Marx and Freud: The Creatures of Prometheus

The titans of modern Western thought were products of the civilisation they revolutionised

Daniel Johnson

Marx and Freud remain the twin titans of the modern mind. I use the word “titan” in the Promethean sense of mythical creators who suffered for their defiance of the divine order. Debunked and discredited, mocked and misinterpreted, these titans return to haunt each generation with their incendiary ideas. Their theories may seem have been tested to destruction over the last century, yet whatever makes them so magnetic is essentially untestable. Socialism and psychoanalysis have both long since jettisoned the scientific claims originally made on their behalf, yet their appeal has endured and their influence has grown. Our persistent obsessions with inequality and sexuality, with revolution and repression, with capitalism and the unconscious, testify to the fact that Marx and Freud each transformed our mental landscape in ways that have proved to be irreversible.

Titans were gigantic, even godlike, yet they were banished by Zeus to Tartarus. There are parallels between this mythical Titanomachia and the dualities that Freud and Marx postulated in their respective systems of psychoanalysis and socialism: the conflicts of pleasure and reality, of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Both men divided the world into friends and enemies, demanding absolute loyalty from the former and casting the latter into outer darkness. Both were good haters; both damned their rivals and adversaries not merely as individuals, but as types.

Of all the many masters of modernity, Marx and Freud loom largest and come closest to the status of founders of a new religion. Though each was an outspoken atheist, neither disdained the manner and even the appearance of a prophet. What gives a prophet the ability to transcend time and place is not the predictive quality of his or her writings and utterances, but the ability to inspire the reader or listener with a sublime and irresistible imperative to make the world a better place. It is impossible to overlook the religious intensity of Marx and Freud, which places them in a different category from almost all their contemporaries. The former was only in his twenties when he declared, in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Freud was a dying man when, as the Nazis occupied Vienna and drove him into exile, he told a disciple: “After the destruction of the Temple by Titus, Rabbi Johanan ben Sakkai asked for permission to open a school at Jabneh for the study of the Torah. We are going to do the same. We are, after all, used to persecution by our history, tradition, and some of us by personal experience. . .”

Hence the appearance of two new full-length biographies is no surprise. These two lives are no less integral to their impact on our civilisation than their works, and despite the accumulation of scholarship both subjects are almost inexhaustible. But both these portraits — Gareth Stedman Jones of Marx (Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Allen Lane, £35), Élisabeth Roudinesco of Freud (Freud: In His Time and Ours, Harvard, £25) — are very much in the “life and times” tradition, written by serious historians whose focus is on intellectual development in its proper cultural context, eschewing psychological speculation or moral justification. That is not to say that either writer is wholly impartial: Roudinesco is enough of a Freudian to have made a pilgrimage two years ago to the crematorium in Golders Green where the sage and his wife are interred — only to find the ancient Greek urn containing their ashes had been upset by vandals. Stedman Jones is a man of the Left whose long academic career at Cambridge and London has been a preparation for this labour of love for “Karl”, as he refers to Marx throughout. (How the old curmudgeon, who never even allowed such liberties to his closest collaborator, Engels, would have hated that.) Both biographers are eager to rehabilitate their subjects, above all as exemplars of integrity, if not of consistency; and both aim to clear away hostility and misinterpretation.

Yet both these readable and scholarly books are vitiated by a tendency to let the titans off too lightly. One sees this in the harsh treatment of their rivals — for example, Carl Jung in the case of Freud. Roudinesco describes a dinner that Freud and Jung attended in New York at which the latter made tactless remarks about the black servants, his “African brothers”, while Freud “who saw each human being, beyond all differences, as a universal subject, a singularity, made no remarks”. The suggestion is that Freud was above all racism, while the arrogant Jung not only subscribed to “the hierarchy of races” but just did not care about embarrassing his hosts. It is true that Jung’s reputation has lasted less well than Freud’s, but the reality is that both men used the vocabulary of race which was ubiquitous at the time. There are plenty of examples quoted in Roudinesco’s book. A few years earlier, Freud wrote to Jung about the “racial strangeness” of Ernest Jones, his Welsh disciple and official biographer. “I find the racial mixture in our group [the early psychoanalysts] most interesting; [Jones] is a Celt and consequently not quite accessible to us, the Teuton and the Mediterranean man.” It is striking that Freud here avoids calling himself a Jew, preferring the euphemistic “Mediterranean” — a term that embraces not only the Jewish but also the Classical past. It is true that after his break with Freud, Jung became openly anti-Semitic, denouncing Jews as rootless and claiming that his own “analytical psychology” had revealed how “the ‘Aryan’ unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish”. He complained that Freud “accused me of anti-Semitism because I could not abide his soulless materialism”. In reality, the dynamics worked the other way around: as Nazi anti-Semitism spread across the Continent, Freud identified ever more strongly with his own Jewishness.

Jung was, in this respect, much closer to Marx than to Freud. Stedman Jones offers the following hair-raising account of Marx’s relationship with Ferdinand Lassalle, whom he saw as his most dangerous rival for leadership of the German socialist movement. In 1861 Marx stayed in Berlin for a month with Lassalle and his mistress, Countess Hatzfeldt. The latter lobbied tirelessly but unsuccessfully to obtain Prussian nationality for Marx, which he had renounced by going into exile in 1848. They fêted their stateless and impecunious guest, took him to the opera and ballet, and generally showed him a good time. Marx appreciated the Countess — a grander version of his own aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen — but was wholly ungrateful for Lassalle’s hospitality and unselfish admiration. A year later, Lassalle came to stay with Marx in London. This visit was even more disastrous, mainly because Marx was desperately in debt and he could not disguise the fact that his wife had “had to pawn everything that wasn’t actually nailed or bolted down”. Marx’s way of dealing with this awkward situation was to pour his resentment of his younger and more successful guest into his letters to Engels. Though Lassalle was generous in lending him money, he was “vexed by the way this parvenu flaunted his money bags”, adding: “It is now plain to me — as the shape of his head and the way his hair grows also testify — that he is descended from the Negroes who accompanied Moses’ flight from Egypt . . . The fellow’s importunity is also niggerlike.”

On hearing the news that Lassalle had died in a duel, Marx — this prickly, embittered émigré, who was almost entirely unknown at a time when even the Communist Manifesto lay forgotten, a mere ephemeral pamphlet of the revolution — felt entitled to patronise his rival, a celebrity who had published several serious books, in outbursts of schadenfreude laced with anti-Semitism: “It’s hard to believe so noisy, STIRRING, PUSHING a person is now dead.” He justified such posthumous vituperation when it emerged that Lassalle had offered to support Prussia’s annexation of Schleswig-Holstein in return for universal male suffrage: “We now know that Izzy planned to trade off the workers’ party to Bismarck.”

Was such viciousness an aberration? That Marx and Engels held extreme views about “lower” races has been known for a century, since the publication by Franz Mehring of many of the early texts by Marx, Engels and Lassalle. During the 1848 revolution, Marx edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the organ of the far-Left, which rejected “bourgeois” democracy, but was canny enough to run above its masthead the very bourgeois slogan: “No more taxes!!!” The later US senator Carl Schurz, who saw Marx in action at this time, wrote: “I still remember the cutting, scornful tone in which he uttered — I might almost say ‘spat’ — the word ‘bourgeois’; and he denounced as ‘bourgeois’ . . . everyone who dared to oppose his opinions.” In January 1849, the paper ran an article, “Hungary”, which is reproduced in one of Mehring’s volumes. Though written by Engels, it had Marx’s full editorial approval, setting out a doctrine on nationalities that later influenced Lenin and Stalin. Only three nations in the Habsburg Empire are “revolutionary” — the Germans, Poles and Hungarians — because they are bearers of progress. “All other races and peoples, large or small, are destined to extinction in the revolutionary maelstrom. Hence they are counter-revolutionary.” The article goes on to speak of Gänzlichen Vertilgung — “total annihilation” — of Völkerabfälle — “racial rubbish” — by the “merciless” march of history. Examples given include the Scots, Bretons, Basques and the real target: the southern Slavs. The vision is one of ruthless extermination of any nation that opposes Marxist revolution. That this pitiless social Darwinism has survived the demise of Communism is clear from the fate of the Crimean Tatars, who suffered monstrously under Stalin and have recently been persecuted again by Putin.

Yet Marx was not merely eager to see entire peoples wiped out in the cause of revolution, provided they were primitive enough: as we have seen, he was just as hostile to the most cultured class, the bourgeoisie. Although it was the German and then the French bourgeois that initially aroused his loathing, Marx came to hate their counterparts in the country that had given him asylum just as vehemently. “The English Middle Class”, an essay for the New York Daily Tribune in 1854, cites “the present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England. . . Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs Gaskell” as damning evidence against a class “full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance”. The “civilised world”, declares Marx, sees them all, rich and poor, as “servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them”.

It is striking how respectful Marx is of the values of 19th-century Western civilisation, yet contemptuous of its basis — the educated middle class. Indeed, he was intensely proud of his own magnum opus, Das Kapital, as a product of that civilisation — specifically, of its German variety. To Engels he wrote that “in a work like mine there must be many shortcomings in detail. But the composition of the whole, the way it all hangs together, is a triumph of German science and scholarship [Wissenschaft] to which an individual German may confess since the merit belongs not to him but to the whole nation.” Marx emerges from the pages of Stedman Jones as a typical Victorian man of letters in many ways, but as thoroughly Teutonic in his reverence for the system of ideas. This, for Marx, Freud and many of their contemporaries, was the true work of art, the ultimate goal of all intellectual endeavour.

That endeavour was, however, for them very much a masculine one. One of the best chapters in Roudinesco is devoted to Freud’s relations with the women in his life, many of whom gave the lie to his consistent view that women gained nothing by professional or intellectual activities, since their role was to be the genitrix, companion and destroyer of men. Today, for such a thought crime against gender equality, Professor Dr Freud would have lost his academic post and his livelihood. In his day, he was deprived of them by the Nazis in the name of racial inequality. His only voice recording was for the BBC, a broadcast in English in December 1938, which ended with an unscripted sentence in his native tongue, perhaps intended for his fellow exiles: “At the age of 82, I left my home in Vienna following the German invasion, and I came to England where I hope to end my life in freedom.”

Yet despite his conservative attitude to feminine aspirations Freud welcomed women into his “ring” of followers, and initiated the sexual revolution that has transformed the role of women in Western civilisation. “The twentieth century was in a sense more Freudian than Freud himself,” Roudinesco remarks. In the same way, it was more Marxist than Marx. Even before either man was dead, their ideas had been reformulated by their followers.

Stedman Jones argues that Marx believed that the destiny of socialist humanity after the revolution was to return to small village communities where land was owned in common, an idyllic existence of which traces remained in such rustic regions as the Hunsrück mountains near his childhood home in the Rhineland. Like English scholars such as Henry Maine, Marx saw this primeval village community as the source of liberty. Under the influence of Russian socialists such as Chernyshevsky, he argued that such communes should be preserved from the ravages of European imperialism. According to Stedman Jones, Marx came to believe that the state was “an excrescence of society” and would disappear, along with private property, the subjection of women and “civilisation” itself. The crisis of capitalism would end in its “elimination” and “in the return of modern societies to the ‘archaic’ type of communal property”. But these heterodox ideas contradicted his long struggles against “utopian” socialism, “the idiocy of rural life”, and the Slavophile cult of the Russian mir, or peasant commune. Stedman Jones suggests that the Marxists posthumously suppressed this heresy of Marx. Maybe they did, but as he concedes, Marx had all but given up on the hope of revolution. He never finished Das Kapital because the facts just didn’t fit the theory: he couldn’t prove that “historical inevitability” would bring about more than the kind of cyclical upheavals to which capitalism had always been subject — what Joseph Schumpeter would later call “creative destruction”. In editing the jumble of Marx’s manuscripts into Volume III of Das Kapital, Engels came across a passage about what would ultimately happen to capitalism. He substituted “collapsed” (zusammengebracht) for the word Marx used, meaning “shaken”. An entire body of theory, Zusammenbruchstheorie, has been built upon this bogus word.

How is it that, with such an accumulated weight of evidence against the claims that have been made on their behalf, Marx and Freud are still read? Auden marked the latter’s death by pointing out how his ideas had become “a climate of opinion” rather than a science, and the same may be said of Marx. Both doctrines have fluctuated in popularity, but these peaks and troughs rarely reflect their content. Roudinesco writes: “The Americans received psychoanalysis with acclaim for what it was not — therapy for happiness — and they rejected it sixty years later because it had not kept that unfulfillable promise.” Yet though neither psychoanalysis nor socialism delivered what was promised, Freud and Marx are still worth reading. Why?

Pick up any early copy of Freud, whether the elegant first editions, the incomplete Gesammelte Schriften that appeared in Vienna after the First World War, or the Gesammelte Werke, the first complete edition, which appeared in London during and after the Second World War. Or consider the early editions of Marx, from those published in his lifetime by Meissner in Hamburg, through the gradual reppearance of hitherto obscure works under the Dietz imprint, to the magnificent Marx/Engels Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe, known as MEGA, which began to appear in the 1920s and ’30s but remained incomplete for many years after its chief editor, David Rjazanov, was executed by Stalin. All these books exude the unique atmosphere of the milieu to which both Marx and Freud belonged: the German-speaking intelligentsia. Though they, like many other intellectuals, were Jewish, they eschewed anything religiously or culturally specific to Jews in favour of their own incorporation into the drama of the German spirit, Geistesgeschichte. Western civilisation, flowering in their lifetimes as never since, had created a world stage that offered Freud and Marx more epoch-making roles than had ever been dreamt of in German philosophy — or in their beloved Shakespeare.

Stedman Jones is not wrong to speak of greatness as well as illusion in the title of his book. But the vision of society which Marx bequeathed was an illusion — one that would prove lethal on an unimaginable scale. Freud was better at learning from his mistakes. Having denounced religion as an infantile neurosis in
The Future of an Illusion, he belatedly understood the inability of science, psychoanalysis or socialism to provide a substitute for God in conferring meaning
on life. Unlike Marx, the dying Freud grasped the truth of the Biblical injunction that man does not live on bread alone; in his last book, Moses and Monotheism, he returned to his Jewish roots. There is nothing illusory about the fact that the civilisation of the West, without which neither Marx nor Freud could have existed, is at heart a Judaeo-Christian one. 

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