Leon Trotsky works in his office as commander of the Red Army, prior to his struggle with Josef Stalin and his ultimate ouster
in 1927. wikimedia.org photos
The commisar's analyst
Freud, Trotsky and the revolution’s forgotten suicides
By Alexander Etkind
After the end of the World War I, Sigmund Freud met a prominent Russian revolutionary and was ‘half converted.’ The Bolshevik told Freud that the revolution would bring years of suffering that would later turn into happiness. Freud responded that he believed only the first half. We do not know who his interlocutor was, but he could easily have been Leon Trotsky.
As much a half-Freudian as Freud was a half-Bolshevik, Trotsky was fascinated by psychoanalysis, which he understood as a new, progressive, scientific method for changing human nature. In a letter from 1923, Trotsky advised Ivan Pavlov, the physiologist and Noble Prize laureate, to integrate psychoanalysis into his scientific vision. (Pavlov did not respond to Trotsky’s letter.) Trotsky later wrote, “The inspired hand of Sigmund Freud, a man of genius, uncovered ways to subject the deep forces of the soul to a transformation based on reason and will.” He saw in psychoanalysis a promise to change the world, a vanguard scientific instrument similar to others with which he was familiar, such as hydro-electric power plants and armored trains.
Both Sigmund Freud, right, the father of psychoanalysis, and Alfred Adler, left, one of Freud’s early followers, were intrigued by the psychology of Marxism. Leon Trotsky, in turn, saw psychoanalysis as a tool for empowering revolution. His advocacy of the practice would have tragic consequences for his daughter, Zinadia. wikimedia.org photosTrotsky had been interested in psychoanalysis since his emigration to Vienna in 1906, where he launched the newspaper Pravda. His disciple and deputy editor, Adolf Ioffe, was a professional terrorist who had just fled from a Russian prison and suffered from multiple neurological ailments. In Vienna, Ioffe became a patient of Alfred Adler, a disciple of Sigmund Freud and, later, a leftist opponent of his mentor. Adler was married to Raissa Epstein, a Russian émigré and radical socialist. A friend of Trotsky’s, Adler’s wife corresponded with him for decades and visited the USSR several times in the 1920s. One of the Adler daughters, Valentina, was so enamored of socialism that she emigrated to the Soviet Union and perished there. Another daughter, Alessandra, emigrated to the United States and became a prominent psychotherapist in New York.
His encounter with a true Russian revolutionary was a formative experience for Alfred Adler. In 1909, he delivered a talk, “The Psychology of Marxism,” before the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society, in which he reviewed Ioffe’s case. Adler’s conclusions provoked furious disagreement. Ioffe was, indeed, very different from Freud’s favorite case study of the lazy, depraved Russian nobleman and artist, Sergei Pankeev (also known as Wolf Man), an embodiment of the Western stereotype of the Russian man.
Returning to the editorial office of Pravda straight from Adler’s couch, Ioffe shared his revelations with Trotsky, who later wrote with robust humor, “In exchange for these lessons in psychoanalysis, I preached to Ioffe my theory of permanent revolution.” Later, when Ioffe was exiled to Siberia again, he managed to practice psychoanalysis there and, even more surprisingly, to publish his results in a Moscow psychiatric journal. Trotsky recalled that, “Over the course of the several years I spent in Vienna, I came into relatively close contact with Freudians; I read their works and even went to their meetings.”
Psychoanalysis was not an industrial science, but the government of Lenin and Trotsky supported the Russian Psychoanalytic Society, which, in the early 1920s, accounted for one-eighth of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Trotsky personally sponsored the State Psychoanalytic Institute, which operated in Moscow from 1922. Radical politics demanded radical psychology. High culture, merged with social power, was thought to be the instrument of revolutionary transformation, changing personalities, tempering characters and reshaping old, wearied human nature.
And sometimes it did. In his memoirs, written 20 years later, Trotsky described the transformation of Ioffe at the hands of Adler. A disturbed patient who was too shy to talk by telephone, Ioffe became an orator and administrator who led the coup of 1917 together with Trotsky, and then became head of the Soviet delegation at the ill-fated negotiations in Brest-Litovsk. Psychoanalysis helped Ioffe, Trotsky admitted; but the revolution helped him more. In 1924, Ioffe was sent back to Austria, now as the Soviet Ambassador to Vienna. Yuri Kannabikh, a Moscow psychiatrist and the last president of the Russian Psychoanalytic Society, accompanied Ioffe as a house doctor.
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