Psychoanalysis: Nothing More Than A Cult-like Political Movement?

Ever since its controversial beginnings the field of psychoanalysis has often been referred to as a pseudoscience.

Noted scientists have criticised psychoanalysis for its own self-authenticating nature. Yet despite these controversies and critiques the psychoanalysis movement has gone from strength to strength. Until now …

Is psychoanalysis finally coming under the spotlight?

The good news is that there are signs that psychoanalysis may finally be on the ropes, pummeled most effectively by the work of Frederick Crews. Crews published three book review essays in the prestigious New York Review of Books (NYRB) on recent revisionist scholarship on psychoanalysis and the recovered memory movement. Predictably, the Crews’ articles provoked an impassioned response’one of the largest in NYRB history’from the psychoanalytic and recovered memory establishments. Fortunately, the NYRB has published almost the entire exchange in book form under the title The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute (Crews et al, 1995).

One tip off to the pseudoscientific nature of psychoanalysis is to describe its institutional structure. In a real science there are no central organizations that function to ensure doctrinal conformity, expel those who deviate from the accepted truth, and present a united front to the world. It has long been apparent to observers, however, that this is exactly what psychoanalysis has done and continues to do. As Crews notes, psychoanalysis ‘conducted itself less like a scientific-medical enterprise than like a politburo bent upon snuffing out deviationism’ (Crews, 1995, p. 110). Perhaps the first person to notice and be repelled by this aspect of psychoanalysis was the famous Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. Bleuler briefly flirted with psychoanalysis. But when he left the psychoanalytic movement in 1911, he said to Freud ‘this ‘who is not for us is against us,’ this ‘all or nothing,’ is necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties. I can therefore understand the principle as such, but for science I consider it harmful.’ (in Gay 1987, pp. 144-145). The quotation is telling. To become a psychoanalyst was like joining a religious or political movement and not at all like becoming a scientist.

The apex of the authoritarian, anti-scientific institutional structure of psychoanalysis was the Secret Committee of hand-picked loyalists sworn to uphold psychoanalytic orthodoxy, described by Phyllis Grosskurth in The Secret Ring: Freud’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis: By insisting the Committee must be absolutely secret, Freud enshrined the principle of confidentiality.

The various psychoanalytic societies that emerged from the Committee were like Communist cells, in which the members vowed eternal obedience to their leader. Psychoanalysis became institutionalized by the founding of journals and the training of candidates; in short an extraordinarily effective political entity. (Grosskurth 1991, p. 15)

There were repeated admonitions for the Committee to present a ‘united front’ against all opposition, for ‘maintaining control over the whole organization’, for ‘keeping the troops in line’ and ‘reporting to the commander’ (Grosskurth 1991, p. 97). Consider Otto Rank’s astonishing letter of 1924 in which he attributes his heretical behavior in questioning the Oedipal complex to his own neurotic unconscious conflicts, promises to see things ‘more objectively after the removal of my affective resistance,’ and is thankful that Freud ‘found my explanations satisfactory and has forgiven me personally’ (Grosskurth 1991, p. 166). Grosskurth notes how ‘Freud seems to have acted as the Grand Inquisitor, and Rank’s groveling ‘confession’ could have served as a model for the Russian show trials of the 1930’s’ (Grosskurth 1991, p. 167). Freud viewed the entire episode as a success; Rank had been cured of his neurosis ‘just as if he had gone through a proper analysis’ (quoted in Grosskurth 1991, p. 168).

The staunch Freud disciple, Fritz Wittels (1924) decried the ‘suppression of free criticism within the Society…. Freud is treated as a demigod, or even as a god. No criticism of his utterances is permitted.’ He tells us that Freud’s Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie is ‘the psychoanalyst’s Bible. This is no mere figure of speech. The faithful disciples regard one another’s books as of no account. They recognize no authority but Freud’s; they rarely read or quote one another. When they quote it is from the Master, that they may give the pure milk of the word’ (p. 142-143). Freud ‘had little desire that [his] associates should be persons of strong individuality, and that they should be critical and ambitious collaborators. The realm of psychoanalysis was his idea and his will, and he welcomed anyone who accepted his views’ (p. 134). The others were simply expelled.

All of the major figures around Freud appear to have been extremely submissive personalities who absolutely revered Freud as father figure. Indeed, the members appear to have self-consciously viewed themselves as loyal sons to Freud the father-figure (complete with sibling rivalry as the ‘brothers’ jockeyed for position as the ‘father’s’ favorite), while Freud viewed his close followers as his children, with power to interfere in their personal lives (Grosskurth 1991, p. 123; see also Hale 1995, p. 29).

Ernest Jones, Freud’s worshipful biographer and the official head of the movement after the expulsion of Jung, ‘grasped the fact that to be a friend of Freud’s meant being a sycophant. It meant opening oneself completely to him, to be willing to pour out all one’s confidences to him’ (Grosskurth 1991, 48). Masson (1990, 152) suggests that ‘Jones believed that to disagree with Freud (the father) was tantamount to patricide (father murder).’ When Ferenczi, a central figure in the inner circle of psychoanalysis during the 1920’s, disagreed with Freud on the reality of childhood sexual abuse, Jones called him a ‘homicidal maniac’ (p. 152).

Regarding Ferenczi, Grosskurth (1991) notes that ‘(t)he thought of a disagreement with Freud was unbearable …’ (p. 141); ‘There were occasions when he rebelled against his dependency, but always he returned repentant and submissive’ (pp. 54-55). Similarly, Masson (1990) describes Kurt Eissler, the closest confidant of Anna Freud’s inner circle in the 1960’s, by saying that ‘What he felt for Freud seemed to border on worship’ (p. 121). ‘(H)e held one thing sacred, and hence beyond criticism: Freud’ (p. 122). It was common among the disciples to imitate Freud’s personal mannerisms, and even among analysts who did not know Freud personally, there were ‘intense feelings, fantasies, transferences, identifications’ (Hale 1995, 30).

Evidence for the essentially cult-like nature of psychoanalysis is the unique role of disciples who are able to trace themselves back to Freud in a direct line of descent. ‘The idea of being a chosen disciple, privileged to have direct contact with the master, has survived and is continued in the procedures of many of the training programs of the institutes’ (Arlow & Brenner 1990, 5; see also Masson 1990, 55, 123). ‘The intensely filial relationships to Freud of the first generation were gradually replaced by a highly emotional relationship to a fantasied Freud, still the primal founder, but also to organizations, to peers, to superiors in the institute hierarchy’above all’to the training analyst, the training analyst’s analyst, and, if possible, back to Freud and his circle became a determinant of psychoanalytic prestige’ (Hale 1995, 32).

Unlike a real science, there is a continuing role for Freud’s writings as what one might term the sacred texts of the movement, both in teaching and in the current psychoanalytic literature. Arlow and Brenner (1988) note that Studies of Hysteria and The Interpretation of Dreams are almost 100 years old, but continue to be standard texts in psychoanalytic training programs. They also describe ‘the recurrent appearance in the analytic literature of articles redoing, extending, deepening, and modifying Freud’s early case histories’ (p. 5). Indeed, it is remarkable just to simply scan psychoanalytic journal articles and find how many references there are to Freud’s work which was written well over 60 years ago. In examining 6 issues of Psychoanalytic Quarterly from 1988-1989, I found 92 references to Freud in 33 articles. Only 4 articles had no references to Freud, and of these, one had no references at all and one had only one reference. As Wittels (1924, 143) noted early on: ‘The faithful disciples regard one another’s books as of no account. They recognize no authority but Freud’s; they rarely read or quote one another. When they quote it is from the Master, that they may give the pure milk of the word.’

The continued use of Freud’s texts in instruction and the continuing references to Freud’s work would not be conceivable in a real science. While Darwin is venerated for his scientific work as the founder of the modern science of evolutionary biology, studies in evolutionary biology only infrequently refer to his writings because the field has moved so far beyond his work. The Origins of Species and The Descent of Man are important texts in the history of science, but are not used for current instruction. Moreover, central features of Darwin’s account, such as his views on inheritance, have been completely rejected by modern workers. With Freud, however, there is continuing slavish loyalty to the master, at least within an important subset of the movement.

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