‘Political Freud: A History’ reviewed by Chris Byron

Political Freud: A History

Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. 248pp., $35.00 / £24.00 hb
ISBN 9780231172448

Reviewed by Chris Byron

About the reviewer

Chris Byron recently defended his dissertation on a new reading of Marx’s theory of exploitation …


Those of us still attracted to the works of Freud, believing they can in some way help explain our current political predicament, and the widespread symptom of ideological thinking and deference to power, are often met with articles, op-eds, and even conversation of the sort that asks ‘wasn’t Freud wrong about everything?’ This knee-jerk discounting of Freud is critically scrutinized in Eli Zaretsky’s new book Political Freud: A History.

Zaretsky summarizes the theme of his book thusly: ‘In general, then, the book charts the rise and fall of political Freudianism. Each chapter highlights two seemingly antithetical movements: a critical movement when political thinkers and social movements looked to psychoanalysis to clarify the irrational sources of domination and an affirmative movement when Freudianism became submerged in a larger history and appeared to become obsolete’ (12). Throughout the book, Zaretsky is deftly able to consider the criticisms of those seeking to render Freud obsolete, and reveal how some level of Freudian psychoanalytic thought can account for this attempt to move beyond Freud.

Recognizing that Freudian psychoanalysis has become academically and clinically ‘obsolete’, due in large part to an American Hedonistic culture far more concerned with instant gratification and aiding the bottom line of pharmaceutical corporations, Zaretsky wants ‘to reaffirm the critical element in Freudianism’ through an exploration of five historical trends in the 20th century, which incorporated Freudian Psychoanalysis (or as Zaretsky calls it ‘political Freud’) both positively and negatively (4).

These five historical movements are broken into five chapters. The first explores the spirit of Capitalism, focusing on Weber, the protestant ethic, Marxist critiques of Capitalism, and political Freud. The second chapter explores ‘the racial unconscious and collective memory’ of African-Americans brutalized and exploited in American society. The third chapter focuses on the holocaust, and Freud’s writing of Moses, as a self-reflexive analysis of the fate of his own work. The fourth chapter focuses on the desire for war in America, and the fifth chapter focuses on the new left, feminism, post-modern thought, and social constructivism.

In the first chapter, on the spirit of Capitalism, Zaretsky argues that psychoanalysis played a dual role in resisting the protestant ethic and the ubiquitous nature of capital. On the positive side, psychoanalysis was able to liberate people from strong family ties, and imbue in them a sense of individual identity and a pursuit of individual goals. Thus, people could break away from the monotony and determinism of family life, where children must accomplish all the expectations of their parents or be ostracized. The downside (which reoccurs throughout all five chapters) was that the very practice of psychoanalysis ended up conforming to capitalist standards: it was profitable, main stream, and capable of finding, and securing, a place in academia and university life. Psychoanalysis channeled individuals with a new sense of identity into finding reward and gratification in fields of work dominated by capital. Critics of capitalism know capital has an inveterate ability to commodify and absorb any form of resistance.

The second chapter, which really stands out as arguably the best chapter, discusses racial unconscious from the perspective of Political Freud and African American literature, with W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neal Hurston, Ralph Waldo Ellison, and Richard Wright, being the focal points of analysis. Much ink is spilled analyzing Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s response to Black Boy, an auto-biographical novel which intricately portrays the development of a near schizophrenic black consciousness in the face of exploitation, racism and oppression. As readers of the book know, Richard, the main character, is constantly struggling with figuring out who he really is, who he really wants to be, and who society has already decided he is. This leads to stark changes in dialogue, verbal presentation, and character orientation, depending on who Richard is talking to, and how far along he is in his conscious development. Zaretsky scrutinizes all these authors with psychoanalytic cunning, but focuses heavily on Black Boy. However, there is a serious lacuna in this chapter, and that is Wright’s later novel The Outsider, which moves away from the younger Wright’s attraction to communism, racial politics, and psychoanalytic thinking, and moves into a Nietzschean existentialism. The main character, while sympathetic with the final end goals of communism and racial equality, refuses to identify with group mentality, and seeks to be as authentically individual as he can. One laments the lack of a psychoanalytic exploration of Wright’s literary, and personal, plate-tectonic shift.

For those actually working in the field of psychoanalysis, chapter three is worth a focused reading. Zaretsky argues that ‘Moses and Monotheism…should be read in two different but complementary ways. If, at one level, Freud was using psychoanalysis to illuminate the history of Judaism, at another he was using the history of Judaism to illuminate the history of psychoanalysis’ (83). In order to justify his thesis, Zaretsky correlates five moments in the development of psychoanalytic theory (e.g., Narcissism) with moments Freud analyzes in Jewish history.

As readers of Freud know, World War I, and the trauma returning soldier’s faced, caused Freud to radically redefine the life of the unconscious mind, focusing on an interplay between Eros and the death drive. Much of chapter four focuses on Melanie Klein, and Judith Butler, who are subjected to ample – and justified – criticism throughout the book. The question Zaretsky asks is whether Kleinian methods of thinking through war and trauma are helpful. He concludes that they are not.

The final chapter extends Zaretsky’s criticism of Butler, but also elements of the post-modern new left. Many of the more orthodox Marxist readers of this review will sympathize with Zaretesky’s project, watching Freud be perverted and bastardized by post-modern theory is often as grueling to witness as watching Marx suffer the same fate. The general attitude of the new left was that psychoanalysis was one more authoritarian discourse which in seeking to liberate people from repression, in a twisted logic, made them succumb to newer forms of compliance and heteronomy. The scope of this chapter is quite impressive, and it picks up on themes on economics from chapter one, race from chapter two, and explores the development on feminism in tandem with these earlier themes. This conjuncture of numerous social and political movements led to ‘New Leftists’ that felt ‘they had a choice in regard to psychoanalysis: to condemn it wholesale or to locate a critical strain within it’(161). Some leftist saw the ego as the problem, others focused realizing the inner self, and others sought to break away from all psychoanalytic schools of thought. According to Zaretsky, the interplay between various strains of the new left ended up merging into a Frankenstein version of Neo-Liberal narcissism, entirely capable of being transitioned into a capitalist productive and consumptive framework.

In the afterword Zaretesky recognizes that other forms of therapy may have better results in terms of treatment towards human wellbeing, but what psychoanalysis offers is an understanding of cultural production retaining remnants of unconscious memory. Psychoanalysis is more than just therapy, it is a way of understanding political crises, the human psyche, and cultural production. Unfortunately, these different, but conjoined projects have been completely untethered due to more mainstream forms of psychological therapy and post-modern philosophy. Zaretsky laments that ‘as one great slope of the psychoanalysis edifice disappeared into psychopharmacology and brain science, the other slid into identity politics and the Internet’ (194). Zaretsky rebukes this trend by arguing that if psychoanalysis was able to elucidate and critically analyze black resistance and literature, jingoistic war mentality, the repression of women throughout history, and a host of other forms of oppression, it is certainly a critical tool not worth giving up.

While much of the book is laudable, there is one aspect of contention I felt throughout each chapter, which diminishes Zaretsky’s final argument in the afterword. Zaretsky uses the term ‘Political Freud’ not exclusively in reference to Freud’s political side, or the political implications of Freud’s thought, but also in reference to the proper critical usage of psychoanalysis. These critical usages are often not Freud’s, instead they stem from people like Fromm, Marcuse, or Reich, but sometimes they are. This allows for a no true Scotsman defense of Freudian analysis, where if someone is not using Freud in a prudent critical-leftist sort of way, that person is not engaged in proper ‘Political Freud’ activity (e.g., Butler). Yes, psychoanalysis and the works of Freud are unquestionably helpful in explaining the five critical junctures Zaretsky focuses on, but to the degree that it is Freud that was helpful, versus someone else hospitable towards psychoanalysis, renders the designation of ‘Political Freud’ somewhat dubious. I do not think it is too contentious to argue that Freud would indeed be highly suspicious of the works of Fromm and Marcuse, though they represent paradigm examples of Political Freudians. If this is the case, tethering out what is best preserved from the works of both Freud in particular, and psychoanalysis in general, in order to aid a critical analysis of the 21st century, requires a greater level of scrutiny and explication than suggesting we not give up on ‘Political Freud’. Should we hold on to Eros and Civilization and toss out Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconsious, or is it the other way around?

Nevertheless, the book is a well-documented history worth reading, and there is little doubt Marxists will see a shared theoretical fate of their own discipline and practice in the history of ‘Political Freud’. We know the old adage, history repeats itself, and it is a book like this which separates the tragedy from the farce.  

23 March 2017


  1. This is really an amazing book by Eli Zaretsky. I have read this book and also recommended this to everyone. Thanks, Chris Byron for such a piece of beautiful information.

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