An historical diagnosis
Image: Gustav Klutsis,
“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.
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.'”
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.