Progressive Politics and Psychological Depth

The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics is, perhaps, one of the most inspiring and forward-thinking texts to come out of UK progressive politics for several years. Edited by a Green MP (Caroline Lucas), a Labour MP (Lisa Nandy), and a Liberal Democrat candidate (Chris Bowers), the book lays out a collaborative — yet pluralist — progressive agenda; with contributions from such fields as economics, social policy, and environmental studies. What is missing from the book, however, is any input from psychological or psychotherapeutic perspectives, or any consideration of people’s psychological make-up and functioning in a new, progressive world. Jonathan Rowson, for instance, in one of the stand out chapters in the book, writes that, “A progressive is someone who wants to see society reorganized…so that ordinary men and women have a better chance to live a larger life.” But what is this “larger life”? What kind of existence do progressives strive for, and believe that we can have? These are questions that, amongst other things, are of a profoundly psychological nature.

This lack of psychological input and vision is pervasive across contemporary progressive discourses. While the 2017 manifesto of the Labour Party, for instance, advocates “richer lives” for all; as with Rowson, there is little consideration of what this means psychologically. Similarly, the political program of the Green Party (along the lines of the Human Development Index) holds that “wellbeing” should be a measure of progress and not just GDP, but there is little further analysis of what a “well” state of psychological being is. Is it, for instance, happiness, or the opportunity to fulfill one’s potential, or a sense of meaning — or all these things and many more? Certainly, these questions are not the sole prerogative of psychologists or psychotherapists but, perhaps more than any other fields, they have examined them in depth.

Undoubtedly, there are some very good reasons why progressive voices have, historically, been wary of psychology. Psychology, by its very nature, individualizes. By contrast, progressive politics — from Marx onwards — has wanted to focus on macro-level structures: in particular, the power dynamics between different classes of people. Marx and Engels, for instance, could never have discussed the oppression of the proletarian by the bourgeoisie if they had concentrated on the psychological make-up of Person A, then Person B, etcetera. More importantly, perhaps, the micro-level focus of psychology means that it tends to attribute human experiencing, behavior, and suffering to individual causes — such as genetics, personal upbringing, or personality traits — rather than macro-level political structures and oppression. At its worse, this can mean that psychological interventions are then used to address societal problems: such as the incorporation of psychological therapies into workfare scheme to tackle unemployment.

Socialist Humanism: An Introduction

Since the early days of psychoanalysis, however, there have been attempts to develop psychological and psychotherapeutic perspectives that can integrate with, and support, progressive political agendas (for a comprehensive review of such initiatives in the psychotherapeutic field, see Totton’s Psychotherapy and politics). Many of these remain closely aligned to a psychoanalytic framework — as can be seen, for instance, in several of the excellent essays in Public Seminar’s Psyche vertical.

However, one of the most comprehensive attempts to integrate psychological thinking into a progressive political perspective was socialist humanism (also known as “Marxist humanism”). This current emerged in the early twentieth century — primarily in reaction to the totalitarian, a-humanistic interpretation of Marx’s writings in Soviet Russia — and is associated with such thinkers as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Raya Dunayevskaya. Socialist humanists attempted to combine a progressive emphasis on social justice with a humanist understanding of psychological processes and needs. They referenced, in particular, Marx’s early writings, where he argued for the emancipation of each human being’s “essential nature:” his, her, or their potential for growth, creativity, and play. Here, as Fromm writes in Marx’s Concept of Man (still one of the best introductions to Marx’s humanism)Marx is not, “concerned primarily with the equalization of income. He is concerned with the liberation of human beings from a kind of work with destroys their individuality, which transforms them into a thing, and which make them into the slave of things.”

Consistent with the early Marx, socialist humanists emphasized the agentic, directional nature of human being. That is, they argued that people were not just passive elements of a greater whole or “blank sheets” (as “structural” Marxist approaches can tend to suggest), but striving organisms: actively working to achieve particular needs, wants, and goals.

A central theme of Fromm and Marcuse’s writings, however, was the distinction between “real” and “false” needs. Capitalism, they argued, imposed on people a striving for such false idols as money and power: estranging them from their more fundamental, intrinsically satisfying desires.

Today, psychological theory and evidence can tell us much about what those “real” needs might be (though caution and critique is still needed to avoid reification and cultural blindness). I have reviewed these in my recent book, Integrating counselling and psychotherapy: Directionality, synergy, and social change. First, people seem to want safety: to feel secure in their lives, well housed and fed, free from threat and anxiety. Second, pleasure: people want enjoyment, fun, and physical stimulation. Third, across numerous different models and findings, there is a recognition that people want relatedness, to feel connected and close to others; but also, contrasting with this, is a desire for autonomy and freedom. Fifth, self-worth: people want to feel competent in the world around them; and, sixth, to have meaning. Finally, growth: that people strive to evolve, change, and learn; that is, human beings seem to strive for striving, itself.

Why Now?

Socialist humanism fell into decline in the 1970s: a “victim” of the philosophical and political favorites of that time (e.g., Althusser, Foucault, postmodernism), who challenged the aggrandizement of the individual “I”; the privileging of human subjectivity and agency; and the notion of a real, essential self. However, Barbara Epstein, in her definitive review of the socialist humanist approach (in Alderson and Spencer’s edited collection, For humanism) suggests a possible revival today. For Epstein, socialist humanism promises the possibility of a move beyond a “politics of resistance” — which she sees as dominant on the Left — towards a politics that can clearly outline its vision for a better world. She writes, “A movement that knows what it is against but has no clear conception of what it is in favor of cannot be sustained for long.”

A revival of socialist humanist is also particularly timely because it complements, so well, the emerging progressive consensus in such contemporary movements as pro-Europeanism, Extinction Rebellion, and anti-Trumpism (as well as The Alternative, cited above). At the heart of each of these forces can be seen a fundamental humanismdefined by Edward Said as “the yearning to show regard for all that is human” (although, of course, this should also include other species and the environment). What unites progressive pro-Europeans, for instance, is a desire to welcome the Other — immigrants, fellow European — rather than a stance of hostility, discrimination, or fear. Socialist humanism, by its very nature, is aligned with this ethic; but, more than that, it can contribute to a deepened understanding of what this ethic means, and how it can be enacted. How can we be most welcoming, for instance, to immigrants coming into the UK: not just in terms of housing or employment, but in terms of providing opportunities for relatedness, self-worth, or growth? To show regard for the Other, we need to know what that other wants and needs.

Clinical Experience

The socialist humanist perspective is corroborated by my experiences as a psychotherapist. It is clear to me that, in many cases, clients suffer because of external circumstances: for instance, poverty, unemployment, or discrimination. At the same time, a client’s distress can also have much more personal roots: for instance, early experiences of neglect, or limited coping strategies. And, in most instances, a person’s difficulties can be located within a complex interaction of psychological and socio-political factors. A client, for instance, feels isolated in her life, because she does not trust others, because she had little attention or interest from her parents. But her working class parents’ neglect was, to some extent, due to their anxieties about “making ends meet.” Furthermore, the client’s distrust towards others is compounded by her present need to work in a “shitty” take away shop, where she faces regular abuse from customers.

What I also see as a clinician, day in day out, is that people need to be understood as striving beings, and not as passive or sponge-like entities. Clients, even the most psychologically distressed, fight: they strive to get somewhere, even if it is away from the horrible things around, and inside of, them. And what seems evident in this, as the socialist humanists have argued, is that human beings do have some fairly common things they strive for: at least, in a western sociocultural context. Some of this is about getting away from such emotional “pains” as anxiety, sadness, anger, or grief; and some of it is about getting closer to such good things as love, pleasure, and self-worth. And some of it, as humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers have argued, is about growth and the development of potential: becoming, for instance, more creative, more specialized in a particular skill, or more fully rounded as a human being. Of course, there is no simple distinction between “real” and “false” needs  — even the most externally-oriented wants must have some internal desires behind them — but, when psychotherapy goes well, there is nearly always some movement towards actualizing deeper, more fundamental, directions.

Of course, these are just my personal observations — biased, no doubt, by my psychological and political leanings — but they are supported by a wide body of evidence and theory. Indeed, in my recent book, I suggest that this socialist humanist understanding of human being — as a psycho-social, directional whole — can serve as an integrating framework for a wide variety of psychotherapeutic theories and practices.

Ways Forward

What are the implications of this socialist humanist perspective to progressive rhetoric and policies? Most basically, there is a need for progressive voices to become more informed about psychological knowledge and understandings. Today, you can not “do” progressive politics without some basic understanding in such fields as economics, history, or environmental studies. Psychology should be the same: if we are advocating a society in which people’s lives are “larger,” “richer,” or happier, we need to know what these terms mean. Socialist humanism offers us a way of developing such understandings that are deeply compatible with a progressive perspective. Here, progressive movements also need to be in communication with — and inclusive of — research at the cutting edges of developments in the psychology and psychotherapy fields, integrating these insights into their policies, practices, and visions. Not only will this help to ensure that any progressive society of the future is, genuinely, “better;” but it can enhance the appeal of progressive parties and movements, by speaking to people’s actual wants and needs.

A socialist humanist perspective also invites progressive parties and policy-makers to consider the role that psychological practices might have in creating a “better” society. For instance, investment in school-based emotional literacy program — teaching children about empathy, communication skills, and assertiveness — could do much to help foster a world in which relatedness is more accessible to all, along with care for others. There are also universal wellbeing programs, like Five Ways to Wellbeing (“connect,” “be active,” “take notice,” “keep learning,” “give”), that have the potential to support better living across all sectors of society. Such initiatives should not just be on progressive agendas, but distinguishing features of them: where the wellbeing of all, and not the superiority of some, is the overarching goal.


Socialist humanism is not the only answer, but it can contribute some badly needed pieces to an emerging jigsaw of progressive thinking and action. It is a progressive-aligned psychology that can help us develop an understanding of the kind of society that we want to create: not just one in which resources are equally shared, but one in which each human being has the potential to optimize their lives to their fullest extent.

Mick Cooper is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, London, and a father of four. He is a practicing psychotherapist; author of over 100 books, chapters, and papers on counseling and psychotherapy; and a life-long social justice activist. Thanks to Lucas Ballestín for support and guidance on this essay. @mickcooper77 

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