In just the last few years, the once radical left has gone fully mainstream trading esoteric academic journals for six-figure book deals, front page headlines, and, in some kind of punchline to a cosmic joke, regular editorials in Teen Vogue. Critics often blame this on Marxism, an ideology smuggled out of universities, they say, inside the minds of a whole generation of students, and now let loose in our institutions. But this seems to me a false lead. These days, the most pernicious ideas on the left owe little to Marx, and almost everything to a rather different thinker: Sigmund Freud.
It was Freud, after all, who popularised and promoted the notion of the human unconscious. While hardly an original idea (Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that our minds work against us in ways we don’t fully understand, and peppered his plays with self-deceiving fools) Freud treated the unconscious as a scientific concept, independent of and ultimately more important than the conscious mind, and claimed that it could be analysed, and best understood, by trained experts. The bubbles that the unconscious occasionally sends to the surface – symbolic dreams, slips of the tongue, strange mannerisms – can be decoded, he claimed, to reveal something more truthful about us than our day-to-day intentions and deeds: what, deep down, is really going on in our heads.
This has shaped much of the way the left thinks today, pivoting it away from its traditional concern with material inequalities and adopting instead various forms of psychological speculation and guesswork. Think, for instance, of the main premise of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility – that racism exists not just in explicit, outward forms of abuse, nor impersonal, structural problems like pay gaps, but does its dirtiest work behind the scenes, conspiring, unseen, in the backrooms and secret passages of every white person’s mind, covertly influencing their every thought. Of course, few of us are aware, at a conscious level, of our deep-set prejudices, and many well-intentioned white people baulk at the idea they are racist – as DiAngelo says, “defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep” – but the enlightened analysts, with their privileged insights into the depraved depths of the human mind, know best.
Versions of this Freudian principle – that your surface behaviours are a lie, and that we experts know better what you’re really thinking –have cropped up everywhere. Take the notion of microaggressions: unintended slights that supposedly reveal some deep, latent prejudice. Or the idea that dissenting voices can simply be explained away with “internalised racism” or “internalised sexism”. Even ostensibly commendable behaviour is often said really to be masking something ghastly — as Mikki Kendall wrote in “Hood Feminism”, “politeness as filtered through fragility and supremacy isn’t about manners; it’s about a methodology of controlling the conversation”. No matter how innocent you think you are, the unconscious always leaves its grubby fingerprints behind.
But many of the claims made by the modern Freudian left, once you strip them of their conspiratorial allure, turn out actually to be incredibly banal – we’ve long known, for instance, that humans do hurtful, thoughtless and insensitive things, often without realising it, and we’ve long had the vocabulary to describe them: being condescending, rude, inconsiderate, exploitative, or discriminatory. But the thrill, evidently, is in treating these things as somehow systematic – as scientifically identifiable hallmarks of a corrupt mindset. When we reclassify an insensitive remark as, for instance, a transphobic or ableist remark, we’re no longer treating it simply as a surface-level mistake made by a flawed individual, but as a symptom of some underlying pathology – one that should be studied and, if possible, rooted out.
Is this really ‘Freudian’?
It’s probably worth staving off at this point the riposte that little of this is strictly “Freudian”, in the basic sense that Sigmund himself did not make, and would likely not have condoned, these precise arguments. This is, of course, true. As Christopher Lasch pointed out in an essay on the “Freudian Left” in 1981, the marriage between Freud and left-wing politics has always been an odd one: “Freud puts more stress on human limitations than human potential, he has no faith in social progress, and he insists that civilization is founded on repression. There isn’t much here, at first glance, that would commend itself to reformers or revolutionaries”.
But what matters, from a historical perspective, is not so much what Freud himself thought, but how these ideas were interpreted and repurposed by those on the left. Many thinkers were evidently drawn to the powerful promise of being able to unmask, as Paul Ricoeur put it, “the lies and illusions of consciousness” – to show that we are held back from our inevitable utopian future not simply by external economic forces, but by something within: our own minds. Freud, as Lasch put it, “shows how society enters and deforms the individual psyche: not through indoctrination or cultural ‘conditioning’, but through the deeper mechanisms of repression and sublimation”. Only by understanding, and breaking, the endless feedback loop between the damaged psyche – which fashions society in its image – and the damaged society, which fashions the psyche in its image, can we ever hope to make genuine social progress.
Freud’s ideas were integrated into left-wing thought as early as the 1920s by György Lukács, and in greater depth, in the following decade, by Wilhelm Reich. But it was really with the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School – among them Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm – that they hit the big time. The Institute for Social Research and the Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute shared the same building and lecture rooms, and Fromm, for instance, was a member of both.
Theodor Adorno drew extensively on Freudian psychoanalysis, claiming to unmask the various psychological mechanisms by which man reconciles himself to the “sickness” of modern capitalist society (one rather notorious example he gave was the supposed self-enforced enjoyment of pop music, which Adorno saw as a way of transforming “the external order to which [men] are subservient into an internal order”). Herbert Marcuse, for his part, was preoccupied with the Freudian idea of repression, something he explored at length in Eros and Civilization, in which he argued that the true struggle of history was not one of class, but a fight against the stifling of our instincts, especially our sexual instincts. In this sense, he represented perhaps the most influential thinker of his time – heralding the left’s shift away from class-based politics towards an “emancipatory” form of social criticism.
Like Freud, many of these thinkers would probably scoff at of some of the ideas being thrown around in their names today – the psychoanalytic feminist Julia Kristeva, indeed, who absorbed Freudianism via the work of Jacques Lacan, recently said: “Many of our American colleagues have taken what we proposed and have simplified it, caricatured it and made it politically correct. I can no longer recognize myself.” But then political philosophy rarely remains as sharp and well defined as it seems when its smartest proponents first present it, and instead gets worn down over time by an endless tide of loosely affiliated followers who absorb and regurgitate, half-understood, the general gist of the argument.
And it is this blunt form of Freudian leftism we see everywhere today: from the fixation on linguistic minutiae – the idea, for instance, that we should use the words womyn or womxn rather than woman – to the mainstream assumption that those on the right are always driven by greed or sadism. Old-school Marxists at least believed the main problem was economic self-interest: that the elites would always seek to exploit workers for their own economic gain.
Simplistic as this narrative was, it at least placed the blame on a kind of universal human nature: anyone, finding themselves in a position of economic power, would seek to preserve their position by whatever means. The Freudian leftist today, on the other hand, encourages us always to suspect a unique sinfulness about our opponents: that they are driven by impure motives, while we are morally clean.
This is a dangerous game to play and one, I believe, that ultimately makes genuine social progress less likely. Which is the strange thing about Freudian leftism: for an ideology so preoccupied with understanding the human mind, it’s remarkably blind to basic psychology. Telling us that our surface intentions and good deeds pale in significance to the endless unconscious evils of which we’re supposedly guilty doesn’t make for a more harmonious society – it makes us paranoid, distrustful, and cold: encouraging us not to make small, meaningful, loving, charitable gestures, but instead always to suspect each other of malice and prejudice.
And perhaps more importantly, it simply isn’t true: we know, in our day-to-day lives, that people are complicated and flawed, and that they ought to be measured, ultimately, by their character and actions. Anyone who genuinely thinks the conspiratorial workings of the unconscious mind are somehow more important than either of these probably needs to drop the theory and start seeing the human once again.
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