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Learning from Freud’s Anti-Politics: Why Marxists should read Phillip Rieff

Daniel Tutt

23 March 2023

Along with Marx and Nietzsche Freud is a thinker who must be contended with today. In politics, Freudian insights are often accused of being conservative, if not reactionary, leading many on the left to turn to the thought of more libertine psychoanalytic Marxists such as Wilhelm Reich, the communist who was part of Freud’s close inner circle, or the Frankfurt School author of Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse. But Marxists should think of psychoanalysis not as a system of insights into the human condition that perfectly confirms or adheres to the revolutionary position. To the contrary, Freud’s system of thought challenges any beautiful soul conception of politics even though he held conservative liberal views towards politics.

The same is true of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose critique of ego psychology led many of his more radical followers to conclude that therapeutic methodologies that emphasize a strengthening of the ego tend to foment greater levels of aggressiveness in the subject. This insight along with Lacan’s views on phallic enjoyment continue to shape feminist and socialist views on gender and sexuality. But Lacan’s politics were conservative, and he favored a pacified civic liberalism. He cast doubts on the efficacy of revolution and was known to support the conservative government of Charles de Gaulle. But this didn’t stop Marxists from reading his works and nor should we shy from reading conservative thinkers today.

In mid-twentieth century intellectual life, the conservative American sociologist and Freud scholar Philip Rieff offers a body of work that we must wrestle with today. While Rieff was conservative, his political views do not fit the conventional political spectrum. He would have never identified with a political movement such as paleo or neo conservatism and he would likely have rejected any formal affiliation with any political party. Christopher Lasch once said Rieff “belongs to the party of the Super ego” by which he meant that Rieff stands for a version of culture that he saw as rapidly disappearing in postwar consumer capitalist America. Not much has been written on the ways that Rieff influenced Lasch, but one clear way is found in the style of the Jeremiad. If one is familiar with The Culture of Narcissism, you’ll know the mood of lament for something lost in the culture combined with a warning about a future social order to come that is foreboding and apocalyptic. This is the style of the Jeremiad. Rieff’s famous work Triumph of the Therapeutic and Fellow Teachers starting in the early 1970s brings a similar style.

But it was Rieff’s 1959 work Freud: The Mind of the Moralist that made his mark on American intellectual life. In this remarkably lucid and thorough work—an intellectual summary of Freud’s main ideas with a focus on Freud’s social views—Rieff argues that Freud completes an important line of Nietzschean “anti-politics.” Anti-politics is an achievement of Freud as it points to an account of politics which neutralizes competing ideologies by reducing political struggles and strife to psychological and subjective motivations. Inn this way, Freud has triumphed over the troika of modern thought whose highest embodiments are Marx and Nietzsche.

Not only does Freud offer an anti-politics which is a weapon and tool for the bourgeoisie, his thought has supplanted the efficacy of the religious worldview and pacified the political battle of competing ideologies. Freud’s anti-politics brings Nietzsche’s more fragmentary ideas of the human as driven by irrational drives to a point of completion and clarity. Freud offers the most comprehensive life ethic and cure for the bourgeois citizen in the modern world. Unlike Marx, who thought subjectivity in types and classes, Nietzsche and Freud think the subject as psychological and singular, i.e., Freud re-directs the struggles and antagonisms of civilization away from political strife and ideology towards new strategies to sublimate the struggles of work, labor, family and culture. Freud articulates the necessary interdictions of a repressive society and offers the tools for overcoming the neurotic sickness that it fosters in its subjects.

Importantly, Freud must not be thought of as bringing about a new religion; at best he founded a new stoicism, or a new life ethic set on the refinement of the ideals of the private bourgeois subject. In this way, when Foucault sought to discard psychoanalysis as a relic of the Victorian age in his work The History of Sexuality, Rieff basically agrees with him, but unlike Foucault, Rieff desperately sought to resurrect the Freudian worldview.

Freud’s insights into politics and social life pacify the power of Marxism and the socialist struggle because if the truth of anti-politics is incorporated into intellectual life, civilization has succumbed to private bourgeois ideals, and this means the left must adapt to a world in which the bourgeois vision has triumphed. Rieff’s vision of history is one in which master intellectuals have a duty to function as ascetic stewards over the cultivation of genius. Intellectuals must establish cultural and aesthetic standards and rare intellectual geniuses come to typify an entire age.

In our age it is Freud who has triumphed as the intellectual who describes our cultural dynamic whereas in the generation prior to Freud, it was Nietzsche. Nietzsche preached an exclusive community-building praxis for a militant bourgeoise to follow and Rieff says Freud follows Nietzsche in this way. While both thinkers are unquestionably hostile to the socialist revolutionary position, the problem with Freud and psychoanalysis lies in the way that his visions can be taken in radically antinomian directions by Freudian heretics such as Wilhelm Reich.

The Triumph of the Freudian Worldview

Rieff’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was likely co-written with Susan Sontag whom Rieff married when she 19 and he her older professor.[1] The couple were personal friends of Herbert Marcuse, and it is said the Frankfurt School thinker even wrote his famous book Eros and Civilization while staying in Rieff and Sontag’s home. In Rieff’s view, psychoanalysis is about the recovery of instinctual pleasure, but this process can only happen through serious mental discipline. The method of free association and the wider science that Freud invents is one in which the patient must loosen themselves intellectually and they must concentrate on ‘nothing in particular.’ For the analyst, they must learn the art of concentrating on the free associative speech of the patient, i.e., they must listen to the repetitions, the slips of speech of the patient, so that the symptoms that lie beneath the slips of the tongue can be brought out and worked-through.

As a life ethic and method of cure, psychoanalysis supplants religion for bourgeois life. It does this by installing a new form of faith that we discover in the psychoanalyst’s transference with their patients. Transference refers to the process wherein the patient transfers to the analyst a paternal identification and the process of working-through the symptoms and Oedipal hang-ups begin. Without the transference, no cure is possible. As a Nietzschean, Rieff will not argue that the figure of the psychoanalyst is to be understood as a new Priest as the Nietzschean French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari insisted in Anti-Oedipus. The psychoanalyst does not preach a new sickness as Nietzsche’s Priests, they rather offer the most refined and thorough form of treatment for the neurotic subjects of bourgeois society. Psychoanalysis is meant to adjust the bourgeois individual not through some catharsis of their nervous illness or depressive episodes, but the cure is about achieving something far more modest, what Freud called ‘ordinary unhappiness.’

Freud completes Nietzsche’s original insights into the self as driven by irrational drives and like Nietzsche he too turns to the historical roots of civilization in works such as Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. But Freud differs from Nietzsche in crucial ways as he embraces a rationalist orientation that aimed to make psychoanalysis grounded in a commitment to science capable of freeing individuals from what Rieff calls ‘psychological thralldom to primal forms.’

Freud’s method is not meant for everyone according to Rieff. It is designed for the private bourgeois individual, a product of the repressive forces of the society they encountered. By no means was Freud eager to fundamentally overthrow the repressive social order, he rather sought to tame it. As such, instinctual pleasures are not to be understood as the source of liberation, as you find in many Freudian-Marxists such as Wilhelm Reich and even Herbert Marcuse. It would be the concept of sublimation that would point to this more moderate approach, wherein the task is to sublimate repressive realities into everyday life, labor, education and family relations. The social order that Rieff is diagnosing in Triumph of the Therapeutic is one in which these forms of more everyday sublimation are strained, if not impossible to achieve for the subject.

Politically, both Freud and Nietzsche stand as great “anti-political thinkers” because they both arrive at a historical truth about rebellion and revolution; namely that revolution is always destined to repeat the primal failures of every past rebellion. This insight is brought out in Freud’s highly controversial work Totem and Taboo where he lays out the birth of the social contract in which a radical transcendence from patriarchal attachments to the primal father occurs. The birth of the social order is here understood as founded on a radical break from patriarchal dependence. But there persists an inescapable threat of the tyrannical father who continues to hang over all sociality and there is a guilt that permeates over the fact that the father had to be killed.

In Freud’s myth of the origin of society, it is the brothers who kill the primal father, and, in this act, they make possible a society in which equality, democracy and higher values of individualism are possible. Freud’s vision is less Hobbesian that one might think for the father remains as a specter over social relations and his authority is transposed onto leaders and identifications that sustain groups or what Freud calls “libidinal bonds” form around father stand-in identifications. These bonds are not unitary but rather heterogeneous and they are ambivalent. We identify with father stand-ins through ambivalent identifications of love and hate and the absence of this bond produces a sense of panic and paranoia. That the rise of postmodern literature in the 1950s – 1970s repeated the motif of paranoia and even psychosis is no surprise. If father-identifications are absent in culture and across institutions this spells disaster because Freud’s conception of the human subject is one who must work-through such dependencies. If the subject is deprived of the prior identification, they lack the means to work-through and the culture experiences regressions to a pre-Oedipal condition in which adulthood and stages of self-development are stunted.

Although Freud was a staunch rationalist, his rationalism must be understood as bent on mastering the irrational longings that social groups have for a return to forms of primal authority. Freud favors the law over social revolt because every freedom that humans seek is bound up with the desire to return to the primal situation in order to better resolve it. In the same way that the traumatized WW I soldiers Freud discusses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle are haunted by a continual return to the traumatic scene of their wounds in battle, politics is haunted as such by primal repetitions. Groups possess unconscious impulses of rebellion but these impulses, according to Rieff, are ultimately founded in sources of envy and rivalry with peers and equals.

Freud’s anti-politics is therefore very close to Nietzsche’s own profoundly pessimistic views regarding the possibility of revolution. But Freud held no antinomian or law-critical views as much of Nietzsche’s views lead one to assume. Freud’s notion of the superego was in fact developed in dialogue with conservative liberal jurists in Germany who pressured Freud to develop an account of the law that is not associated with the more antinomian presuppositions of the Bolsheviks dictatorship of the proletariat.[2] Although Rieff refuses any ambiguity regarding the interpretation of the law in Freud’s thought, left-Freudians such as Wilhelm Reich will certainly adopt a more antinomian account of the law which will lead him to positions such as under socialist society the Oedipus complex will wither.

The problem with Freud’s anti-politics comes home in the following way. If Freud’s contribution to politics is ultimately an anti-politics, then we are led to conclude that nothing qualitatively different happens in history. Because the leader is forced to play the ‘father imago’ and his followers are his surrogate children, politics is a domain where unchanging strife between the generations are permanent and what matters is the fulfillment of psychological needs.

We’ve now moved from the idiosyncrasies of Rieff’s own politics to a theoretical problem of psychoanalysis as such, namely that, taken to its logical conclusion, its insights into power, the law and the social bond risk a terminally liberal and fatalistic orientation towards politics. This makes psychoanalysis a science which is highly valuable to elites and bourgeois intellectuals, for if rebellion is understood to be an ultimately ephemeral acting out amongst the masses that does not signify anything materially transformative other than temporary demands for the fulfillment of needs, then political ideologies that might rival bourgeois hegemony are forever doomed. If psychoanalysis is an anti-politics this means that psychoanalysis offers a set of Machiavellian insights for how to better rationally manage the irrational tendencies of civilization. It is therefore no surprise that Rieff will adopt such an understanding to the future of American politics after the Cultural Revolution and the student movements in the United States in the 60s and 70s as a continual war amongst elites. After all, it is a positive contribution to the social order and indeed to civilization that psychoanalysis offers an anti-politics for if its insights pacify proletarian or revolutionary politics, this leaves room for what culture is about, namely, the cultivation of higher aesthetic values and art.

But if psychoanalysis neutralizes politics, it does something even more radical to religion; it totally sublates religion. It does this because religious needs are shown to be psychological needs and psychoanalysis reveals this from within its complex system of analysis. Freud locates the religious worldview as an extension of psychological needs such as in his theory of aggression he is really describing the category of evil and sin. By identifying psychological accounts for what theologians consider metaphysical realities, psychoanalysis usurps religion as the modern life ethic.

The Collapse of the Freudian Worldview

If the psychoanalyst in Freud’s vision is not a Nietzschean sick Priest but offers the most robust cure on offer to bourgeois subjects, this does not mean there aren’t heretics in the new religion who pervert the cure towards ends which foment disintegration and social chaos. Rieff discusses several Freudians in The Triumph of the Therapeutic,[3] but it is his treatment of the left-Freudian Wilhelm Reich who stands out as most worthy of consideration.

Wilhelm Reich creates a new religion out of psychoanalysis according to Rieff, a religion based on an entirely ambitious conception of the cure as a form of catharsis and release. The question for Reich was how to foster a total break with the constraints of bourgeois society and the repressions it imposes especially on the working class. But Rieff insists that psychoanalysis is not a doctrine of catharsis and release; such libertine doctrines do not have any practical application to complex and large-scale social aggregates of people, and nor can they produce any semblance of social stability. And nor could such a view that is so hostile to the very existence of repression in society ever provide a new modality of purpose and meaning. Reich’s antinomian ideas have lost sight of the necessary function that moral demands play on the subject in relationship to culture. For Rieff, moral interdictions are necessary features of culture, but their logic is more subtle. Just as moral interdictions compel adherence, they also establish clear boundaries for the subject to break from communal pressures.

Without the persistence of clearly demarcated lines of transgressing moral norms and interdictions, the subject faces a situation where instinctual pleasures and the drives are unruly, and Freud’s rational taming strategies are destined to be forever lost. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic Rieff argues that this antinomian vision has achieved a certain wide-scale cultural success and given birth to a ‘drive-based’ irrational social order in which is it difficult for subjects to work-through authority. Rieff’s argument of the loss of moral interdictions helps explain long-standing paradoxes in our culture such as the phenomenon of right-wing hipsters and a leftwing counterculture which is de-tethered from a coherent sense of political liberation.

But before we understand this muddled situation, we must understand Rieff’s distinction between two types of revolution, what he calls a political revolution which he associates with the worker's movement and socialism and the visions of Marx—whom he reads as pro-moral and morally-conservative—and what he calls a cultural revolution which aims—a la Reich and other libertine Freudians—for an abolition of the core forms of repressive social life as such.

The 60s and 70s cultural revolution was led by a class of elites who, at least from an intellectual point of view, adopted a conception of power as total and ever-present across institutions. They thus aimed to eradicate all cultural forms of repression, but this vision was cultural and not political. The student movement and the New Left sought to eradicate repressive forms of social life in a non-dialectical way, and a case study of this total theory of power is found in Wilhelm Reich’s own obsession with the orgone accumulator and with orgone energy. The later thought of Reich turned to a mystical conception of power that defied the second law of thermodynamics and was thought to be locatable within the universe. As its theoretical captain, Rieff argues that the cultural revolution lost all sense of mediation in their conception of social and political power.

After the cultural revolution Rieff predicts that the future of conflict will not be between social classes such as bourgeoisie or proletariat but between two forms of rivaling elites – a cultural ‘professional revolutionary’ elite who will seek to further the gains of the Cultural Revolution and a more conservative cadre of elites who will seek to put a brake on cultural politics by pointing to the deleterious social effects that are spawned from it.

But Rieff’s political naivety is on full display when we consider how he saw the future of work and labor. Writing from within the postwar boom of the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Rieff criticized the new leisure time the economy had opened for the working-class and the burgeoning middle-class. The problem for Rieff is one of a necessary discipline over the working-class, whom he saw as losing a disciplined relationship to work, and he predicts this crisis will lead to a ‘re-ritualization’ of social life in order to contain the aggression that work used to effectively sublimate.

Rieff never envisioned the dynamics of disciplinary debt and the degradations of work that the neoliberal era would bring about as he cared nothing for analysis of political economy and capitalism. The system has now made constant work the lot of all and as such it threatens to eradicate even the desire for leisure. But while our society is punitive and disciplinary, it is still steered by these seemingly distant but radical demands of the therapeutic that stem from the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s.

Learning from Freud’s Anti-Politics

In Rieff’s critique of the New Left, despite its vulgarity—he at times sounds like the general position of a Jacobin democratic socialist in our own day who despairs over the reduction of politics to cultural issues—one gets the sense that part of his gripe still rings true. Namely, the left has had to go all in on cultural politics as a contestation with the right who have also entered the fray in reaction to the left’s cultural revolution. Although he is no Marxist, Rieff sounds like what today we would call a post-leftist, eager to transcend the nominalist and false basis of culture war politics to move the ground towards a more substantive political struggle. But this is ironic given Rieff’s staunch commitment to Freud’s anti-politics. This ambiguity indicates that after the cultural revolution, Freud’s anti-politics points to the need to think about politics entirely anew. We must carefully think not a return to the social order Rieff is nostalgic for, but rather to recognize the way that the moral ideals of bourgeois social life were more efficacious in permitting subjectivity to work-through authority relations and institutional dependencies than today’s culture.

The ‘therapeutic’ has now become a pejorative on the right and the post-left intellectual scene. It is now invoked to refer to a passive aggressive tendency within liberal institutions that have seemingly lost touch with the management of interpersonal authority. But the therapeutic has also become a necessary rite of passage for the world of dating and intimate life. Everyone must now immerse themselves in self-help literature to increase their emotional resilience on the dating market and to increase one’s performance as a vector of resilient human capital on the job market.

If Rieff stands as a lone advocate for the party of the superego, Lasch will convincingly argue that it is not the old Freudian superego that disciplines today, it is a more pernicious and increasingly acephalic social version of the superego. This means that censor mechanisms are more intimate and internal today, they force us to personalize societal taboos and injunctions. This more socialized superego makes the need to cultivate a new rationalism an urgent priority. In a social context in which feelings of persecution emanate not from established modes of superego enforcement but from multiple and acephalic sources, this limits our capacity to gauge what is serious from what is merely personal in political life. Freud’s anti-politics effectively comes true in such dynamics and the personalization of politics becomes almost inescapable. But we can’t allow for our account of social and political antagonisms to express themselves in loops of personal grievance and individual animosity. We instead need to revitalize ideological struggles to further collective goals and a mutual drive for the truth. A task for leftwing counterpublic spaces on social media must be set on preventing our political discussions and debates to giving sway to the unleashing of hyper-politics, or the condition in which anti-politics grows into a more irrational expression.

It is well-established that we live in a highly censorial culture, from cancel culture to a hyper-pernicious social media sphere where punitive attitudes of cringe and shame predominate. The Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács once defined the bourgeois cultural sphere during the era of imperialism that he lived in during the late 19th century leading up to the First World War in the following way: “the keenest over sensitivity, combined with a suddenly erupting, often hysterical brutality.”[4] This hyper persecutory and aggressive posture is a sign of decadence according to Lukács.

The overlapping crises of our time are not giving way to the same sort of decadence as Lukács articulates. Rieff says ‘repression is to ideology what psychology is to politics.’ In other words, if you abolish repressions then you end ideologies. For Rieff, religion instructs us more in how to feel than it does in how to believe which is why Freud saw it necessary for civilization—through culture—to create the means by which subjects can sublimate their struggles, repressions and day-to-day sufferings. If there is anything worth preserving in Freud, Rieff shows that it must be taken up by Marxists as a negative lesson. If Freud’s method of anti-politics ultimately collapsed with the cultural revolution, it has given rise to a new form of anti-politics, one that requires we return to Freud to navigate beyond the deadlocks of our present.


[1] Rieff, P. (1979) Freud: The Mind of the Moralist Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

[2] Étienne Balibar’s essay “The Invention of the Superego” discusses how Freud’s interaction with conservative liberals shaped his notion of the superego. See Balibar, E. (2017) Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology, New York: Fordham University Press.

[3] Rieff, P. (2006) Triumph of the Therapeutic Intercollegiate Studies Institute; 1st edition

[4] Lukács, G. (2022) The Destruction of Reason. New York, NY: Verso Books. p. 316

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