Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Marxist psychology

by Spiro Anthony

This is the text of a paper delivered at the Millennium World Conference in Critical Psychology held in Sydney from 30 April to 2 May 1999.

Marxism is a set of principles which apply to all of the natural world, including human life and society.

As with the Marxist study of economics, history, sociology and other spheres of human activity, the Marxist approach to psychology is based on dialectical and historical materialism.

Materialism holds that there is an objective reality which exists outside of perception. Dialectical materialism states that all things are in a constant state of change and that change occurs according to certain laws and patterns. Historical materialism is the application of dialectical materialism to society.

In psychology, the application of dialectical and historical materialism allows us to take up the fundamental questions that have confronted psychology over the years. It sets a philosophical basis for psychology. It can also be regarded as a school of psychology for it takes up issues addressed by the various schools — what motivates human activity, why people behave and think as they do. It provides us with ways to analyse psychological phenomena and it indicates ways in which psychological therapy can best proceed.

It is fundamental in Marxism to recognise that there are two basic factors that are operating in human mentality and behaviour. These are the objective factor and the subjective factor.

The objective factor refers to the actual circumstances pertaining at the time. People are born and develop within the context of objective circumstances, which are the physical environment and society. Objective circumstances serve to guide and shape the individual. On the whole, people who are exposed to the same circumstances, live in the same historical period, the same social and cultural context, think and act differently to those who live under different objective circumstances. The slave in Roman days would have had a different outlook on life to the feudal lord in England and to the university student in Sydney in 1999 because the objective factors are different.

Now the subjective factor. Within the framework of the given objective circumstances, the human being has choices. There is a free, rational and creative element. The human perceives, thinks, experiences feelings and acts. This is the subjective factor, and this is vital in understanding human life and society.

The two factors, objective and subjective, combine to make the individual what he or she is. It is not just a matter of recognising the existence of each factor, but a question of how the two relate. What we say in Marxism is that the two factors form a dialectical unity. Each requires the other and at the same time there is constant interaction between the two.

Looking at society as a whole, we see that there have been and continue to be constant changes through the activity of people. This activity arises from the thoughts and feelings of people in relation to their objective circumstances. Society changes through this activity; people are actively involved in creating new forms of culture, social, political and economic life. Marx said that the history and future of society, in other words the whole span of human life, consists of the activity of people pursuing their ever developing needs. The masses make history. People help to shape the objective world rather than just respond to it.

The dialectical approach is also applied to the fundamental philosophical issue — the relationship between mind (thought) and body, or mind and brain. The Marxist position is that mind is created by brain and mentality is dependent upon the functioning of the brain. Mental activity is a reflection of reality and at the same time causes a response to reality. There is a dialectical relation between reflecting reality and the role of mental activity in changing reality.

For example, your brain allows you to reflect the reality that there is a soft drink in front of you and by deciding to drink it and making it invisible to you and the person next to you, you change the objective world. You change the objective world for yourself, for the person next to you — and for the soft drink manufacturer who will reflect on what has happened and set about making more soft drinks.

So there is change and development through the interaction of the objective and subjective factors. It is also the case that through activity, the brain itself changes. The evolutionary development of the human species has come about through the increased complexity of human activity, which has gone hand in hand with the growth in the size and physical complexity of the brain. There is evidence nowadays that even the mature adult brain in an individual can change in physical complexity according to the individual's lifestyle.

The person's biological disposition, the brain, level of maturation and genetic factors are all part of the individual's objective circumstances. Biological conditions need to be considered along with the person's social situation, culture, background and other circumstances that constitute the objective reality in which the person functions.

By way of summary, Marxism holds that mental life exists and that mind, which is made up of cognitions and feelings, is a product of the brain and dependent upon the brain. Mind reflects reality and at the same time generates activity which in turn changes reality. A person is influenced by his or her own biology and circumstances in life and at the same time acts to change these circumstances. This is the Marxist concept of the person.

Following on from these basic propositions, the application of Marxist psychology involves certain methodological principles. These principles, again, are based on dialectical materialism.

A first principle is that psychological phenomena are not something abstract or timeless, but should be seen as objective phenomena existing in a specific time, place and set of circumstances.

It is important in psychology not to over-generalise, for example, by making global statements concerning intrinsic human nature, or assume that psychological phenomena exist in the same form across all cultures and social systems. Psychological phenomena are complex and need to be studied objectively in relation to time and place.

Even with psychological conditions which are heavily influenced by biological or genetic factors, we find that their manifestation in day to day life is shaped by the situational factors.

For instance, the form of psychotic hallucinations and psychotic behaviour differs according to circumstances and prevailing cultural and moral values.

Those who have studied dialectical categories would see that I am referring to the category of the universal and the particular, or if you like the general and the specific.

Another principle is the necessity to focus on the whole person in all of his or her interrelationships. Nothing exists in isolation. While you might pick out particular psychological phenomena for study purposes, a valid assessment can only be made when the person or psychological phenomenon is seen in all interconnections.

Dialectical method draws attention to the operation of systems in which everything within that system needs to be taken into account, as well as the outside influences upon that system. This refers to the dialectical category of the parts and the whole.

So when we consider the individual, the focus is on the individual in totality — all the objective factors including family, peers, work, schooling, culture, class, and so forth as well as biological factors, plus the person's own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

But the question is not just what factors are influential in explaining psychological phenomena but how these factors interrelate.

In explaining interrelationships we need to introduce a few more principles. Firstly, all things exist in motion, that is, things exist in a constant state of change. Secondly, there are contradictory forces within all things and these contradictory forces constitute the thing; and thirdly, change takes place through struggle between these contradictory forces. In Marxism we refer to this as the unity and struggle of opposites. This has profound implications for psychology.

The task of psychology is to uncover the contradictory forces in order to determine general principles of development and in understanding the individual. We want to know which are the relevant contradictions and how are they operating.

In the natural sciences, dialectical processes have been largely accepted. For instance in chemistry there is the concept that things are constituted by positive and negative ions which are in a constant state of motion and conflict.

So what are the contradictions we find in psychology? The contradiction between instincts and rationality, between cognition and emotion, between heredity and environment, the struggle between the biological and the psychological, between the individual and the social.

What Marxism says is that the question is not nature or nurture, but both. The influence of both is normal in the human being and the struggle between both is normal. There is a life-long struggle between nature and nurture.

And so with the individual and social. There is a contradiction between individual interests and social pressures, which we need first to recognise and then try to find out how these forces are in conflict.

We need to look at how the individual is drawn between his own interests and social pressures, how the struggle between nature and nurture is affecting the human being, how the person is coping with both conscious and unconscious drives operating at the same time.

In normal psychological functioning, the unity and struggle of opposites is proceeding. Where there are psychological disorders, we must look at what conflicting forces are likely to be causing the disorders.

There is another concept that needs to be introduced here. It is the distinction between non-antagonistic and antagonist contradictions. While struggle between conflicting forces is ongoing and causes constant motion and change, if the contradictions are not antagonistic there is no qualitative change. You might say there is evolutionary change. But where the contradictions are antagonistic, the struggle will reach such a point that the thing will change in its very nature. There will be a qualitative change. It will change abruptly. We talk about a dialectical leap, which is a sudden jump in development.

These leaps are not hard to recognise in the natural world. For instance there is a dialectical leap when water turns to steam as a certain temperature is reached. Quantitative change leads to qualitative change.

In psychology, we can also see such leaps. In child development, an infant suddenly takes a first step, suddenly pronounces a word and so forth. In perception and learning, there are sudden qualitative changes. Even in therapy this phenomenon has been recognised. Psychoanalysts have observed that after long periods of therapy a patient suddenly manifests a "corrective emotional experience". In these examples the contradictions would have been antagonistic but the outcome could be regarded as positive. Some contradictions develop in such a way that the result is psychological disorder. In clinical assessment we need to look for those contradictions which have resulted in the psychological problems.

Let me give you one example from the area of personality development.

From conception to birth, the individual is strongly dependent on others for survival. As well as physical dependency, emotional dependency develops. The new born becomes emotionally attached to the parents, particularly the mother. But as a separate individual, independent thinking, feelings and behaviour begin to develop. The contradiction between dependence and independence develops. This is normal.

The individual proceeds through stages of development with qualitatively new features at each stage. For instance in adolescence, the dependence/independence conflict in many societies becomes rather acute because of increased social pressures to be independent. But the conflict does not cease — it stays throughout life. It is normal — the need to belong and to be emotionally dependent on others, together with the need to do things on your own without emotional support. Hopefully this conflict unfolds in a way that the person develops a satisfactory self-concept and can relate to other people without too many anxieties.

What happens if there is a distortion in the dependence/independence conflict along the way? If a young child loses a parent, the conflict will not develop in the normal way and there could well be long term disturbance of self-concept. Excessive dependency or unsatisfied dependency needs can lead to anxiety and personality disorders, whereas excessive independence at a young age can lead to anti-social personality disorder. In other words, there can be qualitatively different personality formations.

Dialectical method can help to uncover the essence of human development by prompting us to search for the contradictions which become the driving force in the person's development.

It should be understood that while Marxism teaches us to look at things in totality and to consider all interrelationships, Marxism does not advocate eclecticism. Psychological phenomena are complex and involve many factors, but this is not to say that all factors have equal weight. Rather, the task is to determine the main factors in development. We look for the main contradictions which make the decisive impact on development.

Even when we identify the main forces that are involved, there is still more to find out, because each of the forces does not have equal significance in a cause and effect relationship.

Take the example of the dependence/independence conflict. The two forces do not have equal weight. If we look closely we can see there is a special relationship, because one of them is more significant than the other. One of them can be regarded as primary and the other secondary. Dependency is a primary drive; independence develops from and as an antithesis to dependency. First a person is dependent and then independence develops. In philosophical terms, independence in human beings is the negation of dependence.

Take a broader example: the major contradiction we spoke of at the outset - - the contradiction between the objective factor and the subjective factor — all the circumstances and pressures on an individual versus the individual's own mental activity and behaviour. Which of the two is primary? We say that the objective factor is primary, and this is why, as we noted earlier, people in similar social and historical conditions are fairly similar in their outlook. For there to be big changes in the outlook and values of people, there need to be qualitative changes in the objective nature of society.

I would like now to refer to the humanist orientation of Marxist psychology.

Marxist ideas were presented to the world last century as a theory which would not only serve to explain nature and society but would help people build a better society. The focus of Marxism has always been on the plight of oppressed and exploited people throughout the different stages of human history. Marxism calls for respect for the human condition and places confidence in people to determine their own destinies.

Marxist psychology values the individual and looks at psychology being applied in the interests of the people. It calls on psychologists to be active in defending the rights of people, particularly the working class and disadvantaged persons in society.

In clinical work, the focus is on respect for the individual, empathy and doing whatever is possible to help people who are suffering.

Turning now to Marxist approaches in the treatment of psychological disorders, we can say that the actual strategies or techniques adopted depend very much on the model of assessment that has been outlined.

Once assessment is completed, dialectical method helps us to organise our treatment strategies in a comprehensive and meaningful way. For instance you might work towards resolving anxiety disorder in a way that enhances family relationships, rather than treating problems in isolation or on an either/or basis.

The therapeutic techniques used will depend on treatment strategies, such that there may be counselling, insight therapy, behavioural and cognitive methods and so forth.

At the same time, we need to emphasise that the therapeutic approach is not eclectic because Marxist psychology is guided by certain theoretical and ideological concepts drawn from historical materialism. I'll mention a few special features which characterise the Marxist approach.

One is that there is a special role given to activity. As we have discussed, people are guided by objective circumstances, but the subjective factor — their own creative thinking and behaviour is very important. What a person actually does in life goes a long way in shaping the type of person that he or she is. Marxism encourages people to think creatively and to be engaged in practical activity as a means of overcoming specific problems.

Take for instance, a person presenting with low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Counselling may be helpful, but substantial change will most likely occur when the person actually does things to change his or her objective circumstances. And so in individual therapy we would look at encouraging practical activity, particularly activity in a social context, as a means of changing self-concept.

In his writings Marx did not give a lot of attention to psychological processes as such, but he did talk about the effects of alienation. He pointed out that the exploitation of labour creates a sense of alienation and he was concerned about this.

He was concerned because he held the view that the free, emancipated human being is capable of learning many skills and performing well in many occupations and in various scholastic, artistic and recreational pursuits. This is an important perspective in therapy as it encourages the psychologist to be innovative, and have faith in the ability of people to be active and creative in overcoming problems and in leading a fuller and more satisfying life.

I would like to conclude with some general comments about the role of theory.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, conservatism in western societies has prompted a strong trend towards pure empiricism in psychology and in reaction to this is the trend to absolutise the subjective experiences of the individual. These approaches undermine the role of theory because of their narrow and one-sided perspectives.

Psychology must have a definite and explicit theory which gives us a framework for understanding what human life is all about. There must be a theory which can draw together all the separate strands of psychology into a meaningful system. We need a dynamic model which can help us get to the essence of human behaviour and human problems.

Marxism has much to offer, not by taking a bit of Marxism here and a bit there, but by seeking to understand the entire philosophical and methodological system of Marxism.

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