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Psychoanalysis and Revolution - Interview with Ian Parker

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

At 1968 Press we will soon publish our first book, Psychoanalysis and Revolution by David Pavón-Cuéllar and Ian Parker. In this short interview with Ian Parker, we talked about the state of radical publishing, why psychoanalysis should be taken seriously by those of us concerned with political practice and how psychoanalysis can be a great ally to contemporary struggles from anti-racism to feminism.


Alfie Bown: Can you tell us what the basic idea of this book is, and let's maybe start with the title Psychoanalysis and Revolution? To some people, these two things have got nothing to do with each other. So, tell us what how this idea came about, and what the book is and why psychoanalysis and revolution belong together?

Ian Parker: Well, psychoanalysis, when it was developed at the end of the 19th century, was revolutionary. It broke from existing conceptions of subjectivity and it opened up a quite different way of understanding the way that the individual is intermeshed with the social, the way that the social world enters into the individual and becomes part of them. At the same time it developed as a treatment that people would separate from their families, from their social relationships, but which was nevertheless rooted in those social relationships. We need to see subjectivity today as rooted in political struggle and political relationships in this way. That's where the connection comes in. Being able to understand the nature of the human subject, as a subject, divided by the conflicts in society, reproducing those conflicts inside themselves, and having to deal with those conflicts at the same time as they deal with political processes.

AB: Did psychoanalysis then change at some point in its history, and drift away from those revolutionary roots? Are there different strands of psychoanalysis, some of which remain very revolutionary, and others of which have become more normative or conservative? How does it happen historically that psychoanalysis becomes seen as something apolitical and something closer to psychology than to politics?

IP: Freud himself was not particularly revolutionary, but he was on the Left, as were most of the psychoanalysts in Central Europe at the time. Before the Second World War, they tended to be either members or supporters of the socialist parties or the communist parties, because they saw psychoanalysis as a critique of existing society. Now, what happened when the Nazis took power was that psychoanalysts fled to different parts of the world. Psychoanalysis became very popular in the United States and that is where the International Psychoanalytical Association became embedded in the English-speaking world. One of the prices that psychoanalysis had to pay for being able to survive in that hostile environment was to adapt to society. In the process, psychoanalysis is turned from being a critique of society, enabling people to challenge the oppressive social relationships that they've been brought up in (including in the family), into being a process that encouraged adapting individuals to society, helping people to ‘fit in’. In other words, psychoanalysis turned from something radical into something quite conservative. One thing that we do in the book is to trace through that history and to show how we can retrieve and redeem the radical spirit of psychoanalysis and to bring it into contact with social movements again in political struggles.

Psychoanalysis became popular in the US.

AB: So is this book an attempt to recover that lost radical psychoanalysis? And as opposed to the more dominant, let's say, normative models of psychotherapy, and to push the importance of psychoanalysis as an ally of radical politics in that way?

IP: Yes, that's one aspect of it: to retrieve that radical history. But another aspect is to be critical of psychoanalysis itself. That is to point out how psychoanalysis can learn from critical struggles from Marxism, feminism, the anti-racist, anti-colonial movements, radical disability theory, etc. To learn from these political movements is what we need to do to make psychoanalysis truly radical. So, it's a two-way process. We are people who are interested in psychoanalysis and we work with psychoanalysis, either clinically, or in social theory. But at the same time, we're critical of psychoanalysis. We know that it has to be dragged into the political realm, and has to be learned the lessons of politics in order to be radical and useful for us in political work.

AB: This is maybe a good time to ask you about Marx. What do you think about the compatibility of Marx and Freud and of the Freudo-Marxist tradition that has developed more recently in critical theory? Are we seeing a refreshing and progressive thing here in that people are increasingly trying to work with psychoanalysis and Marxism together?

IP: Well, I think it is very useful to think about the connections between Marx and Freud. But the book is actually broader than that. It looks to learn something from feminist theory, from colonial theory and so on, in order to make ourselves genuinely Marxist. That is, Marxism is a developing system of praxis, that is rooted in the struggle of different movements around the world. So Marxism itself that developed in Europe and carries the traces of that quite Eurocentric approach, developed by men in movements led by men has to learn something from the other social movements that have been developing in the last 100 to 200 years. So, Marxism itself has to change, just as psychoanalysis does.

Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach

IP: Now, insofar as the connection between Marx and Freud is concerned, there have been different attempts to connect the two figures, but they often fall into a series of mistakes or errors. And one of the main errors, which we can see in the work of the Austrian Marxist Wilhelm Reich, for example, is to have a kind of energetic hydraulic conception of the individual and of instincts as needing to find release against the constraints imposed by capitalism society. It is as if, if we release instincts or drives, then we would be completely free, which I think is an error. Another problem in a lot of Freudo-Marxist theory is that it's divorced from practice. These might be useful as academic scholarly critiques, but we need to be able to embed them in actual political struggle in order to understand how and why psychoanalysis is treated with such suspicion by people involved in radical politics, whether they're Marxists, or whether they're feminists or anything else.


To read the full interview with Ian Parker, support us on Patreon for as little as £2. You will also receive a free ebook of Psychoanalysis and Revolution and our subsequent publications. Join us here.

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