A history of popular psychoanalysis

Josef Herman, Sketch of a Woman, undated.


Foreword to the book by Florent Gabarron-Garcia

This little history of popular psychoanalysis couldn't come at a better time. More than a counter-history that takes Ernest Jones's hagiographic model as an ideological anti-model, the work of Florent Gabarron-Garcia allows us to show how, from the beginning, in Vienna in the 1920s, psychoanalysis was never reduced to a clinic for the elites for the elites. Part of this forgotten history had already been redone, in detail, for European public clinics,[1] for the suppressed cases of the history of its cultural dissemination[2] and also, in outline, for the Brazilian situation.[3]

However, the series of cases presented here cannot be reduced to a minor or dissident version of what, after all, would be “psychoanalysis”. The path goes from the fruitful Hungarian experiment and Vera Schmidt's children's school homes in Bolshevik Moscow (recalling the work of Sabina Spielrein and Tatiana Rosenthal in Petrograd), through the massive expansion of the popular clinics of Red Vienna in the 1920s–30s and through the Wilhelm Reich's experiences at the head of the German Association for a Proletarian Sexual Policy (Sexpol), and reaches the social intervention groups of François Tosquelles in the Spanish civil war and Marie Langer in the Viennese interwar period. In the post-war period, we followed the pioneering spirit of the French clinic of La Borde, with Jean Oury and Félix Guattari, and in the 1970s we witnessed the appearance of the Socialist Patient Collective (SPK) in Heidelberg and the mental health districts in Argentina.

Ignoring the historical evidence that there has always been a kind of class struggle within psychoanalysis,[4] global judgments about its conformist, adaptive, and segregationist, as well as its patriarchal, androcentric, and familial rhetoric have become commonplace. In fact, the official history, accompanied by heroic hagiographies of its characters and institutions, sought to erase the systematic importation of concepts between psychoanalysis and critical social theories, as well as to silence its political experiences of resistance and direct engagement in concrete social transformation.

The Brazilian collectives,[5] that, since the 2010s, are candidates to be the next chapter of this story, can find here some conditions precedent for their own existence, but also anticipate the regularity of certain problems and challenges to be faced. The first lesson is that our antecedents faced similarly mixed receptions. Freud's own textual position on the relations between politics and psychoanalysis ranges from clear and direct interventionism in the mental health of populations, outlined in his 1908 work on “'Cultural' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness”, to the desire for universalization of access to psychoanalysis, at the conference in Budapest in 1918, and runs through Freud's considerations from his perspective of communism as a “great cultural experiment”, in The future of an illusion, in 1927, to his political indifferentism in “About a Worldview”, in 1932.

The question about the political or apolitical nature of psychoanalysis does not resolve by itself how the politics of psychoanalysis, understood as the coordinated movement of its schools, discourses and practitioners, will behave in a situation of regression, anomie or democratic regression?

The model case in this matter is strongly represented by the policy of saving psychoanalysis, led by Ernest Jones during Nazism in Germany. Aryanization of steering committees, exclusion of Jews, even self-segregation persecution of all those related to political militancy, be they analysts or analysers. The resolution affects, among others, Ernst Simmel, president of the Society of Socialist Physicians; Helene Deutsch, figure close to Rosa Luxemburgo; and Erich Fromm and Karl Landauer, founders of the Working Community for Popular Psychotherapy.

Resolution that makes Otto Fenichel organize a secret network of left-wing psychoanalysts in the United States that end up “neutralizing” the political tone of Siegfried Bernfeld's interventions in the educational universe and August Aichhorn in the judiciary. A resolution that will leave a historical balance of authoritarian, collaborationist, disciplinary and uncritical practices within the very transmission of psychoanalysis, especially in the training model for psychoanalysts.

When we compare the politics of psychoanalysis with politics in the more general sense of institutional occupation of public space, we may lose sight of the fact that societies and schools of psychoanalysis are not always the monolithic expression of a single thought, far from it: they tend to compose a field of forces formed by interests distributed and not always constant over time. It is enough to register here Freud's position trying to manage conflicts between different national associations of psychoanalysis, against the global perspective of a political process, relatively unthinkable and unthinkable, by psychoanalysis itself, in the context of the rise of fascism.

In this case, it would be important to review the myth, advocated by psychoanalytic historiography itself, about the unitary, homogeneous and hegemonic character within psychoanalysis, as if the circle of trust rings had really been enshrined in a single policy based on the simple rule of submission or exclusion. At this point, perhaps the very emergence of Lacanism has been absent from this brief history, as an institutional insurrection internal to psychoanalysis. Regardless of its more or less regressive developments, safeguarding its program of theoretical renewal, its connections with feminist, anti-racist and Marxist criticism are undeniable. Furthermore, this will leave marks both on the French experience of François Tosquelles, Frantz Fanon and Jean Oury, and on the unfolding of the Argentine experience of the Plataforma group, with Marie Langer.

Here comes the variety of forms of support for psychoanalysis in a cultural context of marginality or centrality, in relation to university disciplines and in the face of psychiatric or mental health practices, as well as their different tactics for occupying public spaces, beyond institutions. . Given this context, it seems obvious that communism was criticized after Stalin persecuted Russian psychoanalysts and decreed psychoanalysis a bourgeois science, himself proposing to be the father of peoples and mobilizing the family to justify autocracy.

It is also understandable that Marie Langer, after being prevented from returning to Austria post-Connection – persecuted for her Jewish origin and her fight alongside the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – had to hide her militancy in exile in Argentina, whose psychoanalytic culture was still incipient. However, when the very cultural position of psychoanalysis changes, when its children are no longer in immediate danger and when Argentina itself is taken over by the military dictatorship, it does not hesitate to make an alliance with the labor movement in order to fight for the enlargement access to mental health, ending up being exiled again, this time in Nicaragua.

That is, in the experiences selected here there is nothing that resembles a fixed position – elitist or revolutionary – immune to circumstances. This suggests that psychoanalysis politicizes or depoliticizes itself according to its contingent reactivity to the way politics in general affects the politics of suffering. It is in the most critical hours that it must be able to remember its history, to rescue its silences, to remake its models and anti-models, showing that “the talking cure remains, thanks to its revolutionary reach, eminently precious for the present times. ” (p. 26).

Be it the cooperativism of the Socialist Patient Collective (SPK) in Heidelberg in the 1970s, be it the institutional experiences in the small village of Saint-Alban or in the castle of La Borde, where the relationship between doctors and nurses seems to be crucial, be it, still , the Argentine, Viennese, Russian collectives and their unstable relationship with mental health policies, the line of continuity of the reported experiences proves to be a problematic issue. To what extent do the communities discussed here leave legacies, beyond the founding leaderships, when they dissolve in the health administration complex?

Again, instead of the polar opposition between the erudite culture of the psychoanalytic elite and the popular culture of the patients, we must remember that the peripheral experiences of the European center, reported here, create peripheral cultures, and that in these peripheries there are also centers of irradiation and cultural transformation of psychoanalysis . A recurrent difficulty in the experiences presented here, since the “children's seminar” in Berlin, is that the elite of the periphery tends to forget the exceptionality that made it possible.

The marginal history of psychoanalysis is part of the system of institutions with their genealogical rules of recognition, itself never exactly a peaceful field. It comprises specific policies of internalist interpretation of social facts: the revolution as a simple Oedipal case of returning to the same place, the Arab revolts as a consumer demand, communism as a maternal or masochistic regression of militants. Let us remember that, in Austria in the 1930s, any theoretical, aesthetic, moral or political movement that included participants with a “non-Aryan worldview” ran the serious risk of seeing these people persecuted.

Freud's leniency with the pair Felix Boehm and Carl Müller-Braunschweig, interested in the “modernization of psychoanalysis” and the creation of a “truly German” face for it, may have led to the worst. The mistake was trusting the idea that if psychoanalysis presented itself as a science, above opinions and alignments, this would protect it from political persecution by governments, states and nations. This idea would unfold in the assumption that despite participating in the circulation of capital, as a mental health service and as a liberal practice, it would be exempt and safe from criticism in the dispute for justification and legitimacy as a form of treatment for psychic suffering. Finally, this would lead to a position of withdrawal or gradual exclusion from the occupation of public space, either as a discourse, or as clinical practice, or as knowledge, which came to occur mainly in countries where this strategy was dominant.

With the exception of the controversy over character analysis and, perhaps, some notes by Félix Guattari, historical experiences seem to be marked by openness in conceptualization and low normative appeal. The demarcation of the boundary between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis becomes a minor or later issue, more or less irrelevant for those involved at the time of the events. Polyclinics with an “i” for politics, not a “y” as in the French term polyclinics – which expresses multidisciplinarity –, are part of the history of psychoanalysis desires – some of them, unpublished in the edition of the dream interpretation in 1900: poverty reduction, adaptation and recognition of the material conditions of patients' lives, problematization of the symptomatic incorporation of the law, criticism of the differential repression of women, right to sex education, right to abortion, decriminalization of homosexuality, resistance to policies of violence , segregation and oppression. Still, there is no moral exceptionality inherent to psychoanalysts in matters of politics, but a practical affinity, as seismographers of social suffering and critics of psychoanalysts that attack the profession.

In the history of our ancestry, as is approaching in the Brazilian chapter in formation, of free, public, political or multipurpose clinics, political commitment is not a formative alibi or independence card, much less a ring of moral superiority, but reckoning and loyalty to a historical liability of social struggle.

*Christian Dunker He is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at USP. Author, among other books, of Malaise, suffering and symptom (Boitempo).

Originally published on the website Other words.


Florent Gabarron-Garcia. A history of popular psychoanalysis. Translation: Celia Euvaldo. São Paulo, Ubu, 2022, 246 pages.


[1] Elizabeth Ann Danto, Freud's public clinics: psychoanalysis and social justice: 1918-1938, trans. Daisy Goldsztajn. São Paulo: Perspective, 2019.

[2] Ian Parker, psychoanalytic culture, trans. Saul Krieger. Aparecida: Ideas and Letters, 2006.

[3] Christian Il Dunker, Malaise, suffering and symptom: a psychopathology of Brazil between walls. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2015.

[4] I. Parker and David Pavón-Cuéllar, Psychoanalysis and revolution: critical psychology for liberation movements, trans. Luis Reyes Gil. Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2022.

[5] See Ilana Katz and Emília Broid (eds.), Psychoanalysis in public spaces. São Paulo: ip-usp, 2019. Available at: latesfip.com.br/psicanalise-nos-espacos-publicos

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