Thursday, October 14, 2010

Marxism and Psychology

Ian Parker, Manchester
Socialist Resistance

A timely conference just took place in Canada on ‘Marxism and Psychology’. The connection between Marxism and ‘psychology’ is not often made by activists or academics, but the connection is crucial to our understanding of how individual subjectivity comes to be caught up in economic processes under capitalism. We only have to take the banking crisis to see how important this is.

The current political economic crisis makes people feel afraid. This fear is quite understandable, for many people may lose their jobs and they have certainly lost their trust in politicians. But today we need to notice the role of an academic and professional discipline that operates as part of capitalism and that prevents people from taking political economic action to tackle the crisis. This discipline is psychology. Psychology in the colleges and clinics will tell you how you need to correct your faulty thoughts and change your behaviour so you can be happy again. But what is the agenda here?

There are three aspects to this agenda. The first is the individualism that psychology is based on. This individualism strips out relational aspects of human action, and those aspects are then only reintroduced later as if they are ‘variables’. In this way the very individuality of human experience, which derives its significance and value from histories of interaction with others, is betrayed. The second aspect is essentialism, in which qualities of human activity are separated from each other so they can be categorised and refined within a psychological model of the person. This essentialism then organises explanations of what people can do and cannot do in terms of fixed mechanisms or procedures.

The third aspect is normalisation, which operates through universalising representations of human beings, usually with the effect of confirming the superiority of the culture from which the representations emanate. Today that usually also confirms the superiority of Anglo-American culture in which psychology is so strong, and it is then globalised. It then defines who is abnormal. Psychology operates alongside psychiatry and even in some places in the world with psychoanalysis as part of an apparatus, the psy complex, and as part of a process of psychologisation.

Psychologisation works through an experiential commitment to psychological explanations, not only of what happens to each individual but also what happens to society. Advice and makeover programmes on television feed these explanations and encourage people to feel them as if they are deep within themselves. Then the language of psychology comes to replace political explanations, and this language limits the room for manoeuvre and, even more so, limits social change.

When you speculate about what made the banker have a crisis of confidence and when you imagine that you should change the way you think and feel as a solution to this crisis, you are sharing in this psychologisation. It is a powerful ideological con-trick, and an alternative to capitalism must also include an alternative to psychology.

The conference was an academic conference with a variety of different psychological theories jostling for prominence (ranging from Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis to Soviet-style ‘activity theory’), but there were some activists there, and different kinds of Marxism clashed alongside the theoretical debates. Joel Kovel, former radical shrink who is now a leading ecosocialist, was there, as was Raquel Guzzo, a developmental and educational psychologist who is currently standing for Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL) in the Brazilian elections. Other speakers, including from Belgium, Mexico, Romania, Serbia, the UK and the US, intervened in discussions about practical political links between conceptual and revolutionary activity.

The Marxism and Psychology conference team are still at work in the form of the Marxism and Psychology Research Group (, led by Mike Arfken at Prince Edward Island. This is a space for critical work, already planning for another conference that will broaden the scope of discussion beyond the themes of ‘alienation’, ‘ideology’ and ‘methodology’ addressed in this first conference to address questions of gender, race and ecological destruction that have now become key aspects of Marxist politics.

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