How Marxists took over psychotherapy

Talking cures have a Leftist bias — and please don’t mention Brexit or Trump

“The psychiatrist”, by Carl Josef, c.1930 (WELLCOME IMAGES CC BY 4.0)

Psychotherapy, counselling and the talking therapies were commonly resisted in Britain until the 1980s, seen as American imports, self-indulgent, “touchy-feely” threats to the British stiff upper lip and social reserve. But that resistance melted as GPs experimented with having counsellors in their practices, the media promoted therapy as a friendly venture, and de-stigmatisation generally was challenged as part of the anti-psychiatric and other liberation movements. Universities added counselling services to their provision, recognising age-related problems of adjustment, homesickness, depression and drugs. Voluntary organisations provided relationship therapy, free drug and alcohol counselling, and agony aunts were trusted by many readers. Training programmes in therapy became a booming business and “perhaps you should see a therapist” could be heard as a common suggestion for many of life’s ills. This new confidence in therapists and therapy as “the answer” remains strong in many ways but cracks have begun to appear. One of these is where the assumption that therapists are scientists, or neutral professionals like lawyers or accountants, breaks down. Psychotherapy is an intensely personal, intimate and subjective undertaking in which clients are somewhat confused, vulnerable and often suggestible. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, recognising that some Christian counsellors were bringing their religious agenda into therapy, took steps to prevent this. Politically motivated therapists are probably not explicitly bringing their agenda into their work with vulnerable clients, but there is an unrecognised issue here that should be confronted.

Therapy trainees are zealous enthusiasts, paying a lot for their training, and often finding themselves in university departments or independent training institutions with one dominant school of therapy and trainers and tutors who may be dogmatic and charismatic. In my experience it is very common to witness fierce and uncritical commitment to therapy and moreover to one form of therapy. This kind of underlying certitude resembles that found in religious and political movements. Adherents become intolerant of or impatient with dissident views, and students who make challenges may be told they are resistant, they are using intellectual defences and are “stuck in their heads”. The onus on therapists to act ethically, perhaps hyper-ethically, leads to their presentation to the outside world as being above all prejudice, influence and abuse. But they can never be free from human nature, and the zealotry underpinning therapy theories is highly likely to leak out, however subtly and unintentionally, into their work with clients. This leakage includes political views, and particularly the leftist and culturally Marxist views with which the therapy world is unwittingly saturated.

To be fair, leftism among therapists isn’t completely concealed and a left-wing affiliation is no crime. However, the tradition in the professional bodies overseeing the talking therapies (clinical and counselling psychology, psychoanalysis, counselling, psychotherapy) has always been to encourage the free association and blank screen of psychoanalysis and unconditional regard of humanistic therapy. Freud himself was reputedly uninterested in politics but some, like the Tavistock sociologist Michael Rustin, have been unashamedly socialist, and no therapists writing about Freudo-Marxism or Red Therapy can conceal their political colours. Some consider therapy revolutionary, and the theorrhea of Lacanian-Marxist Slavoj žižek just keeps coming. But in many ways therapy arose as an alternative to the perceived stale politics and religion of the mid-20th century, indeed as part of the personal-is-political zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. The quest for the real self, self-actualisation, and “psychosalvation” preoccupied many who abandoned organised religion and class politics.

We can roughly date the fusion of psychotherapy with Marxist principles and sexual liberation to the work of Wilhelm Reich in Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s. Also, from roots in the Frankfurt School in the 1920s, and later at Columbia University in New York, psychoanalytically entranced intellectuals like Adorno, Fromm and Marcuse refined critical theory. This developed into influential leftist-oriented schools of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences, which remain influential today via postmodernist and postcolonial psychobabble. Many new forms of therapy arose in the mid-20th century, often preaching liberation from internalised social and parental injunctions. Carl Rogers, the eminent psychologist anxious to deny his fundamentalist Christian origins, launched his anti-authoritarian person-centred therapy around 1950. Modern psychotherapy advertised not only a patched-up client but the new, liberated, egalitarian, peaceful human being.

Psychotherapy theories are built on the premise that individuals are damaged by parents, traumatic events, patriarchal capitalism, internal narratives, faulty reasoning or social constructions. Psychology injects some innate temperamental factors into this picture, and evolutionary psychology in particular argues for the reality of longstanding, hard-to-change patterns of thought and behaviour. Neuropolitics attempts to investigate the brain’s putative hardwired political biases. But much psychoanalytic theory emphasises unverifiable early life influences and attachments, and humanistic and existential theories stress freedom, choice, and emotional approaches to mental health. The leftist-adored and deeply flawed book by Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level (2009), claimed to be an evidence-based demonstration of the superiority of Scandinavian and other low wealth-gap (high tax) societies in enhancing well-being, in contrast to the US, UK and other capitalist hellholes associated with high levels of mental ill-health. Strangely, the leftist therapy crowd enthusiastically line up behind this argument, failing to note that, if true, it would undermine the core rationale for psychotherapy. Even some leftist critics of therapy, like William Epstein, dismiss psychotherapy as irrelevant and ineffective and call instead for far more welfare spending and better social housing.

Another epistemological mess is found in so-called happiness science, closely linked with neo-stoical cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and championed by Labour peer and health economist Richard Layard. He and Professor David Clark claimed that unemployment would be greatly reduced by the NHS providing short-term CBT through the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies initiative (IAPT), which would dramatically reduce depression and anxiety. Time and further evaluations are showing how naive Layard’s hopes were. Some non-CBT therapists speak of “high-quality psychotherapy versus state therapy” and calculate that the IAPT success rate is only 16 per cent. But for “high-quality”, read long, “deep”, expensive and unpredictable psychoanalytic therapy. Sneakily, many regard CBT as a somewhat masculine, unfeeling, right-of-centre therapy.

Psychotherapy contains hundreds of competing theories and practices and ongoing turf wars. Beneath the rhetoric of successful outcomes (purportedly as high as 80 per cent) are failures and mediocre results. Beneath the requisite ethical rhetoric, unethical or poor practice sometimes happens and escapes sanctions. Nevertheless, serious perennial critiques from Eysenck, Grünbaum, Masson, Smail, Torrey, Crews, and others have been ignored by generations of therapists. Some of us will always need help in this world, sandwiched as we all are between evolutionary and genetic traits, socialist illusions, competitive capitalist stresses, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But therapists tend to present themselves as highly professional and mysteriously skilled, steeped in their own hard-earned self-awareness. Few would tell you what they think of your politics should you hold right-of-centre views such as approval of UKIP, Brexit, the alt-right, or Trump, that you are sceptical about mass immigration, Islam, transgenderism, and constant pay-gap complaints.

But it’s also the case that mainstream politics may rarely arise explicitly during therapy. The client’s depression, obsessional thoughts, divorce, bereavement, or whatever, may seem entirely personal and apolitical. On the other hand, the low-paid or stressed man may raise questions about exploitation at work, or the woman who is angry or depressed at not being promoted may raise questions of gender discrimination. Depending on clinical setting, and the matching or otherwise of client and therapist in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, political differences may not intrude in any obvious way. Therapists cannot conceal their accents but can make the setting fairly neutral, and can of course, if psychoanalytic in orientation, interpret clients’ perceptions and beliefs beyond face value: your expressed anger at right-wing or left-wing politicians may conceal anger at your parents. Your dismay at Brexit is probably rational. Unconscious voting motivations have been pontificated on for years. Therapists cannot conceal their fees, which in private practice raise awkward political questions for anti-capitalists about the exploitation of individual suffering. Clinical and counselling psychologists are probably better paid than most therapists, with no evidence that they are more effective, and they may try to conceal this from colleagues, clients and even themselves. While there are a few principled leftist and anarchist therapists working for low pay and uninterested in professional status, far more are anxious about securing their place in a professional hierarchy. In a Labour paradise, free and subsidised, unlimited psychotherapy for all would be the ideal, although even small population Denmark falls short of this therapeutic utopia.

There is no right-wing equivalent of critical psychiatry and psychology. These Marxist-inspired movements oppose capitalism (especially Big Pharma) and champion self-proclaimed oppressed groups and the “epistemologies of the south”. This refers to decolonialised knowledge including non-Western healing methods like voodoo and animal sacrifice. Western psychotherapy like medicine should seek to respect as equal those practices that have been unjustly downgraded by colonial educational assumptions. Leftist psychotherapy incorporates decades of feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-Islamophobia and pro-egalitarianism. American psychiatrists Grier and Cobbs’s 1968 book Black Rage interpreted white racism as a major cause of black mental illness, and launched this as a therapeutic project. Some therapists have vocally criticised the English public school culture and its links with psychologically damaged (overwhelmingly right-wing) politicians. In 2000, The Times lamented the alleged outnumbering of British military personnel by counsellors, a sign that soft feelings and pacifism were becoming triumphant. This has been followed by close attention to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among soldiers and a decline in military funding and numbers. The erosion of free speech and establishment of hate crimes underlines this trend away from personal toughness and vigorous debate towards the assertion that words hurt as much as violent actions.

The most recent churn in right-versus-left dynamics has manifested in Brexit and Trump, presented by liberal progressives as a populist backlash and neo-Nazi lurch. Free counselling sessions were being offered to NHS staff in 2016 to cope with the referendum’s distressing outcome. The Universities of Leeds and Nottingham similarly offered counselling support. I was in a meeting at a psychotherapy training institute in 2016 when a fellow academic spontaneously launched a Brexit-hating tirade as if no rational defence of Brexit was thinkable. The few academics who voted for Brexit, or admitted it, have often found themselves ostracised. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising in the academic profession that is reckoned to be between 70 per cent and 80 per cent staffed by left-wing sympathisers. Neither is it surprising that a majority of young people voted for Remain, partly due to indoctrination by teachers and academics. Tony Blair’s push for a 50 per cent enrolment of young people into university education led not only to high student debts but also to dumbing down and uncritical leftism. The reported snowflake phenomenon, the inability to listen to dissenting views, and violent protests against visiting speakers hated for PC-questioning opinions, underlines this. While therapists are not necessarily academics or intellectuals, the vast majority of training programmes are located in, and validated by universities whose administrators push for equality and diversity targets.

The cat is out of the bag: the majority of therapists have been schooled in liberal views and uncritical espousal of cultural neo-Marxist memes. Most are still unaware of this, since the typical training curriculum, while dwelling somewhat on “socio-cultural contexts” or “difference and diversity”, omits critical thinking applied to leftist therapeutic tenets. Many trainees are recruited as disaffected nurses, teachers and social workers already marinated in diversity training, anti-discriminatory and anti-sexist dogma. Still, socially sensitive practitioners are invited by Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility to “examine whiteness”. A recent counselling textbook sponsored by the British Psychological Society presents chapters on disabilities, on (non-binary) sexualities, ethnicity and gender that invert majority values. Set this alongside contrasting figures: only 9 per cent of British women call themselves feminists; only about 1.5 per cent of people are gay and only 0.1 per cent transgender; 13 per cent are BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic); 9 per cent are disabled. Too much therapy training is oriented towards the needs of the few, not the many. Females in psychology and psychotherapy outnumber males by over 80 per cent. We do not know how therapists, students, or clients vote, but my money would be heavily on Labour, Lib Dem and Green.

Psychotherapy’s skew towards psychological pietism and a politically-correct identity politics contrasts with encounter groups. These show that listening to experiences other than one’s own, engaging in vigorous dialogue, and facing stubbornly different viewpoints, can loosen or affirm ego-based and tribal affiliations. Traditional psychotherapy and counselling promote the introspective, sensitive, androgynous, feeling soul rather than the vigorous, resilient, stoical or enterprising character. We are certainly not all Ayn Rands but neither are we all Foucaults, Fanons or Orbachs. The psychotherapy world has yet to make the shift towards viewpoint diversity, a concept promoted by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Meanwhile, very few texts advance anything like a right-wing psychology of well-being. Jordan Peterson, the Toronto University professor of psychology and clinical psychologist, was famously threatened with disciplinary action by his university and hated by many students for his “transphobic” refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns. His research-based views are robustly “traditional” and irksome for the leftist psychotherapy world but might herald hope of some eventual political balance.

Consider psychologists and therapists whose hatred and contempt for Trump manifested in a disregard for the prohibition against diagnosing strangers or non-clients. Throughout 2017 Trump was clinically diagnosed in various media as having a narcissistic personality disorder and calls were made for his impeachment on the grounds that he was mentally ill. However anti-Trump one’s view, we should recall the psychiatric abuses of the Soviet Union from 1950, when many practitioners with views designated as politically incorrect were forced to retract them, and many political dissenters from the 1960s were diagnosed and hospitalised with the fabricated condition of “sluggish schizophrenia”. Last year I met a group of Russian psychology students who told me that Moscow has an emerging market of affluent professionals wanting Gestalt therapy to help them express long-repressed feelings. Some Westerners feel they are now imprisoned in a vast PC cult and witch-hunt that encompasses many areas of life, including psychotherapy. These days, when clients are invited to say anything that comes into their heads, they are likely to think twice and self-censor if it comes close to politics their therapists may not share.

Leftism in psychotherapy can be traced from therapeutic pioneers like Reich, Maslow, Fromm et al. up through feminist therapy and critical psychology. It is clear in the publications of Oliver James, the clinical psychologist antagonistic towards psycho-pharmaceutics, genetic explanations and CBT, and “affluenza”. Mark Fisher’s 2009 Capitalist Realism argued that we are enmeshed in a mental health-diminishing culture whose malignancy we cannot readily detect. In 2016 a former community organiser and now psychotherapist Richard Brouilette openly declared in the New York Times that “therapists should talk politics”. He cautions that “therapy could easily become an arm of the state” (meaning a right-wing state) without noting that therapy can equally become an arm of cultural Marxism. Loudly publicised breakthroughs in understanding and treating mental illness appear regularly, followed perennially by disappointing outcomes. Left-wing journalist and former plagiarist Johann Hari in his recent celebrity-endorsed book Lost Connections loudly and with unabashed quasi-novelty proclaims depression to result from capitalism, alienation, etc, etc: talking therapy definitely helps, antidepressants are not the answer, but under socialism all will be well. It is an all too familiar scapegoating of capitalism and failure to grasp the tragic dimension of life. We should discuss these matters openly, looking at right- and left-wing interpretations, but we should not conceal biases.