Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years old



In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still a little explored aspect: the class struggle in psychoanalysis

“The only people who do not fear freedom are those who do not serve privilege – or injustice.”[1]


In 2024, the centenary of the birth of psychoanalyst and writer Hélio Pellegrino will be celebrated. Also a memorable name in the Brazilian history of resistance to the military dictatorship, Hélio Pellegrino was even imprisoned for a few months under the accusation of being a communist leader. A militant of the workers' cause, he was one of the founders of the Workers' Party.

He took a position regarding the elections, after the leaden years, in the following terms: “Lula knows – as Marxists and revolutionary Christians know – that the history of Brazil and, for that matter, the history of the world, is determined by the struggle of classes. In order for there to be a democracy that deserves its name, it is necessary to fight for a 'classless society' where there is no oppressive minority and an immense oppressed and exploited majority. Lula also knows that, in our country, the ruling class, to maintain its hegemony, is capable of any vileness and any violence. Bourgeois elections are only tolerated – and their results maintained – to the extent that they do not threaten such hegemony. Turning them into a fetish is falling into the perversion of the democratic process, whose estuary can only be the control of the economy and power by the working class.” [2]

Hélio Pellegrino died shortly afterwards, in 1988, so he did not witness the episodes of our more recent history and the scope of the notes made about the class struggle and the electoral process. His contributions regarding the transition from the dictatorial regime to democracy, which he was only able to follow at an incipient stage, are noteworthy even today. So are his contributions in the fields of literature, journalism and psychoanalysis. As psychoanalysts, we would like to rescue from his vast elaboration an aspect that is still little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis.


Created by Sigmund Freud during European modernity, psychoanalysis was disseminated in the social imagination as a method created by and for the economic and intellectual elite. Spearhead of the bourgeoisie, the experience of analysis would be reserved for those who had small fortunes – sometimes not so small – to spend on couches in the wealthiest neighborhoods of large urban centers.

The hegemonic version of history perhaps ignores that Freud himself, in a speech given on the occasion of a congress, in 1918, in the city of Budapest,[3] He imbued his disciples with the creation of clinics that addressed the demands of those who were unable to pay for qualified listening. In any case, if psychoanalysis is seen, even today, as a luxury item, we agree that this reputation cannot be achieved without the consent and commitment of large numbers of the psychoanalytic movement. This observation only praises a figure like Hélio Pellegrino, about whom so much has already been said, but there still seems to be a lot more to say.

In one of his most widespread texts, published in 1983 and entitled Oedipal pact, social pact,[4] Hélio Pellegrino proposes a review of Freudian thought regarding the civilizing process. Freud, as we know, made a precise diagnosis of civilization based on the paradigm of the capitalist system, which would require the inclusion of the injunctions of the class struggle in considerations about the subjective constitution and the social bond. Starting from capitalism, according to Hélio Pellegrino, Freud did not realize that “the intensity of repression exists not only as a function of the demands of the civilizing process, but of social injustice, which must be guaranteed – and maintained – by force”.[4]

In other words, when we talk about the civilizing process, we are not starting from a universal, abstract model free from the material conditions of existence. On the contrary, the starting point is the unequal distribution of such conditions, and it is up to psychoanalysis not to naturalize inequalities as if they were part of the process towards “civilization”.

If the worker is disrespected by an unjust society, it is the social pact itself that is at risk: “Society can only be preserved – and respected – by the worker to the extent that he respects and preserves him. If the worker is despised and attacked by society, he will tend to despise and attack it to the breaking point. At best, this rupture could lead the worker to become a revolutionary.” As for psychoanalysis, does it come closer to the spearhead of the bourgeoisie, sharpening the terms of class struggle, or revolution?

Psychoanalysis brings with it both possibilities. On the one hand, it tends to reproduce and reinforce social inequalities, by holding the subject excessively responsible and disregarding social and historical factors that contribute to psychological suffering. Furthermore, the high cost of psychoanalytic treatment makes it inaccessible to the majority of the population.

On the other hand, when used in a critical and implicated way, psychoanalysis can be a powerful tool for gaining autonomy, thought of here not as a release from the other, as individualist rhetoric disseminates, but as freedom that is gained in the relationship with the other. another, recognizing it.[5] However, one of the biggest obstacles to this process is the psychoanalyst himself and his class resistance. In this regard, colleague Miriam Debieux Rosa points out the interdependence between the subject's place of speech and the psychoanalyst's place of listening.[6]

She highlights that the differences between the social and economic realities of the analyst and the patient can compromise the analyst's ability to listen, leading to a resistance to understanding suffering and recognizing forms of expression of conflicts that do not fit into the typical experiences of class patients. medium/high.

It is important to note that the majority of psychoanalysts belong to the economic elite, which can contribute to the perpetuation of the oppression of subjects who are denied sharing in the social pact. In this context, class resistance appears as a result of a conflict of loyalty, implying complicity with dominant power structures that tend to favor certain knowledge and practices to the detriment of others.

This form of resistance can derive both from the lack of historical and social critical reflection on the part of the psychoanalyst about the context of his practice and about himself, also a member of the working class, and from a training committed to maintaining his privileges. In other words, despite its revolutionary potential, in most cases, psychoanalysis acted and continues to act as the spearhead of the bourgeoisie.


Hélio Pellegrino was sensitive to this issue more than 40 years ago. At the opening of the event Psychoanalysis and Institution, carried out in September 1981, he said he knew the class commitments that linked him to the privilege of the profession of psychoanalyst: “the price charged by me defines my class profile, puts me in a situation, on the carpet of distribution of the polis, puts me in my place in the income hierarchy. All this is political data, not psychoanalytic data. They exist whether I want them to or not.” Hoping to shake class commitments and place psychoanalysis further to the left, Hélio Pellegrino participated in the founding of Social Psychoanalysis Clinic, later named Anna Kattrin Kemper Social Psychoanalysis Clinic, an initiative that operated from 1973 to 1991 in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

The Clinic was created with the purpose of offering accessible psychoanalytic care to low-income people, in response to the need to democratize access to psychoanalysis. Hélio, together with other psychoanalysts, proposed the creation of a time bank, where professionals would donate working time to serve subjects who, otherwise, would not have access to treatment.[7] The Clinic was diverse, with analysts from different schools and theoretical orientations, without ties to a single institution, a situation that still stands out today when it comes to the psychoanalytic field, deeply marked by the logic of affiliation that makes it gravitate towards a theorist elevated to the status of an unquestionable authority or an institution.

Due to the high demand and wide dissemination of the Clinic, whose proposal was published in major newspapers, the focus was on creating therapeutic groups to serve a larger number of patients, including children, adolescents and adults. The Clinic also welcomed professionals from related areas, such as occupational therapists and psychologists, at a time when there was still debate about whether they could undertake analytical training, an opportunity then reserved only for doctors.

In addition to the services, the Clinic functioned as a place for discussion and debate, promoting meetings and the exchange of ideas. There was a strong incentive for exchange with society, political agitation, boldness and technical experimentation. Although it was not defined as an institutionalized training environment, or perhaps precisely because of that, the passage through that space marked the journey of many analysts.

The Clinic’s objective was to “create an area of ​​freedom”, not based on the distribution of polis, in which the class struggle was faced, a reality that seemed far from the settings of consulting rooms with leather couches and renowned works of art on the walls. It is again with Hélio Pellegrino that we arrive at a finding that is as obvious as it is allegedly concealed: “When I say that, in an analyst's office, workers only enter as a firefighter, or a wall painter, I am not making a joke: I am stating a pure – and scandalous – true. The price works, in this case, as a severe line of sharing, a bouncer that expels the vast majority of the Brazilian people from the analyst’s workspace.”

Despite the initial motivation, the Clinic was unable to reach “the vast majority of the Brazilian people”, with its clientele being mostly restricted to young middle-class university students and others interested in psychoanalysis who circulated in the neighborhoods of the south zone of the capital of Rio de Janeiro. In conversation with one of the psychoanalysts who were part of the team, we heard the emblematic statement: “We didn’t go looking for the other, which was the street”.[8] In fact, in order not to fear freedom, it is necessary for psychoanalysis to bathe in the streets, which does not just mean leaving the consulting rooms, but assuming the openness that calls into question the class resistance of its practitioners, the maintenance of their privileges. Otherwise, being on the street, like bourgeois elections, becomes yet another device tolerated by the bouncers who hold the pen that draws the line of division.

We would like to conclude this essay by affirming the proximity of psychoanalysis to the revolution, but we understand that, as in the time of Hélio Pellegrino, this relationship can only be affirmed as a bet, as a desire, on the horizon, for a society that is preserved to the extent that preserves and respects the worker.

*Fernanda Canavêz, psychoanalyst, is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at UFRJ.

*Fernanda Pacheco-Ferreira, psychoanalyst, is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at UFRJ.


[1] Pellegrino, H. Psychoanalysis and Institution. In Hélio Pellegrino Archive, Archive-Museum of Brazilian Literature, Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, September 20, 1981.

[2] Pellegrino, H. Lula and electoral fetishism. In Folha de São Paulo, January 15, 1986.

[3] Freud, S. Lines of Progress in Psychoanalytic Therapy. In S. Freud. Brazilian Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVII, 1969. (Original published in 1918).

[4] Pellegrino, H. Oedipal pact, social pact: from the grammar of desire to Brazilian shamelessness. In H. Pellegrino. Psychoanalysis. Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 2017.

[5] Guimarães, D. Mutuality the sharing of the unconscious. In Other words, 2022. Available at https://outraspalavras.net/pos-capitalismo/a-partilha-do-inconsciente/.

[6] Debieux Rosa, M. Sociopolitical Suffering, Silencing and the Psychoanalytic Clinic. In Psychology, Science and Profession, no. 42, 2022.

[7] Here, an important addendum is in order: we are talking about an idea that flourished even before the creation of the Unified Health System (SUS), one of the pillars of Brazilian democracy that seeks to offer full, universal and free access to health services. Since then, when it comes to thinking about the provision of psychoanalytic treatment in these conditions, we understand that it is important to consider relations with the State and the strengthening of public health care devices.

[8] This is the research entitled A gesture from Rio: the Anna Kattrin Kemper Social Psychoanalysis Clinic, in which we seek to recover the history of the initiative also through interviews with professionals who collaborated with the Clinic project.

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