This article may be best introduced autobiographically, since the general project it touches, the relationship between psychoanalytic and political theory, isn’t one that I think has often been very fruitfully pursued from the point of view in which I am interested, and may seem unpromising at the outset.footnote The autobiographical point is this: I have regarded myself for many years as a socialist. For a lesser number of years I have also been considerably influenced by psychoanalytic ideas of a largely Kleinian kind, through reading, through a personal analysis, and through a continuing acquaintance with my wife’s work as a psychotherapist. The issue is, what if any is the relationship between these two powerful perspectives? Are they compatible or not? Do they tend in the same or in inconsistent directions? This issue perhaps has a more than personal interest. It might be relevant to the purposes of Kleinian psychoanalysis to clarify what implications its ideas might have for the wider society in which it is practised. It might also be relevant to the purposes of a socialist view of society to take into account the insights that psychoanalysis can provide into the human needs which socialist political ideas purport to meet. For a long time, my feeling and experience was that these two ‘systems of ideas’, which are also ‘structures of feeling’ in Raymond Williams’s phrase, were in tension with one another. The stress in analytical work on the processes of one’s own mind and feelings, and the insistence in Kleinian work on the individual’s taking responsibility for his emotions undermine certain forms of political commitment and action. This tends of its nature to attribute agency and responsibility in a collective way, and to generate as its normal response to perceived wrongs, activity that is external in its objectives, if open to other interpretations as to its inner motivation. Such externalization of feelings can become frenetic, and one’s experience be deeply structured by a split between the idealization of the project of change and denunciation of the many evils of the present. Such powerful preconceptions are not infallible guides to realistic understanding and action. This is a frame of mind in which the events described by the morning newspapers can produce almost daily indignation and the impulse to take part in activities—meetings, demonstrations, magazines—that respond to these. The patient work of mastering the detail of a field of understanding, or even the apparently less demanding detail of maintaining an organizational form which can achieve specific ends, can be casualties of such an impassioned activism. My immediate experience was that without this ever being a matter of conscious decision, the period of my greatest involvement with psychoanalytic experience was also a period of withdrawal from political activity, partly due simply to time and preoccupation, but also to a rather subtle and gradual change in the direction of one’s feelings and in one’s definition of problems. There might be various ways of reading such an experience.

From the invididual case one might suggest, with accuracy, an instance of a shift from youthful radical politics, in which the solidarities of the generational group have precedence and personal difficulties could be submerged in activities of various kinds, to a more conventional later phase of family relationship and professional work in which their disruptive effects were more threatening, insistent and demanding of attention. There is also a more general psychoanalytical perception of political activity as such, as inevitably representing displacements and projections of inner feelings. Idealistic political commitments are seen in this view as irrational, to a greater or lesser degree, and as diverting attention away from the more fundamental problems of individual maturity. Such a concentration on the personal at the expense of the political, a psychoanalytical project of change which has individuals as its exclusive objects, seems to me to be the dominant perspective in the psychoanalytic culture, in the Kleinian tradition as much as in others. Its privatization of experience and reluctance to seek connections between personal and wider social issues, are major reasons for the distance and latent hostility between the psychoanalytical and socialist modes of thought.

This article, however, takes a different and more positive view of the connections between the personal and the political. The exploration of these links, by feminists among others, has been a positive feature of recent politics on the left, and is in any case clearly consonant with a much wider shift of emphasis in advanced societies from economic to cultural and social forms of deprivation. Socialists need to recover some deep and grounded view of the meaning of human life and to this an understanding of their own experiences is highly relevant. If socialists are to be again recognized as having some far-sighted grasp of the future direction of their society, it will not come only through their political courage and militancy, important as these qualities will remain in these regressive times. It will depend also on their understanding of a capacity to live by meanings and values clearly more civilized, sociable and altruistic than their antagonists’, and more equal to the difficulties of life. It is for this reason that this article addresses itself to Kleinian psychoanalytic ideas, as an exploration of areas of experience to which most socialist thought has been closed.

We should perhaps establish first that all political theories in principle need to assume some view of human need and relationship: we might say as ‘building blocks’ from which models of natural or desirable social arrangements can be made. Conservative political theory of a traditionalist type has characteristically given great importance to the family and to other primary groups (based on locality or common culture for example) as sources of social stability and continuity. Such theories assert the value of traditional moral beliefs per se, and since the heritage of these has been religious it is natural that the assumptions about family life, and the obligations of individuals towards society held by traditionalists, tend to be religious in conception and sanction. It is evident today that the strongest ideological and institutional source for those who defend traditional structures of familial and social authority remain religious. Religiously-inspired defences of family authority and sexual restriction have been important elements in the development of the New Right in Britain and especially in the United States and have encouraged a generally repressive moral climate. These movements have identified real anxieties, however little one may like their definition of them. Conservative traditionalists tend to be somewhat opposed to scientific and rationalistic procedures being applied to established beliefs and patterns of behaviour, as naturally tending to challenge established bases of authority. Furthermore Freud himself engaged in one of the most influential reinterpretations of the nature and function of religious belief from a scientific and humanist standpoint, which provides of course a continuing challenge to the legitimacy of religion. For these reasons, the comparability of traditionalist approaches to fundamental questions of human nature and needs, and those of psychoanalysis, is not great—even where the human needs posited or asserted by psychoanalysts may be unexpectedly congruent with the assertions of some religious traditions.

It should be added that the development of conservative political ideas in sociological theory has shared the traditionalist concern with socialization as a key mechanism in the maintenance of social and individual order, the primary moral object of these theories. In its most elaborate form, the writings of Talcott Parsons, substantial use is made of the ideas of Freud in order to explain how social roles and conceptions of society become deeply and affectively internalized through familial experience. Parsons’s use of Freud’s ideas has been criticised for its undue emphasis on a supposed natural integration of the individual into his social group, and for his disavowal of tension and conflict as unnatural and unhealthy. Nevertheless, his awareness of the specifically lengthy and elaborate process of intellectual and emotional development which the modern family, especially the middle-class family, is ‘designed’ to support, and his use of psychodynamic ideas to understand this, are important to our subsequent argument. The functionalist sociologists have in effect transposed a conservative ethic, committed to the values of stability, tradition, differentiation and hierarchy, onto a liberal democratic society, and have in this way been able to make use of modern sociological and psychodynamic theories of socialization to support their view. Later writers such as Daniel Bell, responding to a supposed crisis of excessive personal, economic and political demands in contemporary capitalism, have further posited the imperative need for religious belief as a means of ‘containing’ excessive and disordered wants. A number of writers, including Rieff and Lasch, criticized the misuse of psychoanalytic ideas as legitimations of excessive hedonism and individualism. In this connection, though more recently, Christopher Lasch has taken note of the different orientation of Kleinian approaches, in his article in nlr 129.

Conservative and socialist theories have both in their different ways stressed humanity’s social nature—an absolute dependence on social life and on its moral and cultural traditions, for identity, existence and a sense of meaning. Liberal individualist theories have on the contrary adopted an opposite starting point, the idea of the free and independent individual for whom relations with others are undertaken on the basis of mutual advantage. In liberal theory the spheres of politics and economics become defined as instruments for meeting and reconciling the aggregate of individual desires through the mechanisms of the market and the ballot box. While running against the utilitarianism of the impersonal interests reflected in the demands of markets and bureaucracies, there are cultural definitions of personal fulfilment—Romanticism in its many forms—which become carriers of personal meaning even while being relatively excluded from the dominant political discourse. As Charles Taylor has recently put it. ‘Modern society, we might say, is Romantic in its private and imaginative life, and utilitarian or instrumentalist in its public, effective life’.footnote1

Liberal political theory’s lack of interest in the actual content of human wants, and in any notion of man as having fundamentally social rather than merely hedonistic needs, has made it indifferent or hostile to psychoanalytic ideas, except in so far as Freud could himself be regarded as providing a pessimistic endorsement and extension of the ideas that man is fundamentally a creature of insatiable individual desires. But the attraction of psychoanalysis to liberals from that point of view has been more than counterbalanced by the scientism of liberal theory, for example in the work of such key proponents as Karl Popper, and by a consequent hostility to the Romanticist and imaginative procedures always central to psychoanalytic work. Furthermore, behavioural psychology and psychiatry, a successful professional rival to psychodynamic ideas, are closely congruent with the instrumentalist assumptions of liberal utilitarian theory, and can indeed be understood as attempting to provide a psychological technology for it, whereby criminals and deviants may be scientifically rewarded and sanctioned into conformity to the needs of the majority. The influence of psychoanalytic work in English liberal culture has been characteristically most strongly felt in the field of aesthetics, where positivist theory has had least to say and where therefore Romantic concerns have more easily held their own.footnote2