Freud and the October Revolution

There are men of action, unshakable in their convictions, inaccessible to doubt, without feeling for the sufferings of others if they stand in the way of their intentions. We have to thank men of this kind for the fact that the tremendous experiment of producing a new order of this kind is now actually being carried out in Russia. At a time when the great nations announce that they expect salvation only from the maintenance of Christian piety, the revolution in Russia – in spite of all its disagreeable details – seems none the less like a message of a better future. Unluckily neither our scepticism nor the fanatical faith of the other side gives a hint as to how the experiment will turn out. The future will tell us… Freud Theory of a Weltanschauung (1932)

Though Marx and Freud first encountered each other in the 1920s the parties of the Third International were largely indifferent to Freudianism. If there was a position, psychoanalysis was generally regarded as bourgeois, incompatible with both Marxism and scientific materialism. This jaundiced portrait of Freud pre-dated Stalinism’s rise and Hitler’s triumph which prompted the flight of psychoanalysis to North America in the 1930s though Freud, a lifelong Anglophile, fled to London where he died only months after his arrival in September 1939.

As early as the 1920s some ‘left’ Freudians argued psychoanalysis was relevant to the class struggle. The most important practical effort to unite Marx and Freud was the ‘Sex-Pol’ movement led by Wilhelm Reich that delivered therapy and advice on various sexual questions to the Viennese working class using ‘free clinics’ throughout the city, in streets and parks. Initially Freud encouraged Reich in a city, Rote Wien (Red Vienna), where Social Democracy governed after the empire’s collapse in 1918 until 1934.

The Social Democrats introduced an ambitious public health policy and Freud grasped an opportunity to make psychoanalysis more widely available. Significantly, 1918 was the highpoint of Freud’s enthusiasm for training lay therapists to deliver therapy to far greater numbers than hitherto, a position promoted in his keynote speech to the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) congress in Budapest that year. In 1919, Freud’s close colleague Sandor Ferenczi occupied the first university chair created anywhere for psychoanalysis at Budapest University during the short-lived Hungarian ‘Commune’ government led by Bela Kun. When the ‘Commune’ fell 133 days later, Ferenczi was fortunate to escape the ferocious White reaction with his life.

Despite a popular prejudice psychoanalysis had never been solipsistic about the social factors (morals and inhibitions) that shaped sexuality creating neuroses and anxiety. Before 1914 Freud had acknowledged the impact of excessive repressive inhibitions and the limited prophylactic import of individual therapy. But Freud had also believed the repression of sexuality was a necessary presupposition of ‘civilisation’ – a quietist position that the more radical generation of psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel quarrelled with.

Aside from the union of Marx and Freud pursued by the Institute of Social Research (or ‘Frankfurt School’) founded by the wealthy “salon Bolshevik” Felix Weil in 1923 and consummated by Max Horkheimer (the school’s third director) and his brilliant friend and ally Theodor Adorno, the most significant impact of Freud on German socialism happened when Reich moved from Austria to Berlin in 1930. The following year Reich launched ‘Sex-Pol’ at congress in Dusseldorf when eight sexual reform organisations representing 20,000 members joined an umbrella front led by the KPD called the German Association of Proletarian Sex-Politics (GAPSP). The seven-point programme of ‘Sex-Pol’ drafted by Reich included demands for the free distribution of contraception, advice on birth control, free abortion on demand, abolition of legal distinctions between married and unmarried, establishment of therapeutic clinics, the elimination of prostitution by assaulting its material economic basis, provision of sex education, training medical staff to deliver sexual hygiene, treatment for sexual offences and the protection of children against “adult seduction” (Sharaf 1983: 162-63).


‘Sex-Pol’ represented a final flourish of Weimar’s hothouse climate and the sexual radicalism unleashed by the 1917 October Revolution. In the Soviet Union the tide was already turning as Stalin’s breakneck industrialisation inaugurated a second, rebarbative cultural revolution when millions of conservative, superstitious peasants were sucked into the cities. Inevitably, a rapprochement of Freud and Marx could not survive Stalin and Hitler. Indeed, Reich’s devastating criticism of the KPD’s bankrupt political strategy for combating fascism and the party functionaries’ growing hostility to any overt form of sexual politics eventually led to Reich’s expulsion from the KPD after the party was outlawed. A year later in 1934, a ‘stateless’ Reich was also expelled from the IPA and probably with Freud’s blessing.

Evidently Freud had concluded psychoanalysis and Marxism were incompatible, though he observed the social experiment in the Soviet Union with great interest. In fact, Freud’s scepticism towards Marxism was really directed at Bolshevism rather than Austrian Social Democracy (though Freud was not a supporter of the party’s left wing). Neither did Freud’s hostility to Bolshevism lack justification given the repression of his Soviet followers. Even so Freud’s scepticism toward Marxism and the possibility of remoulding ‘human nature’ was longstanding, if more ambivalent than is usually appreciated. Freud viewed the scientific enterprise in the spirit of the radical Enlightenment. Before the war Freud had sparred with the socialist psychoanalyst Alfred Adler who among his many sins suggested Freud’s Oedipus Complex was not ‘universal’ but historically contingent, a view that would subsequently be a staple of leftist critiques of Freud’s ‘conservatism’. Adler, who broke with Freud, was the original revisionist in the House of Freud. Interestingly, Freud’s connections with Social Democracy were extensive including treating Irma Bauer (the famous ‘Dora’ – an early therapeutic failure of Freud’s), the sister of the left wing’s leader, Otto Bauer. Freud was a close friend of a number of prominent socialist politicians including Victor Adler who died the day the war ended (Freud’s home and clinic had been Adler’s boyhood home) and Heinrich Braun, a schoolboy friend. After Braun’s death in 1926 Freud wrote to his old school friend’s widow:

At the Gymnasium we were inseparable friends… He awakened a multitude of revolutionary trends in me… Neither the goals or the means for our ambitions were very clear to us… But one thing was cetain: that I would work with him and that I could never desert his party.

(Freud quoted in Danto 2005: 26-27)

Some of Freud’s closest colleagues were socialists like Ferenczi while the fierce antisemitism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire reinforced Freud’s cynicism about politics but also insulated him against conservatism (antisemitic in all its currents). Elizabeth Ann Danto views Freud as a radical reformer and points to the 1918 Fifth Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Budapest as the highpoint of Freud’s social conscience. In the keynote speech referred to above, Freud favourably invoked secular progress, the social responsibility of psychoanalysis, the importance of attacking inequality and ensuring therapy was universally available while adding:

It is possible to foresee the conscience of society will awake, and remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis, and can be left as little as the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community. The institutions and out-patient clinics will be started, to which analytically trained physicians will be appointed so that men who would otherwise give way to drink, women who have nearly succumbed under the burden of their privations, children for whom there is no choice but running wild or neurosis, may be capable, by analysis, of resistance and efficient work. Such treatments will be free.

(Freud’s speech quoted in Danto 2005: 17).

Freud evidently saw an opportunity to extend the reach of psychoanalysis to the working class and poor through an alliance with Vienna’s Social Democrats. In this Freud first proposed free clinics, free treatment for the working class and poor of the city and the introduction of psychoanalytically trained lay therapists.

On the other hand, by 1932 Freud’s curiosity about the Soviet experiment had given way to the pronouncement that “theoretical Marxism, as realised in Russian Bolshevism, has acquired the energy and self-contained exclusive character of a Weltanschauung, but at the same time an uncanny likeness to what it is fighting against” – after psychoanalysis had been persecuted out of existence in the Soviet Union after a promising beginning in the early 1920s. The persecution of psychoanalysis would prove to be a major source of friction between Freud and Reich from the late 1920s onwards (Freud 1983: 216-17).