Otto Gross

Otto Gross2

“Human nature as it is conceived and inborn in everyone strives towards the two great values of freedom and relationship”

Otto Gross (1877-1920) was a psychoanalyst whose innovative theories provided the field with a revolutionary anarchist dimension.

He argued that innate principles within the human mind, such as those which allow mutual aid and co-operation, are repressed by the external influence of contemporary society.

The psychoanalyst’s work of overcoming repression and releasing this hidden human potential could therefore be applied on a social level as well as an individual one.

Sigmund Freud wrote that “Gross is a highly intelligent man” (1) and Carl Jung told Freud that Gross “often seemed like my twin brother”. (2)

Gross mixed with artists and writers from the German expressionist movement, (3) was friends with Franz Kafka, with whom, at one point, he intended editing a journal, (4) and influenced Karl Jaspers, (5) Robert Musil, (6) and D.H. Lawrence. (7)

But, for all that, he is strangely unknown today. “A dissident, he was made a non-person and almost completely vanished from the record”, writes Gottfried Heuer. (8)

Gross’s thinking was influenced by fellow orgrad inspirations Georg Hegel and Peter Kropotkin, as well as by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner (9) and he refers in his writing to the work of orgrad scientists Constantin von Monakow and Hans Driesch, with his “beautiful experiments”. (10)

Heuer regards Gross as part of “a thread, frequently broken and interrupted, which weaves its way through history, an underground tradition of countercultural dissent”. (11)

jungInitially a disciple of Freud in his native Austria, Gross discovered at the age of 30 that he had more in common with the Swiss Jung, from whom he sought treatment for his drug addictions.

The charismatic Gross had a powerful impact on Jung, who until that point had remained stuck in a bourgeois Christian mindset. He praised Gross’s insights and enthusiastically embraced his liberatory ideas, particularly his rejection of monogamy. (12)

According to Ernest Jones, Freud “expressed the opinion that Jung and Otto Gross were the only true original minds among his followers”. (13).

Gross was enthused by the idea of a return to pre-Christian forms of spirituality and social organisation, including sexual liberation.

He spent time in the famous experimental alternative community at Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland, where anarchist political ideals fused seamlessly with neopagan spirituality.

In his book on the Ascona counterculture, Martin Green writes that “Otto Gross was familiar with every kind of heresy” and that “his teachings attacked not just Christianity but the whole complex of secular faiths that had grown up around Christianity in the West”. (14)

ascona2It was in Ascona that he met the anarchist Erich Mühsam (a friend of Gustav Landauer) and Mühsam’s partner Johannes Nohl.

Gross’s political engagement saw him advocating the anarchist “Propaganda der Tat”, propaganda by deed, and he was actively involved in smuggling, theft and other illegal activities. (15)

Notes Heuer: “The encounter of Gross, Mühsam and Nohl had profound consequences: psychoanalysis became politicized and, one might say, revolutionary politics became psychoanalysed”. (16)

He further comments: “In anarchism, Gross seems to have found not only a theoretical framework for his earlier rebellious protest, but also an environment of political activism. This enabled him to link the ideas of anarchist thinkers with psychoanalytic concepts and his own clinical practice. Yet Gross, Mühsam and Nohl also considered a further dimension: spirituality. The three friends came to understand the personal, the political and the spiritual as ‘three coordinated and mutually inclusive aspects’ (17) diametrically enhancing each other”. (18)

This anarchist spirituality involved “a profound realization of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything”, (19) the holistic thinking which underlies the organic radical tradition.

Emanuel Hurwitz writes: “Gross joins the ranks of those researchers who refuse a division of the world into physical and spiritual-intellectual realms. For them body and soul are the expressions of one and the same process, and therefore a human being can only be seen holistically and as a whole”. (20)

anarchy aGross’s anarchism dovetailed with his conviction that the “angeborene Anlagen“, (21) innate capacities, of the human mind needed to be freed so that we could live differently and harmoniously.

He wrote in the essay ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’: “The psychology of the unconscious opens up for us now the area of hidden values that are preformed in one’s nature [Anlage] and pushed out of the conscious realm of the mind under pressure from education and authoritarian suggestions”. (22)

These hidden values could now be brought back into consciousness and “allow a view closer to the original one of the human being and true human potential, inherent personal values and primary determination through individual capacities”. (23)

In 1902, the same year that Kropotkin published his classic work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Gross advanced his own similar theory on the way that living beings have a natural tendency to act together in the collective interest.

“These original capacities for ethical associative complexes naturally appear first in lower organisms, as merely the simplest kind of reflex reactions. An extremely instructive example of social energy [Synergetik] of a large group of individuals through primitive reflex reactions may be observed in a school of young fish. The entire school moves uniformly like an organism, particularly in fight or flight”. (24)

This natural solidarity was a “will to relate” which could be contrasted to the “will to power” which dominated “the adjusted – bourgeois – psyche”, he said. (25)

peterkropotkinethicsGross came to see ethics as stemming primarily from this natural tendency towards mutual aid, as Kropotkin was himself to set out in his final work, Ethics. It was not so much a question of moral value judgements as of “a primitive instinct inherent in the human species”. (26)

Wrote Gross: “In the highly organized mass psyche, the impulse to defense turns, for all the individuals in the group, against the threat: out of primitive instincts emerges the sense of justice”. (27)

Gross explicitly referred to the parallels between his psychoanalytic work and Kropotkin’s theories in a 1919 article. He wrote: “The sovereign socially dispositioned [angelegt] and inherently ethical preformation that we are in a position to free from repression through the methodology of the psychology of the unconscious is already familiar to us through P. Kropotkin’s discoveries: inherent ‘instinct of mutual aid’, on the comparative-biological proof of which P. Kropotkin has begun to establish the primary basis for a genuine ethic as a simultaneously genetically grounding and normative discipline”. (28)

From his psychoanalytical perspective, Gross focused particularly on the way in which, right from our birth, individuals are subject to authority – from family, school and society – and put under pressure to stifle our inborn nature, including our innate sense of right and wrong, for fear of being rejected by those around us.

He wrote: “The fear of loneliness, the drive for contact, forces the child to adapt: the suggestions from foreign will that one calls education are incorporated into one’s own will. And so the majority consist almost solely of foreign will that they have incorporated, of the foreign type to which they have adapted, of the foreign being that appears to them completely to be their own personality.

masked shoppers“They have by nature become by and large uniform because the foreign will of all, of which they consist in reality, is, in its deepest nature and ultimate goals, uniformly directed. They have spared themselves an inner divisiveness; they have adapted to things as they are. They are the majority”. (29)

At the same time, said Gross, there were others who never completely repressed their own nature in the “vicious circle of adapting to others” (30) and were thus condemned, in our society, to a lifetime of inner conflict as they tried to understand and cope with what they were experiencing.

He turned on its head the usual assumption that those who did not adapt to the society around them were suffering from some kind of mental disturbance.

Instead, it was the conformist majority who were failing to live in the way that human beings were intended to live, he argued.

“If we take as our norm, the highest unfolding of all inborn human potentialities, and if we know intuitively and from experience that the existing social order makes it impossible to achieve the highest possible development of the individual and of humanity, then we shall recognise satisfaction with present conditions as below par”. (31)

Ap24 londonThe non-conforming individuals, “in whom an inherent, species-specific nature and its basic instincts are able to remain effective”, (32) were only few in number, he said, and should in fact be regarded as “the healthy ones, the fighters”. (33)

They were infused with “the revolutionary instinct of humankind” which “refuses to adapt to that which is inferior”. (34)

Gross was dismayed by the limited scope and ambition of thinking that should, theoretically, be challenging the dominant system.

Part of his disappointment surrounding Freud involved the way that he and his followers backed away from the political implications of their work and so could not reach the crucial stage where “all traditional authority is put in question and the existential basis is shattered of those who feel at home and safe in the authority of the existing order”. (35)

Gross also regretted that revolutionary movements had never managed to tackle the root cause of society’s ills and ended up simply replicating the same structures.

committee of public safetyHe wrote in 1913: “None of the revolutions belonging to history have been successful in setting up the freedom of the individual. They vanished without effect, always as forerunners of a new bourgeoisie; they ended up in a hasty wanting to align oneself in generally acknowledged normal states. They collapsed because the revolutionary of yesteryear was instilled with authority”. (36)

For him, therefore, a true revolution had to incorporate the insights he had gained from his psychoanalytical work. His “vocation” was “to free the essential personal style of the individual from all that is alien, destructive, contradictory”. (37)

Revolution had to aim at nothing less than freeing the innate human spirit from the cage of conformism placed around it by authoritarian society.

This was “the highest and true goal of revolutions” said Gross. “It will have to be demonstrated that human nature as it is conceived and inborn in everyone strives towards the two great values of freedom and relationship”. (38)

“The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of the revolution… It is called upon to inwardly create capacity for freedom, invoked as the groundwork of revolution”, he argued. (39)

“Once it is shown that repressing the values of one’s own nature means sacrificing the highest human potential, a demand for revolution as the result of the psychology of the unconscious becomes absolute”. (40)

This was a mighty cultural challenge, he explained, which would require “an absolutely irreconcilable opposition to all things and individuals recognized today as authority and institution”. (41)

The Fall of Man

In common with other thinkers who inspire the organic radical philosophy, Gross regarded humankind as having been on the wrong path for many centuries.

In one 1919 article he traced this back to humankind’s biblical “fall from grace” as described in Genesis.

“New guidelines have been forced on to all of humanity”, he wrote, describing this ancient “cultural catastrophe” in which “a new moral and judicial order” had led to “the spread of materialistic values over the earth”. (42)

He added: “This is the great revaluing of all values through which humanity has given life its existing authoritative character and created those norms that today prove neither organic nor assimilable, but reveal instead in their foreign nature that they are always and everywhere a contagion of unending inner confusion and self-destruction through sickness and decline”. (43)

The harm that had been done needed to be undone before a decent way of living, based on unblocked human nature, could be restored, he insisted.

“The furthest-projected goal ultimately of the future can only be the undoing of an error of humanity, only the recapturing of a goodness and of a niveau lost an unimaginably long time ago, only the redemption of inherited guilt and its damning effects.

“No really new creation, but merely, as the highest that can be attained, a full recognition of the complete error, primordially, in everything – a backward-reaching revaluing of all values, a will to the reconstruction of the primordial basis for relationships, society, and to the development of culture which may then begin”. (44)

Video link: Otto Gross: The Personal is the Political (44 mins)


1. S Freud & CJ Jung, The Freud/Jung Letters (London: Hogarth, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 69, cit. Gottfried M. Heuer, Freud’s ‘Outstanding’ Colleague/Jung’s ‘Twin Brother’: The suppressed psychoanalytic and political significance of Otto Gross (London & New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 50.
2. Freud & Jung, p. 156, cit. Heuer, p 50.
3. Heuer, pp. 33-34.
4. Heuer, p. 172.
5. Heuer, p. 189.
6. Ibid.
7. Heuer, p. 193.
8. Heuer, p. 2.
9. Heuer, p 59.
10. Otto Gross, ‘Freud’s Ideogenic Factor and Its Meaning in Kraeplin’s Manic Depression’, 1907, Selected Works 1901-1920, trans. by Lois L. Madison (New York: Mindpiece, 2012), p. 144 footnote.
11. Heuer, p. 146.
12. Frank McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1998), p. 118.
13. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Volume 2: Years of Maturity 1901-1919 (New York: Basic Books, 1955), cit. Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: The Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London: Fontana, 1996), p. 152.
14. Martin Green, Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture Begins: Ascona, 1900-1920 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986), p. 17, cit. Noll, pp. 161-62.
15. Heuer, p. 64.
16. Heuer, p. 123.
17. Erich Mühsam, Erich Mühsam und Otto Gross, C. Hirte, ed. (Lübeck: Erich-Mühsam-Gesellschaft, 2000), p. 10.
18. Heuer, p. 62.
19. Heuer, p. 65.
20. E. Hurwitz, Otto Gross. Paradies-Sucher zwischen Freud und Jung (Zurich: Suhrkamp, 1979), p. 66, cit. Heuer, p. 60.
21. Otto Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, 1919, Selected Works, p. 286.
22. Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, Selected Works, p. 281.
23. Ibid.
24. Otto Gross, ‘On the Phylogy of Ethics’, 1902, Selected Works, p. 15.
25. Otto Gross, ‘Zur funktionellen Geistesbildung des Revolutionärs’, Werke 1901-20 (New York: Mindpiece, 2009), p. 355, cit. Heuer, p. 101.
26. Otto Gross, ‘On the Symbolism of Destruction’, 1913, Selected Works, p. 265.
27. Gross, ‘On the Phylogy of Ethics’, Selected Works, p. 16.
28. Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, Selected Works, p. 282.
29. Gross, ‘On the Symbolism of Destruction’, Selected Works, p. 266.
30. Otto Gross, ‘Situation des intellectuels’, Psychanalyse et Révolution: Essais, trans. by Jeanne Étoré (Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2011), pp. 145-46.
31. Otto Gross, ‘Der Fall Otto Gross’, 1914, Von geschlechticher Not zur sozialen Katastrophe (Hamburg: Nautilus, 2000), pp. 75-76, cit. Heuer, p. 36.
32. Gross, ‘On the Symbolism of Destruction, Selected Works, p. 267.
33. Otto Gross, ‘On Overcoming the Cultural Crisis’, 1913, Selected Works, pp. 259.
34. Gross, ‘Situation des intellectuels’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, p. 147.
35. Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, Selected Works, pp. 281-82.
36. Gross, ‘On Overcoming the Cultural Crisis’, Selected Works, p. 259.
37. Otto Gross, Letter to Else Jaffé, 1907-08, Otto Gross Archive, London, cit. Heuer, p. 87.
38. Gross, ‘Zur funktionellen Geistesbildung des Revolutionärs’, Werke, p. 355, cit. Heuer, p. 101.
39. Gross, ‘On Overcoming the Cultural Crisis’, Selected Works, p. 257.
40. Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, Selected Works, p. 281.
41. Gross, ‘Protest and Morality in the Unconscious’, p. 284.
42. Otto Gross, ‘The Basic Concept of Communism in Paradisical Symbolism’, 1919, Selected Works, pp. 274-5.
43. Ibid.
44. Gross, ‘The Basic Concept of Communism in Paradisical Symbolism’, Selected Works, p. 279.



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