“On the Relationship between Psychoanalysis and Emancipatory Politics,” by Amanda Armstrong (2008)

Castoriadis, Marx, and Freud
on Time and Emancipation

Originally  published in The Platypus Review, no. 2.

On two occasions, Sigmund Freud observed that politics, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis are all impossible professions. Cornelius Castoriadis attempted to make sense of this cryptic observation in a 1994 essay entitled “Psychoanalysis and Politics,” in which he argued that, not only are these three “professions” structurally analogous, they are also entangled with each other such that the “impossible” realization of pedagogical or psychoanalytic aims is ultimately conditional upon an emancipatory political transformation.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis as well as of pedagogy lies in the fact that they both attempt to aid in the creation of autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy that does not yet exist. This appears to be a logical impossibility…But the impossibility also appears, especially in the case of pedagogy, to lie in the attempt to produce autonomous human beings within a heteronomous society…The solution to this riddle is the “impossible” task of politics — all the more impossible since it must also lean on a not yet existing autonomy in order to bring its own type of autonomy into being. [1]

Castoriadis’s analysis of the “impossible possibility” of emancipatory politics, while deformed by his tendency to treat dynamic social formations as static states of being (i.e. “autonomy”), conveys, in a partially veiled form, certain important dimensions of Marxist politics. First, by analogizing social emancipation to pedagogy and psychoanalysis, Castoriadis squarely positions social emancipation along a temporal axis, indicating that Marxists should strive to bring about a break, in time, between an era characterized by “personal independence founded on objective dependence,”[2] and a subsequent era characterized by a more thoroughgoing form of social freedom. The essentially temporal (rather than spatial) nature of this hoped-for “break” has often been forgotten on the Left — an amnesia that has had disastrous consequences for the project of social emancipation.

Second, Castoriadis’s paradoxical formulation concerning the (non-)existence of the conditions for social autonomy indicates, albeit in a highly attenuated manner, something significant about the ground upon which a possible socialist future might be built. As Marx argued in the Grundrisse, an emancipatory transition to a post-capitalist society would entail the abolition of the value form of social mediation and the freeing up of the social wealth and human capacities accumulated in alienated form under capitalism.[3]  In other words, the social form that currently frustrates social emancipation — namely, capital — would also constitute the ground upon which a socialist society would be built. Thus, in a sense, it is right to say that there is no currently-constituted social basis for emancipation, but that the basis for emancipation can nevertheless be found in contemporary society. Were this not the case, as Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “then all attempts to explode [capitalist society] would be quixotic.”[4]  As Moishe Postone argues:

The specificity of capitalism’s dialectical dynamic, as analyzed by Marx, entails a relationship of past, present, and future very different from that implied by any linear notion of historical development….In capitalism, objectified historical time is accumulated in alienated form, reinforcing the present, and, as such, it dominates the living. Yet, it also allows for people’s liberation from the present by undermining its necessary moment, thereby making possible the future — the appropriation of history such that the older relations are reversed and transcended. Instead of a social form structured by the present, by abstract labor time, there can be a social form based upon the full utilization of a history alienated no longer, both for society in general and for the individual. [5]

In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Sigmund Freud pictured in his working room in 1938

In a brief footnote attached to this passage, Postone observes:

One could draw a parallel between this understanding of the capitalist social formation’s history and Freud’s notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but, rather, in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present. The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible. The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future. [6]

With this footnote, we return to the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics with which we began. In what follows, I want to try and open up some inroads into thinking through the significance of this analogy — is it merely a coincidence, or can we offer an explanation as to why Freud formulated a theory of individual emancipation that was so strikingly analogous to Marx’s formulation of the relationship between history and emancipation?

One way to make inroads into this comparison of Marx and Freud’s conceptions of time and emancipation is through an examination of Freud’s theorization of the “compulsion to repeat” — a hypothesized compulsion that, in his metapsychological essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud finds evidence for in a number of social and psychological phenomena (from a number of developmental phases and historical eras). He goes so far as to suggest that this “compulsion” might properly be understood as an “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces.”[7]  The paragraph in which this quote is embedded is directly preceded by a discussion of the psychotherapist’s attempt to help their patient overcome a compulsively repeated present, indicating that Freud conceptualized the psychotherapeutic aim of helping a patient move into the future as somehow continuous with, or relevant to, a broader world-historical problem concerning the socially general “death instinct” — a problem that he would explore more extensively in Civilization and Its Discontents.  Freud’s rapid and under-theorized switching of levels of analysis in these paragraphs, as well as at other points throughout his writings, leads me to hypothesize that Freud partially identified his individual patients with society, and that, in developing his psychoanalytic practice, he was — in part — formulating a veiled model for how society might overcome the “compulsion to repeat” imposed by the value form of social mediation and thus realize the possibilities for human emancipation immanent in the present.  Assuming that this explanation of the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics is plausible, we (as Left historians) can formulate an ambivalent historical evaluation of Freud: on the one hand, he fostered a conception of the temporal dimension of emancipation at a historical moment during which many Left social theorists were shifting into a spatial frame of reference — a shift that still haunts the Left; on the other hand, by partially identifying individuals with society (instead of — like Marx or Adorno — analyzing the manner in which, under capitalism, the individual mediates society), Freud prepared the ground for Herbert Marcuse and other New Left Freudo-Marxists, who replaced social emancipation with a reified “desire” as the desideratum of Left politics.


1. Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination.  Ed. & Trans., David Ames Curtis.  (Stanford University Press.  Stanford, CA: 1997).   Pg. 131.
2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Trans. Martin Nicolaus.  (Penguin and New Left Review.  London, England: 1973).  Pg. 158.
3. Ibid, pgs. 704–712.
4. Ibid, pg. 159.
5. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1993).  Pg. 377.
6. Ibid, pg. 377, n. 131.
7. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”  The Freud Reader, Ed. Peter Gay.  (Norton and Co.  New York, NY: 1989).  Pg. 612. Emphasis added.

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