The Production of Desire

Against the Current, No. 8, March/April 1987

David N. Smith

The Production of Desire
By Richard Lichtman
New York: The Free Press, 1982; paperback, 1986.

WIDESPREAD DESIRE for revolutionary change is a vital precondition for the success of a socialist revolution. This axiom is effectively argued in Richard Lichtman’s excellent recent analysis of desire and class conflict, The Production of Desire (hereafter PoD).

Pod offers a unique double look at the link between psychoanalysis and Marxism. After systematically comparing the basic views of Marx and Freud-and showing (conclusively, to my way of thinking) that many cardinal principles of Freudianism are incompatible with Marx’s ideas — Lichtman then demonstrates that several of Freud’s better categories (e.g. repression, the unconscious) can be integrated in “demystified” form into a psychologically-oriented Marxism.

The point of this dual achievement is to move in the direction of a viable, useable political psychology. Unlike the Freudo-Marxists such as Reich, Marcuse, and Jacoby, Lichtman considers Freud inadequate to Marx. Unlike the various Marx­ian “orthodoxies,” however, Lichtman considers Freud to be a seminal theorist and his specific comments on Freud and class consciousness merit careful attention.

I. Optimism and Despair

Twentieth-century wars and counterrevolutions have dealt a series of shocks to the evolutionist optimism of classic Marxism. Between 1914 and 1917 the spectacle of a World War fought amid the collapse of working-class solidarity led many revolutionaries to despair. Lenin suffered a nervous breakdown, and Rosa Luxemburg was inspired to declaim, with bitter irony: “Workers of the world, slit each other’s throats!”(1)

If the Russian revolution in 1917 seemed to offer reassurance, the glaciation of the revolution under Stalin — and the victories of fascism in 1922, 1933, and 1939 — made it plain to some, at least, that working class psychology is inherently problematic.(2) Reich, Gramsci, Fromm and a handful of other Marxists recognized clearly that socialism is not the inevitable outcome of working-class desire.

Even the most serious and powerful working-class movements tend to fall prey to nationalism, and many workers show a weakness for authoritarian answers.

Few socialist movements, to this day, have generated even a fraction of the national and international labor solidarity that a successful revolution would require. Instead, grave interworker antagonisms have descended like killing frosts on one movement after another. These antagonisms usually assume both structural forms (labor market competition) and psychological forms (commitment to competition).

When nationalism and similar rivalries persist unchecked, class unity is profoundly inhibited. Ideological “justifications” for interworker antagonisms — couched in terms of race, gender, nationality, and so on — tend to live lives of their own, partly independent of the exigencies of objective class competition.

What begins as rivalry all too often turns into genuine commitment to national, racial, and sexual prejudice. Working-class solidarity in such cases tends to be thwarted at the level of desire; workers, divided from one another by passions of race and creed, tend to feel a murderous antipathy for one another.

At the same time, working people often feel profound self-hatred, too. Lichtman comments on this tellingly in a passage analyzing his experience as a supervisor of community therapists and employment counselors:

“What I was unprepared for … is the magnification of distress produced by the belief of the unemployed that their ‘failure’ is due to their personal incompetence, stupidity, or lack of will. It has been noted that while we have the term ‘paranoia’ to indicate delusional belief in the malicious conspiracy of others, we have no term to locate an inability to recognize the existence of either structural evil or actual conspiracies where in fact they exist.” (281-82)

Failure to blame capitalism for what is, in fact, the responsibility of the profit motive (unemployment, low wages, production anarchy) is “the normal form of pathology” in capitalist society. (282) This failure corresponds to a “blame the victim” attitude, in either or both of its two principal forms: self-blame and blame for rivals.

Victim-blaming exonerates the system. The woes of life under the reign of big business are accepted-credited to “human nature” — while people commit themselves to the prejudices and sundry private pleasures which soften the impact of job scarcity, etc. Lichtman cites Paul Baran:

“While it was thought earlier that people would be incensed by injustice, inequality, and exploitation but would be prevented temporarily from rising against them by fear of divine or civil opprobrium and punishment, under monopoly capitalism they actually do not understand and feel injustice, inequality, and exploitation as such, do not want to struggle against them, but treat them as aspects of the natural order of things.” (2)

It would be easy to conclude that working people are incapable of revolution. This is, in fact, precisely the implication of what Lichtman calls “perhaps Marx’s most portentous reflection:”

“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which, by education, tradition, and habit looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of nature. The organization of the capitalist mode of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a surplus population keeps wages in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the laborer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally.”(3)

If this were literally and unfailingly true, all hope for socialist revolution would fly out the window. Few Marxists seem prepared to accept this as a serious danger; most persist in the belief that revolution will inexorably spring from the depths of an impending crisis.

Committed liberals, meanwhile, go to the opposite extreme — laughing revolution off as an amusing utopian dream. Seldom is revolution viewed with sober realism — as a problematic possibility pivoting on shifts in political psychology as well as in the economy.

The few critical Marxists who have gazed unblinkingly into this question have tended, before long, to return to traditional stances. Lukacs opted for mystical optimism;(4) Reich collapsed into “orgonomic” biologism;(5) the Frankfurt School gave in to professorial despair.(6) Gramsci’s ideal — optimism of the will paired with pessimism of the intellect — has rarely been attained for long.

This is one reason PoD is so refreshing: Lichtman is as pro-revolutionary as he is sensitive to the barriers to revolution. He sees both the difficulty of the fight for socialism and its necessity — positing that the experience of alienation, which lies at the formation of selfhood under capitalism, is a social fact that can only be destroyed and replaced by another social fact — a mass, collective, democratic political movement whose aim is the equalization of humane power.”(7)

At the same time, Lichtman understands fully that there are basic problems at the level of desire which impede the rise and success of a revolutionary democratic movement.

“People come to want what is destructive of their need.” (3)

For the first elaboration of this hard truth we are indebted to the Freudians (including Reich in his Marxist phase). It is partly due to the appeal of this insight, in fact, that Freud’s popularity has been so great and enduring.

But Lichtman argues that Freud offers just “the semblance of demystification,” not its reality. Freud does contribute to the exposure of surface appearances when he finds displaced sexual energy in the passions of religion and politics. But this psychoanalytic insight is immediately falsified, however, by Freud’s insistence that the libido is purely asocial and ahistorical. Though Lichtman agrees that social behavior often springs from disguised psychosexual impulses, he nevertheless contends, contra Freud, that these “innate” impulses are themselves shaped by social forces. Sexuality expresses itself in historical forms.

All told, Lichtman cogently and thoroughly defends three views: that Marx and Freud differ irreconcilably in their assessments of “human nature;” that Marx’s position, though far from complete, is approximately true; and that some of Freud’s key concepts, reworked, can be usefully blended into an expanded Marxist outlook.

The sweep of Lichtman’s discussion can hardly be replicated here, but a brief summary of one of his examples (a look at Freud’s famous Dora) will convey the main idea.

Dora was the 14-year-old daughter of an industrial magnate and his oppressed, defeated wife. Dora’s father, taking a philandering interest in the wife of a friend, Herr K., in effect “barters his daughter to Herr K.” in return for Frau K. Dora feels hurt and terribly betrayed. In Lichtman’s summary, “every powerful adult in Dora’s life [had] used her in one way or another to achieve purposes for which she was merely a means of convenience.” (143-44) Even Frau K., supposedly Dora’s close friend, ultimately betrayed her confidence.

Dora’s response? “Hysterical” rejection of both Herr K. and sexuality. Freud is then summoned by Dora’s father. His conclusion? That Dora’s response to Herr K. is a sublimated expression of repressed sexual desire — that, in a nutshell, “No means yes” for Dora. Rather than properly assigning responsibility for Dora’s disturbance to her father, Freud blames her inborn sexual impulses (which he implies have been modified only slightly by her life-experience) Freud tells us that, to be cured, Dora must change, since her problem lies “within.” This is victim­blaming with a vengeance.(8)

Though Freud offers an occasional glimmer of insight into Dora’s illness, he fundamentally misconstrues her motives. Lichtman agrees that Dora has repressed something important, and that this bears upon her sexual feelings — but the source of her difficulty is clearly her mistreatment by men and adults, not her paralyzing inner impulses.

Dora’s mistreatment, as a contingent social fact, can be acknowledged, con­ fronted, and (with effort) changed. Only in such change does there lie hope for a real cure; Dora will not recover unless her real social problem is resolved.

Freud’s assumption, on the contrary, is that family and gender power inequities are biologically ordained. Viewing authoritarianism as inevitable-and resistance as futile, he counsels compliance.

Lichtman shows the class bias and historical myopia of this view with great clarity. He makes it plain that part of the burden of Freudian teaching is that victims deserve reproach, since they are blameworthy by nature.

II. A Collective Therapy

Another point which I can only summarize is Lichtman’s argument that Freudian therapy is not immune to the criticisms of Freudian theory. Step-by-step Lichtman challenges each of the standard arguments in favor of private, commodified therapy:

“The capitalist system can produce pathology more quickly and profoundly than any exercise in therapy can ameliorate, let alone cure … The irrationalities of work and worklessness cannot be solved in a capitalist society. Both conditions are oppressive and create their own failures and illness. The way out of the dilemma is only possible through a defeat of the system which makes it necessary.” (285)

The problem this poses is fundamental. Socialist revolution is impossible without widespread desire for revolutionary change, yet typically, interworker rivalries and prejudices yield “widespread desire” only for modest gains inside capitalism, sans revolution and at the expense of worker rivals.

Needed, to cut this knot, is a “political practice of social transformation and self-transformation” which goes far beyond traditional politics (and even farther beyond traditional therapy).

Unfortunately, Lichtman’s formula here is critically vague in some respects; he offers few concrete suggestions. Still, he does provide some useful insights.

He begins by affirming the obvious: that we “can only come to believe in the power of self-transformation through the activity of transforming ourselves in the world.”

“It is only through a movement of growing democratic change that the sense of personal despair can be challenged, distanced, and dissolved. Even the very fragile instances of the new left and the women’s movement point in this direction. Coming to believe that our powerlessness is social requires the lived conviction that our power is social. It is power that vanquishes powerlessness and the sense of despair.” (276)

How, then, are revolutionary power and confidence to grow? Thus far, the major working-class parties and movements have solved very few problems of sustained mass mobilization. Political desire and belief have been approached in the most primitive ways imaginable — through wooden propaganda and paper-thin agitation, with minimal critical reflection.

If, in the future, interworker rivalries are to be dissolved, we will need to understand political motives far better than we have to date. Action will have to be experimentally gauged to build class confidence; practice will have to incorporate an element of “collective therapy.” Helpfully, Lichtman indicates a number of possibilities along these lines.

IV. Unconscious and Capitalism

Most importantly, PoD ties together two phenomena which have rarely been linked: the individual unconscious and the production anarchy of capitalism (which Lichtman refers to as “the social unconscious”).

Lichtman rejects the Frankfurt School view that a “logic of the individual psyche” is possible without constant reference to a “logic of society.” (p. 104 ff.) To explain the unconscious side of the psyche requires symmetrical attention to the unconscious side of society. For this purpose, Lichtman invokes Marx’s widely-noted but seldom probed concept of commodity fetishism.

“Fetishism” we will define not in Freud’s sense — as the imputation of psychosexual qualities to objects — but rather, as in Marx, as the projection of special powers to the commodity economy.

For Marx, the most pertinent “fetishism” is not attachment to surrogate sexualized objects but the belief that the economy — like its basic unit, the commodity — possesses alien powers of motion which defy human control.

Is the economy unalterable? Is it true that the social metabolism will only function if labor products are produced for exchange, and that commodities have “natural” prices corresponding to their real economic value. So it seems — wrongly, according to Marx.

This is a complex subject, but a brief sketch of Marx’s basic claims may prove helpful. (For further detail Capital is required reading.)

To start: Capitalism rests on private production. The economy — the sum total of countless private efforts — is “something that no one planned,” a roller coaster ride of upswinging and down-swinging inflation and recession, with periodic wars, trade wars, etc.

In effect, the economy regulates people (since people do not regulate the economy). Commodity relations come to seem unavoidable, “eternal,” and the global commodity economy takes on the appearance of an unstoppable juggernaut, with inviolable “laws” and powers. The economy appears as a fetish-like being, “with mastery over man.”

This view, though ultimately misleading, does rest on a valid perception. The economy is out of control. Unregulated profit seeking yields wildly unplanned results. Prices rise and fall like facts of nature.

Still, it is wrong to believe that this production anarchy is unalterable. If producers were to jointly decide what to produce and by what means, the economy could be strictly controlled. Collective human intentions would yield clear, intended results.

This, in a nutshell, is the perspective Lichtman endorses as a framework for psychological study. With fine detail and nuancing, PoDoffers a series of reflections on the way in which “the structural unconscious … does, tragically, act behind the backs of individuals and in their depths.”

This “structural unconscious” Lichtman defines as the set of property and power relations which people who know nothing else take for granted. In bourgeois society, production for exchange and profit is the common presupposition of the economy and the psyche: “economic structures are themselves sociopsychological categories.”

“No matter how ‘deep’ the structures of capitalist exploitation or how esoteric the transformations of surplus value, they can only be sustained and reproduced by what ordinary human beings do in the common, banal functioning of their ordinary existence.” (237)

Corresponding to private production for profit there is a spectrum of more or less likely beliefs and desires. Given commodity production, people tend to see the world through commodity-tinted glasses. Although some variations in production and exchange yield varying specific worldviews, capitalism nevertheless maintains a sufficiently stable core of commodity relations to produce a reasonably homogeneous core outlook. Typical features of this core outlook include a fatalist stance vis-a-vis the possibility of basic change, meliorist hope for privatized “success” in wage or profit terms, commitment to the practices and prejudices of social rivalries (both interclass and interworker), and so on.)

“Individual life is the mode of ‘experience’ of the social whole, and the social whole has itself no existence separate from the fact of its being experienced in the lives of individuals. Each individual is an experiencing nodule or terminus of’ the ensemble of relations that constitutes the social system.” (220)

IV. Toward Further Inquiry

The central weakness of PoD is that Lichtman’s argument, though innovative, detailed, and promising, is still fairly rudimentary. Pitched at a level of high generality, PoD requires (and invites) a great deal of further work. “The next stage of analysis would consist of a detailed account of the specific institutions through which human action is structurally formed.” (246) Historical work is needed above all. This is true for all key PoD categories: in particular “the structural unconscious,” but also the terms repression” and “defense mechanism” — which Lichtman frees of unwelcome Freudian connotations but does not (yet) ground in class and historical detail.

Also meriting further specification is the category “identification,” which Lichtman defines, as an element of the “desire” necessary for labor unity (“love of friends and unseen comrades, and love for oneself as a member of this new constituency”). (276)

In a phrase, then, PoD is an achievement calling for an encore. Lichtman’s mastery of Marx and Freud, combined with his serious political intent, leads him far beyond conventional views into new lines of inquiry. My hope is that in later work this inquiry will be carried substantially further.


  1. Rosa Luxemburg. Ausgewhlte Redenund Schriften. Berlin: 1951, Vol. 2, 534. This phrase was uttered in April 1916.

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  2. See, e.g., Wilhelm Reich. People in Trouble, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
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  3. Karl Marx. Capital, Vol. 1. New York: Viking, 1977, translated by B. Fowkes, 899.
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  4. See George Lukacs. Lenin. London: New Left Books,1970.
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  5. See any of Reich’s post-1940 writings.
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  6. See Martin Jay. The Dialectical Imagination. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.
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  7. Production of Desire, 276. This passage is also cited in Erica Sherover-Marcuse’s good, recent book, Emancipation and Consciousness. London: Basil Blackwell, 1986, 136-37; see also her note on 200. PoD, 3.
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  8. Lichtman’s analysis here is infinitely more subtle than the well-publicized recent books on Freud’s mysogyny by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Masson’s approach is interesting, and he presents a wealth of useful data, but his interpretation of this data is limited.
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March-April 1987, ATC 8