Mourn? Or organize?

BY:Michael James| August 14, 2020
Mourn? Or organize?


Goin’ crazy? Thinking about seeing a shrink? Be careful! Mental health professionals are complete lackeys in service to capitalism.

Karl Marx wrote that any psychology that ignores economics, class struggle, and the relations of production “cannot become a genuine, comprehensive and real science.”[1] So, is American psychology a real science? Hardly. The U.S. mental health industry rejects a contextual view in favor of individual diagnosis. Mental illness is seen as a phenomenon peculiar to the person, rooted in their singular biochemistry or character. The harsh economic realities of capitalism, which corrupt, frustrate, and distort the human personality, are ignored. This bourgeois psychology makes the mental health industry a collaborationist accomplice, a willing and eager beneficiary of the mental anguish generated by capitalism.

It is a “blame the victim” psychology which blindly embraces the values associated with capitalism: competition, rugged individualism, dominance over nature, an action orientation, property, consumerism, status, self-reliance, militarism/glorification of war, hierarchy, Eurocentric aesthetic standards of beauty and art, and a strong work ethic.[2] These values themselves, part of a cultural superstructure emerging from a capitalist economic base, are antisocial and contribute to mental distress. But clinicians are trained to locate psychopathology within the person, perpetuating the myth of individual solutions in the midst of a “diseased society.”[3] The end result is that “the client is blamed for not controlling his or her own life.”[4]

The dreaded DSM—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), considers mental syndromes to be “illnesses” rather than “reactions” so that “each of the mental disorders is conceptualized as a clinically significant . . . syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual.”[5] The APA likes to point to AXIS IV of the standard multiaxial diagnostic method as proof that context is a consideration when labeling a patient. But AXIS IV—where a clinician notes environmental factors such as unemployment or lack of family support—is a mere afterthought. The fact that the DSM is a tool of oppression is revealed in the fact that homosexuality was classified in the DSM-II and DSM-III as a mental illness. After the Stonewall uprising and birth of the Gay Rights Movement the slander was removed in the DSM-III-R.[6]

About 75% of our brain growth occurs outside the womb in interaction with the environment.

Rooting mental and emotional anguish within the person means that the environment or context is off the hook. Capitalism gets a pass, since a “purely psychological view” of human troubles serves the purpose of masking, veiling, and mystifying the reality of economic hardship under capitalism.[7] But we are neotonous creatures, meaning that about 75% of our brain growth occurs outside the womb in interaction with the environment.[8] This simple fact reveals the importance of our political, social, and economic world even as psychotherapy training programs continue to perpetuate the notion that people’s difficulties emerge from within them. Researchers found that beginner clinicians in training were naturally inclined to give importance to a person’s environmental influences. But, by the end of their training they were much more focused on the individual.[9]

Professor and author Angela Davis wrote:

Psychology as it is generally practiced is not geared to cure. Often it does not reach the root of the problem because it does not recognize the social origin of many forms of mental illness. In order to understand illness, it would be necessary to start with the illness of the society.[10]

Frederick Engels, intellectual partner to Karl Marx, saw that “the influences of the external world upon man express themselves in his brain and are reflected therein in feelings, thoughts, impulses, volitions.”[11] Marx defined human essence as “an ensemble of social relations,”[12] a view supported by one progressive clinician who described self as the “interiorization of community.”[13] Marx saw negative human characteristics as mere transient features which will disappear under favorable social conditions.[14] The great orator Malcolm X saw how context shapes lives: “All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man’s social system.”[15] Stressing the importance of community and context, he noted that “crime is prevented in the high chair, not the electric chair.”[16] One practitioner who rose above the bourgeois confines of the profession reinforced Malcolm’s endorsement of community: “Mental health is in the hands of the community, not the therapist.”[17]

Sociologist C. Wright Mills accused the mental health industry of “a pathetic attempt to avoid the larger issues and problems of modern society.”[18] But it is even more sinister than that. In capitalist society, psychotherapists are “social control agents” with the same role as cops: maintaining order.[19] Clinicians help people to “cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel).”[20] In our society, willful deviance is regarded as crime, and cops serve to correct it. Unwillful deviance is regarded as mental illness, and counselors serve to correct it.[21] Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his Wretched of the Earth wrote:

In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesman for the settler and his rule of oppression. . . . In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors, and other “bewilderers” separate the exploited from those in power.[22]

A look at professional literature reveals that some practitioners have overcome professional specialization, capitalist careerism, and self-interest to achieve an expanded worldview. A 1992 book title says it all: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse.[23] Psychologist Abraham Maslow observed that “chronic exposure to ugliness, dishonesty, or injustice can make us physically as well as emotionally unwell,” and “exposure to beauty tends to make us happier and even physically healthier, where chronic exposure to ugliness or blight has a corresponding adverse effect.” Maslow wrote about the highest level of human development, a stage of growth he termed “self-actualization,” and the environmental features necessary to permit that growth: order, justice, freedom of inquiry, fairness, honesty, and challenge or stimulation. Maslow determined that, sadly, only 1% of persons self-actualize in our capitalist society.[24]

“Is it the proper duty of a counselor to fix or adjust the person to become a functional part of an insane world?”

One brave clinician challenges colleagues: “We are sitting in the middle of a society in breakdown and we are being complacent and hiding our heads in the sand.”[25] Another rightly asks, “Is it the proper duty of a counselor to fix or adjust the person to become a functional part of an insane world?”[26] A textbook used to train mental health counselors actually concedes that severe mental disturbance can be an asset in this predatory, malignant society, since persons with antisocial personality disorder often find success in business, politics, and the military.[27] Psychoanalyst and Marxist Erich Fromm concluded that love is impossible in our current society and that a “revolutionary transformation” of capitalism will be needed to free us to love freely and fully. He described Marxism as a resistance movement against the destruction of love in our social reality.[28] Writer Aldous Huxley confirmed that capitalism is “organized lovelessness.”[29] And so, reeling from loneliness, alienation, and despair, we turn to psychotherapy “to make a purchase of friendship.”[30]

Psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in his book Against Therapy, looked at the imbalance of power in the psychotherapeutic relationship. The clinician brings training, licensure, technical jargon, and professional status to the therapeutic encounter. The patient brings vulnerability. The door is closed; everything is private. The patient reveals, trusts, and catharts. The practitioner comforts. Transference is encouraged, during which the patient “transfers” to the clinician unfulfilled emotional longings and needs, and, in the course of the therapeutic alliance, those needs are to be met and fulfilled. Resistance by the patient is deemed a problem. It is a very intimate encounter, and you may have already guessed that the number one ethical charge brought against psychotherapists is sexual and romantic misconduct. Masson actually calls for an end to the whole process, urging us “to increase the power of others, to take care rather than treat . . . to love rather than exploit.”[31] He concludes “Most of the evils of our society, and certainly by far the greater part of the so-called ‘pathological’ emotional distress experienced by its members, are more or less directly attributable to the unequal distribution of (usually economic) power.”[32] An article in the Journal of Counseling and Development takes a rare step toward contextualism by agreeing with Masson: that “A failure to live with one another as equals is the fundamental dilemma of our time.”[33]

So much of professional literature is devoted to the latest technique or gimmick to promote individual healing. Transactional analysis (TA), for example, popular in the 1970s, was quickly commodified and packaged for use in prisons, corporations, and even the military.[34] A more recent faddish technique is rapid eye movement desensitization. An astute clinician notes that “each of these enterprises is competing for a segment of a market, and their theory and practice stray as little from capitalist ways as do those of any business.”[35] A focus on techniques and micro skills is part of specialization, a trend that began after World War II. Progressivism and activism by scholars or professionals came to be seen as a loss of objectivity. Detachment replaced “partisan intellectualism,” and fading fast was the “omniscient generalist,” giving way to professionals with scholarly “disinterestedness.”[36] Some clinicians at least ask the right questions: “Do we inhibit our humanity through specialization?” “Has specialization destroyed the connection between scientific knowledge and public policy?”[37] And “who is looking at the big picture?”[38] Specialization is said to have “mentally crippled” many disciplines by purging Marxism and the dialectical, holistic, or contextual method from all but a few token academic curricula.[39] Erich Fromm said of Marx that “he did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings.”[40]

The notion of individual cure in the midst of a sick society is mystification, concealing and obscuring our need for the revolutionary transformation of capitalism.

Psychotherapists who radicalize themselves come to see the need for collective, political, and economic solutions to human distress. They see that the notion of individual cure in the midst of a sick society is mystification, concealing and obscuring our need for the revolutionary transformation of capitalism. And radicalized clinicians ultimately turn against their profession: “We must collectivize emotional support and help, and end the mercenary nature of professionalism,” and “We must be ‘radical therapists’ with the motto ‘We want to put ourselves out of business.’”[41] One liberated practitioner called for psychotherapists to join their patients in “turning over the system.”[42] A feminist view uses the motto “the personal is political,” meaning that

core values must be lived and acted upon in both public and private arenas. Thus, feminists reject the tendency to offer one set of values to guide interactions in the private and personal realms and another set of values to guide interactions in the public worlds of politics and power. Empathy, compassion, and the loving, healthy person-oriented values must be valued and affirmed not only in the family and the home but also in the halls where public policymaking, diplomacy, and politics are practiced.[43]

If you need individual clinical attention for anxiety or depression or any form of psychopathology, get it. Then get back in the struggle for socialism. It is widely understood that a lack of meaning or purpose is the cause of so much despair. Nothing could be more meaningful, and there could be no greater purpose, than abolishing capitalism. Psychotherapy can provide some comfort, but we must remember that the mental health industry is a lapdog to capitalism—a collaborationist enterprise designed to mystify, keep order, and prevent revolution. We are now facing humanitarian crises that only socialist society can resolve: climate change, rapid and numerous extinction of species, pandemic, global economic collapse, militarization of police forces, and alarming divisions between rich and poor. And as we reach the existential point of no return, bourgeois psychotherapists continue to take the old worker adage “Don’t mourn, organize!” and twist it into “Don’t organize, mourn!”


[1] T. Bottomore, ed. (1983). A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 402.
[2] D. Sue (1978). “World Views and Counseling,” Personnel and Guidance Journal, April, 458–462.
[3] D. Ingleby, ed. (1980). Critical Psychiatry. New York:  Pantheon Books, p. 100.
[4] J. Katz (1985). “The Sociopolitical Nature of Counseling,” The Counseling Psychologist, 13 (4): 615–624, p. 619.
[5] K. Tomm (1993). “A Critique of the DSM,” Dulwich Centre Newsletter, (3), 1–5, p. 2.
[6] L. Seligman (1990). Selecting Effective Treatments. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.
[7] D. Ingleby, Critical Psychiatry, p. 73.
[8] S. Thomas (1996). “A Sociological Perspective on Contextualism,” Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 529–536.
[9] A. Ivey (1995). “Psychotherapy as Liberation:  Toward Specific Skills and Strategies in Multicultural Counseling and Therapy.” In Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, edited by J. Ponterotto, J. Casas, L. Suzuki, and C. Alexander, 53–72. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage.
[10] A. Davis (1993). Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York:  International Publishers.
[11] B. Bortnick (1994). “Nanotechnology and the Mind of Marvin Minsky,” The People, 104, (5) 5, p. 5.
[12] R. Tucker, ed. (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader. New York:  W.W. Norton, p. 237.
[13] J. Hillman (1992). “Therapy Keeps Us from Changing the World,” Utne Reader, Jan/Feb, 97–99, p. 13.
[14] R. Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, p. 238.
[15] Malcom X and A. Haley (1964). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York:  Grove, p. 91.
[16] S. Clark, ed. (1992). Malcolm X: The Final Speeches. New York:  Pathfinder, p. 82.
[17] A. Dougherty (1995). Consultation—Practice and Perspectives in School and Community Settings. Pacific Grove, CA:  Brooks/Cole, p. 265.
[18] C. Mills (1970). “Personal Troubles and Public Issues.” In Where It’s At, Radical Perspectives in Sociology, edited by Deutch and Howard. New York: Harper & Row, p. 19.
[19] Ingleby, Critical Psychiatry, p. 108.
[20] Hillman, “Therapy,” p. 156.
[21] Ingleby, Critical Psychiatry.
[22] F. Fanon (1966). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, p. 201.
[23] J. Hillman (1992). We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse. San Francisco: Harper.
[24] B. Hergenhahn (1984). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
[25] E. Ginter (1991). “Mental Health Counselor Preparation:  Experts’ Opinions,” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 13 (2): 187203, p. 196.
[26] J. Peterson and B. Nisenholz (1995). Orientation to Counseling. Needham Heights, MA:  Simon & Schuster, p. 46.
[27] Seligman, Selecting Effective Treatments.
[28] E. Fromm (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York:  Continuum, p. 34.
[29] Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, p. 34.
[30] P. Brown, M. Galan, and N. Henley (1974). The Radical Therapist:  Therapy Means Change, Not Adjustment. Middlesex, England:  Penguin Books, p. 63.
[31] J. Masson (1994). Against Therapy. Monroe, ME:  Common Courage, p. 17.
[32] Masson, Against Therapy, p. 144.
[33] P. Pedersen (1991). “Introduction to the Special Issue on Multiculturalism as a Fourth Force in Counseling,” Journal of Counseling and Development 70, Sep/Oct, 4, p. 66.
[34] Ingleby, Critical Psychiatry.
[35] Ingleby, Critical Psychiatry, p. 98.
[36] A. Jamison R. Eyerman (1994). Seeds of the Sixties. Berkeley:  University of California Press, p. 16.
[37] R. Masters (1992). “Character, Virtue and Human Nature,” Perspectives on Political Science 21 (4), 212–215, p. 215.
[38] R. Miller (1993). “In Order to Save the World for Human Habitation, We Must Stop Teaching Economics!” Theory and Research in Social Education 21 (1): 25–47, p. 45.
[39] Bortnick, “Nanotechnology,” p. 5.
[40] Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, p. 230.
[41] Brown, Galan, and Henley, The Radical Therapist, p. 64.
[42] Hillman, “Therapy,” p. 38.
[43] M. Harris (1992). “Toward a Feminist Vision of Justice.” In Criminology as Peacemaking, edited by H. Pepinsky and R. Quinney, 89–94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 89.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.
Image: Nils Werner, Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 2.0).


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