An Introduction and Some Concepts
This essay is meant to make explicit and examine some psychodynamic aspects of the history of Marxism-Leninism and its leadership. This is something typically brought up by petty-bourgeois ideologists to psychologize promotion of communism, but an exploration that leads to an honest understanding should, hopefully, free communists from discomfort around psychological factors, and in a way that’s useful going forward for both current anti-imperialist efforts and future revolutionary ones. I believe that the misunderstandings in this area mainly come from (1) paranoia of liberals originating from fears generated initially by patriarchal family relations and obscured and projected by imperialist media, (2) mistaken liberal assumptions about the possibility and benefit of disentangling phantasy from “reality,” and (3) ego defenses from disavowed traumatic social relations liberals perpetuate in capitalism. The first and third of these are shared almost universally by psychoanalysts themselves and supposed theorists on the “left” that like to use psychoanalysis for their politics seem to fall for all three. My hope is to appropriate the usefulness of psychoanalysis for genuine Marxist-Leninist theory. Towards this end, and to make this approachable by as many people as possible, I’m going to mainly rely on two basic psychoanalytic concepts that I think are key to forming an understanding of some historical processes. These are the relational notions of the “self” and “self-object” as used by Heinz Kohut and the notion of splitting as applied in the school of psychoanalytic thought started by Melanie Klein, or the school of Object Relations. The dynamics I try describe with these concepts seem to apply to how leadership is experienced in general, although they play out differently depending on social context, so these should be looked at in some sense, although a very loosely, as constraints.
Kohut developed his theory, typically referred to as self psychology, in response to an increasing need for an understanding of psychological processes that became problematic for his practice when thinking in traditional Freudian terms of psychological drives and conflicts. He believed that this was due to changes in society that promoted narcissistic personality configurations and consequently tendencies towards disintegration of the self, which revealed more general aspects of human functioning that Freud’s theory led to misinterpretations about. Self psychology describes a supervening level of self-constitution that is developed through the interactions of drives and conflict. The main point was that out of these processes a sense of self would be constituted through empathic relating of self-objects (prototypically parents, but as we’ll see this is a highly social phenomenon and generalizes everywhere) combined with the generative self-constituting process humans seem to have. Self-objects are mental spaces of/for the generation of psychological structure through patterns of internalization of other people, or even symbolic representations of them such as a blanket or music, that are used to develop one’s own psychological structure, which typically involves processes of idealization followed by acceptance of flaws as perceptions about the self-object mature. To be clear on Kohut’s intentionally vague concept of the self, it’s meant as a highly relational phenomena and to reject solipsism, and the self encompasses not just the individual but also their social fields. Kohut doesn’t himself draw out how splitting is related to his theory, but I hope it makes intuitive sense as I mix the two later on in this essay.
Though the idea of splitting originates in Freud, the development of theory based on the concept is most associated with Melanie Klein. Klein developed a theory of splitting that placed it as an early necessity in dealing with the anxieties of infancy, the dependence of the infant on the parents, and the initial perceived psychological unity with the Mother. (I use “Mother” here to describe an infant’s felt unity with the primary caregiver, who isn’t necessarily a woman, and incomplete understanding of their relation to external reality which is mostly experienced physically through contact with skin, visually through external emotional processing and mirroring through affect, and aurally through things like baby-talk and singing, all of which provide a feeling of containment and provide the basis for ego development.) Splitting prototypically occurs when anxieties about the Mother can’t be experienced at once in their immediate emotional complexity, leading to a necessary splitting into good and bad aspects experienced from as separate phenomena from separate sources, or in psychoanalytic terms as good and bad objects. Due to the lack of ability to process emotion, in early life the good object is perceived as that which nourishes and makes feel ecstatic in wholeness, and the bad object that which resists fulfillment of wholeness and empties the self-Mother unity. Therefore, in early life, the good object is experienced as wholeness and the bad object as annihilation. Klein developed these ideas based on her psychoanalytic work with children and addressing their phantasies theoretically.
Due to various developmental factors, splitting can be more or less impactful throughout the life of a person depending on how it’s processed. Later on in maturational development, assuming lack of some types of infant trauma or biological factors that can block this, these objects become increasingly integrated through depressive positions, first starting mid-way through the first year of life. However, as discussed by thinkers like Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jessica Benjamin, and Nancy Chodorow, the traditional dependence on women for early child care is leveraged in patriarchy and its gendering to devalue women through culturally not engaging this depressive position in a way that can mend the splitting and instead perpetuates it, leading to desire to control and own the good maternal object and pathologically react to the bad maternal object, which is most typically seen in reactions to feminine authority. The perpetuation of phantasies of annihilation from the bad object is part of the reason for historical fears represented in myths about succubi, sirens, or folktales about witches, which Silvia Federici has explored in relation to its use by the ruling class for primitive accumulation and oppression of women in the development of capitalism. The desire to control the good object and how that functions in fascism is well described by Theweleit in his two-part Male Fantasies. The importance of this split in relation to communist praxis and how anti-communists develop their ideas about what communism is will hopefully be brought into some light below.
Before moving onto the application of these concepts, I want to emphasize that the use of psychoanalysis like this greatly simplifies the actual relationships and ignores important social dynamics. Psychoanalytic concepts themselves are always rough approximations as well. This is merely to give a high-level view from one angle and open more space for thought in these areas.
Stalin and Mao as Self-Objects
Stalin and Mao are the best exemplars, I think, of the capacity for leadership to contain the forces and anxieties of revolution to maintain revolutionary momentum while defending victories. You can see in Stalin’s replies to letters in his Works or in documents like Dizzy with Success, for example, that he was sensitive to this. Or take Anna Louise Strong’s description of him:
My first impression of [Stalin] was vaguely disappointing. A stocky figure in a simple suit of khaki color, direct, unassuming, whose first concern was to know whether I understood Russian sufficiently to take part in discussion. Not very imposing for so great a man, I thought. Then we sat down rather casually, and Stalin was not even at the head of the table; Voroshilov was. Stalin took a place where he could see all our faces and started the talk by a pointed question to the man against whom I had complained. After that Stalin seemed to become a sort of background, against which other people’s comments went on. The brilliant wit of Kaganovich, the cheerful chuckle of Voroshilov, the characteristics of the lesser people called to consult, all suddenly stood out. I began to understand them all and like them; I even began to understand the editor against whom I had complained. Suddenly I myself was talking and getting my facts out faster and more clearly than I ever did in my life. People seemed to agree with me. Everything got to the point very fast and smoothly, with Stalin saying less than anyone.
Afterward in thinking it over I realized how Stalin’s genius for listening helped each of us express ourselves and understand the others. I recalled his trick of repeating a word of mine either with questioning intonation or a slight emphasis, which suddenly made me feel I had either not quite seen the point or perhaps had overstated it, and so drove me to make it plainer. I recalled how he had done this to others also. Then I understood that his listening has been a dynamic force.
This listening habit dates back to the early days of his revolutionary career. “I remember him very well from the early days of our Party,” said a veteran Bolshevik to me. “A quiet youth who sat at the edge of the committee, saying almost nothing, but listening very much. Toward the end he would make a few comments, sometimes merely as questions. Gradually we came to see that he always summed up best our joint thinking.” The description will be recognized by anyone who ever met Stalin. In any group he is usually last to express his opinion. He does not want to block the full expression of others, as he might easily do by speaking first. Besides this, he is always learning by listening.
“He listens even to the way the grass grows,” said a Soviet citizen to me.
Stalin’s ability to process and transform others’ ideas is what made him stand out in the party and was a major reason he was elected to be general secretary of the CPSU. It wasn’t that he suppressed others’ ideas to impose his own, as popularly thought in the imperialist core, it was that the collective transformation and resulting agreements among a majority led to admiration from more sensible party members and especially among the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union. This talent of his and the resulting admiration are what made him attractive as a self-object to people, as he recreated the atmosphere of mirroring (for Kohut this means positively attuned recognition of self-expression communicated through some manner thoughtful representation back, which is what you can see him doing in Strong’s description) and vicarious introspection that naturally became associated with positive care they received in earlier life, though this association is something people generally make unconsciously. How his capacity for this impacted traitors to communism will be explored in a later section.
Mao took on this sort of role even more explicitly, which is especially readable in his works dealing with contradictions among the people. What this provided, similarly as with Stalin and all the great leaders of Marxism-Leninism, was a figure who could be seen as a receptacle for revolutionary anxiety that would transform, and here I’ll be adapting some of Wilfred Bion’s abstractions, beta-elements (partial, unformed memory traces from past trauma not yet formed into sense and therefore involved in metonymic and unconsciously concrete thinking) into alpha-elements (memory traces that have moved into sense, that can be metabolized through metaphoric and mobile thinking). In this way the past of peasants and workers, their own brutal oppression as well as their historical oppression, could be formed into sense and allow the apperception of purpose in their overcoming through struggle against imperialism. In the growth in thinking in general that the revolutionary process brought about through education of peasants and workers, this would attach to the care that the world did not formerly provide but that everyone, in infancy at least, is bound to know of and desire. These relationships would become reflected in revolutionary art and propaganda surrounding his leadership.
This early formation into sense is traditionally, in patriarchal societies, the mother’s role. Children communicate beta-elements constantly – anyone around children knows they say things that seem odd all the time, which is part of this – and the empathic mirroring creates a container for these elements to be put inside of a self-object, which allows mental space for them to join together and provides some sense of mental space in general. Due to other aspects of maternal care, this process is related to a tendency towards merger with the self-object. To see how this dynamic impacts later emotional feeling, recall the Parenti lecture where he tells the story of someone who, when asked if he liked Fidel Castro, replied emphatically “yes, yes, with all our souls.” This can be thought of as occurring, in part, due to this tendency towards merger through the process of containing revolutionary anxiety and representing the democratic processes of revolutionary political life, in addition to the physical, material care revolutionary progress brought about.
Putting it in psychoanalytic terms tends to derealize the vital importance of phantasies originating in infant care and merger for emotionally satisfying mental life. To objectify it in the above way isn’t meant to make it feel any less real, and my hope is that it makes the connection more satisfying by showing the falsity of liberal assumptions around it. The pride communists feel when experiencing these emotions and sensations has been earned – millions of communists have died trying to give exactly these feelings it to the world. Creating an open space for the feeling of empathic care and security – what creates the sense of love and life – is what drives communists against the horrors of imperialism and is what reactionaries fear in their paranoid reactions to it.
On Splitting and Revolutionary Fracture
I think one key to understanding negative reactions to Stalin and Mao, and not only by imperialism but also by some within their countries and parties, is in the concept of splitting. Stalin and Mao both embodied masculine and feminine aspects of traditional parental gendering, and so men in the party with pathological splitting of good and bad objects would recognize what they perceived as feminine gendered aspects of the leadership as problematic and engulfing, or at least castrating. Stalin, because of his role and talent in metabolizing revolutionary thought in the party and from the people, became an annihilating bad object to some within the party, it seems to me, which I think in part explains the vehemence of their desire to murder him. Instead of being experienced as an empathic transmutation of sense, his mirroring and containment were experienced as a threat of castration – the narcissistic desire to have their own unmodified ideals projected into society (phallic potency in patriarchal society) was blocked. You can see the resulting dynamic in the court documents and other materials that Furr explores in his works, though he doesn’t analyze them in these terms. It seems to me that this is the most sensible theory to think through the nature of the venom spewed against Stalin, although it should be emphasized that these psychological processes took place within and through fascist imperialism. For an example of what I mean, Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed can be thought of as essentially an exercise in separation from perceived unempathic merger, as a defense from castration, performed through an intellectualization in Marxist language of his defensive paranoid interpretations. Shared Marxist ideals were leveraged to create an uncanny world of annihilating care through the bad object of Stalin and his engulfing decayed bureaucracy. This is the ideology internalized by Trotskyists and why they quickly refer to anything that strikes them as unempathic to “workers” (most typically this is simply themselves projected into an ideal social body) as “Stalinist.”
I think this willingness to connect Stalin and Mao to bad object merger is also why novels like 1984 and dystopian fiction in general were (are) used so extensively in anti-communism. Uncanny unempathic relating of early life – and this occurs to some degree for everyone – is projected onto communist society, which creates a feeling of horror. The selves projected into these communist societies are the fractured selves of capitalism, which become subject to engulfment. This also explains why it’s so easy for some to believe that these societies were totalitarian despite them having spaces for actual democracy in all sorts of life and not just where the bourgeoisie wants to create an illusion of control. This is aided by imperialist efforts to create a metonymic chain between historical modes of fascism, communism in all its forms, and movements towards socialism in the (semi-)periphery. All of these are placed under the banner of “populism.” This is a demonization of democracy by making actual democracy synonymous with its most heinous enemies. We know the hypocrisy in this but these are mechanisms of control.
As related to the above dynamics, feelings of potential disintegration of the self involved in these splits leads some Trotskyists and similar thinkers to find it necessary to armor themselves through language. This usage of language is a defense from phantasies of ego dissolution as well as a distancing mechanism from the Mother. Since for these people Stalin and Mao in particular become attached to the bad object, their language and posture can be extremely hard, or even impossible, to dislodge when confronted with a Marxist-Leninist perspective on these leaders regardless of objectivity. This can be even more true for liberals, who seem to lack any ideological precursors for understanding these things. I imagine it was frustration with this sort of thinking that led Marx to list “Nihil humani a me alienum puto” as his maxim in his confession.
Given the above and its relation to patriarchy, I think it would be neglectful to avoid bringing up the historical suppression of the leadership of women and LGBTQ comrades among Marxist-Leninists before moving into the next section, although it should be taken into account that my thoughts on this are limited by lack of lived experience, since I’m mostly heterosexual and masculine gendered. These comments are aimed at comrades with similar backgrounds as me to invite them to self-critique, or stress that self-critique’s importance. While heroic figures like Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg are sometimes brought up as examples of the openness of Marxist-Leninists to women being leaders, this dodges significant issues with the suppression of feminine leadership that these comrades especially fought against. I’ve spoken of some of the unconscious factors involved in this already in relation to male leaders, but these much more profoundly affect women and LGBTQ comrades. Whenever I’ve read historical first-hand accounts from women actively participating in revolution – whether in the USSR, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, Europe, China, Mexico, or the US – the atrocious effects of patriarchy simply within the revolutionary movement are plainly apparent and painful. To speak to male comrades briefly: become aware of how these processes have affected you if you haven’t yet and learn how to grow your maternal identifications within yourself so you don’t live an enactment of trying to own it in others or feel the need to separate from it yourself. Maternal identification is currently thought of as the initial orientation of children that patriarchal masculinity is meant to create separation from, so it should exist somewhere in there even if you don’t see it. We should be able to aid each other in getting past these gendered phantasies to help get us to step to the side. My hope is that a process like this can at least demobilize some unconscious factors that contribute to the above and the ego defenses some have when confronted with struggle against patriarchy for their part in sustaining it. However, this is a far larger issue than I can do any justice to here and especially with this small attempt at intervention.
Imperialist Attacks on Self-Objects
Why imperialists always attack leadership – a tendency clear to anyone concerned with topic – is to traumatically take away this self-object merger and mirroring, which quickly leads to dissolution of revolutionary linking of both thoughts (through halting the metabolization of beta-elements and the shattering of the cohesive properties of alpha-elements) and social life (through the breaking up of this common experience). This was especially clear in the case of Gaddafi, where a society was standing up to imperialism with the benefit of this self-object figure of Gaddafi providing a mirroring through which to perceive a movement of defense from imperialist barbarism. Once Gaddafi was brutally, heinously murdered by imperialist savagery, the country unraveled in part because of this sudden absence and trauma. This is also the reason imperialists so desperately want Bashar al-Assad out of power – the destruction of this self-object would lead to an absence and trauma that would destroy, imperialists hope, Syrian society’s linking. Any “decapitation strike” is designed for the infliction of this kind of mass trauma and dislocation.
This is also why socialist leadership is humiliated and presented as corrupt: it’s to prevent the ability for leadership to occupy the position of a self-object and designed to promote the projection of a bad object onto society among the people living in it. This was a common aspect of imperialist propaganda in the Soviet Union and seems to have been a primary method of disintegrating the pride of the people in their social project of building a just world. This was the essence of Zizek’s praxis when he was working towards the dissolution of Yugoslavia along with imperialism’s schemes in the region, and in the NED’s strategies you can see that this is one of imperialism’s primary methods of instigating color revolution.
To clarify the traumatic effect of Khrushchev’s treason (and Trotsky’s and many others before and after both), the effect it had was to not only destroy the cohesion of the communist movement, but to put forward a dissonant and unempathic mirroring saying that what you have been experiencing is in fact the bad object. Your enthusiasm in socialist construction was entangled in this and the historical reality you thought you were living is false. For example, you can see this created, justifiably, an immense sense of betrayal in China and Albania. The resulting fractures in the communist movement have never healed. Getting the facts straight on these events is not to simply have an objective view, but also to renew vitality.
I think the above opens up a lot of questions in how revolutionaries should think of our own leadership, including some uncomfortable ones. This is why it’s important to study Stalin and Mao, as these were the leaders most in touch with the role of self-object, and not individually, but through the party and popular democratic forces. If you read about any great Marxist-Leninist leader you’ll find the same qualities. However, this inevitably brings up concerns with the possibility of personality cults, which is perhaps justified but historically overblown and I’ve deliberately avoided the phrase until now. My hope is that this essay has shown what’s behind perceptions of personality cults in anti-communist ideology and brought about some understanding of what the democratic aspects of leadership idealization are and what kind of emotional connections are involved. It’s important to note though that these leaders explicitly discouraged idealization, although others within their parties have at various times promoted idealizations opportunistically for a variety of reasons, some nefarious (for instance, Furr shows that idealization of Stalin was promoted by his enemies in the party to enhance their disruption of USSR politics) and others meant as expedient for social motivation. This discouragement is certainly appropriate and allows for necessary critique and self-critique to flow in all directions.
The above does reveal that revolutionaries need to be especially concerned with the quality of their leadership and in maintaining the ability for socially empathic mirroring and reenforcement of agency, which promotes a genuine workers’ democracy through empowerment and mobilization of historically oppressed workers and peasants. Though the relationship of splitting and processes of internalization through self-objects stem from unavoidable dynamics that develop from early care, socialist apparatuses are designed for providing organic structures through which workers take control of the state in the fight against imperialism, and then allow for the spread of these across the world as states grow into each other and into communism.
It’s been said that we’ve lost the last of the great leaders with Fidel. These sorts of figures are created through revolution as a result of the struggle of peasants and workers as a whole against imperialism. When communists hold up images of their leaders, it’s not the leader they hold up, but themselves. It’s the job of communists to make sure that these processes that will happen regardless of everything are handled with honesty, and that the responsibility of providing leadership during times of struggle so our class can know itself and command itself is taken on in its full weight and with confidence.