“The innate impulses are relevant not only in the sense of individual adaptation but in the sense of social adaptation”
Otto Gross (1877-1920) was a psychoanalyst whose innovative theories provided the field with a revolutionary anarchist dimension.
Gross 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 capitalist 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.
Initially a disciple of Sigmund Freud in his native Austria, Gross discovered at the age of 30 that he had more in common with the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl 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. (1)
Jung told Freud: “Whenever I got stuck, he analyzed me. In this way my own psychic health has benefitted… In Gross I discovered many aspects of my true nature, so that he often seemed like my twin brother”. (2)
According to Ernest Jones, Freud “expressed the opinion that Jung and Otto Gross were the only true original minds among his followers”. (3)
An admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gross was also influenced by Johann Jakob Bachofen, whose theory of a primordial harmonious matriarchal society which had been displaced by hierarchical patriarchy was later echoed in feminist thinking.
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”. (4)
Gross’ s anarchism very much informed his theory of stifled qualities within the human mind which would enable us to live in a very different way, if we could regain access to them.
He wrote in the essay ‘Revolt and Morality in the Unconscious’: “The psychology of the unconscious has allowed us to discover today the realm of hidden values, written into our innate tendencies and repressed on the conscious level by the interior pressure of education and all the suggestions of external authorities”. (5)
These hidden values could now be brought back into consciousness “and allow us to oppose the influence of the contemporary norms with the original image of the man, with his real possibilities, his own innate values and his primary function, which reestablish themselves by his own tendencies”. (6)
Emphasising the political implications of this phenomenon, Gross wrote: “We consider that the innate impulses are relevant not only in the sense of individual adaptation but in the sense of social adaptation.
“The supremely social and ethical predisposition, which we have been able to release from repression through our psychology of the unconscious, is already known to us by the discoveries of P. Kropotkin.
“It is the instinct of ‘mutual aid’, for which Kropotkin established the proof by analysing comparative biology and which he used to establish the first foundations of an ethics which is a real discipline and at the same time normative and based on genetics”. (7)
Gross was interested in what happened when these repressed innate values tried to reassert themselves, thanks to the healthy desire of the individual to protect their own essence and principles from external suggestion and the “vicious circle of adapting to others”. (8)
Drawing, no doubt, on his own troubled experiences, he pointed out that anyone who rejected society’s laws in favour of their own inner laws was bound to come into serious conflict with that society.
He wrote in 1913, in ‘How Can We Overcome the Crisis of Civilization?’: “It appears that the real nature of these conflicts always leads back, in the last resort, to a general principle: the conflict between that which is proper to the individual and that which is alien to them, that which is individually innate and that which is suggested, learned, imposed from the outside.
“This conflict between individuality and an external authority which reaches into its interiority, tragically affects childhood more than any other period in life. It affects it all the more tragically if the personality involved is rich and powerfully original in its aptitudes.
“The earlier and more intensely that the capacity to resist authority and external intervention begins to take up its protective function, the more the wrench of conflict is aggravated and rapidly deepens and intensifies”. (9)
Gross added that the only kind of people not affected by this process were those whose individual sense of being could not resist external pressures exerted, for instance, through their education. In this case their individual vital force simply withered and died.
Anyone with an inner strength a little above the current norm could not fail to escape the conflict imposed on us by modern civilisation, he said. They could not find their own equilibrium, that is to say “the full and harmonious development of their highest individual capacities” (10) which should flow from their innate potential.
Instead, he wrote in ‘Situation of the Intellectuals’, they were forced into a path of conflict with a society whose injustice and lack of authentic values filled them instinctive revulsion.
These strong-willed individuals were infused with “the revolutionary instinct of humankind” which “refuses to adapt to that which is inferior”. (11)
Video link: Otto Gross: The Personal is the Political (44 mins)
1. Frank McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1998), p. 118.
2. William McGuire, The Freud/Jung Letters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 153, 155) cit. Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: The Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London: Fontana, 1996), p. 158.
3. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Volume 2: Years of Maturity 1901-1919 (New York: Basic Books, 1955) cit. Noll, p. 152.
4. 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.
5. Otto Gross, ‘Révolte et morale dans l’inconscient’, Psychanalyse et Révolution: Essais, trans. by Jeanne Étoré (Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2011), p. 153.
7. Gross, ‘Révolte et morale dans l’inconscient’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, p. 155.
8. Otto Gross, ‘Situation des intellectuels’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, pp. 145-46.
9. Otto Gross, ‘Comment surmonter la crise de la civilisation?’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, pp. 96-97.
10. Gross, ‘Comment surmonter la crise de la civilisation?’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, p. 97.
11. Otto Gross, ‘Situation des intellectuels’, Psychanalyse et Révolution, p. 147.