Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, March 1935


Bernard Wolfe

Neurotic Society

From New International, Vol. II No. 2, March 1935, pp. 78–79.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The New Road to Progress
by Samuel D. Schmalhausen
xi+409 pp. New York. Falcon Press. $3.

It is understandable that the “scientific” journals have greeted this book with a campaign of stony silence. The sense of disaster which it conveys is disturbing enough to the bourgeois theorists, but that the only solution available should be the refreshing therapy of revolutionary Marxism – no, that is too much.

Ernest Sutherland Bates has well said of this book that it “arouses and sustains that sense of horror, that feeling of being confined in a madhouse”, that every thinking person must sometimes experience in the contemporary world. For Dr. Schmalhausen has illuminated our bourgeois society with Marxian insight; he has searched out the conflicts of our decaying social order in their most far-reaching and subtle reflections, as they appear in religious obscurantism, familial disorganization, individual maladjustments, and reactionary social philosophy. Once the tissue of crumbling capitalism has been ripped apart, he finds a symbol of contemporary civilization in the picture of “God committing suicide in a speakeasy”. Home-sweet-home turns out to be the cradle of pathology, love no longer a bond but a bondage.

In our outlook he sees the joyous mood replaced by a decadent sneer; the emphasis has shifted from wholesome life to a desperate concern with existence on the lowest level of blind, primitive sensation. Scientific thought, instead of pointing the way to social improvement, has goose-stepped all along the reactionary line of march; “scholarship has been a brilliant adjunct of the counter-revolution”. Progress to the post-war sophisticate has become a hollow catchword; our cultural energy is expended in a mad psychology of escape. We blind our eyes, we flee from the horror of social reality.

Schmalhausen finds the solution of our cultural and psychic dilemmas to be a social one. For him, as for every thinking psychologist, the slogan is: mens sana in societate sana – for the prerequisite of normality is the stimulus of a healthy social environment. How, he asks, can a well-functioning mind be reared, or a mal-functioning mind adjusted, in a society rampant with conflict and shot through with frenzied individualism? The, Freudians hemmed in by their bourgeois thought, can aim only at returning the neurotic mind to the mediocre, the statistical average – but can a mind out of gear be adjusted to a social order which is itself maladjusted, rife with maddening antagonisms? It must be clear enough that, if mental and emotional development is molded and canalized by socio-economic reality (as amply proved by genetic and child psychology), then human potentialities can be actualized only in a milieu which is stimulating and liberating, rather than inhibitory and conflict-breeding. When the whole rotten superstructure threatens imminent collapse, Schmalhausen insists that we must concern ourselves with the maladjustments of society rather than with those of the individual – for the former are primary, the latter derivative.

Schmalhausen concludes that our contemporary culture is “insane”, “neurotic”, “psychotic”, “psychoneurotic”; our social order suffers from a “cultural psychosis”. But with this analysis we must take issue. To become indignant at the dominant social ideology is admirable, but in the haste of our attack we must not confuse categories. And to diagnose the social structure as psychopathological is to do just that: for we are arguing by analogy from the individual organism to some sort of social organism, and then applying terms descriptive of the former to the latter without justifying the carry-over. [1]

Now, clearly, such a theory of social pathology must assume that society is an organism with its parts well or badly ordered in some quasi-biological sense. But the organic concept of society (Herbert Spencer, Paul de Lilienfeld) has for the most part been discarded in sociology. And to a Marxist, above all, it must be patent that society in its structure and function exhibits laws peculiar to it alone, not as some hypothetical super-organism but as a unique organization in motion. Just as the bodily organism is governed by laws other than those which apply to its cellular components, so the social structure presents aspects which cannot be referred back to its component individuals nor described in terms of those individuals. Psychopathology, by definition, refers to a condition of the individual, and therefore is without meaning when applied to a culture.

It is for this reason that sociologists now speak of social disorganization rather than of social pathology (cf. Elliott and Merrill, Social Disorganization). The analogical argument [2] has, simply, turned out to be fruitless. Thus Schmalhausen is brilliant in listing those characteristics of Fascist barbarism which seem to resemble the syndromes of neurosis; yet he has so far overstepped the limits of anology that the other, social aspects of Fascism recede to the back-ground. True, Hitler may be an egomaniac, a paranoid, a pervert, and a dozen other psychopathic things rolled up into one – yet the most significant thing about him is that “his fantasy and delirium are in expedient conformity with his real political aims” (Trotsky). Individual deviations from the norm are selected and elevated by capitalism to the status of a socio-political movement. Such social selection and emphasis cannot in itself be dubbed insane (the term refers to the individual and is therefore meaningless in this context), but obeys quite logical and determinable laws peculiar to the social sphere. I am sure that Schmalhausen would be the first to admit the social and economic roots of Fascism – and yet he confuses capitalism as the cause of insanity and its possible social significance with the insanity itself.

But this shortcoming in Schmalhausen’s work is not to be compared with the wealth of constructive thinking which he has given us. His most important contribution, it seems to me, has been to turn the floodlights of Marxism upon bourgeois psychological theory, especially upon its most fruitful product, psychoanalysis. In his discussion of What Marx Can Teach Freud, he presents not only the conflict between two great minds, but the to-the-death struggle being waged between the philosophies of individualism and communism. As Schmalhausen puts it, “the Freudian goal is a sane mind: the Marxian goal is a sane society”. Here is the crux of the matter: Freudianism, limited by a bourgeois ideology, is egocentric; revolutionary Marxism is sociocentric. As a Marxist, Schmalhausen sees that the sane mind can only be realized in a sane society – the one is largely a function of the other.

Indeed, the reactionary nature of individualism has rarely been so devastatingly exposed. Psychology, Schmalhausen notes, has been traditionally introverted, internalized, its point of concentration being the isolated individual. With such an approach it is an easy matter to refer all sorts of delinquencies, and psychopathologies to an internal etiology (which, if hereditary, justifies the sterilization of “non-desirables”, such as Jews and idiots – and political enemies); the social order is exonerated. Even Freud, who was strong enough to break through the strait jacketing brown decades, is so caught in the rigors of bourgeois illogic that he considers competitive individualism inevitable, the mere expression of an instinctive drive toward ego-domination. So it turns out that capitalists are born, not made.

Schmalhausen has dealt a blow to all instinct- and caste-psychology by indicating the plasticity of human nature and its variation with the social milieu. It would be hard to find another such lucid elaboration of Marx’s dictum that “the whole of history is nothing but a continual transformation of human nature”. This book makes it tragically clear how bourgeois family life, frenzied competition, and catastrophic imperialist conflict extort their psychic toll. It becomes understandable, after reading this work, that the Freudians should concentrate on the reproductive rather than the productive process, that they should formulate a theory of death-instincts to account for the suicidal atmosphere which pervades modern life. After plunging into such a philosophy of despair, we can well appreciate the therapeutic value of the new attitudes which are coming into being in Soviet Russia.

In short, by indicating the primal importance of the social environment in the determination of the individual, Schmalhausen has paved the way for psychological research which is as important as that which Robert Briffault (The Mothers) and Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) have begun in anthropology. The thesis underlying both lines of thought is the same: it is man’s social existence which determines his consciousness – and his normality. On this basis, we need a drastic revision of our definitions of normality and deviation – we need more detailed analysis of the nature, and function of the social environment. Schmalhausen’s book is a significant step in this direction: no one can doubt, after digesting it, that the crying need is for social rather than individual therapy, that “the mood of the world is Marxian, not Freudian”.



1. This type of reasoning, of course, is not unique to Schmalhausen: Read Bain (of the University of Florida) has characterized our society as “schizoid,” and Dr. Trigant Burrow has a theory of “social insanity”.

2. Schmalhausen admits the analogical nature of his reasoning, but fails to justify it:

“Though we are in the field of analogy, I think it not unilluminating to visualize the present social order, particularly from a psychiatric point of view, as a study in psychopathology.” (pp. 230–1.)

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 26 February 2016