Hysterical materialism

An historical diagnosis

Image: Gustav Klutsis,
Composition (1921)


“Historical materialism,” Franz Mehring once wrote, popularizing the phrase, “approaches every section of history without any preconceptions.”

Hysterical materialism — it might be said, phrasing things quite oppositely — approaches any supposed “sectarian” with every preconception.

In explicating the former, historical materialism, Mehring was simply making public something that his friend and comrade Friedrich Engels had already communicated to him in private. The term, abbreviated “histomat” (after «истмат», a good Soviet portmanteau), referred to a general outlook and a methodology for interpreting social reality. Quite fittingly, Mehring sought to explain historical materialism’s emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century by applying the historical materialist method reflexively to itself. He thus argued that

Marx and Engels did not “arrive at” historical materialism in this way, and to say in their praise that they spun it out of their heads would be an insult to them. Because even with the best of intentions it would mean declaring the whole materialist conception of history to be an invention conjured up out of empty fantasy. Much rather, the real fame of Marx and Engels consists in having given, with historical materialism itself, the most striking proof of its correctness. They did not only, as did Feuerbach, have a knowledge of German philosophy, but also of the French Revolution and British industry. They solved the riddle of human history [i.e., communism] when this task was only just being presented to mankind.

Unlike its counterpart, however, hysterical materialism is unable to grasp the historical foundations of its existence. Or at least, not without vomiting or going into fits. A phenomenon of much more recent vintage, hysterical materialism is less a worldview or Weltanschauung (in the strict sense of the word) than it is a psychosomatic disorder or condition. Perhaps in this respect it is closer to what Lenin denounced as “left-wing” communism, but with far less political purchase. As such, it cannot account for its own origins or symptomatic character. To properly ascertain the phenomenon of hysterical materialism, it is necessary to submit it to rigorous historical analysis.

Before this can take place, though, we must briefly sketch the rise of historical materialism alongside a standard definition of hysteria during the fin-de-siècle.

Hysteria and historical materialism (1893-1914)

Formal psychological analyses of hysteria significantly predate the phenomenon of hysterical materialism. However, they coincide with crystallization of historical materialist discourse within the Second International. 1893 marks a watershed in the development of both hysteria as a central component of the system that would eventually be known as Freudianism and historical materialism as the official doctrine of Marxism. (Dialectical materialism or “diamat,” according to Plekhanov the independent discovery of Joseph Dietzgen, would not be adopted by Marxists for another decade or so).

Both the psychoanalytic category of hysteria and the materialist conception of history seek to describe the ways in which the present continues to be haunted by its past, the effects of which linger long after the causes that engendered them have ceased to exist. These cumulative effects encrust themselves upon social and individual consciousness — as public or private forms of irrationality — but in such a manner that they remain veiled and inaccessible upon immediate reflection. With hysteria, this irrationality is triggered by an initial trauma that from then on is experienced recurrently, while with history, the irrationality results from ideologies that originated in some long-forgotten context and have inexplicably survived down through the ages though that context no longer exists.

Whether as a social ideology or an individual neurosis, modern bourgeois consciousness suffers from a past that it finds itself unable to master. Nor do the similarities and interconnections end there.

Albert Londe, photographic series of a patient diagnosed with hysteria at the La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris (1885)

Albert Londe, photographic series of a patient diagnosed with hysteria at the La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris (1885)

Scarcely ten years after his Studies on Hysteria with Breuer, Freud began treating a female patient named Ida Bauer. Like Freud, Ida belonged to the upper crust of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie. The two lived only a block or so away from one another. Freud initially diagnosed her as suffering from “a case of ‘petite hystérie,’ with the commonest of all somatic and mental symptoms: dyspnoea, tussis nervosa, aphonia, and occasional migraines, together with depression, hysterical unsociability, and a taedium vitae which was probably not entirely genuine.” While at first her symptoms appeared fairly unremarkable, Freud’s relentless pursuit of the underlying reasons for Ida’s neurosis would lead him to make some of his most startling observations and controversial conclusions regarding transference and the Oedipal complex. These he collected and published in late 1905 under the title Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, assigning his patient the pseudonym for which she would later become famous, “Dora.”

As it so happens, Dora (Ida Bauer) was also the sister of the prominent Austrian Social-Democratic politician Otto Bauer. The future leader of the Austromarxist tendency, Bauer was busy researching the “national question” [Nationalitätenfrage] while his sister was in Freud’s care. In his treatise on The Question of Nationalities and Social-Democracy, released early in 1907, Bauer maintained that it was historical materialism alone that provided an adequate framework for the interpretation of nationalities. “[Only] the materialist conception of history,” he averred, “can comprehend the nation as the never-completed product of a constantly occurring process, the ultimate driving force of which is constituted by the conditions governing the struggle of humans with nature, the transformation of the human forces of production, and the changes in the relations governing human labor” (pg. 108). Unfortunately for Bauer, not all materialisms are created equal. Less than a year after its publication, Lenin wrote his sister Maria urging her to translate Karl Kautsky’s article on “Nationality and Internationality,” a thoroughgoing critique of the position adopted by Bauer. At the time, only a single chapter from of Bauer’s work had been rendered into Russian, and already Lenin deemed it necessary to pre-empt him. Eventually, Lenin came to believe that Kautsky’s article was insufficient as a rebuttal, particularly following his renegacy in August 1914. The great Bolshevik thus supplemented his former colleague’s text with “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” and a whole host of other essays in which he polemicized against Bauer’s fanciful notion of “national-cultural autonomy.”

Finally, so as to resolve all these loose ends into a tightened, singular knott, we turn to some of Trotsky’s mature thoughts on “Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International,” a short but seldom-read pamphlet from the period of his Mexican exile. Here Trotsky — the foremost revolutionary of 1917 to come out in open support of Freud’s theory — keyed in on two apparently opposite tendencies that he contended were in fact intimately interrelated: centrism and sectarianism. “Centrism is in a certain sense the polar opposite of sectarianism; it abhors precise formulas, seeks routes to reality outside of theory,” wrote Trotsky. “But despite Stalin’s famous formula, ‘antipodes’ often turn out to be ‘twins.’”

Ida Bauer, later Freud's patient Dora, and her brother Otto, later the leader of Austromarxism

Ida Bauer, later Freud’s “Dora,” and her brother Otto, later the leader of Austromarxism

Despite this peculiar mirroring, Trotsky did not therefore hasten to collapse the two terms into one another. He chose, rather, to keep them conceptually distinct. Someone such as Otto Bauer, dubbed by Radek the “Austrian Talleyrand,” fell squarely into the camp of centrism for Trotsky. But Bauer understood himself to be situated to the left of revolutionary Marxism. As Trotsky put it, “the incident that befell Bauer was not at all accidental, the urge to stand to the left of Marxism leads fatally to the centrist swamp.” In Trotsky’s judgment, the recently-ousted Austrian Social Democrat could hardly be deemed a “sectarian.” Bauer was far too boring and tediously banal to warrant such a title. By contrast, Trotsky diagnosed sectarianism as a mild form of hysterical dissociation, a species of psychogenic fugue (or “flight from reality,” in laymen’s terms). More precisely, sectarianism involves a flight from the analysis of reality. “Instead of an analysis of reality,” Trotsky explained, “the sectarian substitutes intrigue, gossip, and hysteria [кляузой, сплетней, истерией].” From this we can surmise that, had she decided to enter politics (as did, for example, Freud’s earlier case study Anna O. [the Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim]), Ida Bauer or “Dora” would have been much more the fiery sectarian than her brother.

Perhaps this would have worked out no better in the long run, but it’s hard to tell. The Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek has been known to suggest, after all, that the figure of the hysteric in Freudian psychoanalysis roughly corresponds to the figure of the revolutionary in Marxian political praxis. “The attitude of [Rosa] Luxemburg,” he’s written before, “is exactly that of the hysteric faced with the obsessional metalanguage of revisionism.” If one had to choose between Luxemburg’s “hysterical” denunciations of Kautsky, (Otto) Bauer, et al., however, I hope I’d not be alone in opting for the hysteric! Whether this is just male chauvinism on Žižek’s part (following Derrida’s accusation against Lacanian psycholinguistics, charging it with phallogocentrism) is anyone’s guess. For now, it’s enough to note that none of this so far amounts to a description of the primary object under review, namely hysterical materialism. Yet it will be important to bear in mind some of the symptoms described here in proceeding to the next phase of our analysis, especially those traits earmarked by Trotsky as typically belonging to the sectarian — such as the propensity to substitute intrigue, gossip, and hysteria for reality.

12 thoughts on “Hysterical materialism

  1. As usual, an interesting article. Very scholarly, profusely illustrated with great revolutionary-era Bolshevik posters. But with glaring errors of fact and some surprising omissions.

    First of all, the International Socialist Organization is not a Trotskyist organization; this should be obvious to anyone who understands that their virulent anti-communism led the to take sides with US/NATO Imperialism AGAINST the Soviet Union while it was in existence, something so completely at odds with Trotskyist ideology that it absolutely precludes their being characterized as “Trotskyist”. They are a form of neo-Stalinism, whose psychological diagnosis would be closer to a sort of inverted Stockholm Syndrome in which their anticommunism and hatred for all things Stalinist caused them to actually become deranged and to behave very much in the manner of the Stalinists they profess to hate so very much. Talk to them about the Spartacist League and see the savage hatred of the SL their youngest members have been inculcated with and are repulsively joyful in expressing due to the “fact” that, about 25 years ago, the Sparts and ISO got into a scuffle in Chicago outside an ISO public event. The ISO sought to drive the Sparts from the public sidewalk outside this event; the Sparts defended themselves. In the course of the fracas while engaged in fisticuffs with a Spart one ISOer was pushed off the curb into the street, twisting his ankle, which the SLer stepped on, breaking it.

    About 5 years ago we were at a May Day demonstration in Chicago and encountered a pair of young ISOers. We spoke with them, bought their paper and told them in the course of the conversation that, at one time, one of us was a member of the Spartacist League.
    “The Spartacist League! I would gladly kill them with my bare hands!” one of these youth exclaimed, and his comrade agreed. Astounded, I asked him why, and he related the details of the incident we just outlined above. Reminding him that he was speaking to a person who was a member of that very group at the time of the incident did not cause him to apologise or back down from his comment at all! Pointing out that though the incident was shameful and regrettable it is hardly grounds for killing people, he and his comrade absolutely disagreed with us. The ISO teaches their members to use precisely the same political gangster methods the Stalinists used against Trotsky and his supporters during his lifetime. The ISO are true renegades from Marxism and are not to be considered anything but what they are: Mensheviks of the first water, virulent anticommunists and absolutely treacherous political opponents who think nothing of calling the cops on people or even using strongarm tactics to silence people who disagree with their politics.

    The second glaring problem with your article is that you use that Rosa Luxemburg quote to provide historical precedent in justifying Platypus’ assertion that “the Left is dead”.

    You will notice that Luxemburg did not make a sweeping statement about the entire socialist movement in general as being “a stinking corpse”; she was speaking of ONE Social-Democratic Party in ONE country as being “a stinking corpse”: the German SPD. One need not be a Nobel-Prize-winning linguist to see that your use of Luxemburg to buttress Platypus’ extreme sectarian statements to the effect that “the Left is dead” is a complete misrepresentation of the facts. You are denouncing every organization that identifies itself as being “socialist” or “Marxist” rather than singling out a specific party. In the US, the term “the left” actually is used to include everything from liberal members of the Democratic Party all the way out to the most radical fringes of the anarchist movement. The ISO is correct when they criticize Platypus for this ridiculously overbroad criticism, which enables Platypus to blithely dismiss polemics directed against them from anyone on the “left” with a mere wave of the hand rather than with substantial, thoroughly principled Marxist analysis and criticism of Platypus’ political opponents. This “method” of Platypus is not how Marxists function, comrades – and it’s so far beneath Trotskyist methodology as to be laughable. Trotsky used far stronger language than that to describe this type of political chicanery.

    Lastly: where is the source material for the Platypus Society quotes being used by the ISO to attack you/them? Why do you not either correct these statements of the ISOer if they are incorrect, and provide us with the actual text of the articles he cited? The fact that you did not bother to do so weakens your argument a great deal. It also implies that you did not do so because if you did, you would only strengthen the ISO argument against you.

    That last quote from Hess is quite remarkable and completely in consonance with our characterization of the ISO’s Stalinist, gangsterist methods of dealing with political opponents: “don’t argue with them: they should be wiped off the face of the Earth!” The ISO leadership can’t hold its own very weak, sub-Marxist political ground in a debate with an actual Trotskyist like one of the best Spartacist leaders, and so they avoid this (to them) horrible prospect of such a thing ever happening by excluding anyone who tries to engage them in such a debate from their fora and other public meetings. Again: please don’t call the ISO “Trotskyist”. They are as far from Trotsky politically as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was when it was led by Stalin.


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  3. I have a lot of problems with how the author has presented a very simple polemical point against Historical Materialism journal. Why is this wrapped up in such academic jargon? It just becomes the worst of both the Spartacist polemicism, and the obscurantist jargon of many HM conferences. If those in Platypus want to better deal and undertand why HM has come to reject platypus the way it has I do not think this method is very productive. Its obscuring of the problem. Historical Materialism cannot be treated the same way as the Spartacists, when it comes to its view of and response to platypus. The journal, because it is not a disciplined political organization, merely a journal of often like-minded leftish academics, has no oficial public political lines, and cannot be challenged on any of its positions because it is often a mass of contradictory positions. This journal, for example, has published a special issue on Moishe Postone, one of the most influential figures of anti-deutsche milieu in Germany, and yet they critique Platypus for publishing two articles of anti-German perspective in over 50 issues.

    HM is very different than the Spartacists and their reaction to us, which is based on very traditional trotskyist lines. The Spartacists represent a “traditional marxist” critique of Platypus, one grounded in often-ossified political positions, but HM’s critique of platypus has never been so articulate as the Spartacist’s critique, it can barely claim to be called a pseudo-marxist critique. When HM folk respond with something better than ad hominen attacks, and paranoid accusations, then maybe we can have a real discussion about what kind of symptom of the present they are.

    IWPCHI, on the Luxemburg, you really should read Luxemburg more carefully. Although I disagree with Ross in the way he uses the quote, I do recognize that any careful reader of Luxemburg knows how important International Social Democracy was for Luxemburg, and how she considered German Social Democracy just one, although major, factor in the historical development of Social Democracy. Reading the Mass Strike will help this, which was actually written to *argue against* the idea (particularly dominant in the German SPD leadership) that Russian and German Social Democratic movements as isolated phenomenons.

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  5. laurierojas,

    Postone isn’t an Anti-German, and has explicitly distanced himself from them, saying he does not agree with the uses they have made of his work.

    HM publishing a symposium on a work of academic Marxology is quite distinct from publishing pro-Israel apologetics without comment, don’t you think? And quite distinct further still from asserting the latter should be considered as part of the range of discussable opinion within the English-speaking left.

    • The Bolsheviks were by no means friends of Zionism, and yet they organized congresses and attended events with not only the Mensheviks (who were still in the same party as them) or the Bundists, but also members of Poale Zion. They were all understood to be part of the “socialist” Left.

      To be sure, while Zionism today is clearly a different beast than it was in its more labor-oriented forms in the first few decades of the twentieth century, most of the Anti-Germans position(ed) themselves as upholders of the legacy of Marx. Whether or not this is true, and I tend to think it they are not, we’re willing to take them at their word in order to allow them to open themselves up for debate.

  6. The point is: Platypus thinks there is some “universal” relevance to the Anti-German discussions that merits opening up a discursive space for them in an English-speaking left previously closed off to such discussions. The question is: why? Even at my most charitable, I can’t think of any other reason other than that Platypus thinks there is something “correct” about what the Anti-Germans say.

    Cutrone (and you) have consistently justified this along the lines of them being an “interesting” symptom of decline, but I would reiterate the same point I made in my letter to Weekly Worker: what’s so interesting about left apostasy? It’s a phenomenon that goes back at least to Shachtman, Albert Shanker and the AFT, the whole SDUSA milieu, etc. There’s nothing particularly novel or exciting about it, other than the particular ideological cosmetics that the Anti-Germans adopted (rhetorical affirmations of “communism”, etc.)

    Anti-Germanism was simply the specifically German phenomenal manifestation of international neo-conservatism. The proof of this is that the “hardcores” have long since shed any pretense of Marxism, while the “softcores” have turned away from their previous theoretical matrix (critical theory/Adorno) toward an entirely different interpretative matrix (the Gegenstandpunkt school of state derivation) while jettisoning the public affirmation of Israel (although some people will admit to pro-Zionist sympathies in private).

    What is undeniable is that there is a broader discursive space for pro-Israel opinion in the German radical left, but 1) this is an aberration, not something that should be imported into other left contexts 2) it’s explainable in terms of the obvious trajectory of 20th Century German history, hence, it’s roots aren’t even very “interesting.” It might be perversely fascinating because of it’s oddness, but it doesn’t offer any insights for political work in contexts where it doesn’t apply.

    • Left apostasy as such isn’t necessarily all that interesting, but it’s almost always something leftists have paid a great deal of attention to (for better or worse). And it goes back further than Schachtman. It dates at least to “the renegade Kautsky” and the various Austromarxists, or before him to Marxist-materialist-turned-religious-mystics like Sergei Bulgakov and others from the late 1890s. More recently, there have been leftists who broke to the opposite Right of pro-Israel Zionism. Take the late Roger Garaudy, for example, the French Stalinist who converted to Catholicism and then Islam before publishing a book denying the legitimacy of claims surrounding the Holocaust.

      Anyway, I don’t think it’s so much that members of Platypus think there’s something necessarily “correct” about the Anti-Germans’ arguments, anymore than we think there’s something “correct” about those belonging to Grover Furr or Domenico Losurdo (neo-Stalinists who we’ve also engaged with). I think it’s more the idea that we view Anti-German ideology as indicative of something more far-reaching about the nature of politics in our time. I hope this doesn’t seem too precious an explanation, but I feel it’s something close to what Lukacs was trying to get at when he remarked:

      [I]nsofar as the “false” is an aspect of the “true” it is both “false” and “non-false.”

      That is to say, at least the way I read it, a person’s political views or understanding of the world can be mistaken, but still even in their incorrectness might faithfully reflect real social dynamics from which they emerged. Hence their “symptomatic” character, to use some jargon that is hardly unique to Platypus.

      Regarding your other point, which you’ve often made, about the irrelevance of the Anti-Germans to the present moment, it’s fine for you to disagree. At least one author whose work you esteem quite highly, and whose stance against the Anti-Germans is beyond question, Susann Witt-Stahl, has strongly asserted that the opposite is the case. Even then, though, I do wonder why you get so hung up on these two pieces out of the hundreds we’ve published, both of which have received rebuttals that we’ve also published. Do you think that all these other articles, interviews, panel transcripts, etc. are just “window dressing” we use to mask our supposed “hidden agenda” of publishing Anti-Germans? Somehow I doubt that even you believe this, whatever your antipathies toward Platypus might be.

  7. Pingback: Studies on hysterical materialism | The Charnel-House

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