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Towards a professional ‘Magna Carta’ for psychoanalysis

February 21, 2013

Conference report – by Shaul Bar-Haim

What has psychoanalysis got to do with totalitarianism? Can psychoanalysis help explain the atrocities of the modern era or suggest forms of support for the victims of oppression? Should psychoanalysts ever work with state security services? These big ethical questions featured in a major international conference – ‘Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism’ – held in September 2012 in London. Scholars from around the globe met at the Wellcome Trust to explore the role of psychoanalysis in the face of totalitarian phenomena.

In 1981, the philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a lecture, ‘Geopsychoanalysis: …“and the Rest of the World”’, in which he spoke out against the conduct of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA). He accused its leading members of refusing to make an explicit denouncement of the widespread use of torture by the Argentine junta. Not only was Argentina under an oppressive regime, but it also had a lively psychoanalytic community, many of whom were being persecuted. The IPA, pointed out Derrida, had expressed official objection only to “the violation of human rights of citizens in general” with but a brief mention of “scientists and…our colleagues in particular”. Derrida believed strongly that the IPA leadership should speak out with one voice against the organised violence of the Argentine regime.

Derrida stated clearly that semantics mattered. Historically, there had been no such thing as “human rights in general”, he claimed; what mattered most was what was actually happening in specific cases of people, time and place. The duty of psychoanalysis, he thought, was to speak out loudly, and not to stay silent in the face of state oppression, torture and other forms of violence. Derrida expanded his discussion by drawing attention to the Magna Carta of 1215, arguing that this medieval document had more fundamental civil liberties than “the IPA’s Magna Carta”, as he described the IPA’s official statement, which was “totally abstract”.

The IPA membership had in effect given Argentina medical legitimacy by its feeble public pronouncements and passive reaction – even though psychoanalysis was a main target for the regime’s persecution (as had also been the case with most 20th-century oppressive regimes, such as Fascist Hungary, Communist Russia and Nazi Germany). But Derrida insisted that the IPA should not be silent. To many in the audience, his speech seemed to call for a radical revision of the psychoanalytic “Magna Carta”, to use his phrase, by encouraging psychoanalytic institutions to be much more engaged, standing at the centre of real political events.

A bust of Sigmund Freud in the Freud Museum, London. Wellcome Library

A bust of Sigmund Freud in the Freud Museum, London. Wellcome Library

A wide community of scholars has since taken up Derrida’s challenge with fervour. Recently the history of psychoanalysis has become a major subject of research. Leading academic historians, sociologists, psychoanalysts and others are keen to develop new research links exploring, for instance, the interaction between psychoanalysis, totalitarianism and World War II. Political historians and leading political scientists are now studying the ways in which psychoanalysis provided the discourse for investigating the psychology of the masses, which partly created the conditions for some of the catastrophes of the 20th century. Other scholars have shown the ways in which psychoanalysis reshaped key aspects of state security in the modern era. The aim of this work is to shed light on many unresolved questions about the practical operation of oppressive regimes in the 20th century.

The overall focus, then, of the London conference was to study the historical links between totalitarianism and psychoanalysis. This research, it is argued, can bring us closer to the creation of the sort of Magna Carta for psychoanalysis that Derrida had in mind more than 30 years ago. Focusing here on a selection of conference papers illustrates some important new research directions.

Psychoanalysis and World War II

Daniel Pick (historian, psychoanalyst and one of the conference organisers) explained that the conference was the result of extensive investigation into the wider implications of psychoanalysis on the Anglo-American world in the mid-20th century. His recent research has been part of a wider Wellcome Trust-funded project, involving a series of workshops at Birkbeck College between 2009 and 2011, and resulting in a book entitled The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts (2012).

In his work, Pick explores the psychoanalytic era of the 1940s and 1950s. This was a time when it seemed as if psychoanalysis could be used as a meta-discipline for the entire field of human science. Psychoanalytic theory, moreover, had provided some useful vocabulary to explain the horrifying enigma of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag. For many other people, it helped them to start to make some sense of the general psychological trends of the masses, especially those associated with late capitalism and the political stalemate of the Cold War.

But psychoanalysis had other applications too. It became a practical tool in the service of governments. It was widely used, for instance, by the British and American armies, secret service agents and legal systems, and for general psychosocial research. Often its practitioners helped governments achieve their national security aims. One of Pick’s main examples for that is the deep engagement of clinicians in the interrogation of the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess when he landed all of a sudden in Scotland in 1941. The overall aim, therefore, of pioneering scholars like Pick is not limited to the study of the wider implications of Nazism, but extends to producing an in-depth account of the political, social and cultural impact of psychoanalysis on Western liberal societies during and after World War II.

Hanna Arendt and psychoanalysis

We can find in the last few decades a huge revival of interest in the seminal work of Hanna Arendt. Most scholars would agree that her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is still a fundamental work on totalitarian regimes. By writing it she helped set the tone for subsequent discussion of this modern phenomenon. Arendt famously ignored psychoanalysis, but literary scholars at the London conference find in Arendt “unexpected affinities with Freudian thought” (to use Jacqueline Rose’s words). Lyndsey Stonebridge, by way of example, locates some surprising links between the theoretical work of Arendt and the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud. Both women attempted to achieve a better understanding of the concept of the ‘refugee’ in its 20th-century manifestation.

The emergence of the ‘refugee’ in its 20th-century sense, as many scholars after Arendt have shown – most recently the late Tony Judt in his monumental book Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945 – is central to migration studies of the totalitarian age. Those that have to move country quickly to escape totalitarianism often have to reconstruct their identity overnight. This process must happen fast, under very stressful conditions, and can cause an adverse mental reaction. Many of these political refugees found themselves suddenly having to struggle for the basic civil rights that they had previously taken for granted. This is the correct context to understand Freud’s postwar efforts to explore the mental defences which are so crucial for the existence of the refugee. “What is at stake for both women in the wake of totalitarianism,” claims Stonebridge, “is the task of reuniting the migrant mind with a new reality.”

Struggling against the fascist mind

Anna Freud was also at the centre of general discussions at the conference, as her work on education is one way to think about how to create a democratic experience among children in a group or by living among children. She is not the only scholar who has aimed to develop new ways of furthering education for democracy. Assimilation of this type of liberal-democratic worldview was considered by many as the ultimate goal of postwar civil society. The historian Michal Shapira studies one vehicle for the inculcation of such values in the influential work of the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency (ISTD).

The ISTD was run by leading psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in Britain. They primarily adopted a psychoanalytic language to conduct research on criminal activity and its prevention. A new criminological discourse drew on contemporary psychoanalytic conceptions of childhood, aggression and violence. It was inspired by a political vision that to avoid fascism in the future, inner criminal forces must be channelled towards more democratic tendencies from early childhood.

The survivors’ niche

Psychoanalytic discourse flourished in the USA after World War II. It provided a useful medical vocabulary to help Jewish survivors cope with the trauma of the Holocaust. Jose Brunner has identified that this flourishing of psychoanalysis can be best understood in terms of the appearance of an ‘ecological niche’ (to use Ian Hacking’s term). That is to say, the coming together of some historically specific factors turned psychoanalysis into a very promising theory and practice for creating a new professional community of Jewish psychoanalysts who had escaped to the USA from the Nazis – as well as enabling the same people to study prejudice and anti- Semitism as a new field of research.

From a different angle, Matt ffytche (another organiser of the conference) shows how certain psychoanalytic concepts, such as Sigmund Freud’s ‘superego’, became focal points of discussion at this time, not only for analysts, but also for social theorists of many different persuasions. The émigré German academics of the Frankfurt school used the superego in their various analyses of the ‘authoritarian personality’ and the demise of liberal society. But, surprisingly, it was a conceptual tool for conservatives and radicals alike in debates on the future of the American family in the 1950s.

From the Cold War to Guantanamo Bay and beyond

A key aspect of the conference was reviewing all current work on psychoanalysis and the Cold War. Thinking again about this affords the opportunity to contemplate some of our contemporary problems too – these, in many respects, are still part of an authoritarian legacy, for example, in the covert activities of secret services in the Anglo-American world and elsewhere. Often secret agencies, as Knuth Müller showed in his paper, borrow explicitly and implicitly psychoanalytic models. During World War II, the Cold War and the 21st-century ‘war against terror’, the CIA has adopted aspects of psychoanalytical theory and practice to support torture operations, and to control civilian populations in the fight against terrorism around the world. The Western struggle against totalitarianism has generally meant deploying some types of totalitarian methods. Currently, this historical process is perhaps best symbolised by Guantanamo Bay: a topic of ongoing debate and future research.

In 1981, Derrida asked psychoanalysts to think again about their political complicity – especially the links between state torture and psychoanalysis as a tool of state control: “Even supposing that psychoanalysis can provide a rigorous basis for a discourse of non-violence – or of non-torture (which seems to me more fundamental) – I should certainly not venture here, merely touching upon the subject, to remind an audience such as you that this is precisely the subject of your theory, your practice, and your institutions. You ought to have essential things to say – and to do – on the matter of torture.” It turns out that Derrida’s vision is still far from complete in 2012.

Shaul Bar-Haim is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, where he recently gave a keynote paper on regression and maternity in early psychoanalysis. He was an organiser of the ‘Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism’ conference. He welcomes enquiries from those working in this fascinating field of study (


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