SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

Capitalism creates alienation, not psychology

I WAS a little surprised by the tone of the review by Iain Dalton of the book, Revolution in Psychology, in Socialism Today No.132, October 2009. He ended his review by saying, "psychology will either flourish and break through its ideological trappings or get thrown into the dustbin of history as a medieval version of alchemy".

This sounded like a very frivolous thing to say. Would he say this about other treatments in the NHS, I wonder? The implication and tone of the article seemed to be that psychology is something that can be discarded. Is this really the attitude we should adopt?

Shouldn’t we instead be fighting tooth and nail for better treatments for those suffering from the effects of being bought up in this inhumane form of society? Shouldn’t an article on this subject end by pointing out the dire urgency of this situation and the need for socialists to campaign for better treatments for millions of working people who suffer unbearable psychological trauma?

Didn’t Marx say that the main problem with capitalism is that it creates alienation? There is nothing more inhuman than being treated as an expendable unit of production. Thatcher said the family is everything and society doesn’t exist. Yet when the population is atomised into family units like it is now, it has a devastating psychological impact on millions of people who feel this alienation from birth. So much so that the largest killer of young men today is suicide.

Dealing with the psychological effects of alienation is a terrifying prospect for many people. My partner’s friend, a young man in his early 30s, committed suicide recently. A very good friend of mine also killed himself in the same violent way in 2004.

When families are forced to be self reliant and subjected to terrible economic and societal pressure, the person who bares the brunt of the pressure is very often the child. The psychological damage endured in this kind of childhood can be carried by a person for the rest of their life. As Trotsky wrote: "Childhood is looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood. The idealisation of childhood originated in the old literature of the privileged… But the majority of the people, if it looks back at all, sees, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger and dependence. Life strikes the weak – and who is weaker than a child" (My Life).

It is no surprise at all that psychological treatments suffer from an empirical approach in capitalist society but then again doesn’t almost every practise suffer in this way under capitalism? Ian Parker’s book says that psychologists tell the patient there is something wrong with them and not society. This does not mean that we can allow psychology to be thrown into the dustbin of history. It is merely a reflection of the solipsistic climate we live under. (Solipsism is a philosophical view that maintains that the self is the only thing that can be known to exist. For a damning critique of solipsism and how this outlook permeates all areas of capitalist society see Lenin’s book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism).

As far back as 1923 Carl Jung said "all neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering". In other words psychology practitioners understood in 1923 that the suffering we endure as children and throughout our lives is very real and has its origin in reality not in the imagination of the patient. Traumatic experiences are often repressed and turn into a neurosis so that the sufferer can cope with life.

The psychologist John Friel made the statement, "There is no such thing as a black sheep in the family". In other words dysfunction does not drop from the sky it is caused by the general dysfunction in the family.

RD Laing in his family systems theory goes on to point out that the nuclear family is part of a larger family system, a societal system. The dysfunction in the family stems from the wider alienation it experiences in society (RD Laing, The Politics Of The Family). This psychological approach is moving towards a dialectical understanding of the cause of psychological problems.

If we accept that we live in a dysfunctional society, then it is not really rocket science to work out that psychological treatment and research does not function properly, just as cancer treatment does not function properly and efficiently. Would Iain have ended an article on cancer treatments with the phrase: ‘cancer treatment will either flourish and break through its ideological trappings or get thrown into the dustbin of history as a medieval version of alchemy’? Or substitute any type of treatment for osteoporosis, heart disease, etc? They all suffer under an empirical approach. Should they all be thrown into the dustbin of history? Sadly I feel that the review reflected some of the wider prejudices that there are in society. To adopt a frivolous, mocking tone towards the treatment of psychological problems will not send a very helpful message to those who suffer in shame and silence from such deadly ‘taboo’ illnesses.

Aside from this, what a damning incitement of our society that psychological problems are treated with such prejudices by the society and system which has caused them. Under socialism the need to understand our psychological make up will not diminish, it will increase. All forms of human understanding can be developed when the restrictions of the market and the profit motive are removed.

I would also like to make clear that I don’t agree that we should accept the current state of affairs. Surely it is a Marxist’s job to change them? We cannot afford to allow psychological treatment to be retarded by capitalism, just as we cannot afford to allow global warming to continue. I want psychological practises to be enhanced. I want expensive private therapies which deal with eating disorders, sexual abuse, childhood trauma etc to be bought into the NHS and be available to all, not just the few who can afford them at the moment.

The attitude displayed in this review should have no place in a progressive working class movement. These prejudices should be constructively challenged by a new working class political party.

Steven Capper,



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