Both the strengths of the New Left’s critique of domination and its underlying weaknesses reveal themselves, with particular sharpness and clarity, in the attraction of the New Left to an intellectual tradition seemingly resistant to radical reinterpretation yet essential, it turned out, to the new theory of revolution—the theory of cultural revolution—that haunted the imagination of the sixties. What brought about this improbable alliance of psychoanalysis and cultural radicalism, of Freud and Marx? We seem to have here a remarkable instance of the attraction of opposites. Freud puts more stress on human limitations than on 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—and in the last analysis, the theorists of the Freudian left in one way or another have had to get around or explain away the deterministic, tragic side of Freud’s thought, which has more in common with St. Augustine and Calvin than with Marx. Why then did the left bother with psychoanalysis in the first place?

The reasons lie in the political events of the twenties and early thirties. The failure of a socialist revolution to materialize out of the chaos of World War I, when all the objective conditions in Central and Western Europe seemed conducive to a turn to the left, prompted investigations into the subjective conditions impeding social and political progress. The rise of fascism seemed to provide additional evidence of deep-seated psychological resistance to liberating change. It raised doubts about the inevitability of historical progress and about the adequacy of Marxist orthodoxy, which could find nothing more illuminating to say about fascism than that it represented the last phase of a decadent capitalism. The solidification of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union provided a further challenge to the myth of progress. Opponents of Stalinism had to ask themselves why the Russian Revolution, like so many revolutions in the past, had appeared to end in a regression to authoritarian rule. A kind of repetition-compulsion seemed to be at work in history: each attempt to get rid of authoritarianism succeeded only in reconstituting it on a new basis. Revolutions had evidently failed to attack authoritarianism at its psychological source. They had brought new classes to power without changing the underlying structure of power itself. They had modified institutions without breaking the pattern of domination and submission that underlay those institutions. In order to understand the self-defeating quality of past revolutions and to lay the psychological groundwork for a new kind of revolution that would put an end to domination once and for all, it was evidently imperative to understand the psychology of power; and psychoanalysis, it seemed, had more to say on this subject than any other theory of the mind.

For those who sought to grasp the underlying resistance to change that revealed itself even in movements ostensibly devoted to change, the attraction of Freud’s work lay in its attack on the illusion of psychic autonomy. Men need masters because they are not masters of themselves: this became the central contention of the Freudian left. Freud’s theory, in this view, provides the deepest glimpses into the divided self. 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. The conviction that unites thinkers as diverse as Herbert Marcuse, R. D. Laing and Jacques Lacan is that psychoanalysis traces the origin of intrapsychic conflict to the conditions under which social authority recreates itself in the unconscious mind, and specifically to the institution of the patriarchal family, which crushes the revolt of the son against the father, saddles the son with a guilty conscience, and makes him grow up to become a tyrant in his own right.

Much of this ground had been covered already in the thirties and forties by Wilhelm Reich, who might be called—except for the inappropriateness of patriarchal imagery in this context—the founding father of the Freudian left. At times the work of radical Freudians in our own time looks like a rehash of Reich. But even Reich had not gone far enough to suit his followers. According to Norman O. Brown, ‘Reich was right in arguing that to fulfill its own therapeutic promise, psychoanalysis has to envisage a social transformation. Reich was wrong in limiting the social transformation involved to the liberation of adult genital sexuality.’footnote1 Postwar thinkers agreed that the problem went deeper. The transformation of the polymorphous perversity of the infant into genital sexuality already reflected the triumph of the performance principle, as Marcuse called it, over the pleasure principle.footnote2 A social revolution which aimed to break the cycle of domination and rebellion could not stop with the creation of a more permissive sexual morality. A so-called sexual revolution that confined itself to genital pleasure could easily lend itself to new forms of domination, as Marcuse tried to show in his theory of ‘repressive desublimation’.footnote3 The events of the sixties and seventies have provided further support for his contention that a society organized around consumption can easily absorb movements demanding sexual freedom, enlisting them into the propaganda of commodities so as to surround consumption with an aura of libidinal gratification. As feminists have pointed out, the new sexual freedom has brought about no important changes in the distribution of power or in the sexual exploitation of women.

The cultural revolution, then—the program of deep structural change envisioned by the radical Freudian left—went far beyond a mere ‘sexual revolution.’ Its task, as these theorists saw it, was not to set aside more opportunities for erotic indulgence, as a momentary release from the demands of alienated labor, but to eroticize work itself. The point was not to enlarge the domain of leisure but to abolish the very distinction between work and leisure, to make work into play, and to get rid of the aggressive, domineering attitude toward nature that informs the present organization of work. It was partly in order to explain the origins of that attitude that theorists of the New Left turned to Freud. In other words, they turned to Freud for very good reasons. Unfortunately they brought with them a set of assumptions that owed more to the socialistic theory of the family (as Max Weber once called it) than to the founder of psychoanalysis.footnote4 Their attempt to base a general theory of culture on psychoanalysis, or to read psychoanalysis itself as a general theory of culture, led them further and further away from the critical core of psychoanalysis: its interpretation of clinical data. What began as a fruitful confrontation between psychoanalysis and Marxism ended in a reassimilation of psychoanalytic ideas to an older socialist critique of the patriarchal family—a critique that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the conditions of advanced industrial society, misleading at best, downright dangerous at worst.