Book Review Essay: Reason in Revolt: Freud Reopens the Radical Enlightenment, on “Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism” by Léon Rozitchner
Review of Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism, by Léon Rozitchner, BRILL , 2022, 524 pp.
Léon Rozitchner’s Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism is a stunning achievement, a work that should be considered next to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in the pantheon of Freudo-Marxist interventions. Originally published in Spanish in 1972, it is an investigation into the entirety of Freud’s group psychology and social writings. The author was an Argentinian Marxist who made important contributions to South American Marxism and psychoanalysis. He is known as a critic of Peronism, a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and for his original Marxist and psychoanalytic reading of St. Augustine and the foundation of western bourgeois subjectivity in his work The Thing and the Cross: Christianity and Capitalism (1996). Since very little of Rozitchner’s work is translated into English, the publication of Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism marks an important moment because it is his most systematic and theoretically rigorous effort to combine Marx and Freud.
But Rozitchner does not exactly “combine” Marx and Freud through a comparative analysis, and he does not place the Marxist texts in close dialogue with the Freudian texts. Rather, Rozitchner reads Freud as a complement to a central domain of Marxist critique, namely the domain of the revolutionary subject. Freud’s texts on group psychology and social issues, although they are not directly discernable as overt critiques of the bourgeois form of subjectivity, Rozitchner convincingly shows that Freud’s oeuvre can be read as a consistent rebuke of the bourgeois subject and by extension bourgeois social science of Freud’s time. Why is it the case that Freud was not more forthcoming in this critique? One reason that this critique of bourgeois social science is missed when we read Freud’s group psychology and social writings is owed to the fact that Freud was otherized in his time and this meant that as a Jewish scientist in central Europe during a time of great antisemitism and militarism, Freud had to modulate the political edge of his writings. More specifically, Freud’s otherization led him to deemphasize a more overt political framing of his work. One does not need to read Freud at a surface level to grasp what his politics are, and the question as to whether his thought may or may not have lent credence to conservative liberalism. We must assess the theoretical core of Freud’s text to uncover the undeniable revolutionary core of his work.
In some ways, the method of the text is a rather modest one; an exegetical and interpretive approach, an elegant and rather straight-forward reading of Freud that places his theory of subjectivity as both convergent with and ratifying of the truth that Marx analyzed in the objective structures of the system of production. The text avoids much reference to other thinkers outside of Freud, and Marx is rarely mentioned. He interrogates the heart of Freud’s social writings themselves, and his effort, at face value, is simply a careful exegesis of Freud’s major works including Civilization and its Discontents, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Totem and Taboo as well as Moses and Monotheism. But the result of this exegesis far exceeds mere commentary on the texts. It identifies a set of unifying themes and conclusions that connect Freud’s work to a radical political project.
The Revolutionary Social Bond
The first contribution Rozitchner brings out is the contention that Freud’s social writings must be read as taking on the aggressiveness of the dominating class, an aggressiveness that constitutes our access to reality itself. “How can we effectively think the transition toward the revolution if we have been made with the categories of the bourgeoisie, if we still live within the boundaries marked out by its reality?” (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 26). Freud’s social writings are, in Rozitchner’s reading, the most thorough rebuke to the bourgeois theory of the subject as theorized by reactionary thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon, whom Freud takes on directly in his Group Psychology. For Le Bon and other bourgeois social scientists, the social consideration that interested them the most was the kinetic and often violent presence of the masses in revolt. Le Bon’s theories of the crowd and group psychology were based in the idea that the masses are an animalistic rabble, and that the revolutionary leader is mesmerizing to the group; the leader is therefore a threat and dangerous to the stability of the social order. The revolutionary leader is a hypnotist to the discontented masses. Freud’s theory of the masses and the leader not only rebukes Le Bon on the question of mesmerism, but he also shows that Freud gave a more optimistic account of the revolutionary group.
Freud’s theory of groups sought to fundamentally overturn Le Bon’s pessimistic reading of the masses and groups. There are three types of groups, or mass formations that Freud analyzes: the artificial or institutionalized mass, such as the church or army, the spontaneous mass, and the revolutionary mass, such as the Jacobins in the French Revolution. The spontaneous group comes from the artificial or institutionalized group and goes towards the revolution, and thus expresses the negation of the form of individuality that is retained and confined in the rational and effective dimensions of the artificial group. Freud’s theory of the leader in the group is most often read as reliant on the father, particularly the love of the father, and a common reading of Freud is that he theorized the leader is a stand-in for the father. But Rozitchner upends this rather boring suspicion by pointing out how it was the distinction between the “director” of the artificial group and the “leader” of the masses in a spontaneous revolt that moves historically to the revolutionary mass. Freud theorized the leader as a breakaway from the artificial group, towards the revolutionary mass or group. It is this more fluid conception of the leader that does not reduce the leader to a father because the leader of the revolutionary group embodies a move away from the familial superego of the bourgeois society. Thus, to call the leader a father stand-in would mean we must define a completely new theory of the father because the revolutionary group has broken from the repressive constrictors of the bourgeois subject.
To track where a spontaneous group is going in their revolt, you must show how the artificial group is conditioned by the dominant class and this is found in the theory of the social bond, Freud’s most important contribution to group psychology. In this movement from the spontaneous to the revolutionary group, the masses in revolt exert a new power through the social bond they enact. The bond that is produced in the revolutionary group is, importantly, in opposition to the bourgeois social form of being, and Freud grounds this revolutionary bond on a theory of love, or a theory of the emotions and affectivity (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 345).
As we mentioned, the social bond is not based on the love of the leader as a surrogate stand-in for the father. Rather, what unites human beings in any of the three groups is the “sensible and corporeal bond” – i.e., what unites is the libidinal bond. In the artificial group, it is “the rationality of the system in which human beings find themselves included” is based on an “individuality in which one’s own flesh, one’s own body, appears itself as the site of a false dispute, of a false organization” (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 361). The individual, at least as it discovers itself in artificial groups and institutions must disentangle itself with a bond of two emotional ties: one to the leader and one to the other as equal. It is this division of the artificial group that bourgeois social science aims to stabilize and maintain, and that Freud aims to disrupt.
The collective social bond formed in the spontaneous or revolutionary group is different than the bond of the artificial group because it discovers its own repression that weighs on the group, and because this discovery does not happen in the bourgeois group formation, psychoanalysis points to the importance of the revolutionary group. In the bourgeois social bond, Rozitchner says the social being is “perennially unsatisfied desire,” whereas in the revolutionary group, it is necessary to “lift this veil that makes the individual congruent with the system of production” (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 418 – 419).
The revolutionary social bond is thus a theory that bourgeois social science cannot account for because in it we reencounter the foundation of individual liberation precisely as a recuperation of a collective power which only the organization for the struggle renders effective. The revolutionary mass makes a scission on the familial Oedipal arrangement that the artificial groups condition us to; the revolt breaks us from a familial superego dependency based in submission. The collective revolt creates a “fraternal alliance against the father” but one that prolongs itself as class struggle. This revolt reveals that the adult, as well as the child, are “both slaves of a power to which we are both subjected” (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 469). The task, according to Rozitchner, is not to liberate oneself from the father but to liberate oneself with the father, to understand that he, too, is a slave of power.
Rozitchner highlights an important and often overlooked distinction between the familial superego and the collective superego: exposure to the system of production is an exposure to the non-familial superego. This collective or social dimension of the superego is what the artificial group and bourgeois subjectivity shelter us from. And this “social superego” is only discoverable on condition that the individual revolt turns into a collective revolution, i.e., it is only in the collective revolt that we confront the “repressive reality at the level of the objective system.” If the social dimension of the superego is only discovered in revolt, this means the revolutionary group must be thought of as inventing a distinct ideal. Rozitchner says the artificial mass (church, army, etc.) are tethered to a familial superego whereas the revolutionary group, precisely because it touches the foundation of repression, invents an alternative superego and ideal.
The fraternal alliance of the revolutionary group develops a “model” in their transition out of the artificial group – and thus exits a horde structure which allows those subjects to approach the primal father in the system of production. To employ the concepts of ideal ego and ego ideal, this transition is one where the ego ideal is taken over by the group ideal, where a new collective ideal ego is discoverable. In the movement from spontaneous to a revolutionary group, the individuals of the group discover, like the first human beings at the origin of the social bond they were born into, the possibility of a fraternal alliance as opposed to the relations of submission to oppressive power. As such, there emerges an opposition between the ego and the ego ideal which now appears between the class of human beings and the system of production. The revolutionary group upends the familial superego and re-discovers the primal father outside of his mythic or symbolic status, as he exists in bourgeois social life. The primal father for the revolutionary group can be thought of as now immanent to the mode of production. We see now that Freud’s group psychology can help us think class in a completely new manner. We are reminded of Sartre’s “fused group” in Critique of Dialectical Reason which forms a temporary alternative social bond in the act of their revolt (Sartre, 2004, p. 360). The revolutionary group opens a historical domain where the dialectic of objective truth can develop, i.e., much like Sartre’s fused group, the Freudian revolutionary group opens a new relation towards historical time, and this can only be linked back to the proletariat in a capitalist system.
Freud Reopens the Radical Enlightenment
Freud not only isolates and elaborates the importance of the revolutionary group as the basis of forging a break with bourgeois subjectivity, but his social writings go much further; they upend the very basis of the bourgeois social science of Freud’s time. Although Rozitchner does not stress the significance of this point too much, what emerges at the heart of it is that Freud reopens the enlightenment in this overturning of bourgeois social science. I find it important to highlight this perspective on the enlightenment because the sort of connection to the enlightenment Rozitchner identifies is different than that of Freudian Marxist humanism of thinkers such as Eric Fromm. Let us describe how Rozitchner makes the case for this revolutionary conception of the subject and why it is connected to the enlightenment.
We must understand that Freud begins his studies of group psychology from the position of the normal bourgeois subject, not from the margins, such as with the position of the neurotic. Freud begins his analysis with the “normal person” who is “sick with reality”; a subject who projects a sick reality as permanent. The normal subject cannot, in fact, discern reality, a claim that grounds Civilization and its Discontents, i.e., at the foundation of civilization the subject lacks a proper discernment of objective reality. The normal person needs to “elude common reality” and Freud isolates three forms for eluding the external world: art, science, and narcotics. Intoxication, or narcotics, is the answer before the anxiety of birth, art searches for passive consolation in fantasy and science prolongs knowledge beyond the anxiety over reality without mobilizing the body (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 121). But none of these three modes of eluding reality can withstand the uncertainty of a purpose that would be different from what is already known, which is why for Freud, it is only religion that can answer the purpose of life because only religion encloses individual narcissism in a collective form that maintains the infant illusion as a predetermined basis for the meaning of all subsequent future reality.
Social normality is characterized by repression and absolute submission, and as such, the normal subject is one for whom “repression has triumphed.” The neurotic, the rebel, and the artist each fall outside this order of adjustment to repression. Yet although they refuse integration with the repressive social order, they offer only an individual solution. Again, it is only the collective rebellion that can address the foundation of repression. Since not just any form of rebellion can adequately address the source of social repression, Rozitchner’s praxis should be read as critical of existentialist or individualist forms of rebellion. Although he does not provide examples of concrete examples of rebellions, Rozitchner’s reading of the failures and pitfalls of Peronism in Perón: Between Blood and Time expands on this question in more practical terms (Rozitchner, 1985). In some ways we can draw a parallel to the way Rozitchner centers “collective rebellion” as a maxim or even a Kantian regulative ideal to the way Alain Badiou in his Maoist-inspired Lacanian work, Theory of the Subject does the same thing (Badiou, 2009). The centrality of revolt is presented by Rozitchner as a maxim, a necessity; “until this necessity appears as a necessity and described in the essence and foundation of the psychic apparatus, this apparatus will be in each one of us in infernal machine, mounted by the enemy. In what is most proper to us” (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 22).
Another reason Freud’s thought must be read as in continuity with the enlightenment project is because psychoanalysis has pinpointed a form of aggressiveness that is derivative of the bourgeois class struggle. This means that we should not waste our time thinking that Freud’s theory of aggressiveness is rooted in a vulgar theory of biological drives. There is no aggressiveness in the first state, full stop. Moreover, there is no “aggressive instinct” that Freud develops in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that would be an autonomous aggressive instinct because everything in the human being is determined by the system of production (Rozitchner, 1972/2022, p. 197). Therefore, we can pinpoint a precise rationality in the death drive, and I think it is this claim that even further connects Freud’s social thought to the enlightenment. The diffusion of the death drive in society is what makes aggressiveness appear as a homogenizing force for the preservation of the status quo, a process spurned on by our relation to laboring under the capitalist mode of production.
We must combine these two concerns; the centrality of revolution with the sickness of the normal subject, to locate the theory of the social bond of the revolutionary group as the primary activation of an alternative to normalized and sick bourgeois subjectivity. If we do not do this, psychoanalytic theory will remain only an ideology. Psychoanalysis, Rozitchner insists, must re-discover its true mission: to address the foundation of the repressive system. And Freud gives us all the tools and means to re-discover this mission in his social writings.
Conclusion: The Changing Status of Normality and the Social Superego
There are two aspects of the above argument we have described which strike me as potentially problematic given the historical distance we now have to the original publication of this incredible work, which was again published near the same time as Anti-Oedipus in 1972. The first question that this work raises is a more technical and, admittedly, more speculative, question. There is an argument that many psychoanalytic thinkers pinpoint, from Christopher Lasch to Kojin Karatani, that the Oedipal superego is no longer the guiding basis of what makes up the “normal” bourgeois subject (Tutt, 2022, pp. 31 – 37). The predominance of the Oedipal superego—the more original Freudian theory of the superego—has been displaced and weakened by the forces of consumer capitalism and the fragmentation of the nuclear bourgeois family. Rozitchner helps us to think two aspects of this displacement: first, the social superego can be thought of as an acephalic fragmentation of the Oedipal familial superego, and second, it can be thought of in a more localized way within a given group in revolt. The bourgeois family shelters us from this form of the social superego, and when we are exposed to the social dimension of the superego, we are presented with a more immanent primal father. It is the collapse of this “sheltering” of the bourgeois family that has changed the dynamic at work (Tutt, 2022, pp. 24 – 29). But, for Rozitchner, it is the revolutionary social bond that propels the group out of familial superego binds.
In my own work on this topic, I argue the family has undergone such profound fragmentation that the basis both of what makes up normality is now inconsistent and what shelters us from the social dimension of the superego is also inconsistent (Tutt, 2022, p. 30). If we accept the historical periodization of changing dynamics of post-industrial capitalism, from the 1970s to the present, where we have witnessed an intensifying socialization of the family and labor, this provides an important window into the decline of Oedipal formations and into the decline of the efficacy of the familial superego.
The second theme in Rozitchner’s work that stands as dated from the perspective of our present, is his insistence that Freud works with a framework of normality. This allows Rozitchner to tie normality to the bourgeoisie as a coherent class within the social order. The three resisters to bourgeois normality: the rebel, the artist and the neurotic are exceptions to this normality, and they stand out as privileged resisters and rebels to bourgeois dominance, Today, the very category of normality is far more jumbled in our post-prohibitionary age. Many Lacanian thinkers such as Jacques-Alain Miller who argue our age is marked by a “clinic of the mad” and new forms of delusion. But does a shifting basis of the norm and normality as tied to a more homogenous class formation imply that we cannot speak of bourgeois subjectivity as such? If we accept that we are all made, we lose the coherence of naming class antagonisms vias a vis the same categories as Rozitchner identifies. The ambiguity regarding the eclipse of revolutionary subjectivity in today’s time is echoed by Judith Butler in The Psychic Life of Power, where she aims to chart a new theory of radical agency in our “postliberatory times” (Butler, 1997, p. 18).
Rozitchner’s work must be considered from the revolutionary perspective, and we must read his work with this challenge in mind, namely, what can we speak of revolution today? To ask this question means also that any reading of Rozitchner must historicize his project to the 68 generation and to 20th century revolutionary history, where he stands out as an exceptionally lucid theorist who successfully synthesized Marx and Freud in ways that are startling and clear. Rozitchner invites us to re-think how Freud’s thought links up with a revolutionary socialist perspective, and it remains to be answered how we begin to think about revolutionary subjectivity in a postliberatory times. Rozitchner stands as a relevant guide from a bygone era.
Badiou, A. (2009). Theory of the subject (B. Bosteels, Trans.). Verso Books.
Butler, J. (1997). The psychic life of power. Stanford University Press.
Sartre, J. (2004) Critique of dialectical reason: Volume I. Theory of practical ensembles (A. Smith, Trans.). Verso Books.
Rozitchner, L. (2022). Freud and the limits of bourgeois individualism (B. Bosteels, Trans.) Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume: 240. (Original work published 1972)
Rozitchner, L. (1985) Perón: Entre la sangre y el tiempo. Lo inconsciente y la política [Perón: Between blood and time. The unconscious and politics ]. Centro Editor de América Latina.
Tutt, D. (2022). Psychoanalysis and the politics of the family: The crisis of initiation. Palgrave Lacan Series.
Daniel Tutt is a philosopher of psychoanalysis and Marxist thought. He is the author of Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Family: The Crisis of Initiation with the Palgrave Lacan Series and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at George Washington University, Marymount University and Research Fellow at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. He has taught at the Washington, DC Central Detention Facility and is the founder and convener of Study Groups on Psychoanalysis and Politics, a public learning platform that offers study groups, seminars, and podcasts for the wider public.
December 9, 2022