Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

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Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
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A black man in Turkmenistan: Langston Hughes’ 1932 account of Soviet Central Asia

Below are scans of the communist and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ copy of his own short tract on Soviet Central Asia, from 1932. It was published under the title A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, and includes copious editorial notation and marginalia around the text. Hughes was known as something of a perfectionist, so it’s not surprising at all that he would submit something he wrote to such rigorous scrutiny.

The introductory remark provided by the publisher is slightly misleading, reflecting a political policy adopted by the Stalinist Comintern toward the black population in the Southern United States. Describing Hughes as “the son of an oppressed nationality,” the brief note suggests that he will testify to “the achievements of formerly oppressed nationalities under the banner of the Soviets.” At the time, Moscow’s line on “the Negro question” in the US was that blacks in the South — especially along the so-called “Black Belt,” areas where they held a sizable majority — constituted a separate nation which ought to be granted autonomy, i.e. the right of national self-determination.

Readers can learn more about this disastrous official stance here in Benjamin Blumberg’s excellent essay “Race and the Left in America: An Unmet Challenge.” For now, we turn to the text. What were Hughes’ impressions of life in Soviet Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan?

Langston Hughes, mellon-sellers in the market of Tashkent. Soviet central Asia, U.S.S.R

Many of his attitudes and opinions, it must be said, would likely shock and offend today’s self-proclaimed “Marxists.” Hughes unabashedly celebrated the secularization process then underway in these territories, inaugurated by the Soviet authorities working in tandem with local communists and fellow-travelers. The struggle against religious tradition was not restricted to gender integration and secular education in school reform, but extended to the public sphere and culture in general.  “Illiteracy, not only of children but of adults, has been greatly reduced,” wrote Hughes, enthusiastically. “The cells of the madrases are empty, and the schools of the state are overcrowded. Already to the youth today, Allah is only a legend and the Koran is forgotten. Marx, Lenin, chemistry, economics, mathematics, scientific agriculture, electricity, and hygiene are new realities to millions who once knew only the sleepy teachings of priestcraft” (33).

Such talk would likely get one branded an Orientalist or Islamophobe by Marxists writing in recent years. According to Houria Bouteldja and the indigènes of France, religion is not the opiate of the masses but rather an authentic expression of non-Western ways of life. Worldviews rooted in atheistic materialism are imports of the decadent, liberal, bourgeois West. Downtrodden peoples living along the periphery cannot be expected to live without the comforting illusions of religious ritual. Perhaps Hughes was simply unaware of radical cultural difference, irreducible Otherness, and similar French theoretical nonsense. Now, thank G-d, we know better than those naïve revolutionaries of the past.

But Hughes had a more immediate reason for associating faith and religiosity with oppression. Citing Mencken — i.e.,  “America’s lovable literary buffoon” — he notes that “Across the water, on the mainland, the god worshipers are legion. Mencken…calls the South ‘The Bible Belt’ because there are so many churches, preachers, and prayers there. Yet it is in this same Bible Belt that hundreds of Negroes are lynched, race riots are organized, peonage and chain gangs and forced labor of all forms are found, women are exploited in the cotton mills, and farces of justice like the Scottsboro trial are staged” (27).

Langston Hughes, women in yashmaks in Tashkent (Central Asia), as all were before the Soviet revolution. The majority are now unveiled

Little wonder, then, that Marx’s 1875 program “to liberate conscience from the witchery of religion” would appeal to someone like Hughes. He poetically recalls,

In industrial cities in the Northern Unites States, hundreds of thousands of black and white workers walk the streets hungry and unemployed in the shadows of skyscrapers… And in the churches, the bosses pray, and the ministers are one in denouncing communism — and calling on God — like the mullahs of Bukhara when the Emir ruled. I walk through the streets past crumbling walls of sun-dried brick, beneath empty towers and minarets beside palaces and mosques. I remember how, as a boy in far-away Kansas, I dreamed of seeing this fabulous city… And now here I am, traveling with a Soviet newspaper, seeing for myself all the dusty and wonderful horrors that monarchy and religion created in the dark past, which have now been vanquished by socialism. (28)

What impressed Hughes the most, however, was the liberation of women brought about by the Bolsheviks. And not just Russian ones, either, but partisans hailing from every Soviet republic. Following the Emir’s overthrow, he explains, came “an opening of doors to women and the death of Allah…Now the brass bed of the Emir still stands in the summer palace, but his wives are free from the harem, and the whole estate is shortly to become a rest-home for the workers of the sovkhozes. Peasants will sleep where they could not enter before, and women will stroll unveiled beneath the grape arbors where once they walked only in paranjas guarded by eunuchs” (25). Continue reading

A singular deception: Socialism and “singularity”

Michael Rectenwald
Insurgent Notes
November 2013

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By definition, a singularity is something utterly peculiar unto itself, a species of being unmatched for its “this-ness.” The term has found usage in a number of domains, most significantly in physics, where a singularity defines a condition of mass whose volume is approaching zero as a function of its density approaching infinity. Cases of singularities or near singularities include black holes and the singularity that preceded the Big Bang.

The singularity is the topic of a recent book on Marxism by Luca Basso — Marx and Singularity (2008), which is an attempt to understand Marx’s thought from the early writings through the Grundrisse in terms of the search for individual realization. Others too, such as Bruno Gullì (Labor of Fire, 2005), have worked in part to correct the errant notion that Marxism is predicated on an undifferentiated mass subject, rather than a fully articulated, fully realized (social) individual, a singularity.

But I am using “singularity” in yet another sense, to refer to the technological singularity, the hypothetical, near-future point at which machine intelligence will presumably supersede human intelligence, and when an intelligence explosion will commence. Inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, whose books include The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), The Singularity Is Near (2005), and How to Create a Mind (2012), heralds the singularity in the technological sense.

Lebbeus Woods, Einstein's Tomb (1980)

In this singularity, a prospect predicted and also advocated by “Singulartarians” like Kurzweil, the future is as fabulous as science fiction might have it. In the short term, regular genetic check-ups to scan for “programming errors” in gene sequencing, and gene therapy, would be common, as would the merging of human brains and computer prostheses. But soon thereafter, nanorobots would clean up the environment, removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, recreating a green planet, and reversing global warming. Micro-robots would also course through the human bloodstream, removing waste (and a distasteful process), killing pathogens, eliminating cancer cells, repairing genetic codes, and reversing aging. Computer chips, implanted in the brain, would increase memory by a million-fold. By 2029, technologists will have successfully reverse-engineered the brain and replicated human intelligence in (strong) artificial intelligence (AI), while vastly increasing processing speeds of “thought.” Continue reading

Nikolai Bukharin on the life of A.A. Bogdanov

Eulogy for a Bolshevik

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Image: Bogdanov plays chess with Lenin
at Capri, as Maksim Gorkii looks on (1909)

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What follows is an introduction to and translation of a eulogy Nikolai Bukharin delivered upon the death by Evgeni Pavlov originally published in the
Platypus Review. Evgeni had already translated the piece, but I solicited it for publication in the PR. As such, it represents one of my last contributions to the organization’s activities and publications, unless perhaps further transcriptions appear of events I helped put together.

Introduction

Evgeni V. Pavlov

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Nikolai Bukharin opens his “Personal Confession,” written on June 2, 1937, with a list of his “general theoretical anti-Leninist views.”[1] The first item on the list is his “lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialectics with the so-called theory of equilibrium.” To explain this lack of understanding, Bukharin continues: “[I] was under the influence of A. Bogdanov, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism — simply put, theoretical confusion — where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions.”[2] This formulation is revealing in many ways. Bukharin’s renunciation of Bogdanov must be understood in light of the connection between the two. That Bogdanov’s ideas and his very person were influential in Bukharin’s intellectual development is difficult, even impossible, to deny. However, the level of this influence, the amount of alleged “borrowings” and the independence of Bukharin’s own theorizations are up for debate. An additional difficulty arises out of the use that the persecutors of Bukharin made of this relationship in order to discredit his ideas and political positions.

Aleksandr Bogdanov photographed in 1904, while still a close collaborator with Lenin

Aleksandr Bogdanov photographed in 1904, while still a close collaborator with Lenin

The year of Bogdanov’s death — 1928 — was an eventful year in Bukharin’s political life. The fifteenth Party Congress finished its work in December 1927, and the discussions about industrialization and collectivization were heated and fraught with factional conflicts. The grain shortage and the failures in foreign policy greatly contributed to the combative nature of the discussions. On the domestic front, the infamous Shakhty “conspiracy” went from the initial preparatory stages, characterized by intense internal discussions in the Party leadership, to the frenzy of the media’s coverage of the disastrous show trial that took place between May 18 and July 6. In July Bukharin negotiated with Kamenev about a possible opposition against Stalinist hard-liners.[3] In September he penned “Notes of an Economist” for Pravda in which he denounced plans for accelerated industrialization, emphasizing the need to “balance” various aspects of a complex economic system.[4] The political maneuvers by Bukharin and his supporters, attempting to use the Moscow Party Committee in their struggle, ended in defeat with the Central Committee’s condemnation in October 1928. The next month, Bukharin’s views were attacked at the Plenum of the Central Committee, and again in December 1928 at the eighth Congress of Professional Unions. At the joint meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Control Committee in January 1929, Stalin delivered his infamous speech — “Bukharin’s Group and the Rightist Deviation in Our Party.” Continue reading