Marx, Freud or Newton?

We were discussing the most influential figures in human history. I was plumping for Isaac Newton. My friend said Marx and Freud. I immediately said, “both fading.” I don’t think my friend was overjoyed with that reaction.

But that is what I continue to think, on further reflection.

circa 1935: Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) the neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. (Photo by Hans Casparius/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Karl Marx, the founder of Communism, and author of Das Kapital, and, along with coauthor Fredrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
ENGLAND – JANUARY 01: Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) .Canvas. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) . Gemaelde.]

Both have been extremely influential – I don’t dispute that. But first, what’s happening right now?

Well, to my understanding, only a very small minority of psychotherapists use the purely Freudian approach, exploring dreams, analysing unconscious drives and mostly listening while their patient speaks. I take Freud’s thesis broadly to be that we are largely driven by unconscious neuroses and complexes – from the famous Oedipus complex, to the death wish and so on. I don’t think anyone disputes that unconscious thought patterns and emotions play a significant role in human motivation, but my sense is that few would agree that complexes are a primary motivator of human behaviour. We’ve had a massive wealth of research into environmental influences, and into genetic influences. These can, of course, be conveyed unconsciously, but the research into these factors, and the results obtained, is certainly not grounded in the ideas of neurosis, repression and psychic structures – such a view has become rare.

It seems to me that Freud’s influence today is primarily cultural and intellectual – a set of ideas around unconscious tendencies, about the significance of sexual motivations and so on – but even these are not taken with complete faith and seriousness in most quarters. They are more an interesting cultural reference point to a set of ideas that have largely been rejected. I suspect that Freud is more prominent in certain parts of the world – my friend is Spanish – but I hold to my conclusion that Freud’s influence is fading. In fact, it has already seriously faded.

And Freud’s own research has come under scathing attack – it was apparently based on a very small number of patients. His conclusions were certainly not derived from what could be described today as an objective scientific study, controlling for variables and bias. For good or ill – and I think very much for the good – scientific standards are now a very significant benchmark for the establishment of new ideas on the human condition, especially in the medical area. And most surveys indicate that respect for science and scientists is actually increasing, not decreasing, despite what you might think from the news and social media. For instance, this recent survey

And so to Marx. Again, clearly highly influential – but first let’s look at some facts on the ground.

How many nations these days can truly be said to have bone fide socialist systems? Almost none. You have China, Laos and Vietnam for instance – nominally socialist countries – but all, as I understand, essentially operating capitalist systems under a non-democratic, authoritarian government. It’s one of today’s ironies that the supposedly socialist China doesn’t provide free healthcare to a very large proportion of its own population. You have to look to capitalist Western Europe for examples of that, or capitalist Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Other candidates? The crumbling regime in Cuba – and North Korea (!) probably the most repressive state on earth – and, as with China, gross inequalities on a par with the worst examples anywhere in the world. North Korean elites attend special schools and stores, living a lifestyle far removed from the extremely impoverished population living in the countryside.

So yes, though I once resisted this argument, I believe it’s absolutely plain that socialism as a practical, nationwide project has been an abject failure. Abolishing private property and putting the means of production under collective ownership, which are the hallmarks of actual socialism, have generally produced dismal results. And the vast majority of populations living in such regimes have immediately voted with their feet to change the system to something else, when they’ve been given a chance.

Socialism, in these terms, has failed. And Marx’s prediction that capitalism would collapse under its own internal contradictions is certainly no nearer to fruition than when he made his forecast. Most things in the world – access to health, education, levels of violence and crime, access to democracy – are massively improved since the time when he was writing in the 19th century – and much of these improvements have taken place in capitalist democracies, which feature in nearly half of the world’s countries.

As an economist, he failed to account for the ability of economies to increase their levels of productivity, and thus deal with growing populations – viz the green revolution of the 70s and 80s, which greatly increased agricultural production, and meant that widespread famine has not happened, despite gloomy predictions of hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation, and despite very large population gains.

Capitalism has strengthened its hold worldwide – while feudalism and socialism are almost non-existent. Yes, humans face existential crises, such as climate change, and we can’t predict the future. But the record of formally socialist countries on the environment is mostly appalling – hardly evidence that the socialist path would be more likely to lead us out of this catastrophe.

But, of course, it would be unfair and inaccurate to stop there. Marx’s analysis of the intrinsic inequalities and injustice of the capitalist system was well made. Any purely capitalistic approach leads to inhumane outcomes that are completely unacceptable to rational and well-meaning contemporary humans – poverty, disease, exclusion.

But while no country has, of course, eliminated these scourges, there has been enormous progress, as mentioned before. The name of the game has been to take some elements that Marx argued for – plus ideas argued by many others, who were not necessarily socialists (to take one example, Charles Dickens) – to create the modern democratic state, in which education is guaranteed, greatly increased access to healthcare is supplied, and tax systems create a fund of public money to invest in infrastructure, housing, and so on. And yes, usually some collective ownership of things like utilities and so on, but not complete collective ownership – most of the economy still being based on capitalism. Not a perfect system, but I would argue that many countries – Western Europe, North America, Australasia etc – have developed systems that, while still far from the ideal we are aiming for, are much better, fairer and humane than anything we’ve had before in human history.

All this, therefore, has indeed been influenced by Marx’s writings and views – especially on addressing inequalities and injustices. But Marx wasn’t alone in arguing for improvements. He was one influential figure alongside many others.

So, in sum, Marx has contributed significantly, but he was also wrong about important things and his somewhat rigid prescriptions have long been superseded. His ideas, in my view, were overly influenced by romantic, utopian dreams, and the implementation of those ideas has often led to disastrous, inhumane, profoundly unequal societies.

My friend’s comment reminded me of the Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton – where the two great world systems of that time (early 20th century) – Catholicism and Communism – are shown to be struggling against each other through the main characters. I think the Marx/Freud syzygy (to use a pretentious word – but appropriate here – from astronomy, referring to when there is a conjunction or correspondence, for example, between two planets, when they become aligned with each other) is similar to this – two great poles of the universe colliding, interlocking and competing. But this is no longer, in my opinion, the primary contest.

I think that probably the great contest going forward is the one between the human being and artificial intelligence. And, at risk of being like Marx, I think AI will certainly become the dominant force (most practitioners in the field believe that AI will surpass all-round human intelligence at some point in the next 100 years – many think sooner than that.)

So yes, Marx and Freud have faded. And, for me, Newton, a key figure in the scientific revolution, now rules (with a fairly strong shout out for Alan Turing). (Note – I have written extensively about Newton elsewhere so will not go into that in this article.)

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