Lenin v Freud on War and Aggression
by Bryan Register
Date: 1 Apr 97
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register
Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.
The carnage of the First World War led theoreticians such as V. I. Lenin and Sigmund Freud to wonder why wars happen. Lenin's and Freud's answers are essentially opposed. Lenin argues in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism that war is caused by factors local to capitalist society. Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents argues that war is the most disastrous expression of tendencies to violence innate to human nature. While Lenin maintains that war can be ended by socialist revolution and emancipation from capitalist exploitation, Freud claims that nothing can end the tendency to aggression, but that it is possible for people to engage their energies in productive pursuits to remove the impetus to destruction.
The free trade phase of capitalism, Lenin claims, features the export of goods, while the imperialist phase features the export of capital. Within each of the capitalist powers, a few trusts have reached monopoly status; in the world as a whole, those great capitalist powers are themselves monopolies. Regarding the first process - intranational cartelization - he notes:
In German large-scale industry... [i]n 1908, the process of concentration had already given rise to two main groups which, in their way, came close to being monopolies. First these groups represented 'dual alliances' of two pairs of big factories... In 1905 one of these groups, and in 1908 the other group, concluded a separate agreement with another factory
creating two 'triple alliances' with massive capital and between which was collusion. Thus, says Lenin, 'Competition becomes transformed into monopoly.... This is no longer the old type of free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market.'
The new system has at its disposal information regarding production, transportation, demand and so forth for the entire world. And, since the new system is a small number of cartels which collude with one another, the cartels can make economic plans to divide the markets, raw materials, and labor pool of the world amongst themselves. But this is the same sort of economic planning which will be performed in socialism: 'Capitalism in its imperialist stage arrives at the threshold of the most complete socialization of production.' However, this efficiency advantages only the owners of the means of production: 'At the basis of these swindles and manipulations lies socialized production; but the immense progress of humanity, which achieved this socialization, entirely goes to benefit the speculators.'
Lenin goes on to explain why the colonial powers seek colonies. The capitalist nations have a 'superfluity of capital.' But the owners of capital don't seek to invest their supplies of capital in agriculture or to benefit the masses, they seek to invest it for profit. And the most profitable places to invest capital are in the non-industrial countries: 'In these backward countries, profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap.'
Conquest, of necessity, follows investment. For Lenin, 'the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another...' In a feudal society, the aristocracy 'owns' the state and uses it to enforce feudal obligations. In a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie 'owns' the state and uses it to enforce property rights: '...bourgeois right... presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for right is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the standards of right.' Hence the connection between the political and economic takeovers of undeveloped territories. The bourgeoisie of a state seek to increase profits; to do so they must invest abroad. The highest rates of profit are to be found in the undeveloped territories. The bourgeoisie thus invest abroad, but in order to protect their investments, their state becomes involved. Over time, this relationship becomes one of dominance. The territory is either colonized outright or becomes a de facto colony by losing its sovereignty to the capitalist power.
But one phase of imperialism has been completed. The world has been carved up completely. There is nowhere else for capital to flow that has not already been colonized by one or another of the capitalist powers:
...the characteristic feature of this period is the final partition of the globe... in the sense that the colonial policies of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. ...in the future only re-division is possible...
But the drive to export capital to maximize profit has not ended. The bourgeoisie of every nation still need to export capital, to an ever-expanding colonial area. But there is only one avenue of expansion: into the colonies of other bourgeois states. And the bourgeoisie of the other states have expansion as their only option, as well.
But this leads necessarily to a conflict between bourgeois states on the question of how to re-divide the world. And '...there can be no other conceivable basis under capitalism for the sharing out of... colonies... than a calculation of the strength of the participants...' Or, to put it another way:
We ask, is there under capitalism any means of remedying the disparity between the development of productive forces and the accumulation of capital on the one side, and the division of colonies and 'spheres of influence' by finance capital on the other on the other side - other than by resorting to war?
Lenin would answer: 'No.'
Just as Lenin's theory of imperialistic war makes sense only in a broader context, Freud's theory of aggression is imbedded in his psycho-analytic theories. The theory of aggression is derived from two themes: the relations between the id, ego, and superego, and the conflict between the life instinct - Eros - and the death instinct - Thanatos.
Individuals are born with - as - an 'id', raw desire for satisfaction and pleasure. But not all desires can be satisfied, especially for an infant. And desires must be satisfied by following some process; fulfillment is not automatic. So the id develops, for its satisfaction in light of reality, an 'ego':
...the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of the [perceptual consciousness]... [it] seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id.
The ego remains, in a sense, part of the id, but it has concerns other than wish-fulfillment; it seeks to gratify the id in the context of what is possible in reality.
The development of the 'superego' is more complicated; the superego is generated through the Oedipus complex:
At a very early age the little boy develops an object-cathexis for his mother, which originally related to the mother's breast... the boy deals with his father by identifying himself with him.... until the boy's sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them... His identification with his father... changes into a wish to get rid of his father in order to take his place with his mother.
The child is ambivalent about his father: he wants both to be him, and to kill him. To resolve this crisis, the child uses the strength derived from identification with the father to forbid himself to seek that which is his father's domain - that is, the mother. This self-forbidding creates the superego, which always exists in regard to the ego as a father to a child: dominant and prohibitory. Since the restrictions exercised on the child by the father are almost invariably the moral injunctions of the society, other moral authorities inform the superego in its attempt to police the ego. These become one's morals, which are then passed to one's children.
But the id, ego, and superego are only the channelers of forces. The forces themselves, the life and death instincts, are the second part of the story:
...we put forward the death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state; on the other hand, we suppose that [the life instinct], by bringing about a more a more far-reaching combination of the particles into which living substance is dispersed, aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, of preserving it.
The life instincts push the individual toward prior states of living matter; the death instinct pushes an individual toward a state prior to living matter. The life instinct provides the source of an individual's libido and drive for happiness: '[people] strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so...' But the death instinct counters by providing the source of one's aggressive and violent tendencies: 'a portion of the [death] instinct is diverted towards the external world and comes to light as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness.' But the goal of the death instinct is not the destruction of things external to the organism, but the organism itself. So aggression and destruction are still aberrant. However, 'In this way the instinct itself could be pressed into the service of Eros, in that the organism was destroying some other thing... rather than destroying its own self.' Aggression is the death instinct controlled by Eros. While the death instinct seeks the destruction of the organism, the ego can redirect its force at an external object.
But the force is not lessened thereby. It is but moved: 'Conversely, any restriction of this aggressiveness directed outwards would be bound to increase the self-destruction, which is in any case proceeding.' The death instinct will destroy; the only question is what. Eros can direct it outwards for self-preservation.
But this is the problem. Eros also seeks to bring communities together; to increase the scale of cooperation: "civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind." Eros, then, drives toward happiness and a larger scale of cooperation, while the death instinct drives toward an individual's dissolution into inorganic matter. To maintain its happiness, the organism forces the destructive force outward, away from itself. But this violates the greater social order which Eros establishes. So the death instinct is forced back inwards as guilt: 'The superego torments the sinful ego with the same feeling of anxiety and is on the watch for opportunities of getting it punished by the external world.' But this will not do, for the ego wishes to satisfy the desires of the id, and so it redirects the aggression outward. If it fails to force the aggression outward, it bottles it up and may become neurotic, depressed, suicidal. It if fails to hold the aggression in, it will again be punished by the superego for having violated social norms, but here the superego has less force to project inwards. Because of this,
[One's] neighbour is for [one] not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts [one] to satisfy [one's] aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.... [This] is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure [of energy].
This is, for Freud, the explanation of war: a massive outpouring of the death instinct in organized group violence.
What is to be done? For Lenin, war is an outgrowth of the capitalist mode of economic organization, while, for Freud, war is an outpouring of innate aggressiveness. Their solutions reflect these roots.
Lenin defines himself on this issue in opposition to Karl Kautsky and other 'opportunists' whom he regards as traitors to socialism. For Lenin, Kautsky's type 'substitute for the question of the content of the struggle and agreements between capitalist combines the question of the form of these struggles... [thereby] descend[ing] into sophistry.' They do nothing but 'put... before the workers a lifeless abstraction solely in order to reconcile them to their lifeless leaders.' Lenin's solution lies in his rhetorical question above: 'We ask, is there under capitalism any means of remedying' the tendency to war? No. To avoid war, we must end bourgeois ownership of the means of production, smash the bourgeois state, and destroy capitalism and its exploitative social relations forever, bringing on the socialist utopia.
Freud's response to aggression is a response to a different problem. Where Lenin thinks that relations to property cause aggression, Freud maintains individuals are inherently aggressive. So, while Lenin seeks to smash the bourgeoisie, Freud seeks to find peaceful outlets for aggressive energies. He maintains that
Aggressiveness was not created by property.... If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships, which is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike and the most violent hostility.... If we were to remove this factor, too, by allowing complete freedom of sexual life... we can expect... that this indestructible feature of human nature will [continue].
In conflict with Lenin's belief that ending capitalism would end war, Freud 'wonders, with concern, what the Soviets will do once they have wiped out their bourgeois.'
Freud would suggest means of expending libido as a means of countering aggression: art, rewarding labor. He would suggest that society not provide the superego with such potent weapons against the ego as an injunction to 'Love thy neighbour as thyself' which defies both the needs of the id and the facts of reality. Changes in the relations of individuals to property would be beneficial, but socialists have confused this fact with their naively sunny pronouncements on human nature. As seen above, communist revolution cannot succeed in eliminating aggressiveness, though reforms may help remove opportunities for and pressures to aggress. In fact, revolution might be seen as an expression of aggression.
Lenin's Marxist account of aggression is essentially a nurture account: individuals are products of their relationship with the material productive forces, and those relationships create war. Change the relationships in the right way, and you eliminate war. But for Freud, individuals are by nature aggressive. Certain economic reforms may play a role of importance in attempting to defeat the death instinct on a social level, but no reform can end aggression; only deflate it and allow civilization to continue without the nihilistic ourbursts of war.
Find Enlightenment at enlightenment.supersaturated.com.