Springing the Trap of Repression from the Inside: Lacan’s Marcuse


Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization—an unprecedented and unsurpassed compound of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and Utopia—introduces into Freudian discourse a distinction between basic repression and surplus repression, that is, repression necessary for humanization as opposed to repression necessary for class domination. Might it be possible to formulate a Lacanian version of something like this distinction? Not at first glance, not even at second glance.

Marcuse’s basic repression is the minimum repression of erotic and aggressive drives required for the existence of any kind of human civilization. But according to Marcuse this is not at all the primary cause of human suffering and conflict. It is surplus repression that “fits” the human being for the life of joyless toil, toil that powers the technological progress achieved by regimes of violence and domination. The abolition of surplus repression, which is now possible as a result of that very progress, would bring about not only economic and political equality, but the end of toil—the transformation of work into play (that is, freely chosen, interesting, even elevating activity) and the transformation of narrowly defined compulsive “sexuality” into an Eros suffusing all realms of existence.

For Lacan, however, it is the basic humanizing repression that hurts. The human is not only a pleasure-seeking erotic being; she is crucially a linguistic being, and linguistic being is a paradox, a torsion characterized at its core by a drive to excess, to loss of self, what Freud called the death instinct, Thanatos.

Marcuse worked hard in Eros and Civilization to show that a liberated Eros would subsume the death instinct, taking it up into Life, exorcizing Death, as it were, of its sting, bringing forth nonviolent aesthetic equivalents to war.

Lacan begins and ends otherwise. Very early in life human being is constitutively divided, “split.” Language, culture, the insistence of the Other, bite into the being: a traumatic cut, a rip in being, experienced as an Intensity unbearably, painfully pleasurable. This is the first human experience. Lacan calls it “Jouissance”, a term which is untranslated in all English, Spanish, etc. versions of his work. The cut opens an abyss, an experience of loss of an unattainable object, a missing object which was never actually there, because before the cut there was no relationality, no subject, no object. The object of human desire is lost-as-such.

Psychoanalysis explores the continent of fantasy. The flora and fauna of fantasy represent the endeavour to obscure the abyss, to mend (or as Lacanians say to “suture”) the rip in being, primarily by means of identification of the being with images of self as perfect or perfectible, whether by conforming or refusing to conform, or both, but always in the eye of the Other. Adorno, Derrida, Gregory Bateson, Alfred Korzybski and others have diagnosed humanity’s pathology as “identity thinking.” From Lacan we learn the fantasy work of identification with images of perfection (and damnation) is prior to all identity thinking.

The fantasies are played out as human “reality,” sexual, cultural, and political, a reality far from the intolerable traumatic Real, yet often dangerously, painfully and deliciously close. What is insistently at work is the ambivalent attraction/terror of regression, the slide to what Lacan’s friend Bataille called “expenditure,” wasting the self, bursting its boundaries whether by self-immolation or self-expansion, especially in war. Bataille: “The desire to be consumed for no reason other than desire itself: to burn.”[1] What Bataille’s disciple Nick Land calls “the thirst for annihilation.”[2]


In Paris young rebels carried portraits of Marx, Mao, and Marcuse through the streets. Everywhere in the West “the sixties” did seem like the beginning of a fundamental transformation of existence. Yes, yes, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. In his Essay on Liberation Marcuse hailed the rebellious youth, and the Black Panthers, and the revolutionaries of Cuba and Viet Nam, as possible harbingers of a “non-repressive civilization.” In America the Youth International Party (yippies) overturned in Spectacle the society which had failed to convince them to “Study, Work, Get Rich, Kill.” The hippie slogan was “Make Love Not War.” But for many or most of us, that was no obstacle to sharp contempt for the parental generations and for policemen universally relabeled “pigs,” and fiery personal hatred for politicians like the much reviled Nixon, whose name could hardly be uttered without spitting.

Marcuse’s reading of Freud could not allow him to consider the profound inherent twinship of revolutionary movements with their Adversary. It was a very different story for Lacan. When a group of young enthusiasts confronted him in his lecture hall, insisting that he choose sides, he responded: “what you aspire to is a master, and you will have one.” The resistance to the master is an essential moment of the game of mastery. The “discourse of the master produces its own insides and outsides.” Mobius.[3]

Though Lacan was the first to give this mobius a place in psychoanalysis, he had a number of precursors as observers of the phenomenon. Three examples: Max Nomad “Masters Old and New” (published in V.F. Calverton, ed., The Making of Society, 1937). Nomad writes that every revolution produces a new class of masters, and he is entirely accepting of that; he’s determined to support every egalitarian revolution as it comes along to depose the master class installed by the previous egalitarian revolution, he’s always going to punch his fist in the air and risk his life if necessary, knowing that the promise of the Internationale (“the last battle”) is a false promise though perhaps for many a necessary lure.[4] He won’t give a thought to counting the cost in blood, that’s not what revolutionaries do. So then, there’ll never be an end to the execution of the Tsar’s children, in their myriads. When I once took up the cause of the Tsar’s own children with a revolutionary intellectual, I was instructed that they died by virtue of the same Law that had endowed them with privilege. Precisely.

In a very different mood George Orwell denounced a certain version of Nomad’s way of thinking as “catastrophic gradualism.”[5] That’s the faith that “nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed… crime follows crime, one ruling class replaces another, the Tower of Babel rises and falls, but one mustn’t resist the process… because this is Progress… Throughout history, one revolution after another… has simply led to a change of masters, because no serious effort has been made to eliminate the power instinct.”[6]

Gregory Bateson, in “Conscious Purpose vs. Nature” (1967) pointed to the “dynamic of the whole traditional pathology in which we are caught… we just go round and round in terms of the old premises” of the struggle between “topdogs and underdogs,” both sides always equally enraptured by the “myth of power.”[7] However, as signaled by the term “premises,” Bateson’s diagnosis of the pathology was systemic-ecological-epistemological; humanity suffers due to cognitive error rather than the inevitable traumatic intrusion of Language into being.

The recurrence of revolution-counterrevolution, transgression and Law, is powered by the Idea, not in the Hegelian but in the Freudian sense: I mean the desperate lifelong project of the ego to identify with the Ideal images of the Other. This is not at all simply a production of conformity. Those who happen to ‘choose’ “non-conformity… are just as subject” to the dominion of the Other.[8] The Big Other is Janus-faced; revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative,’ etcetera, are equally captivated by the ego ideal, which is for all protagonists “the point of view from which they have a place and are ‘seen’ by the Other as good or bad. Defiant or not, the common factor is that they remain seen by the Other and… their actions occur entirely within the Other’s scope. Indeed, their actions are for the Other even when they appear to be against the Other.”[9] (By the way, Janus was the Roman god of war and peace.) To be recognized by the Other, in the Other, that’s the name of the game; “to reaffirm one’s position as a meaning,” any meaning, for the Other.[10] For Lacan, the way out is through realization, as the end of analysis, that “there is no Big Other,” of which more presently.

And here is the connection of the Ideal with killing, with the death one deals as hero to the damned adversary and/or to one’s self as dishonoured, or on the contrary, as sovereign martyr: Identification is inseparable from “aggressivity” (Lacan’s term). Lorenzo Chiesa explains: The greater “the narcissistic intensity of the subject’s relation to his own ideal image… the greater the aggressivity”, because the ideal is an image of the “perfection which the subject cannot have… the ideal ego is erotized only insofar as the subject wants aggressively to be in his place.”[11]

Many Lacanian cognoscenti have contributed in different ways to a project of recruiting psychoanalysis for “the Left,” for example, by influencing “progressives” to surrender their perfectionism, to accept “loss” and incompleteness,[12] or by using Lacanian discourse to mediate the spat between lovers of identity politics and lovers of class politics,[13] or by framing the end of psychoanalysis as a counter-hegemonic emancipation from the hegemonic Big Other (Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek). To me it seems odd that no Lacanian theorist (to my knowledge) has thoroughly explored the knotting or mobius of the hegemonic with the counter-hegemonic in the Big Other. And no one seems concerned about the cost in blood…



Lacan points to the exit, especially at the end of his career, with suggestions that emancipation comes with divestment, as the end of analysis, from fantasies of recognition in the Big Other. Identifications with ideal images give way to “a new identification at the level of being… the real being of the subject” which is no longer “a mere answer to and from the Other.”[14] The real being of the subject is meaning-free—not meaningless, which is a very heavy meaning. “The adult who dreams wide awake” is led “right to the point of analphabetism… contingent and outside meaning.”[15] She is led “from the phantasmic novel of a life,” and thus, I would suggest, from the aggressivity it involves, “to that which he is as unthinkable… not representable in the Other.”[16]

These formulations indicate the possibility of something like a Lacanian version of Marcuse’s disentangling of necessary from surplus repression.

For Marcuse what comes first is the abolition of scarcity and toil. For Lacan what comes first is on the other side of the social, a deep psychological work which exhausts the fantasy life and introduces it to being with and for singular others, not for the Other, what Chiesa calls “an anti-transgressive individuation.”[17] The trap of basic repression is sprung from the inside, as it were, by igniting an analytic process of dis-illusionment. How could this fail to unravel the antagonistic symbiosis of revolution and counterrevolution, of Law and transgression?



[1] Georges Bataille, “On Nietzsche,” The Bataille Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 337-38.

[2] Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (London: Routledge, 1992).

[3] Dany Nobus and Malcom Quinn, Knowing Nothing. Staying Stupid: Elements for a Psychoanalytic Epistemology (London: Routledge, 2013), 192-193.

[4] Max Nomad, “Masters Old and New.” in V.F. Calverton, ed., The Making of Society (New York: Random House, 1937).

[5] George Orwell, “Catastrophic Gradualism,” Wikilivres, http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/Catastrophic_Gradualism (accessed April 9, 2016).

[6] Orwell.

[7] Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose vs. Nature,” http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/Gregory_Bateson.pdf, (accessed April 9, 2016).

[8] Colette Soler, Lacan: The Unconscious Reinvented (London: Karnac Books), 101.

[9] Ed Pluth, Signifiers and Acts: Freedom in Lacan’s Theory of the Subject (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), 53.

[10] Pluth, 103.

[11] Lorenzo Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan (Boston: MIT Press, 2007), 20.

[12] Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 2013).

[13] Charles Wells, The Subject of Liberation: Žižek, Politics, Psychoanalysis (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014).

[14] Soler, 18.

[15] Soler, 38.

[16] Soler, 105.

[17] Chiesa, 9.


Editors’ note: A recent CTheory interview with Gad Horowitz is available here.


Gad Horowitz is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Canada. Horowitz writes political theory from a series of shifting perspectives: Canadian political culture, psychoanalysis, Buddhism, Judaic scholarship, and General Semantics. His books include: Canadian Labour in Politics (University of Toronto Press, 1968), Repression: Basic and Surplus Repression in Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud, Reich and Marcuse (University of Toronto Press, 1977), “Everywhere They Are in Chains”: Political Theory from Rousseau to Marx (Nelson Canada, 1988) Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics (University of Toronto Press, 2006). Horowitz taught General Semantics at the University of Toronto beginning in 1985. His course is available in video format here. In November 2013 he served as resource person for the VII National General Semantics Workshop at Saurashtra University, Rajkot. Workshop videos are available here.