Dialectical Materialism, Psychoanalysis and other Religions

Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx have a lot in common. Both were brilliant, revolutionary thinkers of their time. Both are dead. Both brought together powerful and lasting insights into the workings of human beings and human societies. Both had distinctive facial hair. Both lent their name to a runaway system of thought whose influence outlived them by many decades; indeed, many academics call themselves Freudian and Marxist to this day. Both smoked cigars. And, for better or worse, both have have enjoyed particularly long goodbyes.

In this post I want to make a few brief arguments against the value of our long, drawn out farewell to these intellectual giants. Camus would be pissed, but suicide is far from the most pressing of our philosophical dilemmas. Much as I try to avoid them, the persistent spectres of Freud and Marx compel me to formulate philosophy’s greatest plight as ‘What is it going to take for us to move on?’

Go away, please.

It should be clear that I think both ideologies have outlived their usefulness. But more importantly, I think that the phenomena they pretend to describe (and critique) are now more accurately described by more coherent, rigorous theories, albeit incomplete ones. The Freudian theory of mind has been outpaced by modern psychology, and notably by evolutionary psychology. The Marxist theory of teleological economic and political relations between classes has been eclipsed by an interdisciplinary account of human cultural development, including the same theories of mind that do away with Freud.

And yet to this day it is legitimate in many academic circles to offer a Marxist or Freudian take on a theory or argument. Even when a thinker adheres to neither, it is typical to contrast an aspiring theory with the old vanguard.

I don’t deny that some level of lingering influence is to be expected for any influential theory, no matter how thoroughly debunked. And of course the faithful will argue that they remain viable theories that have yet to be ‘debunked’. However, a more accurate argument is that they cannot be disproved. That is, after all, the hallmark of all pseudo-science. Them’s fighting words, I know.

The charge of pseudo-science (or, general quackery) really pisses off Marxists and Freudians – after all, they claim, their theories are not merely descriptive but normative. Yet the simple truth is that non-normative information affects normative positions. If you hope to make a case for what ought to be, it helps to at least properly describe what is.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the first time I read the Communist Manifesto I pretty much bought into it. WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE…..to kick Bill Gates in the balls! The book had strong intuitive moral appeal, to say the least.

Bill Gates taking one in the face. Bourgeoisie: 0 Pie: 1

Obviously, the effects didn’t last on me as they did on many others. The moral prescriptions for the establishment of the classless society may get the blood pumping on an unreflective reading, but any serious interrogation left me with only doubts. The inadequacies of Marxism are many, but I will give two:

1. It is based upon an inaccurate account of human nature. True, Marx was influenced by Darwin – there’s even a popular myth that he offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin (which turns out to be false, although he did send him a signed copy).*  Modern Darwinism, as I have repeatedly argued previously, upsets a great many earlier ideological conceptions of humans. Marx’s is no exception. Although the sum of social relations indeed shapes how humans behave, that is not the full story as Marx would have us believe. For an excellent account of why it is meaningful to speak of human nature, I heartily recommend the excellent The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Peter Singer has written an excellent (and much shorter) book on the many ways that the Left misconstrues what we have learned about ourselves from science called A Darwinian Left.

2. Dialectical materialism offers limited predictive capacity. Indeed its most basic assumptions are probably what it ‘predicts’ best; the increasing concentration of wealth in capitalist societies and so forth. The telos of society has simply not been borne out by reality. And although many Marxists despise this argument (with some legitimacy), every attempt to implement Marx’s prescriptions have ended more or less catastrophically.

Similar reasons can be used against Freud:

1. Science has given us a better theory of human nature that does away with all the weird mummy-daddy-bum-cigar issues.

2. Psychoanalysis or something like it as a practice of therapy can be done without recourse to Freud’s framework of human nature.

I’m aware that my criticism will seem glib, ignorant, disrespectful (etc.) to some. I think I can explain this: I see both systems as proto-religions. Although not as dogmatic or as fundamentally unfalsifiable as a religion proper, they nevertheless have evolved to resist critique.** It seems that whatever empirical or logical arguments you throw their way, they find some way of squirming past it, incorporating yet another exception to their applicability.

And as with religion, when you argue with someone who has bought-into the worldview, it can be nearly impossible to talk to each other on the same terms. We have all had the experience of arguing with someone with such fundamentally different assumptions from us that the conversation eventually breaks down because we are simply talking ‘past’ one another.  It’s as though you’re on two different, parallel planes of discourse that will never intersect.

It seems to me that in those kinds of situations, one person might attempt to descend to the plane of the other person’s point of view and attempt to argue from within the worldview in hopes of critically wounding it from the inside.

Unfortunately, it can be exceedingly difficult to use the logic of a particular system to demolish it from within. Religions are impeccably internally consistent. It’s incredible how much scholarship has been done in, say, Catholic theology. Once you’re ‘in’ the ideology, there is so much to discuss! Unfortunately once you’re ‘in’ there’s not much worth to your efforts. It’s staggering to think how much brilliant talent has been wasted throughout the ages on such forms of dogmatically constrained thought.

Marx and Freud were brilliant. But they were not prophetic. They have been shown to be fallible like the rest of us. And hopefully the ideologies that bear their names will soon die gracefully before they taint another century’s worth of academics.

Heh. Taint.

Look how big it is!!


*  An excellent explanation of the myth can be found here: http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/2000/marx/

**I will use the short hand ‘they’ to save space – of course I don’t think that Marxist or Freudian thought has become a self-aware, conscious entity (…yet). ‘They’ or ‘it’ refers broadly to the supporters, institutions and ideology that have an interest in preserving their respective worldview.

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5 Responses to Dialectical Materialism, Psychoanalysis and other Religions

  1. Zeina says:

    Interesting, although somehow I feel like this post doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the influence that Marxism/Freudian theory has within philosophy as a whole (i.e. the big picture). I can’t say much about psychoanalytical theory, but the critiques you’ve given against Marxism are quite valid and have been brought up by a lot of postcolonial theorists. In that regard, most ‘marxist’ theorists are no longer focused on the teleological foundations behind communism but rather focus on class/race/gender within capitalist society which is quite relevant today. I think many have also realized that Marxist foundations on human nature/evolution are quite problematic. The problem that Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are faced with is the ‘association by name’ issue — while Marxism today may not be what it was 100 year ago, the continuing association with Marx creates that false image. Therefore, I think that, while it is quite possible that people call themselves ‘marxists’, they are most likely not (depending on how you decide to define Marxism).

    Also, one can’t really deny the influence that the theory has had on the development of more ‘modern’ theories like postmodernism, postcolonialism and postrucuturalism. All that just to say that theories don’t evolve the way religions due, and I think that Marxism or psychoanalysis, will continuously have an influence in theory and on people, the same way liberal ideology does. You just leave behind what doesn’t work anymore (I.e. liberal thinkers on race/gender) and go one with what does. Again, the only difference is that it has that association to ‘person’ which gives off the impression of it being static.

    • Will says:

      You make good points as always Zeina!

      It would be interesting to know what both Marx and Freud thought of what their theories became after their deaths.

      I agree that both lead to valuable insights and ‘spin-off’ theories which deserve to be evaluated on their own right.

      I also think you’re right that they will both continue to have influence. I guess my beef is that they still have so much influence at the expense of other, more complete theories.

      As for their influence ‘on the whole’ of philosophy, that is very difficult to evaluate. It would be interesting (but obviously impossible) to know what would have happened if Marx or Freud had decided to be hairdressers or soldiers instead of theorists.

      I guess my point is that their period of influence ought to be winding down a lot faster than it is, and that they have the undue benefit of inertia – so many academics are familiar with their work, and so they continue to be propped up perhaps because of familiarity more than because of validity.

      Anyhow, thanks for your thoughtful comment 🙂

  2. Kat says:

    Firstly, I fail to understand why you are grouping Freud and Marx together. Freud was a therapist whose theories have become widely disregarded. Most people who still claim to be Freudian do so because of his methodology, not because of his theories. On the other hand, Marx was a brilliant thinker who completely changed the way we look at history. He inspired revolution, and because of him the world as we know it is a completely different place.

    The similarities between these two men does not justify grouping them together in this way. My dad has a beard and smokes cigars, why don’t you talk about him?

    Secondly, this entire post sounds like a whiny first year in Philosophy 101: “Why do we have to learn about Plato? He’s been dead for, like, a million years!” As new thinkers and theories emerge, it would be foolish and short sighted to, as you say, allow old ideologies to “die gracefully”. Just as Marx, (and Freud, I guess), studied, learned from, and critiqued thinkers that came before them, we must do the same in order to understand where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going.

    • Will says:

      Well Kat, you’ve said quite a bit and I’ll try to respond to all of it.

      I’m grouping them together because I think they both exemplify inertia in academia. The references to their facial hair and cigar-smoking were mostly for rhetorical flourish. You can disregard it.

      Freud’s theories are increasingly disregarded, but they are not gone. As for his ‘methodology’, I would argue that it was almost entirely pseudo-scientific, even if it may have been effective in some therapeutic cases. It’s true that he had brilliant insights and changed the way we think about the human mind, but he was wrong on a great many counts. To refer to one’s self as Freudian is to overlook the incredible, and I would argue paradigmatic advances that have been made in the decades since he published his major works.

      Marx was also brilliant and as I said made lasting changes to the way we understand human society. However I stand by my argument that his claims and his methodology were also deeply flawed. He may have completely changed the way you look at history, but he hasn’t changed the way I look at history, except to the extent that his theories changed the unfolding of historical events. I don’t think you were arguing that he made the world a better place, which is lucky for me because I wouldn’t know where to begin rejecting such a ludicrous claim. He inspired revolutions, it’s true – some of the bloodiest most counter-productive revolutions in human history.

      As for understanding history, (lest I sound like a whiny first year) you should look into a fellow by the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who conceived of history in broadly similar terms (dialectical idealism instead of materialism) and who Marx is widely acknowledged to have borrowed from extensively. Few people get up in arms when you criticize Hegelian ideology, because for whatever reason (historical accident, political convenience, human memory-span) his system of thought does not persist as the proto-religion that I argued Marxism and Freudian thought managed to until very recently.

      Finally, I didn’t say their theories shouldn’t be taught. I said they shouldn’t be taught as though they were still viable. Their theories have become something like the academic equivalents of Paris Hilton – important because they are important or famous because they’re famous.

      They should die gracefully so that more complex, nuanced, empirically grounded theories of human beings can advance. There is a great deal of scholarship that gets pushed out of the mainstream discourse in favour of these dead-weighted theories.

      History is crucial. And I love Plato. But I don’t think that when push comes to shove, new ideas should give deference to the old ones just because they’re older. Plato got a lot of shit wrong. So did Marx and so did Freud. Time for us to move to greener pastures. We don’t have to purge the records to make progress, which, ironically, was a central tenet of several of the Marx-inspired ‘revolutions’.

      • Kat says:

        Well Will, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comment, but you have still failed to convince me. Your rhetorical flourish is much appreciated, but I don’t understand why you chose to dedicate an entire post based on the assumption that Freud and Marx are somehow comparable. Freud prescribed cocaine to his patients, and told them all that they wanted to have sex with their parents. He thought that all women wanted a penis, and that all men lived with a perpetual fear of castration. In my personal opinion, he was a complete nut. If you really think he’s on the same level as Marx, then I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

        In regards to Marx, your personal interpretation of history is not the point. The point I was trying to make was that because of Marx, history is interpreted in a way that it never was before – in terms of class, and from the perspective of groups who are typically oppressed. I gladly concede that Marx was inspired by and borrowed from a wide range of thinkers who came before him, such as Hegel (who I am already familiar with, but I appreciate the tip). As I said in my first comment, it is not only normal, but expected that we look to those who came before us so we can be inspired by the things that still ring true, and as Zeina said, leave behind what doesn’t work. For whatever reason, it is Marx and the Communist Manifesto that are known the world over. I’m sure there are those more intelligent and knowledgeable than myself who could explain why this is the case, however I don’t feel that this is really the issue at hand.

        To get to the root of what we seem to disagree on: I have gathered that you believe that because sounder and more “empirically grounded theories” have been put forth; Marx should no longer play such a significant role in the mainstream discourse. I do agree that there are some things we should move on from – Freud for example. However, I do not believe that Marx’s contributions should be put on the back burner so quickly. A mere century and a half ago, Marx helped popularize the notion that the lower classes are being oppressed, and that they have the right to resist this oppression. To me, this is something that is not only still relevant, but perhaps even more relevant today than when it was first written.

        To prove my point, look no further than this very argument. If Marx were so irrelevant, this conversation would not be taking place to begin with. As you well know, I am a very busy girl, and I know those bookshelves don’t dust themselves. However, here we are, discussing whether or not we should discuss Marx. I don’t believe that this discussion is taking place because of “academic inertia”. I think it’s taking place because what was thought provoking and inspiring then is just as thought provoking and inspiring now.

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