Marxism and psychology - Karl Korsch

Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. 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.

Submitted by Ross Arctor on June 12, 2016

In face of the present defeat of the labor movement all over the world, militant workers feel an increasing need for reorientation. The principles of class struggle are subjected to a radical criticism. We plan to formulate and discuss typical trends of such criticism. The following is a characteristic reflection:

The theory of the old labor movement was rational and objectivistic, but the masses do not act according to their clearly intelligible economic needs. The ideologies and not the economic interests seem to be the determining factor in the minds of the masses. It is only realistic to recognize this fact and to create the propaganda and organizational forms which correspond to this knowledge. An inquiry into the real motives of mass conduct, with the objective of finding instruments to control and to guide this conduct, should therefore become a principal part of every theory of class struggle. Psychology seems to have been selected to complete and partly replace the “objective” knowledge Marxism has given us.

Despite their growing influence, a consistent theoretical formulation of these views does not yet exist in American radical literature. In Europe, because of the actual experience of fascism, we find many attempts to “complete” the Marxian theory of class struggle by “social psychology.” We take the theory of some exponents of the Freudian School as representative of this theoretical current, because the arguments they give are, so far, the most clearly and uncompromisingly formulated. Though our criticism will be confined to a specific theory, its conclusions extend to the general problem indicated.

For the theories we will discuss originate in these general reflections. They criticize official Marxism for regarding the development of class struggle as mechanically dependent on “economic necessities,” and for not sufficiently considering the importance of the subjective factor in history. It is necessary, writes Wilhelm Reich, one of the founders of the so-called Sex-Pol movement, to recognize the “ideologies as material power.” In 1932 at least thirty million Germans wanted socialism, nearly the whole country was anticapitalist, yet the victor was fascism, the savior of capitalism. “This is not a socioeconomic problem but one of mass psychology.” The “lack of understanding of the psychological factors involved” was one of the chief reasons why the German labor movement organizations were unable to resist fascism (Reuben Osborn). Analytic social psychology is therefore considered “essential to Marxists.” It will “raise the quality of revolutionary propaganda and put it on a scientific level.”

Analytic social psychology derives its fundamental conceptions and methods from the theory of human consciousness Freud developed as a working basis for his therapy of neuroses.

Freud’s genuine discovery concerns the “unconscious.” He found that underlying all consciousness is a large part of our mind of which we are unaware under ordinary circumstances. The unconscious contains all kinds of forbidden images and desires. The biological part of personality which expresses itself in the desires, Freud and the greater number of his disciples identify mainly with two drives, one of self-preservation, and the other, a broadly conceived sexual drive, the so-called “libido.” Every living being is dominated by the “pleasure principle.” He tends to achieve the maximum satisfaction of his impulses. The desires are irrational and amoral. They are not guided by the objective possibilities of fulfillment and have no conception of what is considered right or wrong in society. The “pleasure principle” thus clashes with the “reality principle” a conflict which makes it necessary to give up immediate gratification of the impulses in order to avoid pain.

In contrast to the drives for self-preservation which in the main can be delayed only for a relatively short time, the sexual impulses can be considerably postponed. They can be forced also into the unconscious (repression,) or their objectives can be substituted by other objectives on different spheres of reality (sublimation). While the self-preservation impulses need material means for satisfaction, the needs of what Freud calls the libido can be satisfied through the mechanism of sublimation, for instance by fantasy. The ruling class uses this mechanism in order to give the masses the kind of emotional satisfaction which is socially available. The faculty of the impulses to adapt themselves actively and passively to social conditions is the main concern of this sociopsychological theory. The adaptation is achieved by the rational and mainly conscious parts of the mind, which act as a kind of organizer of the personality.

Freud distinguishes a further aspect of the human mind which he calls the “superego.” This conception is one of the most ambiguous parts of his theory, but because it is considered especially important for our problem, we cannot avoid dealing with it here. Freud designates its function mainly as “moral consciousness and the creator of ideals.” The superego is regarded as the projection of social authority in the personality, as the introverted external force. The child who grows up in the family encounters the social force in the person of the father. His reason is not developed sufficiently for adaptation; it is not yet able to grasp rationally the possibilities of mastering the hindrances with which its desires conflict. The child erects in himself by identification with the parents an arbitrary authority which he adorns with the attributes of moral power, not subjected to rational judgments. Once the superego is established in the child’s personality, it will always be projected on the authorities dominating in society. Man will attribute to the authorities the quality of his own superego and in this manner will make them inaccessible to rational criticism. Thus he will believe in their wisdom and power in a measure totally independent of their actual qualities. The real or propagandized attributes of the authorities in their turn will determine by the same mechanism the content of the superego and become identified with it. Through this process of identification the psychoanalysts explain how religion, the state, leaders and the other social fetishes can have such a tremendous influence. They have the same function in the adult mind the father and mother had in childhood. And, as the helpless child’s fear of punishment was the decisive factor in the formation of the superego in that period, so the existence of direct social force is the decisive factor in the growth of the superego and its identification with social authority. The irrational commands of the superego would lose its power, the rational part of the human mind would easily triumph if the physical social force would cease to function.

As the function of the superego can be understood only by delving into the life history of the personality, the general structure of personality is, according to Freud, only understandable by an analysis of the development of instinctual life through which it normally proceeds in its adjustment with family and society. This is another phase of Freud’s theory which seems rather strange especially in the condensed form presented here. Only a reproduction of the clinical material would make manifest its empiric proof. The rough outlines of how the psychological forces are traced back to the individual’s childhood however, are clear enough. The infant first loves itself, then its parents. Freud characterizes its sexual structure in this second period with reference to King Oedipus, who loved and married his mother. After a stage of homosexuality, the development passes into the genital heterosexuality of the normal adult. But the child may not be sufficiently free of the ties to one of the infantile objects of his sexuality. Either his emotions can be fixated there, or because of unpleasant experiences in later life may regress to one of the earlier emotional states. Most psychoses and abnormal character traits are rooted in the recognition of emotional needs which are not permitted to enter consciousness. They all represent a retreat from reality. The method of psychoanalysis, with its delving into the life history of the patient makes conscious to him the unconscious causes of his neurosis and so helps him overcome it.

Because the main development of the instinctual life takes place in childhood, the research into the psychological structure of the family is one of the chief purposes of the theories discussed here. The roots of morals and religion in man are reduced to the influences of education. The metaphysical character of morals is thus dissolved. The whole ideology of society is reproduced in the child during its first four or five years. The family is understood as the psychological agency of society. It is the factory of ideologies.

The various forms of suppressing its emotional drives in the bourgeois family make the infant timid, susceptible to authority and obedient — in a word, it can be educated.

Through the family authoritarian society produces the authoritarian type of mind. It is the result of an incomplete development of emotional life and a weakness of rational power, both due to repressions in childhood typical of that form of society. The authoritarian attitude is characterized through its different reactions, depending on whether they are directed against a strong or weak individual. If personalities can be roughly divided into two types, of which one is principally aggressive toward those in power and sympathetic to the helpless, and the other is in sympathy with the rulers and aggressive to the oppressed, then the authoritarian type is an obvious representative of the latter. One of its characteristics is to suffer without complaint. But the authoritarian man is ambivalent; he loves and hates his gods simultaneously and thus often rebels blindly against the existing power. His irrational revolt, however, does not change his emotional structure or the structure of society. It merely substitutes a new authority for the old. The real revolutionary personality, as contrasted to the authoritarian type, is rational and open to reality; in other words, represents the full-grown adult who is not governed through a combination of fear of punishment and desire for approbation by paternal authority. His heroism lies in the changing of the material world — the heroism of the authoritarian type in submission to destiny.

The more the contradictions in society grow, the blinder and more uncontrollable the social forces become, the more catastrophes as war and unemployment overshadow the life of the individual, — the stronger and more widespread becomes the emotional structure of the authoritarian personality. Its final abolition is conceivable only in the eradication of the planlessness of social life and the creation of a society in which men order their life rationally and actively.

So the findings of the psychoanalysts show that the planlessness in economics produces and is reproduced by men whose psychic structures are also planless. They are bound and subjected to the ruling class through the unconscious and, therefore, uncontrollable emotional forces, and through the irrational power of the conventional creeds they erected in themselves. Only the diminishing of these irrational ties, the increasing of rationality — can strengthen the ability of men to change the social conditions. Only a kind of propaganda and organization takes this into account will be capable of achieving a real revolutionary effect. As long as the masses tolerate a propaganda made up of ideological slogans and revolutionary organizations built on blind loyalty to leaders, the level of class consciousness necessary for a radical change of the ruling order is not attained.


In considering the psychoanalysts’ description of the mind of the individual in capitalism, we see that their findings do not oppose the criticism of society given by the Marxian theory. Because a criticism of psychoanalysis itself is not our concern here, we restrict ourselves to a few remarks on this point. There is no doubt that the superego hypothesis meets many objections. It is sometimes unclear and inconsistent in Freud’s own presentation, but it contributes to the investigation in the psychological problem of authority.

The psychogenetic conception of man’s personality with its dissolution into a bundle of drives and its obvious simplifications of these drives is also open to criticism. These theoretical weaknesses are due to the fact that the basis of clinical observations on which psychoanalysis has been built is too narrow to interpret the complex human and social activities it undertakes to explain. The practical psychiatrist, in drawing his bold generalizations from a constricted field of observations, often simply extends the intellectual attitude he had toward his patient. This is made possible by the conditions of our society which present a picture similar to the abnormal case in psychiatry. This abnormality of society which the Freudians with their method of inquiry find reflected in the individual, is the subject of Marxian analysis.

However, the conclusions of the psychoanalytic theory as we developed them here are not accepted by the overwhelming majority of its adherents. Neither Freud nor most of his disciples maintain these viewpoints. Because they accept bourgeois society as permanent, they do not believe in the possibility of changing the objective force-relationships which, as we explained, are decisive factors for the existence of the emotional structure. They vacillate between a progressive bourgeois attitude of the nineteenth century and the misanthropic pessimism of modern authoritarian society. Freud himself, as well as many of his most renowned disciples, tends more and more to a nihilistic attitude. This is partly due to the constructive tendency of the psychoanalytic theory which allows numerous intellectual loopholes.

Yet a consistent interpretation of man’s emotional structure, on the basis of psychoanalysis, can only lead to a materialistic explanation of the individual in society. Erich Fromm justly criticizes the formalistic parallel Freud draws between the helplessness of the child in the family and the adult in face of social forces. This is not only a parallel but a complicated interconnection. It is not the biological helplessness of the small child which is the decisive factor in its specific need for a definite form of authority, but it is the social helplessness of the adult, determined by his economic situation, which molds the biological helplessness of the child and which thus influences the concrete form of the development of authority in the child. Only if the influences of the economic conditions on the libidinous impulses are sufficiently considered can the mental behavior of the individual be adequately interpreted.

A social psychology which, on this scientific basis, attempts to explain the socially relevant, common psychic structures of individuals in a group must be in accordance with the Marxian interpretation of society. The conformity of its results with the revolutionary criticism of society will not be due only to the general analogy between the neurotic person and our disorganized society. For, the larger the group considered, the more are the common life experiences of its members, from which it explains social behavior, identical with the socioeconomic situation which is the subject of the critical theory of society.

In this identity lies the strength of analytic social psychology and its crucial weakness. It is extremely questionable if the “results” achieved so far by this theory in explaining social behavior are really the outcome of its genuine research. It seems rather that the cart were put before the horse, that it is not social psychology which serves Marxian analysis but the latter which helps our psychology find its concrete conceptions. And in fact, the Marxian critical interpretation of the dehumanized existence of man under capitalism leads to a much more comprehensive understanding of the human traits and relationships which are decisive for the changing of society.

But how far removed has official Marxism become from this practical task! The Marxists and the Marxian psychoanalysts vie with each other in formalistic attempts to prove that the “methods” of their respective “sciences” are identically “dialectical.” They waste their time in ascertaining the “philosophical parallels between the materialist conception of history and the dynamic and genetic character of Freud’s understanding of the individual.” The symptom formation in neuroses is discovered as “dialectics of nature.” “The ego acts as a synthesizing agent.” The development of the libido is regarded as a “process in which the accretion of quantitative change sometimes yields suddenly to qualitative transformation.” How futile such discussions are, even from a limited scientific viewpoint, we will exemplify in one instance which Osborn greatly expatiated upon. He asks himself how the undialectical character of conscious representations are compatible with the “basically dialectical character of human thought.” As solution of the riddle, he proposes that the dreams, the undisturbed expression of the unconscious, form the dialectical opposite of the waking thought process. The rational agency in man strengthens the repression of the emotions by exaggerating the incompatibility of its dialectical tendencies with conscious standards. Because reality is usually unable to offer unconditional gratification of the impulses, man’s reason exaggerates the harshness of reality and represents it as rigid and unchanging in order to strengthen the repression of the drives.

Determining for the logical structure of our everyday thinking and for the distinction between primary and secondary qualities in natural sciences, is not our emotional mechanism but the necessity to order the stream of appearances of the outside world for the purpose of dominating it. This domination is further possible only on the basis of the adequacy of our conceptions and the objects we grasp through them. To explain the structure of these conceptions in terms of a reaction formation against man’s impulses is simply nonsense. The function of the structure of conceptions in natural sciences as well as in our daily life must be explained primarily in terms of the social purpose both have to fulfill.

We understand that the assurance of its “dialectical” character is the official state ticket for any “science” to be admitted in Russia. But also, outside of that country and its subjects here and elsewhere, such discussions reveal the degeneration of Marxism to academic concerns. We therefore do not wonder that John Strachey hails this part of Osborn’s exposition as “his most exciting theoretical discovery.”


The social psychoanalysts understand the practical function of their theory as a means of “activating the masses.” They want to help in the development of class consciousness by formulating and articulating the emotional needs of the masses. As they are especially concerned with the sexual needs, they maintain that it is particularly important to expose the reactionary social function of sexual morals and religion. By such propaganda they think they will be able to dissolve bourgeois ideologies, and thus undermine “one of the principal pillars of capitalism — the willingness of the masses to bear social suppression and exploitation.” The fate of the revolution is always decided by the broad “unpolitical” mass. The revolutionary energy emerges from every-day life. “Therefore,” they proclaim, “politicalize the private life, the market, movies, dance halls, Luna parks, bedrooms, bowling alleys, pool parlors!”

Although they admit that the socioeconomic relationships determine the structure of the mass impulses in the ultimate degree, the psychoanalysts believe that the actual revolutionizing of the masses must primarily concern itself with the ideological superstructure of society. They justify this opinion with their psychological knowledge of the class-stabilizing effect of the emotional ties which bind the masses to the dominant leaders and ideologies. They are convinced that the present trend to fascism empirically sustains their theory and actual proposals.

In liberal society the authority was veiled to the individual. His lack of freedom was hidden from him by his acceptance of the fetishes of prices, property and law relationships as natural forces. That was the false consciousness which Marx had in mind when he analyzed the role of fetishism in bourgeois economics. This disguise disappears more and more. The direct and brutal authority of the totalitarian state economies is the direction in which present society is moving. It took all the efforts of the Marxists to “unmask” as Lenin called it, the false consciousness, to show the fetishistic character of legal equality, of bourgeois democracy, of religion, and primarily of the commodity. Now, all these fetishes are falling, — the masses do not rush to the defense of “their” democracy, “their” equality before the law, “their” freedom of exchange on the market or before God, or even “their” political leaders! That, our psychoanalysts cannot understand! There must be something wrong with the Marxian theory, they reason, and this they believe to have discovered in the “economistic” tendency of official Marxism.

There is no doubt that various schools of contemporary Marxism have joined the ruling class in the fabrication of ideologies. The objectivist tendency in a certain direction of this Marxism is nothing but an expression of its ideological turning. But the psychoanalysts we discuss here are by no means justified in their objection because it is just their failure to recognize the workers’ basic economic dependence on the owners of the means of production which characterizes their views. The acceptance of this economic authority by the workers was the basic relationship of the liberal system as well as it is the basis of the totalitarian society. As long as the masses regard this authority in production as necessary, as long as they do not rebel against it, so long will the leadership of the ruling class remain unshaken. That the existence of irrational authoritarian ties is also a factor which strengthens the deeper economic relationship will not be denied. But to believe that now when the fabrication of ideologies is increasingly the product of centralized agencies with the most efficient technical means, to believe that just now the main effort must be placed on agitation in the sphere of the super-structure is to invite a tilt with windmills.

The present change in the socioeconomic structure brings about a condition in which the self-explanation and justification of the society becomes a conscious production, even in capitalism; and because the contradictions of capitalist production are intensified daily, the ideological rationalizations which disguise them become increasingly removed from reality. Just now, when the appearance seems more than ever to prove the decisive “material influence of the ideologies,” the decision is totally dependent on a change in the economic relationships. It is not only impossible but also unnecessary to fight the propaganda agencies of the totalitarian rulers with their own weapons. These ideologies will break down as rapidly as they are now accepted by the masses. Their inconsistency with reality will become openly apparent at the moment the masses are forced to face the material overthrow of society. More than ever must the critical theory concern itself with this fundamental material change. More than ever is this theory bound to the development of the consciousness of that class which holds the key positions in the mechanism of production. And the direction of this development is prescribed by the necessity of clearing up the very simple questions concerning these basic social relationships. The moment the workers take over the means of production, they will control also the production of propaganda. The production of ideologies will be replaced by the systematic and all-embracing rationale of public self-interpretation. The masses will work in common effort to develop and clarify the principles which will determine the production and organization of society.

The overemphasis of the sexual factor becomes especially apparent in the kind of propaganda the Sex-Pol movement proposes. But apart from that, the ineffectiveness of their attempt to tie a radical propaganda to the emotional needs of the masses is easily demonstrated by their own theory. This theory indicates that the special structure of the libidinous impulses which determine the attitude of the masses toward the authorities is wholly dependent on the social force these authorities represent. Thus they will always be capable of using the mechanism of repression and sublimation for their ends. This very faculty of the sexual impulses to adapt themselves to social conditions makes them much less fit to be used as a lever for revolutionary propaganda than self-preservation impulses. We certainly do not believe that the very complex problem of class consciousness can be adequately interpreted by a simplifying drive theory. But on the basis of such a formal division of man’s emotional life the hunger drive will be of much greater influence for any insurrection than the easily adaptable sexual impulse. Furthermore, the sociopsychological theory emphasizes the importance of childhood, especially of the first four or five years of life, for the development of the power of ideologies in man. If, therefore, the dissipation of ideologies in the masses must be a condition for the overthrow of society, the logical conclusion would be that we must first reform the family or, in other words, that we must revolutionize the kindergarten to effect a social revolution. This would be even worse than the old well-known social democratic illusion that the social revolution presupposes the “revolutionary man” who can only be the outcome of a long process of mass education.

The psychoanalysts’ proposal practically lead to a propaganda of substitute satisfactions for certain impulses which can be supplied within the framework of capitalist society. This political propaganda is not new. It has always been used in the old labor movement. Its fundamental ideas were the basis of the tremendous organizations for singing, hiking, dancing, gymnastic and all other purposes — except the earnest preparation of fighting capitalism — which nearly all the worker organizations in Germany engaged in before 1933. However, the real social function of this “revolutionary” education and its practical achievements became apparent in Hitler’s Kraft durch Freude [strength through joy].

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