Three models of “resistance”


Image: Ferdinand Schmutzer,
Portrait of Sigmund Freud (1926)

2. The “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation

Go to Three models of “resistance” — Introduction
Go to Three models of “resistance” — 1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

The second major historical conceptualization of “resistance” examined in this essay comes by way of psychoanalysis directly, rather than through the indirect affinity between Freud’s reality principle and Dilthey’s account of the reality of the external world.  Indeed, Freudian analysis largely hinges on the various forms of resistance the analyst encounters in trying to disembed layers of repressed experience buried in the patient’s unconscious: “[The] opposition…during psychoanalytic treatment…against our effort to transform what is unconscious into what is conscious…is what we perceive as resistance.  We…[name the] pathogenic process demonstrated by this resistance…repression.”[36]

Here the operative concept is the “resistance” — whether conscious or unconscious — of the subject (and more specifically the ego)[37] to the task of working through its own past, which has been systematically repressed.  Once again, this resistance expresses an extreme conservatism.  In part, the subject avoids revisiting its own history because it finds many of its experiences traumatic and disturbing.  But the patient is not simply afraid of its past.  It is also afraid of its future.  The subject is gripped by a primitive urge for self-preservation, and balks at the prospect that it might potentially become something other than what it already is.  Having fallen in love with the symptoms of its own unfreedom, the analysand stubbornly resists the idea of living without them.

This notion of “resistance,” I submit, corresponds to the work of figures like Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, and above all Wilhelm Reich early in their careers.  Each of these thinkers sought to digest the legacy of the international workers’ movement in the aftermath of its defeat between 1917 and 1923.  Following the spectacular series of capitulations, conciliations, schisms, and betrayals that shook the Second International in the decades leading up to World War I, all three authors came to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to the proletariat’s emancipation was the proletariat itself — or more precisely, its inability to “work through” its own reified forms of consciousness.  For the emancipation of the working class was to be self-emancipation.  The “resistance” thus encountered was no longer that of the world maintaining itself against the actions of humanity.  In this case, the “resistance” was instead that of humanity in preserving its present condition of unfreedom against the challenge of fulfilling its destiny.

The rough symmetry between this conception of the resistance of a social subject (in this case, the proletariat as the universal class) to the self-conscious mastery of humanity over its past and the resistance of an individual subject to the self-conscious mastery of a person over his past should be readily apparent.[38]  “[T]he consciousness of the proletariat is still fettered by reification,” asserted Lukács in his article “Class Consciousness.”   “[The] separations [in its consciousness] point to the extent of the still unconquered power of capitalist forms of life in the proletariat itself.”[39]  This power that the capitalist mode of production continues to hold over the proletariat cannot be deemed wholly unconscious, either.  There is a dimly conscious feeling of attachment to these given “forms of life” that resists the prospect that they might someday cease to exist.  The resistance that the proletariat displays to its task of achieving global emancipation, attaining social and political autonomy (and thus dominion over the world), is indicative of what Reich called its “conservatism, fear of freedom, in a word, reactionary thinking.”[40]

No direct causal relationship between the two can be inferred from this symmetry, of course.  Sociology and psychology — the study of society and of the individual, respectively — both belong to a greater totality of which each is only part.  “The separation of sociology and psychology is both correct and false,” observed Adorno.  “False because it encourages the specialists to relinquish the attempt to know the totality which even the separation of the two demands; and correct in so far as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory.”[41]  Or in other words, they are determinate byproducts of an age in which the antithesis between society and individual obtains.  Taken by themselves, neither sociology nor psychology is fully adequate to its object; each is necessarily insufficient.[42]

Certainly, it had been known for some time that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Marx once put it.  This came through most clearly in times of great political upheaval, in which the social and historical actors half-consciously repeat actions from the past amidst changed conditions: “[J]ust as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” [43]  Less clear was the fact that this general social phenomenon would be recapitulated at the level of the individual.

To be fair, there were some who grasped the peculiar way in which history had taken on this burdensome aspect in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Whereas world history for Hegel had been the guarantor of human freedom,[44] already by the time Nietzsche was writing the built-up wreckage of history only seemed to block the path to its higher realization.  “Man…braces himself,” wrote the latter, “against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden.”[45]  To disburden itself of the dead weight of its past, Nietzsche argued, humanity periodically requires an ability to forget.

Freud, following Nietzsche’s line of investigation, maintained that individuals accomplish this forgetting by either displacing or substituting traumatic memories with more innocuous elements from such episodes, synchronous associations with objects or events that appeared alongside them.  This occurs through a mnemonic (mal)function that he dubbed “screen memories” — an operation whereby certain experiences come to be repressed and submerged in the unconscious.[46]  But that which is repressed has a way of bubbling back up to the surface, according to Freud.  With repetition compulsions, for example, “the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out.  He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it.”[47]

This observation was key to the shift in Freud’s analytic technique from an engagement with his patients’ resistances to a study of their repetitive behaviors.  “[Initially,] the chief emphasis lay upon the patient’s resistances,” Freud later wrote.  “But it became ever clearer that the aim, that what was unconscious should become conscious, is not completely attainable by that method…The patient is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of…remembering it as something belonging to the past.”[48]  Even with repetition compulsions, however, resistance plays a decisive role: “The greater the resistance, the more extensively will acting out (repetition) replace remembering…[T]he patient repeats instead of remembering, and repeats under the conditions of resistance.”[49]  In other words: the more resistant a patient is toward treatment, the more prone they are to fall back into old habits, rituals, and routines.  Psychoanalysis, Chris Cutrone points out, aims at “expanding and strengthening the capacity of the conscious ego to experience the new and not to ‘regress’ in the neurotic attempt to master the present by repeating the past.”[50]

The social correlate to this Freudian schema regarding the past’s domination over the present in the life of an individual can be found in Marx’s characterization of capital as “the rule of past, dead labor over living labor.”[51]  Forced to revalorize the accumulated dead labor bequeathed to it by the past, the proletariat (or living labor) experiences the continuous cycle of production and circulation as a never-ending sequence of repetition compulsions.  Time and again, the working class finds itself compelled to return to the very same processes that reproduce its conditions of alienation afresh.  Reproduction is here masked empirically as original production, as the goal of each consecutive act of production seems to reach its terminus in the circulation of commodities for sale.  Understood from the perspective of totality, however, these successive acts of production merely comprise the broader activity of reproducing those conditions that make capitalism possible in the first place.  “When viewed,…as a connected whole, and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction.”[52]  Turnover never refers to an isolated incident occurring under capitalism.  It cannot remain a simple one-off affair.  Rather, its measure merely serves to punctuate a process that then repeats itself ad infinitum, as a single lap in the cyclical self-valorization of capital.[53]

It is the static, cyclical, or repetitive aspect of capitalism’s temporal dialectic that most interests us here.  When production-for-production’s sake becomes the rule that governs society, a pattern of frenzied repetition takes hold with sufficient strength to sustain its subsequent motions.   “Even a single rotation of the cycle,” asserted the Soviet economist Pavel Maksakovskii in his 1927 Theory of the Capitalist Cycle, “gives birth from within to the forces that provide for its continuous repetition.”[54]  Once a sufficient quantity of value has been cached in the employment of labor-power to redeem and augment the amount originally invested — what Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation”[55] — an ineluctable logic sets in.  Production as a means no longer lines up with consumption as an end; its course instead assumes the shape of a circuit, in which the surfeit of value procured by commodity circulation is compelled to double back upon its origin to serve as the basis for the next, expanded round of valorization.

The temporality of capitalism obeys two countervailing tendencies, however: a linear trajectory tending toward constant transformation and acceleration, and a cyclical trajectory tending toward intermittent reconstitution and normalization.  This “cyclolinear” ebb and flow is precisely what the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has in mind when he refers to “the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution”[56] — what Adorno called the static and dynamic side of the dialectic.  But both of these tendencies transpire simultaneously.  Its path curves outward along an ever-widening, centrifugal arc.  The great bourgeois French economist Jean-Charles de Sismondi was the first to document this process, as Marx would later point out: “[A]ccumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale.  The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.”[57]   Thus, while capitalist production emerged out of a determinate set of historical circumstances, it appears as a process without beginning or end.  Fredric Jameson, in his recent book on Representing Capital, notes that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”[58]

In capital’s self-presentation as a natural, transhistorical system of social organization, handed down from time immemorial, its repetition engenders reification.  The self-conscious subjectivity of labor drops out, disappearing into the mindless objectivity of capital.  With this disappearance, the products of human labor acquire an alien, occult glow in the eyes of their producers — and begin to irradiate a weird “phantom objectivity,” as it were (Lukács).[59]  “[A]ll powers of labor are transposed into powers of capital; the productive power of labor into fixed capital (posited as external to labor and as existing independently of it (as object [sachlich])),” Marx wrote in the Grundrisse.  “In circulating capital, the fact that the worker himself has created the conditions for the repetition of his labor, and that the exchange of this, his labor, is mediated by the co-existing labor of others, appears in such a way that capital gives him an advance and posits the simultaneity of the branches of labor.”[60]  In his 1924 essay, “The Reification of Production Relations Among People and Personification of Things,” the brilliant Soviet theoretician Isaak Rubin likewise argued that reification results from exposure to repeated cycles of commodity production and circulation: “Only at a determined level of development, after frequent repetition, do the production relations among people leave some kind of sediment in the form of certain social characteristics which are fixed to the products of labor.”[61]

Very little has been written concerning the historical conjuncture of reification, repetition, and resistance that generally takes place under the conditions of capitalist social life, much less in the specific moment of international Marxism’s most profound crisis (1914-1923).  Of those few authors who have touched on the issue, Postone has perhaps gone the furthest toward understanding their interconnection.  He calls attention to the homology that exists between the individual and social manifestations of this tendency to compulsively repeat.  “One could draw a parallel between [Marx’s] 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,” Postone astutely notes.  “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.”[62]

Applied to the context of the crisis of Marxism during the period of the Second International — or multiple crises, depending on how one measures these things (first in the 1890s, and then again more earnestly after August 1914) — the categories of reification, resistance, and repetition help to make sense of a series of calamitous and unexpected events whose occurrence flew in the face of its leaders’ predictions.  Writing in his 1923 essay “Marxism and Philosophy,” Karl Korsch attempted to provide a satisfactory materialist account of “the greatest crisis that has yet occurred in the history of Marxist theory, and which in the last decade has split Marxists into three hostile camps.”  The crisis that led to the collapse of International Social Democracy first came into full view after a number of its affiliated national sections, most notably the German Social-Democratic Party, voted in favor of war credits at the outbreak of the Great War.  Though the main branches of the Second International had resolved to oppose an inter-imperialist war, they now faltered.  In Korsch’s view, this crisis was merely a repeat of the revisionist debate that had taken place over a decade earlier, a dispute once thought resolved that had in truth merely been repressed.  As war descended over the continent,

[i]t…became clear that there was no unanimity whatever within the camp of Marxism on such major issues of transition and goal as the seizure of State power by the proletariat, the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the final “withering away of the State” in communist society.  On the contrary, no sooner were all these questions posed in a concrete and unavoidable manner, than there emerged at least three different theoretical positions on them, all of which claimed to be Marxist.  Yet in the pre-war period, the most prominent representatives of these…tendencies — respectively Renner, Kautsky, and Lenin — had not only been regarded as Marxists but as orthodox Marxists.  For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the Social Democratic parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism.  But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself.  On one side of this rift, there appeared Marxist neo-reformism that soon more or less amalgamated with the earlier revisionism.  On the other side, the theoretical representatives of a new revolutionary proletarian party unleashed a struggle against both the old reformism of the revisionists and the new reformism of the “Center,” under the battle cry of restoring pure or revolutionary Marxism.[63]

For Korsch, the significance of this split was not so much about reinstating the correct revolutionary doctrine.  It was indicative of a yet more fundamental division that had emerged between theory and practice in Marxist politics.[64]  But the still salient task of unifying these sides had in the meantime either been forgotten or papered over in order to address immediate and surface-level concerns that had been deemed more pressing.  In “Marxism and Philosophy,” Korsch explained that the essential philosophical problem Marx and Engels grappled with — namely, the problem of consciousness and existence, of subject and object, and of achieving “the coincidence of consciousness and reality” — had long since been eschewed by the vulgar Marxists inside the Second International as “obsolete” or “insignificant.”[65]   One crucial consequence of this elision was that the same basic positions were again rehashed, only now in a more fraught historical moment.

Lukács’ writings from around this time cover much of the same conceptual terrain.  In his own reflection on the topic of Marxist orthodoxy, the Hungarian theoretician upheld the centrality of self-consciousness: “[M]an must become conscious of himself as a social being, as simultaneously the subject and object of the socio-historical process.”[66]  The question of consciousness presents quite different difficulties when posed at the level of a social class than at the level of an individual person.  Nevertheless, at either level, a certain unconscious surplus remained hidden from view, reified for a social subject or repressed for an individual subject.  “[C]lass consciousness,” Lukács explained in an essay, “implies a class-conditioned unconsciousness of one’s own socio-historical and economic condition.” [67]   Moreover, these ideological determinants were not present in such a fashion that one could simply pull back the curtain and expose them: “[E]conomic factors are not concealed ‘behind’ consciousness but are present in consciousness itself (albeit unconsciously or repressed).”[68]  For Lukács, any thorough investigation into problems of class-consciousness sooner or later was forced to confront the issue of organization.  The preeminent organizational task of Marxist parties, at least as he conceived it, bears some resemblance to Freud’s “effort to transform what is unconscious into what is conscious” cited previously: “[The revolutionary party’s] organization corresponds to a stage in the class consciousness of the proletariat which does not aspire to anything more than making conscious what was hitherto unconscious and making explicit what hitherto had been latent.”[69]

The structural similarities between repression in Freud’s model of the individual unconscious and reification in Lukács’ model of social unconsciousness extend further than this, however.  Both bear a certain relation to processes of forgetting.  As Russell Jacoby remarks in his classic study on the import of Freudian psychoanalysis for critical theories of society, Social Amnesia, this contiguity is hardly superficial.  “Reification in Marxism refers to an illusion that is objectively manufactured by society,” Jacoby explains.  “This social illusion works to preserve the status quo by presenting the human…relationships of society as natural — and unchangeable — relations between things. What is often ignored in expositions of the concept of reification is the psychological dimension: amnesia — a forgetting and repression of the human…activity that makes and can remake society.”[70]  In order to drive home this point, he notes that Adorno and Horkheimer had already made light of this fact in their Dialectic of Enlightenment when they asserted that “[a]ll reification is forgetting.”[71]  Or as Marx himself had argued against Feuerbach, in a passage Lukács used as an epigraph to his brief essay on party organization, “Legality and Illegality”[72]: “[Feuerbach’s] materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men.”[73]

Not only this.  The process of forgetting or repression that underpins reified consciousness also produces an unmistakable resistance on the part of subject.  And this resistance is directed against precisely those insights provided by dialectical materialist analysis, which the subject suspects have been artificially imposed from without onto its own naturalized forms of consciousness.  This was a contention Lukács made respecting the resistance Lenin encountered in his arguments on party organization in his brilliant defense of History and Class Consciousness, released in 1925 under the title of Tailism and the Dialectic: “From the very beginning the organizational forms recognized and applied by Lenin were resisted by — and are still today resisted by — all opportunists as ‘artificial’ forms.”[74]   The crisis of Marxism he and Korsch diagnosed was the result of a resistance on the part of revolutionary socialist groups to the task of self-consciously interrogating and working through the reified, ideological encrustations that unconsciously mediate proletarian class-consciousness.  “Historical situations arise […] — the moments of world crisis — in which even the tactics demanded by immediate interests are pursued blindly (the position of the Social Democratic parties during the war),” Lukács wrote in a 1920 piece on “The Problem of Intellectual Leadership,” “in which even class-consciousness, confronted with the ultimate necessity, adopts the stance of complete unconsciousness, in which even actions dictated by class-consciousness operate like the blind forces of nature.”[75]

Finally, it was perhaps Reich whose analysis cut the deepest with respect to the problem of self-consciousness in revolutionary subjectivity.  Like Lukács and Korsch, he laid most of the blame for the failure at the doorstep of the premier socialist organizations in Europe.  “Those who followed and were practically involved in the revolutionary Left’s application of Marxism between 1917 and 1933, had to notice that it was restricted to the sphere of objective economic processes and governmental policies,” observed Reich, “but that it neither kept a close eye on nor comprehended the development and contradictions of the so-called ‘subjective factor’ of history, i.e., the ideology of the masses. The revolutionary Left failed, above all, to make fresh use of its own method of dialectical materialism, to keep it alive, to comprehend every new social reality from a new perspective with this method.”[76]  So here again, just as with Korsch and Lukács, the greatest shortcoming Reich identified in the Left’s approach to politics in this time was its resolute unwillingness to adopt a dialectical methodology in treating the issue of the subject.  In his view, the vulgar Marxists’ “rationalistic” assumption that the masses would eventually come around to see that their own best interests lay with the socialists, as their material conditions continued to deteriorate under capitalism, was unfounded.  A deep-seated irrationality plagued the social consciousness of the European working class, impervious to every straightforward attempt to explain it.  Ideology, a properly sociological phenomenon, collided with etiology, a properly biological phenomenon.[77]   Thus did ideological superstructure — or “ideology as a material force,” as Reich termed it — carry “repercussions” acting upon the material base.

The confluence of social ideologies that held sway in the two decades or so following 1914 played on the deepest psychological anxieties of the masses and the parties that claimed to represent them.  Yet the Social-Democratic political leadership could not bring itself to address this disturbing fact.  “[By 1927,] the readiness of the masses for freedom was considered self evident,” he explained in his “Practical Course in Marxist Sociology.”  “No one could doubt this without being called a reactionary.  It would have appeared insane to speak of the incapacity of the masses for freedom and their fear of freedom as was done later, in 1935.”[78]  In other words, the revolutionary Left failed to account for the masses’ semi-conscious resistance to the promise of their own emancipation.  This resistance was the result of an intense fear regarding the responsibility this might entail.  A subject’s resistance to achieving self-consciousness, Freud believed, often stemmed from fear: “If the ego…has set up a repression out of fear, then the fear still persists and manifests itself as a resistance if the ego approaches the repressed material.”[79]  Reich characterized this resistance as a societal neurosis:

Peace and freedom are universally desired.  However, since the average character…is neurotic in its thinking, fear of freedom and fear of responsibility (pleasure anxiety) become intertwined with ideas of peace and freedom, and these goals are therefore discussed in a formalistic rather than objective manner.  It is almost as if the simplest and most immediate facts…, i.e., those facts which obviously represent the natural building material of peace and freedom, are intentionally avoided…For example, it is certainly no secret that politics is ruinous and that humanity is sick in the psychiatric sense of the word.  Yet no one seems to see the connection between these facts and the demand for a viable democratic order, [because this factual insight] would immediately necessitate radical changes in the practical affairs of everyday life.  Ideologically, the neurotic character would be prepared to affirm these changes…, [but] he fears their practical realization.  His character armor forbids a change in the life pattern that has become rigid.[80]

And so, while the desire for peace and freedom may well have seemed ubiquitous throughout Europe following the conclusion of the Great War, the practical attempt to realize these goals resulted in war and authoritarianism — fascism.  “What was new in the fascist mass movement was the fact that extreme political reaction succeeded in making use of the deep longings for freedom of the masses of people,” Reich steadfastly insisted.  ”Intense longing for freedom on the part of the masses, plus fear of the responsibility which freedom entails, produces fascist mentality, whether this longing and fear are found in a fascist or in a democrat…The [great] masses of people affirmed and concretely implemented their own suppression.  Their need for authority proved to be stronger than their will to independence.”[81]

5 thoughts on “Three models of “resistance”

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