Archive for October, 2011

Really! No, really!

The Siegfried Bernfeld Conference: Uncovering the Psychoanalytic Political Unconscious

by Janice Haaken, Ph.D.

In his historical account of the psychoanalytic movement, Russell Jacoby (1983) laments the loss of the radical psychoanalytic tradition. It was a tradition shattered by the rise of Nazism in Europe and the trauma of emigrating to a country that was hostile toward European radical ideas. Coming to America brought a certain amnesia about the past for those Central European psychoanalysts whose vision of psychoanalysis was intertwined with radical political commitments. The horrifying realities left behind made them grateful for the haven they had found in America, but it was a haven that demanded silence about the past. As Jacoby has argued, the price of this retreat into the safer and narrower world of affluent clinical practice was to shed their political radicalism, to relinquish subversive ideas that threatened to be maladaptive in the New World.

For a significant number of European psychoanalytic practitioners, however, the critical tradition of psychoanalysis is not dead. In this paper, I describe a recent conference I attended in Frankfurt, Germany that was organized by the Siegfried Bernfeld group, a group of left-wing German psychoanalysts who draw inspiration from the radical psychoanalytic tradition. The conference, attended by approximately 250 psychoanalytic clinicians from various European countries, was based on a unifying interest in the critical potential of psychoanalysis and its social emancipatory role within contemporary society. Participants were individual practitioners, as well as members of psychoanalytic societies. Some sought allies in forming new organizations independent of the established psychoanalytic societies. Others felt that there was a necessary tension between their association with these institutes and their need for separate socialization experiences based on common political and intellectual interests.

The Siegfried Bernfeld Group

The Frankfurt conference brought together a loosely organized network of progressive psychoanalytic groups and individuals from a number of European countries, with the majority of participants being from Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. The conference in Frankfurt was organized by the Siegfried Bernfeld group and was the fourth annual conference of this network of left-wing psychoanalytic groups. The Bernfeld group of approximately 45 German psychoanalysts holds meetings regularly to discuss questions of clinical and political significance and to create a discourse that is not possible within the psychoanalytic institutes. Many are psychoanalytic trainees and practitioners affiliated with the two German psychoanalytic societies that have institutes in various West German cities. Others practice independently of the psychoanalytic societies.

The German group took its name as tribute to Siegfried Bernfeld, the German psychoanalyst and Marxist who influenced debates about pedagogy in the German progressive schools in the 1920s and 1930s. Bernfeld’s inspiration for contemporary left psychoanalysts comes out of the breadth of both his vision of psychoanalysis and his life work. He was a political organizer, a founder of an experimental school, a practicing psychoanalyst, and a teacher of psychoanalysis. Bernfeld was active in the radical intellectual and cultural milieu that flourished in parts of Austria and Germany before World War I (see Utley, 1979). He emerged as a powerful presence within the left-wing psychoanalytic circle in Berlin during the 1920s and early 1930s as well (Jacoby, 1983).

Recognized as a brilliant teacher, researcher, and clinician, Bernfeld nonetheless kept a distance from the established teaching institutions during the period of his work both in Vienna and later in Berlin (Ekstein, 1966). Throughout his life, Bernfeld argued against the bureaucratizing of psychoanalytic training and what he felt to be a trend—beginning with the Berlin Institute during the 1920s—toward narrow professionalism and authoritarian control over training.

Bernfeld (1962) contrasted the intellectual openness and avant-garde character of clinical training in the early psychoanalytic movement in Vienna and Berlin with the emerging preoccupation of securing professional respectability, which came to dominate the Berlin Institute during the 1920s. This conservatism—which Bernfeld attributed in part to anxiety about the future of psychoanalysis following the diagnosis of Freud’s cancer in 1923—led to both a tendency to close ranks around a progressively regimented approach to training and a heightened concern with gaining respectability within the medical profession. In important respects, this conservatism within psychoanalytic training paralleled the growing rightward drift of German society during the politically chaotic years following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

From his activism prior to World War I through the 1920s and early 1930s, Bernfeld encouraged students to question their teachers and the ideas they were taught, and stressed the limits of bourgeois educational and institutional practices. He argued that pedagogical problems were inextricably bound to the larger political realities out of which they emerged and from which they tended to reproduce. In Sisyphus, or the Limits of Education, published in 1925, Bernfeld argued that humanistic educational reforms and critical pedagogy depended on the success of socialist movements, without which progressive education could not secure lasting gains.

Prophetically, Bernfeld argued that the economic crisis of the German bourgeoisie would lead to the scapegoating of the Jews and the creation of a fascistic folk unity in Germany. He argued that the tendency to create national unity against a mythical enemy obscured the genuine class divisions and conflicting interests in German society. Bernfeld’s critique of educational and institutional practices inspires contemporary left-wing psychoanalysts because it is grounded in psychoanalytic insights as well. His political critique did not lead him to relinquish the primacy of the personal past and the unconscious determinants of societal problems. The oedipal problem behind inhibitions toward authority was always present in his thinking about educational and political reform.

But for Bernfeld, the oedipal problem could never be satisfactorily resolved within a politically repressive social order. Having been active in the pre-World War I youth movement in Vienna and Berlin, where the vision of revolution included greater sexual freedom and equality between the sexes, Bernfeld associated authoritarianism with the idealization of masculinity. In Sisyphus, he argued that conformity to authority was based on the repression of feminine identifications, expressed institutionally through exclusion of women from positions of influence.

For psychoanalysts who are part of the radical socialist traditions, however, the idealization of social movements and revolutionary aspirations has always been problematic. Bernfeld vascillated between optimism and despair over the prospects of creating a truly democratic social order and of breaking from the repressive legacy of the past. He saw in youth the impetus for revolutionary change yet he was wary of reformers who elevated childhood to a nobler, wiser state of being. He argued that this idealized vision of youth, which captured many progressive reformers, is based on repression of the hostile, destructive impulses that are part of the infantile past. Nevertheless, Bernfeld valued rebellion and defiance against authority, and saw in these impulses of youth the hope for a more liberatory and just world. As a youth, Bernfeld was known to be a remarkable political organizer and precocious intellect. In 1919, Bernfeld founded a journal, Jerubbaal, which had the aim of reconciling the opposing Zionist and socialist factions within Austrian Jewry and creating a Jewish youth movement (Paret, 1967). The journal’s name was taken from a biblical story in which Gideon and ten other youths rose against the hypocrisy and corruption of their elders who worshiped Jahve and Baal. Willi Hoffer, friend of Bernfeld, describes the meaning of the biblical allegory for those who founded the journal:

It was a revolt in which the elders … [were] given time for learning from the young and for admitting their failure, a victory of the young over the old, but not amounting to patricide, free from guilt, true heroism…. It was a dangerous emblem which Bernfeld and those who supported him had chosen; one need hardly enlarge on it. The symbol expressed, and Bernfeld must have known it, of course, the idea that youth contains a revolutionary, even destructive element which if unleashed and not controlled by knowledge and experience, not to speak of wisdom, can as well destroy as it can create and build. (Paret, 1966, p. xv) This allegory has particular relevance for the members of the contemporary Bernfeld group who are confronting their own elders in coming to terms with the Nazi legacy. For this group of psychoanalysts, Bernfeld represents the pre-Nazi possibilities of both the Central European left, before its dismal defeat, and psychoanalytic social theorizing and political responsibility. For the contemporary Bernfeld group, the radicalism of their forebearer represents the “good” within a German past that has been emptied of meaningful, positive ideals. Like Bernfeld, many of these contemporary psychoanalysts were young radicals who came into professional training after having developed an identity as rebels during the student movements of an earlier, more radical era.

Psychoanalysis and the Nazi Era

The recent conference in Frankfurt, which ran from June 2 to June 4, 1989, was organized around a central theme: the legacy of Nazism in Germany and other European countries, and how it has shaped psychoanalytic practice in the post-War period. There were a number of talks related to this theme presented to the entire conference group. In addition, one day of the conference was structured around small groups that met for four hours to respond to paper presentations. The paper I presented was on the role of psychoanalytic discourse in social movements. Other papers were on topics ranging from societal pathology to clinical methodology, including such topics as “Work and Female Identity,” “Dogma and Stereotypes in Psychoanalytic Training,” “Pleading Again for ‘Wild Interpretation,’” “Training Analysis: A Captive Institution or Chance for Emancipation,” and “Penis Envy, or of What Is the Penis Envious?”

The title and central theme of the conference—” The Spellbound Analyst: Are We Really Doing No Harm?”—carried different levels of meaning. It represented the captivating interest in, and devotion to, psychoanalysis that unified the group. It also represented a recognition of the blindspots and hypnotic potential of a psychoanalyst who conceals his or her own disturbing past. The intergenerational tensions and silences in postwar Germany have been recreated within the psychoanalytic institutes and in the training analyses, where the struggle over interpretations of the past have a decisively political character.

The Siegfried Bernfeld group organized the conference in an attempt to come to terms with the Nazi past and with contemporary problems of authoritarianism in clinical training and in society. This backward gaze is informed by both psychoanalytic and political understandings of reality. Politically and psychoanalytically, the consciousness of the German group is forged out of their being heir to the Nazi atrocities and to the continuing latent problems of fascism in West German society. The “return of the repressed” within the German analytic institutes has been stimulated by the recent emergence of vigorous debate in West Germany over the assimilation of the Nazi past—a debate that has been politicized by right-wing resistance to dealing with the horrors of Nazism (see Sichrovsky, 1988). Many within the left view this reappraisal of the legacy of Nazism as essential to dealing with the renewed threat of fascism in Germany characterized by the ascendance of right-wing parties and the brutal treatment of a new generation of German immigrants and foreign workers.

The Siegfried Bernfeld group is part of the postwar generation of psychoanalysts whose familial relationships included “collaborators, spectators, observers of the Holocaust” (Reinke, 1989). Ellen Reinke, who spoke on the problem of the rationalizing of the Nazi past, stressed the political implications of psychoanalytic work and the convergence of political history with personal biography:

Many of our colleagues abroad tell us that we should put the past behind us and that we should overcome our obsession with our Nazi past. This is “easy” for Americans to say because they feel no pressure to assimilate the horrifying truths of this period. But the truths are still with us and we are constantly reminded of them—in our work with patients, and in the events we read about daily in the newspaper. (Reinke, 1989)

A central thesis in many conference presentations was that the first postwar generation of psychoanalysts could not bear to see their own connection with the Nazi past and consequently their blindspots were passed on to subsequent generations of analysts. Psychoanalysis admittedly involves an inevitable reconstruction of the past, but what is omitted from these reconstructions—what is minimized or isolated in the personal analyses and training experiences of the postwar period to which subsequent generations of analysts are heir-was the focus of this conference, aptly entitled “The Spellbound Analyst.” A number of presenters, for example, pointed to the conspicuous absence of references to the effects of Nazism on psychological development and emotional disorders in the psychoanalytic papers following the war.

The history of psychoanalysis during the Nazi period has emerged in recent years against the resistances of the first generation of analysts who were its immediate heirs. A reappraisal of German psychoanalysts’ efforts to “save psychoanalysis” after the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933 has been central to this insurgent interest in the German psychoanalytic past. The rise of Nazism in Germany did mean the death of Freudian psychoanalysis—which carried the heretical label of “psychological bolshevism”—but it did not spell the end of psychoanalytic training and practice in Germany.

In contrast to the Vienna group of psychoanalysts that had been concerned with links between psychoanalysis and society, the members of the German Psychoanalytic Assembly (DPG) in Berlin were more conservative, focusing more narrowly on the systematizing of psychoanalytic theory and training. This more conservative tendency and concern with professional respectability contributed to their readiness to adapt to Nazi pressure during the 1930s.

Felix Boehm, president of the German Psychoanalytic Assembly during the 1930s, led the effort to preserve the Berlin Institute by submitting to the new political realities under the Nazis. While Jewish members were not officially expelled, the threat of expulsion loomed large in discussions of the threat to the Institute posed by its retention of Jewish members. Amidst this political pressure, Jewish members left and attempted to emigrate, steps that Boehm deemed necessary if psychoanalysis were to be “preserved” and for which he sought Freud’s approval. Boehm met with Freud to discuss his decision to preserve the Institute by eliminating its Jewish members and later claimed to have secured Freud’s reluctant approval, a claim repeatedly disavowed by Freud.

From 1933 on, the Berlin Institute became increasingly vulnerable to Nazi charges that psychology was a “Jewish science.” This charge also stirred mounting concern among various schools of psychotherapy in Germany, which sought to distance themselves from the Freudian tradition (see Cocks, 1985). When the DPG approached the C.G. Jung Society in Berlin with a proposal for merger in 1934, Jung rejected the proposal on the grounds that there was little theoretical basis for affiliation (Cocks, 1985). Jung assumed the position of president of the International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy in 1933, and was able to preserve a politically expedient distance from the Freudian tradition. Jung’s ideas more readily assimilated Nazi ideals, as well, in stressing the distinctions between “Jewish” and German psychology, and in offering a mystical view of the unconscious consistent with the German romanticism underlying Nazism. Jung stressed the “youthfulness of the German soul” and the racial unconscious, ideas counter to the critical rationality of the Freudian tradition.

With the elimination of its Jewish members through imprisonment or murder by the Nazis, or flight into exile, the Berlin Institute was reduced considerably by the late 1930s. In 1938, the DPG formed an alliance with other psychotherapeutic institutes, emerging as the “Analysis Group” within the new German Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychological Research (DIPFP) in Berlin. Matthias Heinrich Göring, appointed by the Nazis as head of the new Institute, led the realignment of psychoanalytic thought in accordance with Nazi ideals. The appointment of Göring, cousin of Third Reich Marshal Hermann Goring, was welcomed by German psychoanalysts as providing necessary political protection for the preservation of psychoanalytic work under the Nazis.

Göring was a psychotherapist and neurologist, and although he did have experience in teaching psychoanalysis during his psychotherapeutic training, he was not a psychoanalyst. He was quite impressed with the professional contributions of psychoanalysts, however, and looked quite variably upon the continuation of psychoanalytic work at the Institute under the aegis of what he advanced as the “new German psychotherapy” (Cocks, 1985).

While Nazi eugenics did pervade mental health practices—and many mental patients and homosexuals were exterminated as “congenital misfits and deviants”—Nazism was not entirely inimical to psychotherapy. Nazi ideology permitted a realm of clinical intervention for those who were disordered on the basis of environmental influence rather than as a result of “biological inferiority.” Psychotherapists exploited the “humanistic” side of Nazi propaganda, prospering professionally through advancing cures for the emotional ills afflicting German society. Treatment for homosexuality and for “psychosomatic infertility,” which were ailments thought to threaten the proliferation of the German stock, were embraced as consistent with the Nazi program of strengthening the German soul and overcoming pernicious environmental influences (Cocks, 1985).

Under the protection of the Göring Institute, psychoanalytic training prospered and grew considerably during the war years. While Freudian terminology and references to Freud were eliminated in the publications of the Institute, the revisionist school of thought that survived permitted a new generation of analysts to be trained in the German Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychological Research.

The revisionist theory that emerged jettisoned much of Freud’s drive theory and placed greater emphasis on aggression than libido. It focused on the adaptive implications of aggression in each area of life and stressed the idea that psychoanalysis could eliminate weakness, thereby producing a stronger German character structure. This concern with rooting out weakness and with adaptation to reality preoccupied the German psychoanalytic revisionists while they rejected the classical psychoanalytic emphasis on unconscious conflict and the tension between the individual and society. The more these analysts were co-opted by Nazi imperatives, the more the revisions were celebrated as an advance over Freudianism.

After the war broke out in 1939, the Goring Institute began receiving funding from the German Labor Front, a Nazi organization that replaced the trade unions (Cocks, 1985). This new institutional base allowed the Institute to form branches in five cities in Germany and led to more intensive collaborative involvement with the Nazis. Psychotherapists became involved in evaluating soldiers as malingerers who returned from the front for trauma-related disorders. The Institute developed particularly close ties with the Luftwaffe, the German air force, which supported Institute research on homosexuality and permitted it to establish psychotherapeutic training stations in the field (Cocks, 1985).

Divisions within the psychoanalytic establishment were submerged in the psychotherapeutic eclecticism and tactical alliances imposed by the Goring Institute during the Nazi era. They reemerged, however, in the organizational realignments that followed in the wake of the defeat of the Nazis. In 1950, six psychoanalysts who had been part of the Goring Institute, along with psychoanalysts who had returned from exile, established an institute independent of the older DPG. The German Psychoanalytic Association (DPV) emerged after the war as the “good ones” who disassociated themselves from the Nazi past.

The DPV was recognized by the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1951. The older DPG also reemerged after the war as a continuation of the revisionist school of thought that had flourished under the Nazis. In the flurry of postwar “severing” of Nazi influence, the DPG was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association. While collaboration with the Nazis was an issue, historian Geoffrey Cocks (1985) claims that the more grievous sin of the DPG was in having collaborated with other schools of psychotherapeutic thought. And yet the question of allegiance to Freudianism inevitably carried political implications. Within the DPG, the majority of the sixty members did not want to rethink, following the war, their adaptations to Nazism. Only seven of the analysts were critical of the Nazis or with the revisionist theory that had followed from the loss of Jewish members and the suppression of Freudianism.

Even though many who joined the DPV after the war had also been involved in collaboration—for to stay in Germany and to practice within the Institute generally meant collaboration—the DPV emerged as the “good institute,” uncontaminated by the Nazi past. And yet, according to several participants at the conference, there was only one Berlin non-Jewish psychoanalyst who was involved with the German resistance. John Rittmesiter, head of the outpatient clinic at the Goring Institute, was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis and organized a group of left-wing students and professionals in the resistance. He was executed by the Nazis in 1943. The legacy of Nazism is most apparent in the outgoing tension between the older DPG and the more Freudian postwar group comprised as the DPV. Many conference participants claimed that, in apparent irony, there is presently greater resistance within the DPV than within the DPG to addressing the legacy of Nazism and the collaborative role of psychoanalysis during the war. But this situation was explained by conference participants as follows. While the DPV survived as the “good institute” after the war, their ability to split off from the “bad institute” created an organizational defense against the past—a tendency to dissociate themselves from the disturbing truths of the Nazi era. For some contemporary critical psychoanalysts, there has been a deidealization of the DPV and, consequently, less of a willingness to admire unconflictedly those German non-Jews who took flight during the war. This attitude has meant looking more critically at political adaptation based on turning away from the horror of Nazism.

There were members from both the DPG and the DPV represented at the conference, and while tensions existed between them, partly over theoretical differences in the training offered by their two institutes, there was a commonality of interests that seemed to transcend institutional and theoretical identifications. Psychoanalysts of differing theoretical schools of thought constituted the larger body of conference participants, as well, but these differences were more apparent in the nuances of arguments rather than in participants’ taking explicit theoretical positions in discussion of conference themes.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Nazi Legacy

Sammy Speier, the only Jewish member of the Bernfeld group and one of the few Jewish psychoanalysts in contemporary Germany, gave a presentation on “Psychoanalysis Without Its Past History?” He asserted that what has survived the Holocaust in Germany is a “Christianized” form of psychoanalysis. Speier was describing a cautious, sanitized worldview that follows from conformity to brutal social realities. When one’s survival and social legitimacy are secured by turning a blind eye to the fact of genocide, there is an inevitable loss of vitality and depth in clinical theory and practice. Moreover, repression of its own past continues to constrict the development of creative or critical lines of psychoanalytic inquiry.

For the Bernfeld group, the politically emancipatory possibilities of psychoanalysis lie in its potential for freeing individuals from illusions about the cultural past and from neurotic inhibitions against resisting authoritarian control. They are acutely sensitive to mechanisms of defense in dealing with their own historical and cultural legacy. This sensitivity, shared by others who have differing experiences with the legacy of European fascism, also means an awareness of the differing political traditions in which psychoanalysis is rooted in various European countries.

Speier spoke passionately about the collaboration of psychoanalysis with the Nazis and the contemporary tendency within German psychoanalysis to deny its own past, partly through the use of euphemisms. For example, there is currently a plan to place a plaque at the entrance to the Frankfurt Institute in honor of Karl Landauer, stating that this former director of the Institute died in 1945. Speier argued that the term died implies a normal end to life, something quite different from murder, which is the more accurate term. (Landauer died on January 27, 1945 in the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. He died of malnutrition, like many imprisoned in concentration camps.) Reactions to Speier’s presentation were charged and surprisingly ambivalent. A Swiss psychoanalyst accused Speier of exaggerating the collaborative role of psychoanalysts, and persisted in his impassioned objections to Speier’s arguments long after those on the panel, as well as other conference participants, called for him to yield the microphone. Many participants felt that this response illustrated the very point that Speier and other presenters were making: that to critically face the truth about one’s intellectual “parents” brings unbearable anxiety and the necessity of defense.

In a more empathic and supportive tone, Emilio Modena, a psychoanalyst from Zurich, countered Speier’s despairing conclusions rather than his historical discoveries. He spoke from the “part-German, part-non-German middle European experience of non-Jews,” and argued that there is still a notion of Germans seeing themselves as “a special people” even in a critical review of history. For the Germans to see themselves as the worst of all peoples is not so distant from seeing themselves as the best of all peoples. He argued against Speier’s claim that German fascism was the fascism and that the Holocaust was the end of critical psychoanalysis in Germany. Neither is true, he claimed.

Modena seemed to be suggesting that the unremitting, unconsolable grief and depression over the horrors of the Nazi era contain narcissistic defenses that must be recognized. He was expressing some criticism here toward the Germans and their preoccupation with the Nazi past.

Their history does make the Germans absorbed by their own destructive identifications with the past as well as being the inevitable objects of hostility—and sometimes displaced hostility—from other national groups. But it seemed that for many of the German analysts, holding onto the “bad” was necessary if there was to be any integration of its meaning. The defensive tendency to “get rid of it” continually worked against assimilation of the disturbing truths of the past. It is also the case, as many pointed out, that there are differing meanings to being a “special people.” For the Jews, the idea of being the chosen people served historically as a defense against political persecution. For these non-Jewish Germans, their “specialness” is based on recognizing the unique horror of the Nazi period and their own guilty identification with it. It is important to make a distinction between these identifications, on the one hand, and the Nazi ideal of the German people being the chosen rulers, the superior race, on the other.

Many German analysts also spoke of the taboos in questioning the past, which they experienced in their own training analyses. These taboos took many forms. Ellen Reinke spoke of the psychoanalytic tendency to “humanize” the perpetrator, to construct a world where victim and perpetrator are understood to be equally victimized by both personal unconscious forces and the horrifying events of history. Birgit Clever spoke of the taboo against recognizing the difference between parental failures, which include a component of sadism or hostility, and conscious commitment to fascist ideals. The questions of the postwar generation about their parents’ and grandparents’ involvement in the Nazi period are subtly discouraged, and analysands become aware of their analysts’ silences and lack of curiosity about the political past.

The silences of the analytic situation are a recapitulation, both transferential and reality-based, of the guilty silences between generations about the Nazi period. This problem is both historical and contemporary in German psychoanalysis. The legacy of the past is manifested in what many described as an authoritarian attitude within many of the institutes—a tendency to pathologize rebellion and critical inquiry. The outraged recognition of the betrayals of parents or grandparents creates particular transference problems in the training analysis as well. Senior analysts are inevitably the objects of rage and disappointment and the working-through of familial lacunae associated with the Nazi experience. But the analysis of transference is based on, or presupposes, the neutrality of the analytic situation, a neutrality that permits the emergence and interpretation of unconscious fantasy. Given the reality basis of psychoanalytic collaborative involvement in the Nazi period, the separation of reality and fantasy elements of transferential reactions becomes problematic for many. There is too much knowledge of what is behind the blank screen.

Proposals for Reclaiming a Critical Psychoanalysis

The “we” feeling that emerged out of the differing national experiences and theoretical tendencies of the group was identifiable in a unified opposition to authoritarianism and exploitation. A unifying, although controversial, idea was that the “rule of abstinence” often serves a defensive function for psychoanalysts. The stance of detached neutrality with respect to political questions can be a means of turning away from social reality and denying the necessity of political commitments.

Another unifying theme emerged in the expressed ambivalence toward and critique of the established psychoanalytic institutes. Detlef Michaelis spoke of how the rules and rigid procedures of psychoanalytic training serve as a defensive function for the analytic institutes, prohibiting the emergence of “wild analysis.” This fear of “anarchy” within the institutes, he argued, is deeply rooted in the petit bourgeois position and consciousness of psychoanalysts who control psychoanalytic training. He suggested that we must confront the ways in which the relatively privileged social position of analysts have a conservatizing effect on training and practice.

Various proposals for establishing independent training institutes were considered, with the Psychoanalytic Seminar of Zurich (PSZ) serving as a model for many conference participants. The PSZ was formed in 1969 when a large group, under the leadership of Paul Parin and Felix Morgenthaler, broke off to form an independent, democratic institute. Anyone who chooses to study psychoanalysis can pursue studies at the PSZ, and senior analysts supervise without making decisions about the trainee’s readiness for independent practice. Psychoanalytic training is viewed as a continual process of learning, and the goal of training is to cultivate intellectual curiosity and emotional openness, which many believe is discouraged in the established institutes.

One area of debate at the conference devolved around the very possibility, as opposed to the desirability, of establishing independent institutes. This question had both economic and psychodynamic implications. To separate from the institutes and form more democratic training and collaborative organizations carried with it the risk of economic uncertainty, although this factor was variable from country to country. The social security system in Germany, which provides coverage for up to three years of psychoanalysis, requires certification through the official psychoanalytic institutes. However, it is possible to fulfill the requirements for psychoanalytic training independent of the institutes, although this path is a more difficult one to follow in achieving training and certification. Independent analysts are more often dependent on patients’ ability to personally finance their own analyses than are those analysts associated with the institutes.

There were psychodynamic implications to this controversy as well, which gave the economic questions an overdetermined character. As the debate continued on these questions, several themes emerged. One theme concerned the way in which the bad, destructive components of the past are split off by forming a separate group, with the new group carrying the idealized group feelings, leaving the remaining out-group carrying all that is bad and destructive in the past. This organizational splitting and externalization of the past can carry a defensive function, and represents a splitting off rather than an integration of disturbing truths. Thus, for many, breaking away from the established institutes was an illusory and self-defeating resolution.

There seemed to be an ambivalence that Germans feel about breaking from established institutes that many, both Germans and non-Germans, felt to be particular to the German experience. Politically, Germans described the longstanding historical problem of breaking with the authority of the past. As one French analyst put it, “The Germans have never cut off the head of a king.” Germany had never had a successful revolution, where the old authority is triumphantly overturned. At the same time, these German psychoanalysts are guided by the psychoanalytic recognition that breaks from the past can have an illusory character. Rebellions inevitably carry, in the legacy of the superego, old identificatory processes that are recreated in the new social order. Many share Freud’s general pessimism about the prospects of creating a new liberatory social order, and this view seems to carry over into discussions about creating new training institutes. Psychoanalytic pessimism about the prospects of a more enlightened, egalitarian social order has never been total, however, and the proposals and ideas considered at the Frankfurt conference represented the optimistic side of psychoanalytic ambivalence as well.

In recovering the critical tradition of psychoanalysis, the question of Freud’s own political alliances emerged as a theme of the conference. Rene Major, a French psychoanalyst who spoke on Freud’s anticipation of the rise of national socialism, introduced his discussion of Freud’s political thought with an anecdote from unpublished biographical material of Ernst Jones. Jones had a conversation with Freud in 1919 in which Freud claimed that he had become “half a Bolshevik.” Jones queried him on the meaning of this curious statement. Freud explained that he had been visiting with an extremely educated communist who had told him that there would be a necessary period of very bad times ahead, followed by a period of very good times. Freud reportedly told Jones that “I believed the first half.”

For some, Freud’s recognition of the rise of Nazism raised the attendant question of why Freud did not call for resistance. Freud was finally spirited away to London through the persistence and careful maneuvering of his daughter, Anna. Freud’s four sisters who remained behind ultimately died in concentration camps during the war years.

Major illustrated Freud’s ambivalence about rebellion against oppressive authority with an anecdote told by Freud about his father, Jacob Freud. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recounts this story told to him by his father when Freud was a young boy. The senior Freud recalled a confrontation with a Christian man who knocked off his hat, shouting “Jew! Get off the pavement!” The young Freud asked his father what he had done in response to this provocation. The senior Freud replied calmly, “I went into the roadway and picked up my cap.”


Whereas Freud used this story to explain his own extraordinary ambition and desire to become the potent father that he had been denied, Major used the story to illustrate Freud’s identification with the man who “turned away” from the oppressor. For Major, the anecdote offered insight into both Freud’s awareness of antisemitism and Freud’s own anxiety in relation to authority. Freud’s empathic identification with his father shaped his own ambivalence about resistance to tyranny.

Conclusions: Of What should a Critical Psychoanalysis be Critical?

The conference was organized around the question, “Are we really doing no harm?” It was a question that did not permit definitive answers, but rather represented the necessity of ongoing inquiry into the societal processes underlying clinical theory and practice. It also evoked the social vision and critical rationality of psychoanalysis that gave this early twentieth-century intellectual movement much of its vitality and inspiring breadth.

For participants at the Frankfurt conference, the question of “doing no harm” implied more than a call for reflection on the quietistic implications of psychotherapeutic work. The question of how we inadvertently pass on to our patients our own inhibitions in relation to authority was central to discussion about clinical practice. But the question of “doing no harm” also referred to psychoanalytic silence about political oppression and the problematic tendency to retreat behind the “rule of abstinence.”

Many at the conference spoke of the freedom to speak out as part of the emancipatory promise of psychoanalysis—the recovery of one’s own critical voice. Of course, psychoanalysis does not determine what one wants to speak out about, although it may help to overcome inhibitions against doing so. There was little specific discussion of what a critical psychoanalysis would articulate, or how it might inform analyses of contemporary social movements or contribute to an emancipatory politics. Many conference participants were involved in political activity, and I would suspect that differences in the social and political visions of psychoanalysis within this group of left psychoanalysts would emerge in such a discussion.

There was also little discussion of the conflict between clinical practice, that is, its social and emotional requirements, and political activism. Some conference participants did acknowledge a problematic tension between a more recently acquired professional identity and an older identity based on social concerns and political commitments. For psychoanalytic clinicians who identify with the left, there are emotional barriers to political activism that are continuously reinforced by the internal requirements of clinical work as well as by the external conditions of professionalism. Whether one is a radical or not, both internally and externally, one’s identity as a psychoanalytic clinician is tied to preserving emotional distance from emotionally charged interpersonal situations and to valuing interpretation over “acting out.”

Internally, clinical training tends to strengthen intellectual defenses as well as the capacity to take in and contain primitive, disturbing affects without reprojecting or acting on them defensively. As defensible as these capacities are in clinical situations, they do lead to overvaluation of emotional containment and to intellectual control over intense affects. These emotional capacities are antithetical to those that are required, at least at moments, in radicalism, that is, the capacity to aggressively act on the threat to the self posed by external oppressive conditions. While the conference focused on how political movements of the past continue to shape clinical theory and practice, the radical possibilities of a critical psychoanalysis are in its potential for contributing to a more introspective, mature politics and for generating social psychological analyses and theory. In other words, it is in taking psychoanalytic ideas into social movements and public life rather than in “politicizing” psychotherapeutic work that we find our subversive voices.

In both Europe and America, psychoanalysis has been impoverished by the loss of its own radical political past, a past experienced by some as more archaic and distant than by others. But as the American psychoanalyst and Marxist Joel Kovel (1988) has argued, psychoanalysts are politically inhibited by the economics and ideology associated with professionalism as well by the “repression” of our subversive past. While the professional training of analysts is shaped by historical forces of a particular national character, professionalism in any society can have a conservatizing effect. Upward mobility generally makes even the worst of societies feel “good enough” by permitting a realm of individual freedom for professionals.

One might conclude from the themes and ideas presented at the Siegfried Bernfeld conference that to see one’s progenitors as complicit in unforgivable human villainy leads to idealized counteridentifications. The belief that one’s forebearers could have chosen otherwise in such historical circumstances or that there were alternatives to “turning away from the reality of genocide” may originate in the infantile fantasy of parental omnipotence. Traumatic deidealization of parental figures can lead to narcissistic defenses, for example, fantasies of one’s own invulnerability to authoritarianism. It can also lead to a form of moral masochism where one’s capacity to experience the tragic and to identify with suffering compensates for what was missing in parental objects. Any critical examination of the past is overdetermined by these unconscious elaborations of traumatic experiences.

But the belief that there were no alternatives and that one’s forebearers could not have responded differently to historical circumstances is derived from the other side of infantile ambivalence: the preservation of parental goodness within a world of badness. In my discussions of family history with various conference participants, many expressed a reluctance to view collaboration as a necessary and inevitable outcome of historical forces beyond human control. There were alternative ideas and possibilities for resistance within Germany during the rise of Nazism, and many argued that support for national socialism often represented a conscious commitment to a repressive ideology.

For many left psychoanalysts, the recovery of a critical psychoanalytic tradition, that is, the “good objects” in our collective past, represents the recovery of hope and of the human potential for modifying the destructive currents of history. Identification with subversive traditions is a necessary bridge in assimilating the destructive truths of the past. This capacity for idealized identifications with the past underlies the capacity for hope and movement toward a better world. The capacity to critically assimilate the destructive truths of the past is also essential if hope for the future is to be more than just an illusion.


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Some readily, comprehensibly, poignantly amusing signage at SlutWalk NYC:

  • I didn’t report it to the police because I’m not a perfect victim
  • Men of Quality Support Gender Equality
  • If I Was Asking for It, I’d Say “Fuck Me!”
  • My Cat Walks Around Naked. Is She Asking For It?
  • Robbery≠Donation Rape≠Sex

What’s next? An open meeting to discuss the future of the coalition will be held October 13th, 6 PM at Walker Stage (56 Walker St).

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