Tag Archives: Marx

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.

Genesis of the Gender Revolution

Today I will continue to interact with Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The previous essay documented Trueman’s historical method and posed the question that drives the book’s argument: How did it come about that the view of human identity held by nearly everyone in 1500 was by 2020 turned upside down and inside out. Instead of an individual’s identity being determined by their relationships to an external order—God, nature, moral law, and society—it came to be determined by their inner desires and tastes. Instead of being given, identity is now chosen. Instead of conforming to the outside world, modern people demand that the outside world conform to their inner sense of identity.

Intellectual Roots of the Revolution

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Trueman traces the genesis of the sexual revolution to the middle of the eighteenth century to the “Father of Romanticism” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Of course, there are no absolute beginning points within the flow of history, so beginning with Rousseau marks a somewhat arbitrary starting point. Nevertheless given Trueman’s limited aim of explaining the rise of the gender revolution, beginning with Rousseau makes sense. Rousseau was born in Geneva where the Calvinist doctrine of original sin was taught as Protestant dogma. He grew to intellectual maturity in France in the age of Voltaire where scientific reason was proclaimed the source and arbiter of all knowledge. Rousseau rebelled against both original sin and rationalism.

Rousseau argues that truth, goodness, and happiness are found by returning to nature unspoiled by artificial human society. Human beings are born free and are endowed with instincts adequate to guide them in living good and happy lives. But society corrupts them, teaching envy, greed, jealousy, duplicity, and other vices and crimes. Not cold reason or social conventions but inward feeling is the best guide to truth, goodness, and happiness. If only we could live outwardly according to our inward selves! In a sentence that could have been written in 2021, he says, “How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions” (Quoted in Trueman, p. 113). A near perfect definition of authenticity! Rousseau’s view of society as the origin of evil entered the public imagination and lead to the discovery of countless other socially constructed forms of oppression: capitalism, racism, and sexism.

Rousseau never denied the existence of God, moral law, or human nature. Indeed, he championed them. Nevertheless, by blaming the self’s alienation from its true self on the social order and by transferring the sources of moral knowledge from reason and revelation to the inner self and its feelings, he laid the foundation for rebellion against other external structures. God, moral law, reason, and nature would in turn become viewed as instruments of oppression.

The Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin

The romantic poets of the early nineteenth century continue Rousseau’s contrast between the innocence of nature and the corruption of society. Especially relevant to the sexual and gender revolutions of recent times is the career of the English poet Percy Shelly (1792-1822). In his poetry (e.g. Queen Mab) Shelly envisioned overturning the self-alienating social and political order and returning to nature. The chief obstacle standing in the way of this project is Christianity, which he attacked in a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, calling the God of the Bible a “Demon-God.” The idea of God served as a justification for oppression and exploitation of the many by the powerful few. And nothing symbolized the alienating effect of society on the true selfhood of the individual more than the Christian teaching limiting sexual relations to exclusive, life-long, monogamous marriage. Shelly advocates the practice free love where sexual partners enjoy each other for personal happiness alone and renounce all artificial limits. Shelly explains his sexual ethics as follows:

If happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits. There is nothing immoral in this separation (Poetical Works. Quoted in Trueman, p. 155).

The impact of the titanic figures of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin on the formation of the contemporary world is beyond calculation. Trueman focuses on a few themes that contributed to the plausibility of the gender revolution. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) pursued the logical implications of atheism in both its theoretical and practical forms. For all practical purposes “God is dead,” that is, the idea of God has cease to affect the way people live, even if they say they believe. Nietzsche argues that we must accept the full consequences of God’s demise and give up every idea and practice that depends on God’s existence as the ground of its meaningfulness. For example, we must renounce the ideas that we live in a meaningful world, that human beings have an essential nature or intrinsic dignity, and that there are moral truths. We are on our own. We have to create our own meaning, construct our own nature and dignity according to our tastes, and replace morality with our aesthetic sense. Human nature becomes “plastic” to be molded into whatever shape pleases us. For Nietzsche Christianity is not only false, it is “morally repugnant” and “distasteful” (Trueman, p. 173). For Nietzsche all relationships are relations of power, and any claims to the contrary should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

In Karl Marx (1818-83), the Rousseau-inspired theme of social alienation—now filtered through the philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel, a story too long to tell here—took an economic turn. Instead of conflicts between civilization and the individual, artificiality and nature, and the external and the internal, Marx views society through the lens of economic class interests: capitalists versus workers, oppressors versus oppressed. Marx places the alienating relationship within society rather than between society and the individual. Hence the ideal condition where alienation is overcome cannot take form as a return to unspoiled nature but must be a humanly constructed, classless society in which workers are no longer alienated from the products of their work. Marx rejects the idea of a given human nature and moral law and views human nature, morality, and religion as derivative of economic relations. Change the economic relations and the other aspects will change in response. Because every relationship is at bottom economic and economics is political, everything is political. There are no pre-political social spaces, and any claims to the contrary should be exposed as masking economic self-interest.

Charles Darwin (1809-82) can be dealt with briefly. His theory of evolution was taken by many as replacing belief in divine creation and providence. The biological order could no longer be viewed as infused with divine meaning and guided by divine purpose. Meaning and purpose were confined to the inner world of the human psyche.

Dead Men Still Speak

Is personal identity grounded in an objective order and achieved by adjusting to that order or is identity located in the inner psychic world of the individual and given concrete shape by expressing the inner sense in the medium of the external world? Rousseau, Shelly, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, each in his own way, set about to demolish the first view of identity and liberate individuals to construct themselves according their inner desires. And though they have been dead for 120 years or more, their voices still ring out from the lecture halls of academia, the public education system, the entertainment industry, congress and the courts, and in the streets of American cities. Understanding their thought and their profound influence on contemporary culture would go a long way toward helping us comprehend “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19).

Next Time: We will tell the story of how Sigmund Freud sexualized psychology and the New Left politicized sex.