George Walford: Repression in Ideology

In calling attention to the persistence of early modes of behaviour we have to think why this should be particularly necessary in social and ideological connections. The answer lies in the complex nature of the process by which thinking advances. Although the development, the horizontal extension, of any ideology proceeds for the most part steadily, there is no way for its adherents to reason their way to the next. This movement comes as a discontinuity, a jump, and here as elsewhere action and reaction are not only opposite but also equal; we ascend in proportion to the force with which we press down against our take-off point. This appears in social practice as the tendency for each ideological group to criticise and oppose, particularly, the one just before it in the series. We cannot eliminate our earlier modes; we cannot live without expediency, and the consistency and responsibility which make their entrance with religion get carried forward through all later developments. In order to realise our new ideology at all we have to repress the earlier one, excluding it from influence over the part of behaviour which, with our new ideology, we come to value most highly. We do this largely by condemning it as evil. Thus Domination condemns the practice of Expediency in social affairs, demanding consistent principle, humanism regards religion as not merely mistaken but actively harmful, and communism reserves its fiercest vituperation for democratic socialism. Recently this concept, Repression, has been called into question in one connection, and here we consider whether this should affect its use in systematic ideology.

Another article, elsewhere in this issue of IC (see A Falling God), reports growing criticism of psychoanalysis and the methods used by its founder. For the most part these concern IC only as they provide confirmation of the need to treat all theories (including s.i.) with reserve. (Although we all know about this, some of us sometimes overlook it.) But one feature of these exposures (the word does not seem too strong) comes closer to home: their consequences for the concept of repression.

Psychoanalysis has long been notorious as ‘all about sex,’ and although the charge may go too far, sexual drives and their repression do play a major part in the theory. The repressed material, Freud argues, remains active in the psyche and has a great deal to do with the appearance of obsessions and neuroses in later life. Although sexual desire, being nonvolitional, stands outside the remit of s.i., repression in other connections forms a prominent feature of the theory, and while Freud’s alleged misuse of the concept does not mean it has to be automatically rejected – if every concept that has ever been misapplied were to be condemned thinking would become a lot harder even than it is – it does make it advisable to re-examine this role.

Freud did not invent the term ‘repression’; Chaucer used it (and the verb ‘repress’) in 1374, and other authors followed him. For some five centuries it carried only what we can perhaps call the simple sense, meaning the action of pushing back or down. Thus Chaucer spoke of fury so great that it surmounted repression and the magazine Good Words, in 1875, of applying repression to strong drink. Freud’s contribution was to introduce an element of dynamism; in his conception that which was repressed fights back, and not without success, continuing to influence behaviour although not producing the same results as it would have done if left alone.

On thinking about this, the dynamic element turns out to have been at least implied in the earlier usage. In the Chaucerian example the fury overcame the repression, taking it off the board. The other example illustrates the point, for when a state sets out to repress the production and consumption of any substance it has to do more than declare it illegal. American experience with Prohibition, and the results of present attempts to repress cocaine, heroin and the rest, show all too clearly the continuing need for strenuous and expensive enforcement. Brought under repression, the tendency to produce and consume the forbidden substance fights back. It does not produce the same effect as if it had been left free, but with American attempts to control drugs now costing some $4 billion annually it clearly continues to exert a significant effect upon social behaviour. Repression works rather like trying to push an inflated balloon under water; force it down here and it pops up, distorted, there.

Turning now to Walsby’s use of the term in the Domain, it first appears in the chapter on Political Individualism. In the previous chapters he has distinguished two groups (each of them subdivided, but for present purposes we can leave that aside):

First, the eidostatic majority. In their thinking and their political preferences these incline towards collectivism, valuing patriotism, loyalty, conventions, and traditional institutions. In their economic behaviour they tend in the other direction, towards individualism and independence, not always seeking great economic power for themselves but respecting those who possess it.

Second, the eidodynamic minority, the intellectuals who reverse these tendencies, valuing independent rationality when thinking and the welfare of the collectivity in economic affairs.

We all begin life as members of the first group and some of us move on to the second. These do not, however, distance themselves from the first. They rather extend their thinking to incorporate also the second, establishing, in the process, a complex structure with the first mode of thought, one can almost say, hidden behind the second. They repress their former tendencies towards ‘subjective’ or ’emotional’ thinking and economic individualism. Walsby develops the theme. (When he wrote, in 1947, the masculine pronoun was read to include the feminine):

Strictly speaking, of course, nobody is able to separate himself truly from the mass group and escape entirely its limitations and constraints. To do that would entail complete physical withdrawal from human society itself. The separation, which is only partial and incomplete, is merely that effected by the renunciation, or internal inhibition, of the group ties and mass ideological modes and assumptions. The individual, no matter with what other group he may identify himself, and though he may no longer directly identify himself with the mass modes of thought, still remains nolens volens part of the mass group and still – though in a different manner – under its influence. Again, the renunciation, repression or inhibition of the mass ideological modes (shown by the individual’s resistance to mass suggestion) is never continuously permanent or even complete. The renunciation or repression, to put it another way, varies in its extent and in its intensity according to the continually changing external situation or environment of the individual. And the extent and intensity of the repression will vary also from person to person, according, that is, to the individual’s psychobiological make-up in other directions. The intellectual himself thus still remains subject to group suggestion in many ways, particularly so where the contents or subject-matter of the suggestion appear to him to have no obvious relation to the basic assumptions or economic content of the mass ideology – in most of the multitudinous petty affairs of everyday life, for instance, and when he is enjoying a joke or being entertained. It is when the contents of the suggestion are such as to recall, by association, the basic assumptions or economic content of the mass ideology that the repression, which has perhaps been temporarily relaxed or in abeyance, is suddenly strengthened and his resistance is brought to bear against the suggestion.

The repression then manifests itself in the intellectual’s verbal opposition and feeling of hostility to the economic content (economic individualism) of the mass ideology, in his rejection of the underlying assumptions, the modes of thinking and feeling characteristic of that ideology (such as, e.g., its identification with authority, strong leadership, action, personal power, heroes, hierarchy, character, physical bravery, aggressiveness, force, symbolism, mysticism etc. and its intolerance or rejection of intellect, logic, understanding, doctrine, reason, theory, academic discussion, objectivity etc).

In so far as the intellectual’s opposition, resistance, and his rejection of the mass ideology, is itself – because of the repression – partly emotional and irrational, then we can expect that he is still to some extent subject to emotional suggestion in respect of behaviour, ideas and feelings which tend to support his own modes of thinking and their contents. We shall find this to be the case. Such suggestion, of course – though he does not recognise it as such – assists in the maintenance of the repression and, consequently, in preserving his mental comfort. On the other hand, ideas which appear to be – whether they are or not – connected with, or to favour, the mass ideology, or ideas which threaten to disturb the renounced, repressed material, will frequently call forth a vigorous, irrational and emotional opposition. The resistance hardens, the repression is intensified, and he will either oppose at all costs, despite any irrationality he may show, in order to defend himself against the mental pain involved in the acceptance and return of repressed material, or he may – especially if what he opposes be more rational and scientific – remove himself bodily from the scene of his discomfort.

Walsby goes on to show Freud using the concept of repression to explain not only sexuality, neuroses and obsessions, but also the intellectual development which Walsby had taken as his own special study. He quotes Freud:

“Thus we could definitely ascertain that the same man would take up and then abandon his critical objections over and over again in the course of the analysis. Whenever we are on the point of bringing to his consciousness some piece of unconscious material which is particularly painful to him, then he is critical in the extreme; even though he may have previously understood and accepted a great deal, yet now all these gains seem to be obliterated; in his struggles to oppose at all costs he can behave just as though he were mentally deficient, a form of ’emotional stupidity.'”

Walsby paraphrases Freud’s further account:

If he can be successfully helped to overcome this new resistance he regains his insight and comprehension. His critical faculty is not functioning independently, and therefore is not to be respected as if it were: it is merely a maid-of-all-work for his affective attitudes and is directed by his resistance. When he dislikes anything he can defend himself against it most ingeniously; but when anything suits his book he can be credulous enough. We are perhaps all much the same; a person being analysed shows this dependence of the intellect upon the affective life so clearly because in the analysis he is so hard-pressed.

He returns to quoting Freud, on the way in which the unwelcome material gets excluded from awareness. After explaining a symptom as an indication that a mental process has been prevented from coming to completion so it could appear in consciousness, Freud continues:

‘”A vehement effort must have been exercised to prevent the mental process in question from penetrating into consciousness and as a result it has remained unconscious; being unconscious it had the power to construct a symptom. The same vehement effort is again at work during the analytic treatment, opposing the attempt to bring the unconscious into consciousness. This we perceive in the form of resistances. The pathogenic process which is demonstrated by the resistances we call REPRESSION.’ (Domain of Ideologies 88-90)

As this passage shows, the material which psychoanalysis treats as repressed extends far beyond the infantile fantasies which the revisionists now accuse Freud of having invented; it includes the whole of the unconscious. What is being challenged is not the concept of repression but only the validity of one alleged example of the process. While the whole of s.i. remains constantly open to question, under a continuing obligation to justify itself, no reason has so far appeared for it to abandon the concept of repression.

In the closing words of this last passage there appears one of the bolder distinctions between the two approaches; Freud calls repression pathological, and this term plays no part in s.i. Pathology implies some standard of normality, and while the psychoanalyst, dealing with individual patients, can take the conventions of a culture as the criterion of normality the student of ideology cannot, for it would mean privileging one ideology above others. Freud himself comes close to dropping the view of repression as pathological when he discusses social affairs, saying he believes that civilisation depends upon suppression of instinctual impulses, the sexual ones prominent among them. Psychoanalysis brings this repressed material to attention, but (perhaps a few enthusiasts apart) it does not propose to sacrifice civilization for the sake of according the instincts unrestrained expression.

To sum up: Although Walsby called upon the Freudian use of ‘repression’ (at that time the one most familiar to people interested in such things) this was little more than a convenience. The concept, in a simpler form, ante-dated Freud by centuries, and there is good warrant for its use in the modern sense quite apart from psychoanalysis.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.