It is childhood which sets up unsurpassable prejudices, it is childhood which, in the violence of training and the frenzy of the tamed beast, makes us experience the fact of our belonging to our environment as a unique event.
Today psychoanalysis alone enables us to study the process by which a child, groping in the dark, is going to attempt to play, without understanding it, the social role which adults impose upon him. Only psychoanalysis will show us whether he stifles in his role, whether he seeks to escape it, or is entirely assimilated into it. Psychoanalysis alone allows us to discover the whole man in the adult; that is, not only his present determinations but also the weight of his history. And one would be entirely wrong in supposing that this discipline is opposed to dialectical materialism. To be sure, amateurs in the West have constructed “analytical” theories of society or of History which indeed end up in idealism. How many times has someone attempted the feat of psychoanalysing Robespierre for us without even understanding that the contradictions in his behaviour were conditioned by the objective contradictions of the situation. When one has understood how the bourgeoisie of Thermidor, paralysed by the democratic regime, found itself forced by practical necessity to demand a military dictatorship, then it is most annoying to read from the pen of a psychiatrist that Napoleon is explained by his “will to fail.” De Man, the Belgian socialist, went still further when he tried to explain class conflicts by “the Proletariat’s inferiority complex” Inversely, Marxism, once it became a universal Knowledge, wanted to integrate psychoanalysis into itself by first twisting its neck. Marxism made of it a dead idea which quite naturally found its place in a desiccated system; it was idealism returning in disguise, an avatar of the fetishism of interiority. In the one case as in the other a method has been transformed into dogmatism: the philosophers of psychoanalysis find their justification in the Marxist “schematisers” and vice versa. The fact is that dialectical materialism cannot deprive itself much longer of the one privileged mediation which permits it to pass from general and abstract determinations to particular traits of the single individual. Psychoanalysis has no principles, it has no theoretical foundation; and this is quite all right if it accompanies as in the work of Jung and in certain works of Freud – a completely innocuous mythology. In fact, it is a method which is primarily concerned with establishing the way in which the child lives his family relations inside a given society. And this does not mean that it raises any doubts as to the priority of institutions. Quite the contrary, its object itself depends on the structure of a particular family, and this is only a certain individual manifestation of the family structure appropriate to such and such a class under such and such conditions. Thus psychoanalytic monographs – if it were always possible to have them – would by themselves throw light upon the evolution of the French family between the eighteenth and the twentieth century, which in its turn would express in its own way the general evolution of the relations of production.
Today’s Marxists are concerned only with adults; reading them, one would believe that we are born at the age when we earn our first wages. They have forgotten their own childhoods. As we read them, everything seems to happen as if men experienced their alienation and their reification first in their own work, whereas in actuality each one lives it first, as a child, in his parents’ work. Dead set against interpretations too exclusively sexual, Marxists make use of them in order to condemn a method of interpretation which claims only to put History in place of nature in each person. They have not yet understood that sexuality is only one way of living the totality of our condition – at a certain level and within the perspective of a certain individual venture. Existentialism, on the contrary, believes that it can integrate the psychoanalytic method which discovers point of insertion for man and his class – that is, the particular family – as a mediation between the universal, class and the individual. The family in fact is constituted by and in the general movement of History, but is experienced, on the other hand, as an absolute in the depth and opaqueness of childhood.
— From Jean-Paul Sartre, A Search for Method
from the desk of the Unconscious