below, Arnie’s attribution to Fleck’s work on the sociology of science. I want to broaden this a bit.


“Isms” is an intellectual ailment, a rusting corruption of thought.  Its characteristic:  one who has an “ism” knows precisely what you or anyone else truly thinks or feels and will promptly tell you that. Their opening gambit is something like: “you may think you know what you said/felt/believed, but what you really said/felt/believed I will now tell you.”  Certitude is another trait; no room for ambiguity.  “Isms” have prefixes of Marx, Commun-, Nazi-, Fasc- or various more benign movements such as religions or ideologies, such as Lacan-, Subjectiv-.  Sometimes, the suffix “-al” is used instead of -ism, such as Evangelical.  But, today we veer left.

Let’s listen.

Click Here to Read:  Powerpoint from Arnold D. Richards’s  Psychoanalysts of the Left and Far Left presentation at the Roundtable on at YIVO on March 22, 2012.


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One Comment on “Psychoanalysts of the Left and Far Left”

  1. Ahmed Fayek Says:

    This brings memories of early youth, with its lovely idealism, and the excitement of joining an honourable movement. I spontaneously found that a marxist psychologist will never be Pavlovian despite the party line.

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