[This review was published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 315-324.]


Book Review


The Psychotic Left: From Jacobin France to the Occupy Movement

Kerry Bolton

Black House Publishing Ltd, 2013


          We approached this book with some fear and trepidation.  Was a study of “the psychotic Left” going to be an overwrought attempt to match Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality?[1]  Although Adorno’s book has been much admired in American academia, we prefer to remember it as a highly ideological application of Freudian psychology to make an ad hominem attack on conservatives of all sorts.[2]  Would Bolton seek to counterbalance this by a comparable pseudo-scientific attack on the Left? 

          Our apprehension vanished, however, as we got into the book.  Bolton, it turns out, is fair-minded, balanced and scholarly.  Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the extreme thinking and behavior of radical personalities going back as far as the Jacobins will find The Psychotic Left a fascinating source-book.  Bolton brings into one place a vast array of detail from a wide variety of sources.  These include such esoterica as the notes written by Mao Zedong in the margins of a book, and letters written by Karl Marx’s wife Jenny and father Heinrich.  By such means, he avoids any superficial gloss, and explores, through the personalities’ own words and those of people who knew them well, the inner lives of many of the Left’s leading radicals over the past two centuries. 

          As Bolton lays out so many facts about thoughts and actions, a reader has no difficulty seeing the plausibility of his attributing a broad array of psychiatric disorders to such individuals as Marquis de Sade, Jean Paul Marat, Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Charles Manson, Allen Ginsberg, and several others.  The disorders include such categories as sociopathy, hysterical hyperesthesia, narcissistic personality disorder, pathological egotism, and bi-polar disorder, among others.  Although in each case the appellation is well-supported by the facts, we would downplay this particular aspect of the book.  Bolton, who has a doctorate in theology, is not medically trained; and he doesn’t cite trained medical opinion in support of his diagnoses.  We are certainly pointed appropriately toward considering psychological disorder as relevant, but the principal value of the book, it seems to us, lies in the wealth of information it gives.

          Bolton’s level-headedness is apparent throughout the book.  He is writing a scholarly study, not a lawyer’s brief to build a case.  This leads him to make careful distinctions.  One is between those who seek radical reform and those who want revolution as a path to destruction.[3]  He also notes the difference between separatists, who rebel to protect their heritage, and radicals whose motive is nihilistic.  Although he points to much psychotic behavior, Bolton cautions his readers that “not all those of the New Left and the Next Left such as those of the Occupy movement are psychotic or sociopathic.”  Such an observation may seem self-evident, but it’s not something an ideologue writing an ad hominem screed would say.  

            Readers will find much that’s informative by examining the book as a whole.  The examples we give here will allow our readers some sense of Bolton’s in-depth scholarship:

          Karl Marx.  In 1851, Marx wrote a letter to Friedrich Engels that lays bare what Bolton calls Marx’s “Narcissistic Personality.”  Marx complains that he has had to repay two of his debts (“…to old Bamberger and... to the Jew, Stiebel”) after first having his wife try to get her mother to pay them.  When Marx’s mother-in-law couldn’t do it, Marx says “then I wrote to my mother, threatening to draw bills on her and, in case of non-payment, to go to Prussia and get myself locked up.”  He complains that “I’m up to my neck in petty-bourgeois muck… The manufacturer who in Brussels loaned me money is dunning me.”  Bolton says that “in this letter… [Marx shows himself] devoid of feeling for others, including his mother, concerned only for himself and blaming his irresponsibility with money on his relatives and tradesmen and bankers who expect Marx to pay his bills and debts like normal people.”  In 1848, Marx had written Engels saying “I have devised an infallible plan for extracting money from your old man.”  And in 1852, Marx wrote Engels telling him “yesterday we were informed of a very happy event, the death of my wife’s uncle… My wife will get almost 100 pounds.”

          Marx’s wife Jenny was “ever-faithful” to him, as was evident from her support for his revolutionary views, but Bolton tells us he “betrayed [her] by fathering a child to her ever-faithful maid.”  It’s amazing how much love and enabling support Marx’s wife and parents gave him.  Just the same, his father wrote him heatedly that “you squander your talents and spend your nights giving birth to monsters; …you follow in the footsteps of the new immoralists who twist their words until they themselves do not hear them; who christen a flood of words a product of genius because it is devoid of ideas or contains only distorted ideas.”

                    Later, we will see a letter Marx’s father wrote that was full of compassion and wisdom.  Those characteristics were missing in Karl.  He was filthy in his personal hygiene, and Bolton says “the condition of the Marx household was just as filthy.”  Nevertheless, Marx had “expensive tastes in cigars and wine.”  His wife collaborated in covering up his impregnating her maid, and the cover-up was so effective that the parentage wasn’t publicly revealed until in 1962 a German historian came upon the fact in a Marxist archive in Amsterdam.

                    Marx’s daughter Eleanor met a convoluted and tragic end at the hands of one of Marx’s close associates, Dr. Edward Aveling, a leading socialist who helped Engels translate Das Kapital.  Bolton recounts how Aveling “persuaded her to commit suicide in order that he might go to his secret wife, while also inheriting the remainder of the Engels legacy that had come to Eleanor.”  Eleanor was given to believe that the two would commit suicide together, but “when Eleanor swallowed her fatal dose and died immediately… Aveling did not touch his.”

                    Another of Marx’s daughters, Laura, committed suicide with her husband when she was 65 after they “agreed they had nothing to live for.”

                    The Weather Underground/Charles Manson/Bernadine Dohrn.  Bolton tells us “the Weather Underground broke away from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969 to become an outlaw organization espousing urban guerrilla warfare in the USA… Bernadine Dohrn issued the Weather Underground’s first public statement, a ‘Declaration of War’ on the USA.”  Charles Manson was held up as a hero: “At a 1969 ‘war council’… Dohrn praised the murders committed by the ‘Family’ of Charles Manson… In honor of this Dorhn introduced the three-fingered Weatherman salute, called the ‘fork salute,’ symbolizing the fork used to split open pregnant Sharon Tate’s stomach.”  Dohrn spoke of the murders as “offing those rich pigs.”   Chicago District Attorney Richard Elrod was paralyzed for life in the Weatherman “Days of Rage” riot in 1969, after which “Dohrn led her Weatherman comrades in singing a spoof of a Bob Dylan song, which they entitled ‘Lay, Elrod, Lay,’ rejoicing in Elrod’s paralysis.”

                    Bolton quotes Jared Israel, who writes of the “self-indulgence and self-glorification” of the Weather Underground.  Their ideology is summarized by Israel as “a mush of de Sade, Marcuse, Timothy Leary, Frantz Fanon… and the PLO.”  In his autobiography, Dohrn’s husband, Bill Ayres, writes of their “anarchistic, vigorous and unrestrained” sexuality: “One night after a fierce and bloody demonstration in Washington, a hundred of us created a moaning sexual pageant in a loft off Dupont Circle… We ran a large cartoon strip in our newspaper… In one frame a zillion bodies cuddled together under a huge Viet Cong flag.”  Bolton says “this promiscuity was part of a political agenda to ‘smash monogamy,’ according to Ayres.”  After a “1981 Brinks hold-up with the Black Liberation Army,” several of them, including Dohrn, went underground for ten years.  It tells us something about American condonation of the radical Left that when they surfaced they were treated with great leniency.  Bolton tells us that “Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayres [are] both now comfortably ensconced in academia.”

                    A nugget of wisdom from Marx’s father.  An especially fascinating item in Bolton’s long section on Marx is a letter from Marx’s father Heinrich that showed, in contrast to his son, extraordinary humanity and depth.  Heinrich wrote:

                    The first of all human virtues is the strength and will to sacrifice oneself, to set aside one’s ego, if duty, if love calls for it, and indeed not those glamorous, romantic or hero-like sacrifices, the act of a moment of fanciful reverie or heroic feeling.  Even the greatest egotist is capable of that, for it is precisely the ego which then has pride of place.  No, it is those daily and hourly recurring sacrifices which arise from the pure heart of a good person, of a loving father, of a tender-hearted mother, of a loving spouse, of a thankful child, that give life its sole charm and make it beautiful despite all unpleasantness.

It is instructive to compare this passage with both the philosophy of Ayn Rand and a statement by Mao Zedong that might just as well have been lifted out of Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness:  “I do not agree with the view,” Mao wrote at age 24, “that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefitting others.  Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others… People like me want to… satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes.  Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me” (emphasis added).  Bolton cites this quote, which is found in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s monumental Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), p. 13.

          It is important to distinguish this thorough-going egoism from Adam Smith’s and classical liberalism’s insight that the pursuit of self-interest is a prime mover in a market economy and as such promotes the general welfare.  This is part of the overall scheme of a free society, which, as best conceived, also includes a strong sense of ethics, community, family, and the Rule of Law.     

          The Left’s paradoxical compassion.  A fact about Marx, as about so many of the radical leaders, is that a professed concern for “the masses” has been mixed with a lack of concern for individual people.  Bolton illustrates this by a candid quote from actress Vanessa Redgrave, who was “for many years a luminary of British Trotskyism”: “My paradox,” she said, “is that though I care a great deal for the masses – the orphans in Vietnam, the starving in India – I seem to care little about the individuals around me.  I’ve resisted the accusation.  But, quite bluntly, it’s me.” This goes a long way toward explaining the sociopathy that Bolton sees in so much Leftist ideology, and toward understanding how ideologies that profess to be full of compassion for the “proletariat” or the “peasants” are often so murderous toward those very people.

          “Psychohistory” as a discipline.  Bolton speaks of psychohistory as a new branch of social science, which he says was “formalized by Lloyd deMause, director of The Institute for Psychohistory and editor of The Journal of Psychohistory.”  It studies the motives underlying historical action, using “the insights of psychotherapy and the research methodology of the social sciences.”   We have already made clear our “fear and trepidation” about such inquiry.  Bolton’s book avoids the pitfalls by compiling history in standard narrative fashion, with only the most nominal use of psychotherapeutic categories.  But the pitfalls are there for the discipline itself.  Arising out of decades of infatuation with Freud’s fanciful speculations, psychotherapy has a lot to do to prove itself.  A place to start is by taking seriously the critique made by Hans  Eysenck in his The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1990).

          It is important to note that a psychological study of motivations is something quite different from an analysis of substantive issues.  Such a study  takes the individual as a separate object, while not itself being concerned with the social, political, economic, cultural and historical context.  Even when done appropriately with great care and without bias, psychohistory is at most a supplement to the study of society.  Hopefully, it will proceed at its best and will add another dimension to our understanding. 

          Assorted reflections.  Bolton quotes the economist and former Communist Nathaniel Weyl about “alienated intellectuals” having led “revolutionary mobs.”   These were “the under-class of the unbalanced intelligentsia.”  Although the description may be appropriate when it comes to those leading mobs, care must be taken to distinguish this “unbalanced” group from the far broader phenomenon known as “the alienation of the intellectual.”  One of the central facts about modern history in the West (and through the West, elsewhere) has been the estrangement of the main literary-artistic-intellectual subculture from the “bourgeoisie.”  This was the animus that drove the intelligentsia’s search for allies, first with the “proletariat” and eventually with unassimilated minorities of all kinds.  The disaffection and search for allies are defining characteristics of the Left.  We know, too, when we consider the nineteenth century’s “right-wing Hegelianism” and the passions described by Julien Benda in his well-known La Trahison Des Clercs (“The Treason of the Intellectuals”), that similar anti-bourgeois sentiment has historically been important to the Right, especially in Europe.[4]

          There is a passage in The Psychotic Left that captures extremely well the transition within the Left that we just noted.  He writes that “the Left in general long having given up on the proletariat as a revolutionary force, has focused on agitating for the ‘rights’ of sundry minorities, and has attached itself to feminism, gay politics, ‘green,’ immigrant and ‘indigenous’ campaigns, ad infinitum, in what is called ‘identity politics.’  The strategy is no longer that of ‘class struggle’ but of recruiting alienated groups.”

          A separate observation: we notice that Bolton uses the word “liberalism” to include Rousseau.  This can be confusing, since important distinctions must be made.  Rousseau is one of the founding fathers of the Left, and his philosophy is greatly at odds with “classical liberalism.” It’s true that both arose out of the “Enlightenment,” but rather than being seen as one, they must be seen as distinct, and even as enemies.

          Bolton has covered so much ground that it is by no means a criticism to point out that there are other things he might well have mentioned.  In his discussion of the New Left, say, it would have added perspective for him to mention that the American “New Left,” while seemingly centered around opposition to the Vietnam War, was just part of a worldwide resurgence of the refashioned post-World War II Left in the 1960s and ’70s.  By no means was it limited to the United States or to anti-war passions.  Bolton doesn’t mention this specifically, but it is in evidence in his discussions of “Danny-the-Red” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit), a German who was a leader in the radical student movement in France in the late 1960s; and of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (also known as the “Red Army Faction”) in Germany in the early 1970s.  

          Historical perspective could be added to the discussion of the New Left by quoting Ludwig von Mises’ description of the pre-World War I German youth movement.  In a quaint style generally uncharacteristic of his writings, Mises  wrote in his book Bureaucracy in 1944 that:

          In the decade preceding the First World War Germany… witnessed the appearance of a phenomenon hitherto unheard of: the youth movement.  Turbulent gangs of untidy boys and girls roamed the country, making much noise and shirking their school lessons.  In bombastic words they announced the gospel of a golden age.  All preceding generations, they emphasized, were simply idiotic; their incapacity has converted the earth into a hell.  But the rising generation is no longer willing to endure gerontocracy, the supremacy of impotent and imbecile senility.  Henceforth the brilliant youths will rule.  They will destroy everything that is old and useless, they will reject all that was dear to their parents, they will substitute new real and substantial values and ideologies for the antiquated and false ones of capitalist and bourgeois civilization, and they will build a new society of giants and supermen… The chiefs of the youth movement were mentally unbalanced neurotics.  Many of them were affected by a morbid sexuality, they were either profligate or homosexual… Their names are long since forgotten; the only trace they left were some books and poems preaching sexual perversity.

The thoughts that Bolton’s book bring to mind can go on indefinitely.  Each reader will bring enriching thoughts to it from the reader’s own experience – and in turn will be enriched by the copious information this book provides.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Dwight D. Murphey




[1]  The book, published by Harper and Row in 1950,  is generally known as Adorno’s, but in fact he had three  co-authors,  Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford. 

[2]   Bolton cites several other instances of the Left’s attributing mental illness to its opponents.  Erich Fromm, he says, blamed “the patriarchal family” as “the hatching-place of authoritarianism and fascism.”  Discussing French Communist Louis Althusser, who postulated a post-Stalinist Marxism centered on Freudianism, Bolton says “an entire school of Leftist sociological and psychoanalytical interpretation has been formulated around the concept of the Right and even of normal, ‘conservative’ values, such as loyalty to family and affection for parents, being interpreted as symptoms of mental ill-health….”  In 1964, 1189 psychiatrists “publicly declared – without benefit of examination – that [Sen. Barry] Goldwater was ‘psychologically unfit to be President of the United States.’  Many offered a diagnosis of ‘paranoid schizophrenia’….”   

[3]   In this connection, he would have done well to consider the nineteenth century Russian nihilists, principally Nechayev and Chernyshevsky..  The nihilists earned their name because they sought a total destruction of existing institutions.  It is worth noting, however, that this destruction was for them intended as the pathway to a future utopia.  See this reviewer’s Chapter 14 on the Russian nihilists in his book Understanding the Modern Predicament, which can be accessed free of charge as Book 3 (i.e., B3) on his web site www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info

[4]   The “alienation of the intellectual” has received much treatment in this reviewer’s own writing.  His various discussions of it can be found on his web site  referred to in Footnote 3 above.   See Chapters 10 through 12 of his Understanding the Modern Predicament; Chapters 8-13 of his Socialist Thought; and Chapter 1 of his Liberalism in Contemporary America.