Back in the early 70s, Eli Zaretsky wrote for a socialist newspaper and was engaged to review a recently released book, Psychoanalysis and Feminism by Juliet Mitchell. First, he decided, he’d better read some Freud. This started a life-long engagement with psychoanalysis and leftist politics, and his new book Political Freud: A History (Columbia University Press, 2015) conveys the richness of his decades of reading Freud. Following his 2004 Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis, Zaretsky’s latest book, some would call it a companion, is comprised of five essays analyzing the complexity of the mutual influencing of capitalism, social/political history, and psychoanalysis, with particular attention to how and whether people conceive of their own interiority as political. (Particularly timely is chapter two: “Beyond the Blues: the Racial Unconscious and Collective Memory” which explores African American intellectual engagement with psychoanalysis as a tool for understanding oppression.) “Whereas introspection did once define an epoch of social and cultural history– the Freudian epoch– there were historical reasons for this, and it was bound to pass” says Zaretsky. But Political Freud is also a compelling argument for how badly we still need a conception of the self–or ego– with a critical and non-normalizing edge.
Eli Zaretsky is a professor of history at The New School, writes and teaches about twentieth-century cultural history, the theory and history of capitalism (especially its social and cultural dimensions), and the history of the family. He is also the author of Why America Needs a Left, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis and Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life.
In this masterful psychological-intellectual history, Eli Zaretsky shows Freudianism to be something more than a method of psychotherapy. When considered alongside the major struggles of the twentieth century, Freudianism becomes a catalyst of the age. Political Freud is Zaretsky’s account of the way twentieth century radicals, activists, and thinkers used Freudian thought to understand the political developments of their century. Through his reading, he shows the ongoing, formative power of Freudianism in contemporary times.
The role played by political Freudianism was chaotic and oftentimes contradictory. Nevertheless, Zaretsky’s conception of political Freudianism unites the two great themes of the century–totalitarianism and consumerism–in one framework. He shows how important political readings of Freud were to the theory of fascism and the experience of the Holocaust, the critical role they played in African American radical thought, particularly in the struggle for racial memory, and in the rebellions of the 1960s and their culmination in feminism and gay liberation. Yet Freudianism’s involvement in history was not one-sided. Its interaction with historical forces shaped the Freudian tradition as well, and in this illuminating account, Zaretsky tracks the evolution of Freudian ideas across the decades so we can better recognize its manifestations today.
Eli Zaretsky reveals the power of Freudian thought to illuminate the great political conflicts of the twentieth century. Developing an original concept of “Political Freudianism” he shows how twentieth century radicals, activists and intellectuals used psychoanalytic ideas to probe consumer capitalism, racial violence, anti-Semitism, and patriarchy. He also shows the continuing influence and critical potential of those ideas in the transformed landscape of the present.
Zaretsky’s conception of Political Freudianism unites the two overarching themes of the last century—totalitarianism and consumerism—in a single framework. He shows that theories of mass psychology and the unconscious were central to the study of fascism and the Holocaust, to African American radical thought, particularly the struggle to overcome the legacy of slavery, to the rebellions of the 1960s and to the feminism and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. Nor did the influence of Political Freud end when the era of Freud-bashing began. Rather, Zaretsky shows that political Freudianism is alive today in cultural studies, the study of memory, theories of trauma, post-colonial thought, film, media and computer studies, evolutionary theory and even economics.