Freud, Sex, and New Left Politics

This essay is the third part of my interactive review of Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In parts one and two I told the story of how Jean-Jacques Rousseau relocated the source of individual identity from the external sacred order to the inner psychic world. Percy Shelly and other romantics continued the inward turn but combined it with atheism and a frontal attack against Christianity and traditional marriage. Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin, each in his own way, continued dismantling the ideas of human nature, divine creation, providence, and moral law. Human beings are free to design their own identity according to their desires unconstrained by obligations to an external order.

Today we continue the story of how our culture turned from viewing “sex as an activity to seeing it as absolutely fundamental to identity” (Trueman, p. 202), transforming sexual preferences from private matters into a “matters of public interest, means by which we are recognized” (p. 204).

The Sexualized Self

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) convinced the world that desire for sexual pleasure is the central driving force for human behavior from infancy onward and that it serves as the main explanatory principle of all human activity. As far back as Aristotle thinkers noted that human beings aim for happiness in all they do. But Freud reduces happiness to sexual pleasure and all human activity to ways of seeking it. Whereas Rousseau had an optimistic view of the inner psychic world, Freud saw the inner world as “dark, violent, and irrational” (p. 206). At its deepest level sexual desire is amorphous and amoral, what might be called in today’s parlance “pansexual” desire. None of the social rules that limit sexual gratification can be justified by reference to a moral law or human nature or any other normative order. For Freud, God is an illusion, religion is a holdover from infancy, and moral categories must be replaced by aesthetic ones. Freud places sexual activity on the same level as attitudes toward foods. Most Americans would experience nausea and disgust if after a hearty meal they were told had just eaten dog stew. Just so, the thought of certain forms of sexual activity create disgust in some people. In today’s terminology, moral objections to disapproved sexual behaviors are called phobias. Moral judgments are dismissed as expressions of irrational psychological associations.

In his book Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that the character of a society is determined by the behaviors it permits and forbids, specifically what forms of sexual gratification it regulates. Like Rousseau, Freud sees society as imposing unhappiness and artificiality on the individual. Not surprisingly, however, Freud interprets the relationship between society and the individual in sexual terms. Freud equates maximum happiness with unrestricted pursuit of sexual pleasure, but civilization is not compatible with such behavior. Hence civilization is purchased at the price of individual unhappiness. In civilization, individuals are continually sexually frustrated. Society suppresses what it deems antisocial sexual practices and the individual internalizes society’s rules by repressing sexual desire. In contemporary terms, society is a sexual oppressor and the individual is a victim of sexual oppression. According to Freud, there is no way out of this dilemma.

The New Left and the Politicization of Sex

We’ve seen how Rousseau psychologized the self and how Freud sexualized the psychologized self. Now we consider how the New Left politicized the already psychologized and sexualized self.

Karl Marx theorized that capitalism would continue its trajectory of concentrating wealth in the hands of ever fewer capitalists to the point that it would collapse under its own weight. The sleeping giant of the working class would then wake up to the exploitation built into the capitalist system and institute a new order of communism, that is, common ownership and management of all means of production. But the collapse never came, and the workers never woke up. The brutality of the Stalin regime in Russia and the enthusiastic support that working class Germany gave to Hitler provoked many socialists to look for a revised form of Marxism. The problem with which they wrestled was how to awaken the working class to their oppressed status.

Trueman focuses on two thinkers who play pivotal roles in politicizing Freud’s sexualized self, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Both men were born and educated in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the 1930s. The genius of these two thinkers lay in their creative combination of Marx and Freud. They came to the conclusion that the reason the working class had not awakened to its economic and political oppression was its unquestioning commitment to the traditional family. If the awakening is to occur, the working class family must be destroyed.

Reich inherited the Marxist idea that the monogamous, “patriarchal” family and capitalist society support each other. The family must be weakened or destroyed for a truly socialist society to arise. To this theory Reich added Freud’s idea that the existence of civilization requires sexual repression. Reich concluded that “working-class people must be disabused of their commitment to the bourgeois sexual codes that make the traditional family an unquestioned and necessary good” (Trueman, p. 236). However, Reich qualified Freud’s pessimistic idea that civilization in all its forms must repress sexual desire. He argued that only some forms of society required such repression, specifically capitalist societies. In his book The Sexual Revolution (1936), he argued that a truly free and socialist society cannot be created apart from liberating sexual desire from bondage to marriage and the patriarchal family. Drawing on Freud’s understanding of childhood sexuality, Reich argued that the state must make sure that all children are given sex education and that teenage children are given sexual freedom, despite parental objections. In Reich, sex has been politicized and political freedom has been identified with sexual freedom.

Herbert Marcuse* also adheres to the Marxist critique of the traditional family. Social revolutionaries must expose the oppressive nature of the sexual codes that reinforce the traditional family, and one way to do this is by publicly transgressing them. Hence engaging in behaviors bourgeois society considers perverted, obscene, or deviant—or supporting those who do—is an important means of protest against the sexual/political oppression of traditional society.

Clearly most people are not familiar with the writings of the New Left thinkers, though almost everyone has some familiarity with Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. But Marcuse and other thinkers have exerted an enormous influence within American universities for 60 years, and their theories, often unattached to their names, have touched all of us in one way or another–through education, entertainment, advertising, and news media.

I will end with a quote from Trueman’s conclusion to this section:

The marriage of Freud and Marx at the hands of the New Left may well have started out as a shotgun wedding, but it is very clear that it has proved a long, happy, and fruitful relationship. The fact that sex is now politics is in large measure the result of this unusual marriage, and the latest iteration of that—the transgender movement—also takes it cue from the psychologizing and historicizing of human nature, combined with the now-standard leitmotif of oppression as society’s imposition of its own values and norms on the individual. For any who wonder why private sexual behavior has great public and political significance today, the story of the New Left makes it all clear (p. 263).

*Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was highly influential in left-leaning political circles, especially in American academia. Look him up on Google. You can see YouTube interviews and you can read about his influence on Wikipedia.

Next Time: How gender became disengaged from biological sex.

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