Karl with Carl

Marxism and the Jungian Path to the Soul

In: International Journal of Jungian Studies
Julien-François Gerber Erasmus University Rotterdam International Institute of Social Studies Netherlands The Hague

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This essay argues that bringing Marxist and Jungian thought together can be surprisingly fruitful. While both traditions are ultimately concerned with human flourishing, they focus on different aspects of reality which would need to be combined for genuine emancipation: the social and the individual, the conscious and the unconscious, objectivity and subjectivity, modernity and ancestrality, science and spirituality. After briefly discussing divergences and convergences between the two authors, I present fragments of a Jungian-Marxian anthropology, around the depth of social struggles, the relations between ideology and archetypes, the psychic costs of capitalism, and Degrowth as the possible political project of this synthesis. If one takes human and nonhuman flourishing seriously, one can only go post-capitalist and seek to reorganize society around a slower pace, a simpler life, and more sharing and caring. The essay ends with a plea to bring back the soul to the core of radical activism.


This essay argues that bringing Marxist and Jungian thought together can be surprisingly fruitful. While both traditions are ultimately concerned with human flourishing, they focus on different aspects of reality which would need to be combined for genuine emancipation: the social and the individual, the conscious and the unconscious, objectivity and subjectivity, modernity and ancestrality, science and spirituality. After briefly discussing divergences and convergences between the two authors, I present fragments of a Jungian-Marxian anthropology, around the depth of social struggles, the relations between ideology and archetypes, the psychic costs of capitalism, and Degrowth as the possible political project of this synthesis. If one takes human and nonhuman flourishing seriously, one can only go post-capitalist and seek to reorganize society around a slower pace, a simpler life, and more sharing and caring. The essay ends with a plea to bring back the soul to the core of radical activism.

1 Introduction

This essay is an attempt to bring together the Marxist analysis of socioeconomic processes and Jungian depth psychology. Both Karl Marx and Carl Jung were ground-breaking thinkers, immensely influential, prolific, bold, controversial, and profoundly integrative. Both sought to uncover invisible layers of reality and both were ultimately concerned with human flourishing and forms of healing. Yet the two authors’ approaches couldn’t be more different.1 Jung was seven when Marx died; he remained all his life very sceptical of Marxism and never engaged with Marx as a thinker. My starting point, nevertheless, is to assume that these two ‘opposites’ are both ‘right’ in their own ways, and that they need to be somehow critically integrated in order to nurture genuine emancipation.

Marx’s own dialectical method and Jung’s alchemical studies seem at least to be open to new, unexpected syntheses. Here, we would be talking about a synthesis of these two ‘halves’ of reality that their works symbolize: the outer and inner worlds, the social and the individual, consciousness and the unconscious, objectivity and subjectivity, materialism and idealism, modernity and ancestrality, science and spirituality. This essay will evidently not do justice to such a grand synthesis; it will only offer a few thoughts on how it could look like, and on why this is important for radical theory and practice.

True, similar inner-outer integrations are not new to critical theory; they have already been proposed by Reichian authors, Freudo-Marxists, Marxist feminists and more recently by Lacanian Marxists (Gerber 2021). But I would like to suggest here that a Jungian approach can bring unique elements to these important previous attempts, especially the notion of the soul, a positive view of the unconscious and its potentials, and a spiritual dimension. Jung is arguably the first (professional) psychologist to have centred its work on the soul, defined as an embodied yet transpersonal Self going beyond the ego-mind. He also perceived—unlike Freud or Lacan, but in agreement with Reich or Marcuse—that the unconscious entails a liberatory potential one can tune into.2 Finally, Jung prominently related the unconscious to another deeper layer of reality, that of ‘spirituality’, which encompasses our relationship with transcendence and the sacred.3 Spirituality cannot just be an optional extra, he argued; it is in our core, and it connects human emancipation to the more-than-human, not in the form of obedience to a belief system, but as something to be intimately lived and experienced.

The current openness to spiritual questions in the humanities and social sciences—after the excesses of modernist scientism and postmodern deconstructions—could be enriched by a recognition of the politico-economic implications, and this essay posits that a Jungian-Marxian dialogue could be helpful in that respect. Such conversation would represent a useful, situated step along the longer path of human entelechy. But I would rather not promote the term ‘Jungian Marxism’4 for two main reasons. Firstly, because it wouldn’t be well-advised to personify another radical project with the names of two white men, as if their work already contained everything. In reality, many of their philosophical and normative ideas can be found in similar forms in non-Western traditions (e.g. Dussel 2013; Giri 2013; Wynter 2003). Secondly, ‘Jungian Marxism’ would easily lead to extra misunderstandings since, as we will see, the combination of Marx and Jung is likely to give rise to ideas that were not explicitly present in their works. In particular, it might generate a new form of radical politics that is quite different from the common (mis)conception of Marxism as necessarily industrialist, statist, and anti-religious. In fact, I will suggest that the ‘new form’ can only be ecological, autonomist and spiritual—attributes that resonate well with the contemporary Degrowth movement, as we will see later in this text.

After a brief exposition of some of the key divergences and convergences between Marx and Jung, I propose four fragments of a Jungian-Marxian anthropology, around (i) the multi-layered nature of social conflicts, (ii) the relationship between ideology, mythology and the unconscious, (iii) the psychic costs of capitalist development, and (iv) ecology and Degrowth. I then conclude with some remarks on the requirements of the soul and its politico-economic implications.

2 Bridging Marx and Jung

I am not pretending to provide a complete assessment of the divergences and convergences between these two prolific and complex authors, far from it. I will only outline a few ideas, hoping to simulate further discussions.

2.1 Divergences

In a nutshell, Marx’s politico-economic project can be characterized as mainly concerned with the social and the ‘outer’ world; its philosophical standpoint is materialist; it relies on an early form of system theory and on critical science; it is ‘progressive’ in the sense that it has great hope in societal improvement and ‘modernity’; it is critical of religion; its goal is to help humanity move beyond the capitalist mode of production, namely towards an economy where key resources are democratically held in common (‘communism’); and its shadow sides are authoritarianism, dogmatism and the disregard of subjectivities.

In contrast, Jung’s psycho-spiritual project is mostly concerned with the personal and with ‘inner’ worlds; it is philosophically inclined towards idealism;5 it relies on phenomenology and hermeneutics, and rejects science as the only mode of reason; it is ‘conservative’ in the sense that it sees a great deal of richness in cultural traditions and ‘ancestrality’; it embraces spirituality; its goal is to help people move beyond the egoic mode of consciousness, namely towards the soul life where wholeness and integration prevail; and its shadow sides are elitism, obscurantism and racism.

The dark history of the use of Marx’s ideas in ‘actually-existing socialisms’ has been discussed extensively (e.g. Goldman 1923), and so have Jung’s problematic political statements. Jung has probably never been a Nazi sympathizer (Samuels 1993), but his writings clearly fell at times into the shadow aspects I mentioned above (e.g. Brewster 2017). Both traditions have had, as a result, the unfortunate habit of attracting unsolicited fellow travellers. Fortunately, however, many Marxist and Jungian thinkers have explicitly sought to address the shadow of their ‘founding fathers’. There have been strong anti-authoritarian currents within Marxism, for instance with Freudo-Marxism in Germany, situationism in France, or autonomism in Italy. Similarly, a Left ‘political turn’ has been observed within Jungian studies (Alschuler 2006; Kiehl et al. 2016). But let me briefly return to the basics of both Marx’s and Jung’s frameworks, in an attempt to sketch their complementary emancipatory potentials.

Marx’s scientific and political project seeks to uncover the hidden principles of human history and capitalism in order to guide social movements towards a more just, equal and sustainable society. For Marx, a society’s base or ‘infrastructure’—namely its ownership relations and productive apparatus—has a decisive influence in shaping the dominant ideology of that society and hence its political and cultural ‘superstructure’. In any society with private ownership of the means of production, he argued, different social classes necessarily appear and they have conflicting interests. In capitalism, this takes the form of the clash between a minority of capitalists and a majority of wage-labourers. But as change occurs on different levels, the inefficiency, injustice and unsustainability of the system tend to intensify, which may eventually give birth to a new mode of production. Marx believed that the contradictions of capitalism have a good chance of being ultimately superseded by a classless society he called ‘communism’. For him, communism is a society “in which the free flourishing of each is the condition for the free flourishing of all” (Marx and Engels 1848, 66). This definition could well be one of the most radical propositions of the Communist Manifesto. Bhaskar (2017, 55) noted that it resonates with some spiritual traditions, like the idea of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, whereby the realised soul cannot be free until each and every being in the cosmos is fully free as well, in the sense of realised.

In a way, Jung’s scientific and spiritual project starts there, as he seeks to uncover the hidden principles of human flourishing. For Jung, a person’s ‘inner infrastructure’, or unconscious, has a decisive influence in shaping her thoughts, emotions and behaviours. He perceived a great depth to the unconscious—historically in its pre-human origins as well as content-wise. He saw it as a vast and ambivalent reservoir of archetypes (i.e. innate patterns of ‘psychic energy’ expressed in culturally-specific ways) which move the subject in ways both creative and destructive. There are different depths to the Jungian unconscious, including the personal, family, cultural, and collective unconscious—that deepest level which contains the archetypes and the instincts. Jung thus rejected the primacy of sexuality in the formation of the core personality, advocating instead a plurality of factors. By analogy with the assimilation of food by the body, experiences are absorbed by the psyche, processed or non-processed, and converted into psychic energy, conscious or unconscious. From there, psychic energy can further be converted into physical energy and vice versa.6 He called ‘individuation’ the subject’s lifelong process of balancing the expression of psychic energies, including archetypes. Key entities to consider in this balancing process are the shadow and the Self. The former contains non-processed or repressed qualities, while the latter represents the whole person: body, heart and mind, consciousness and the unconscious, autonomy as well as connections. Jung considered the fullest possible actualisation of the Self to be the main task of human life.

As stated earlier, Jung remained all his life critical of Marxism and of any mass movements seen as dissolving individualities. Examples of his anti-Marxism are multiple and often rooted in his defence of the psychological value of cultural traditions: “the present tendency to destroy all tradition or render it unconscious could interrupt the normal process of development for several hundred years and substitute an interlude of barbarism. Wherever the Marxist utopia prevails, this has already happened. […] Loss of roots and lack of tradition neuroticize the masses and prepare them for collective hysteria. Collective hysteria calls for collective therapy, which consists in abolition of liberty and terrorization. Where rationalistic materialism holds sway, states tend to develop less into prisons than into lunatic asylums” (Jung 1959, 181). Of course, one should recall that the ‘Marxism’ Jung had under his eyes was mostly Stalinism, a regime that had nothing to do with anything ‘socialist’ in Marx’s sense (Castoriadis 1949).

In this context, it may come as a surprise that both Marx and Jung also shared many ideas, and only a handful of authors have started to explore those links in more detail (Friedman 2020; Glass 1972; Green 2006; Holt 1973; Rushing and Frentz 1991).

2.2 Convergences

Jung’s conception of individuation could be seen as a psychological analogue of Marx’s theory of history (Rushing and Frentz 1991). Jung offers tools and a roadmap for healing and self-development, and in this sense his “optimism is much closer in temperament to Marx’s revolutionary project than [was] Freud’s pessimism” (Friedman 2020, 7). As both Jung and Marx sought to understand the blocks to human flourishing, they developed a stark critique of capitalist modernity, expanding on the concept of alienation. Marx rooted alienation in capitalist exploitation separating producers from their creative potential, while Jung conceptualized alienation as modernity’s overconfidence in the conscious ego separating individuals from their Self, and creating a profound sense of meaninglessness and disorientation.

From this perspective, both Marx and Jung are in reality at the interface of the individual and the social, although both have their preferred focus. For Marx, communism is a society where people have both the time and resources to pursue their creative passions and genuine interests, and to contribute to social wealth in this way. His communism has therefore a strong individualistic component (Fromm 1961). In turn, Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is by nature social. For him, all human psyches are interconnected at a deeper level, and “it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships” (Jung 2017, 412).

Marx also perceived such an interconnection in the formation of the subject. He famously (and ambiguously) stated in the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach that “the human essence […] is the ensemble of social relations” (Marx 1998, 570). As a result, to transform society for the better can potentially ‘improve’ who we are. For Jung, in contrast, little improvement is to be expected from social change as human beings will never fundamentally “deviate from the original pattern of [their] being” (Jung 1977, 436); most of the work for emancipation is therefore to be done at the personal level. Yet these two positions are not as clear-cut as it may seem and could even be overlapping. For Marx, a good society is one that allows our human nature (he called it our ‘species-being’) its full expression. For him, humans are social beings who fundamentally strive for freedom, creativity and purposive production (Geras, 1988). The Marxian psyche is thus not purely socially-constructed and it resonates with Jung’s own conception of individuation (Glass 1972). The notion of a human essence is vital for any theory of alienation and collective healing. It is present in Marxist humanism but absent from structuralist (e.g. Althusser) and poststructuralist (e.g. Lyotard) versions of Marxism.

On religion too, the divergence is not as simple as one could expect. That religion is the ‘opium of the people’ has become the standard quote in Marxist understandings of religion, and it is assumed that opium refers here to a drug that kills pain, distorts reality and creates addiction. But is it that simple? McKinnon’s (2005) exegesis offers a more nuanced interpretation of this particular quote (putting aside for now a broader analysis of Marxism and religion). When Marx wrote it, “opium was a medicine (albeit one with significant, newly discovered ‘problems’); it was a source of enormous profit (which also provoked protest and rebellion); finally, it was a source of ‘utopian’ visions” showing that another world was possible (ibid., 18). To use opium as a symbol for religion may thus contain several meanings, at once condemning the commodification of religion and its abuses, but also acknowledging its progressive, healing role by being ‘the soul of a soulless world’, as Marx wrote in the sentence preceding the famous quote. Marx never objected to a ‘spiritual life’; he noted that “to develop in greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs [i.e. they should be enabled not to centre their lives on survival needs]. They must, therefore, above all, have time at their disposal for spiritual creative activity and spiritual enjoyment” (Marx 2007, 31, his emphasis). Fromm (1982, 227) went as far as suggesting that Marx “was a profoundly religious person and an enemy of ‘religion’ for that very reason”.

In contrast to Freud who saw religion as the symptom of a childish wish for a powerful father, Jung saw the absence of spirituality as the root of all adult psychological diseases. Based on his study of various religious traditions, he was convinced that the journey of entelechy is at the mystical core of all religions. This journey is an invitation to meet oneself at the same time as the divine. He wrote that “God has never spoken to Man except in and through the soul, and the soul understands, and we perceive it as somethings having to do with the soul” (Jung 1932, as quoted in Abt 1988, 339). But this quote also implies that Jung’s writings on religion and spirituality remain rooted in psychology, not in theology.

Interestingly, Marx had also hinted at the existence of the unconscious. He wrote in 1844 that “the reform of consciousness consists entirely in making the world aware of its own [hidden] consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it” (Marx 1844, 1). He then summarized his entire political mission with these words: “Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness [or the expansion of consciousness one would perhaps today say] not through dogmas but by analyzing mystical consciousness obscure to itself, whether it appear in religious or political form. It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. It will then become plain that our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past. Lastly, it will becomes plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work” (ibid.). Marx sounds here a lot like Jung. This passage claims, in short, that there is an old, hidden, and collective layer to our consciousness, and that this deeper layer can move us towards our own flourishing, provided it is correctly ‘analysed’.

In turn, Jung’s take on capitalism is not always at odds with Marx’s. “The industrial worker”, Jung (1977, 202–203) wrote, “is a pathetic, rootless being, and his remuneration in money is not tangible but abstract. In earlier times, when the crafts flourished, he derived satisfaction from seeing the fruit of his labor. He found adequate self-expression in such work. But this is no longer the case. First of all, he is responsible for only a small part of the finished product. Secondly, the product is sold, it disappears, and he has no further stake in it”. This passage captures central elements of Marx’s theories of primitive accumulation and alienation.

Finally, both men did not see a strong government as a desirable institution in itself. For Marx, a classless society would ultimately lead to the ‘withering away of the state’. Engels (2010, 212) noted that “free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities”. Not dissimilarly, Jung had strong anti-state words: “we are rapidly becoming the slaves of an anonymous state as the highest authority ruling our lives” (Jung 1988, 250). The state is treated by many as “a quasi-animate personality from whom everything is expected”, but this is “only camouflage for those individuals who know how to manipulate it” (Jung 2014, 11). As a result, “there is no spiritual authority comparable to that of the state anywhere. We are badly in need of a spiritual counterbalance” (Jung 1988, 250). Jung’s anti-statism seems closer to anarchism than to neoliberalism in the sense that he emphasized the healthy potential of belonging to a municipality of a manageable size: “life in a small city is better than life in a large one, politically, socially, and in terms of community relations” (Jung 1977, 203).

3 Fragments of a Jungian-Marxian Anthropology

Given the frictions, convergences, scope and ambition found in the works of these two unusual writers, we can expect that their rapprochement will shed new light on problems of human flourishing. I present below four areas of research in which a Jungian-Marxian anthropology could make an original contribution toward that goal.

3.1 Social Struggles Are Multi-layered

Social conflicts have at least three different layers of causes and hence also of targets. The first one is concerned with immediate impacts on the protesters’ wealth, health or, following Honneth (1996), recognition. These impacts may for example result in demands for higher wages, equal rights, or the halt of a given polluting industry. Taken together, such demands can be pretty radical, but taken individually, they do not really challenge the power structure in place, and in the long run they might actually reinforce it. Hence the well-known need for broader answers. The second layer of causes/targets of social conflicts is thus concerned with the politico-institutional structure such as the distribution of ownership, the growth imperative, unequal exchange, coloniality, or patriarchy. The confrontation of capitalist-racist-sexist relations must go beyond a set of policies and requires a change in the structure of power. We are so far in a familiar Marxist terrain—but this is not quite enough yet.

Social conflicts have also a third layer of causes and of potential targets: the realm of the unconscious, namely the superegoic, shadowy, archetypal and emotional dimensions of social struggles. This realm is about the inner worlds of protagonists: why, in terms of consciousness, did a given movement start or never started? What are the internalized norms that enable or deter mobilisation? How to build a caring community of activists? What relational conditions would ensure the healthy deployment of a radical project? What are the shadow, trauma and personality types of leaders? What are the guiding images (archetypes) mobilized in political movements and programs? To start addressing such questions, one must acknowledge that unconscious forces and emotions are essential drivers in the political sphere.

There have been too many failed attempts at radical transformations because this third layer was neglected. This was the case in the ex-USSR, as Jung noted, where one élite was quick to replace another one and reproduce the same old relations. Marx might have lacked “satisfactory psychological insights” (Fromm 1955, 255), but his concepts of alienation, reification and commodity fetishism opened the door to psychoanalytic investigations. Yet without a proper psychological theory and praxis, classical Marxism could only coarsely understand the process by which a ‘class in itself’ (‘objective factors’) becomes a ‘class for itself’ (‘subjective factors’) as well as the inner conditions for the long-term viability of socialism (but see Reich 1972). Busy seeking to seize state power, classical Marxism did not emphasize prefigurative politics, that is, the concrete building of emancipated pockets seen as an essential learning ground for further and deeper transformations (Grubačić and Graeber 2004).

My point is that radical politics requires some kind of ‘awakening’ work in order to free oneself from as much biases as possible and heal forms of alienation. The focus should not only be the deeper awareness/healing of the subject’s relationship to herself and others, but also to the rest of nature and to the ‘underlying reality’, be it the unconscious or the divine. People like Otto Gross, Wilhelm Reich, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Herbert Read, Lewis Mumford and Simone Weil were pioneers in connecting radical politics, psychoanalytic inquiries, and spirituality. Among contemporary authors following this line, one could cite Roy Bhaskar, Eugen Drewermann, Gottfried Heuer, Joel Kovel, Ursula Le Guin, Hartmut Rosa, Theodore Roszak, Rolf Steppacher or Katherine Tetlow.

A Jungian-Marxian contribution to this third layer of social conflicts is still to be written. But building blocks can be found here and there, starting perhaps with the work of Otto Gross. The latter had a profound influence on Jung, who, until his encounter with him, had remained stuck in a largely bourgeois mindset. Jung praised Gross’s insights and enthusiastically embraced his liberatory ideas. He wrote to Freud in 1908: “In Gross I experienced all too many aspects of my own nature, so that he often seemed like my twin brother” (quoted in Heuer 2017, 50). With Gross, “psychoanalysis became politicized and, one might say, revolutionary politics became psychoanalysed” (ibid., 123). But more than that, Gross conceptualized “the personal, the political and the spiritual as ‘three coordinated and mutually inclusive aspects’ […], dialectically enhancing each other” (ibid., 62). For him, psychoanalysis was not a means to adjust people to the existing unjust order, but an essential tool in radical activism. He famously wrote that “the psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of the revolution, i.e. it is called upon to enable inner freedom, called upon as groundwork for the revolution” (Gross 1913, 384, his emphasis). Whoever wants to change the structures of power and production, he thought, has also to work on understanding these structures interiorly. Without inner work, exterior targets alone will be of limited success, even if a Bastille is again taken. In the conclusion, I will come back to a core aspect of this inner work, namely the Jungian journey from ego- to soul-consciousness.

3.2 Ideology and Archetypes Dynamically Interact

How can consciousness be expanded to resist injustice and sustain alternatives? Marx would emphasize conscious discernment (critique) in order to free ourselves from obstructive ideological elements that are often emanating from the ruling class. Jung, in addition, would emphasize the need to work with unconscious forces in order to tame their own limiting influence and to tune instead into their liberatory potential.

Ideology and the unconscious influence each other in complex ways, not only through the ideological nature of the superego, but also through the compensatory role of archetypes, as we will see next. Linking Fredric Jameson’s Marxist analysis of ideology and Jungian psychology, Rushing and Frentz (1991) underlined the key role of the cultural unconscious in this interconnection. They define the cultural unconscious as “the site of a collision of psychic energies from two separate origins—the archetypes from the collective unconscious and the repressed contradictions from oppressive social formations” (ibid., 391). They see ideological production as the dynamic result of this clash. From ‘above’, ideological narratives seek to preserve the status quo by justifying existing social relations and masking contradictions. From ‘below’, popular culture may challenge them by revealing non-repressed material in a compensatory way. Folk songs, art, or tales can activate archetypal images and provide resources for societal renewal and transformation. In other words, it is out of the gap between Marx’s conception of ideology as ‘false consciousness’ and Jung’s conception of the Self as ‘wholeness’ that progressive initiatives and social conflicts may surge.

Mythology can be analysed from a similar perspective. David Graeber (2017, 34) noted that the role of myths is often to explore why “humans can no longer be genuinely creative”, but he called for more critical research on myths because most of the great mythologists were politically conservative, which has undoubtedly colored their analyses. The Left has historically been suspicious of traditions, religions and ‘ancestrality’ in general—and often for good reasons—but to leave these areas to the Right was a big mistake. Beyond the critique of ideology, it turns out that symbols, allegories and mythology can offer rich teachings for emancipatory action and flourishing. Walter Benjamin might here show the way by providing a bridge between Marx, Jung and his own work. But due to his untimely death, Benjamin was unfortunately never able to clarify the nature of this bridge, and the question has yet still to be seriously addressed. What is clear, though, is that Benjamin worked with concepts like archetypal images and the collective unconscious which were explicitly derived from Jung (Charles 2013; Wolin 1995).

In fact, one could summarize the Arcades Project, his unfinished magnum opus, as a study of key archetypes of capitalist society (Benjamin 1999). The gambler personifies bourgeois modernity, the prostitute the embodied commodity form, the automaton the worker’s existence, and so on. Benjamin understood modernity’s ideological production as a ‘collective dream’ that could be interpreted in order to discern new dimensions of possible futures. “Benjamin thought that an ideology based on technological and cosmological fantasies is not false consciousness but a source of collective energy that may be instrumental in overcoming capitalism-as-schizophrenia” (Jaros 2008, 13). Instead of Jung’s ‘archaic images’, he developed a Marxian version he called ‘dialectical images’. For him, dialectical images are historically situated rather than having innate and timeless roots as in Jung, and they do not necessarily show a compensatory function between consciousness and the unconscious (Charles 2013). In a way, Benjamin’s project was to politicize the images of the cultural unconscious. He focused on the politico-existential meaning of their expression and materiality, rather than on their potential links with deeper structures of psychic energy found in the collective unconscious.

3.3 The Expansion of Capitalism Has Deep Psychological Impacts

The dynamics of capitalist development are shaped by unconscious forces, but these dynamics, in reverse, also shape our psyches in various ways. In particular, Marx (1844) discussed how capitalism alienates wage-laborers from the product and process of their labor, from themselves and from others. Building on these insights, a Jungian-Marxian anthropology would expand on the notion of alienation and seek to understand the conditions for its minimization.

The empirical starting point for such an objective is to investigate how capitalism has shaped our psyche and to compare this with pre- or non-capitalist settings. Abt (1988) provides what is perhaps the most thorough (non-Marxian) application of Jungian psychology to social change. Based on fieldwork in the Swiss Alps, his study begins with the frequent distress observable in the rural world as it transitions to capitalist modernity. He argues that the exterior-oriented reductionism of much of the social sciences is unable to grasp what is occurring and that it has typically painful consequences when policies are derived from such research. What is at stake with capitalist development, he writes, is a profound mutation of people’s relationship with the environment and the community, a phenomenon that interferes in multiple ways with the psyche. With the introduction of markets, schools, mass media and state laws, a new ego-oriented way of life appears, community bonds erode, and nature becomes disenchanted. The participation mystique slowly dissolves, with all kinds of nuanced consequences.

The ego may gain in cognitive autonomy, but not necessarily, paradoxically, in inner freedom, as it may show a characteristic overconfidence in the conscious side the psyche. Pre-capitalist communities, in contrast, have developed a variety of more or less conscious ways of dealing with the autonomous forces of archetypes and instincts. “In the legends, usages, rules and customs—indeed, in the entire folk culture—the unconscious, common human background has always been able to collaborate in structuring and regulating life” (ibid., 363). Unlike Lacanian analyses emphasizing the irresistible enjoyment of drives, Abt posits that the freedom to flourish “rests to a very large extent on the inner freedom from feeling driven, and this, in turn, depends on the extent to which a person lives with the reality of the soul, that is, with living symbols” (ibid., 347). For Jung, to centre one’s life on living symbols found in sacred art, evocative rituals and religious cosmologies can help in the path to the soul; it provides meaningful form and order to the drives by being able to hold together conflicting parts of the psyche. Jungian psychology may thus offer insights into what can be re-learned from pre-capitalist societies—something “anthropologists, so terrified of being accused of romanticizing the societies they study”, have largely stopped discussing (Graeber 2004, 75).

While Abt obviously recognizes many positive elements in economic development, he warns that capitalist modernity conflates drive-regulating archetypes with the intellect, a confusion that is “the root of both the contemporary euphoric belief we can do anything and our feeling of powerlessness” (ibid., 357). For him, “the only possible first step out of this dilemma is that of sacrificing the disastrous opinion that with our [conscious intellect] we are the light of the world […]. So long as we identify our intellect with the regulating spirit and believe that, thanks to our cleverness, we can get a grip on the growing [existential and ecological] imbalances, we will also remain unable to understand the moderating spirit of nature” found in the collective unconscious and authentic spirituality. There is here ample material to enrich a Marxist analysis of capitalist development.

3.4 Combining Communism and Depth Psychology Could Point towards Degrowth

A synthesis of Marx and Jung is likely to bring us to unexpected territories—something that shouldn’t be surprising given the core of their respective approaches: after all, both Marx’s dialectical and Jung’s alchemical endeavours are expected to generate novelty from the synthesis of opposites!

I would like to suggest that Degrowth is a possible outcome of this combination. Degrowth is a research field and a social movement that aims at shrinking unnecessary economic activity while reorganizing societies around human and nonhuman flourishing (D’Alisa et al. 2014; Gerber 2020). As people work and consume less, they have more time for community, creative work, and other non-monetary pursuits. Starting in a materialist way, Degrowth argues that our colossal and unequal global metabolism requires a radical resizing and reorganization. A diversity of sustainable and egalitarian ‘human economies’ becomes the guiding image for building alternatives. But beyond the ecological and distributional critique of growth, Degrowth includes also a broader reflection on what constitutes an existentially meaningful mode of coexisting. Its answer has to do with notions like sharing, commoning, caring, horizontality, conviviality and simplicity. From this perspective, outer degrowth becomes an invitation for inner (re)growth.

Some premises of Degrowth can be found in Jung and even in Marx. Jung clearly saw that the more ego-orientated people become, the more their soul shrinks into the depths of sadness, people compensating for that by yet greater attachment to materialism: “At any rate, [a degree of simplicity] is healthier than affluence, which only a very few people can enjoy without ill effects, whether physical or psychic” (Jung 1979, 8433). Elsewhere he noted that if material prosperity was the unique road to well-being, “the most […] comfortably off among us would be the healthiest. But in regard to neuroses that is not the case at all, quite the contrary” (Jung 1959, 181). In this sense, depth psychology may help solve the central Degrowth hypothesis, namely that a decrease in material affluence can increase well-being.7

Similarly, the young Marx was connected to his inner world and parallel observations can be found in his early works: “The less you are and the less you express your life; the more you have and the greater is your alienated life. […] Everything which the economist takes away from you in terms of life and humanity, he replaces for you in the form of money and wealth” (Marx 2007, 119, his emphasis). What we have here in a compressed form is the starting point of the Degrowth movement. But more broadly, Marx’s writings show a deep concern for what would be called today ecological questions (Foster 2000). He for example initiated in Capital an ecological critique of ‘progress’: “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility […]. Capitalist production […] simultaneously undermin[es] the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (Marx 1982, 638).

It is no coincidence, I suggest, that two of the first authors who sought to combine Marx and Jung are also considered forefathers of Degrowth (Latouche 2016). The first one was Lewis Mumford, a critic of capitalist modernity and a philosopher of technology and the city. From Marx, he took the idea that techno-industrial civilization geared towards mindless accumulation will inevitably degrade the consciousness of the majority; from Jung, he prized the expressive nature of the unconscious, which he did not see as an epiphenomenon of the ‘infrastructure’, but as a key formative force on material conditions (Green 2006). For him as for Jung, religion has the potential to empower individuals while also humbling their position in the cosmos. However, he criticized Jung’s failure to engage with the transformation of material conditions (Mumford 1973). As an urbanist, he developed an alternative vision he called ‘basic communism’, very much in line with Degrowth, and grounded in networks of middle-sized towns able to balance industry and agriculture. This ‘eco-municipalist’ model seeks to fulfil basic needs for all while being rooted in non-growing economies.

The second forefather of Degrowth who combined Marxism and Jung was Theodore Roszak, a radical historian who pioneered the field of ecopsychology. His project, in short, is the mutual healing of the self, society and the planet—a project that could only, he argued, be anti-capitalist. He coined the term ‘ecological unconscious’ for our deep sympathetic bond with the natural world that has been repressed by modernity. Accordingly, liberating the ecological unconscious requires a bold psychoanalysis of Western culture (Roszak 2009). He wrote that the psychotherapist’s role should primarily be “that of raising questions about our standard of sanity. That is an extremely important role, as much for what it might serve to downplay (careerist pressures, money, and status) as for what it might emphasize (our abiding need for wilderness, tranquility, or animal companions)” (Roszak 1992, 311). For him, both the therapist and the ecologist have a common political agenda: “It is simply stated: Scale down. Slow down. Democratize. Decentralize” (ibid.). This is once again in a nutshell the programme of Degrowth.

By taking some of the basic contrasts found in Jung’s and Marx’s work, we can appreciate their relations and the possible nature of their synthesis. Each contrast presented in Table 1 resembles the base/superstructure polarity. Starting with Jung’s Eros and Logos as two elementary principles of the Self that symbolize relationality (‘heart’ or ‘body’) and rationality (‘head’), we move to their shadow aspects, namely the Ahriman/Lucifer pairing. These two mythological figures of ancient Middle Eastern religions were mentioned by Jung but it was Rudolf Steiner (1919) who proposed them as the two key ‘adversaries’ of humanity: Ahriman expresses materialistic hedonism and technological misuses, while Lucifer symbolizes intellectualism, abstraction and hubris (Gerber 2021). A comparable shadowy polarity can be found in Marx’s critique of capitalism, namely in the fundamental concepts of exploitation and ideology. The former enables the notorious private accumulation of capital to the detriment of workers and nature, while the latter conceals from the workers their own alienation. On the healing side, Marx’s communism seeks to reorganize society around the socialization of production and the decommodification of labour, and to root this project in emancipatory critical science.

Table 1

From Jung and Marx to Degrowth

Key concepts





Relations (‘Eros’)

Reason (‘Logos’)

Shadow of the Self

Materialistic hedonism (‘Ahriman’)

Intellectual hubris (‘Lucifer’)



Private accumulation

Dominant ideology


Socialization of production

Emancipatory critical science



Care & radical municipalism

Plural sources of knowledge

By adding Jungian psychological insights to a Marxist vision of communism, the shortcomings of mass socialization and Western science, even when critical, start to be visible. In a Degrowth framework combining Jung and Marx, care represents a new key relation of (re)production—as also emphasized by feminist interventions—and municipalism indicates the decentralized and smaller-scale nature of politico-economic entities. At the same time, a plurality of forms of understanding is needed—including scientific, moral, aesthetic and spiritual sources of wisdom—in order to nurture the collective journey to the soul (individuation) and “the free flourishing of each” (Marx and Engels 1848, 66).

4 Conclusion

This essay proposed that a synthesis of Marxism and Jungian psychology can help nurture radical emancipation. For Marx, being ‘radical’ is to realize that a fundamental reshaping of our societies’ ownership structure is necessary and to take part in that project. For Jung, being ‘radical’ is to be (re-)rooted in our Selves and in what has been lost or erased in our personal histories and/or in modernity. Without Jung, ‘extravert’ Marxist praxis easily becomes rigid, bullish and dangerous when its intellectual system and solutions are overestimated; and without Marx, ‘introvert’ Jungian praxis easily becomes self-absorbed, toothless and politically regressive, when broader social structures and power relations are neglected.

While Jung neglected the possibility of a transformation of material conditions, Marx neglected the ego’s alienation from the Self and from the sacred. As a result, communism lost its soul on the way to fraternity, but today Degrowth and other emancipatory movements are trying to save it. Degrowth, as we have seen, invites us to rethink a new kind of radical eco-municipalism, simultaneously more ‘materialist’ than many Marxisms—because taking ecological conditions seriously—but also receptive to deeper existential and spiritual understandings. In this new synthesis, Jung’s roadmap to the soul (or Self) might well play an important role.

As a way of concluding, or rather as an opening, I would like to add a few remarks on the soul, on its requirements, and on its potential role in a Jungian-Marxian praxis. The soul is that universal dimension that we individuate; it is that part of ourselves that listens to, and holds together, the multiple contradictory voices we may hear inside (Bhaskar 2017). The soul is broader than the intellect and “develops only when the brain and the heart are united, when feeling and thinking are integrated” (Fromm 1973, 358). In brief, the soul is one’s best energy, identified as that part of us which “knows and feels from an inner response to beauty as an ideal” (Tetlow 2020, 113).

The journey to the soul should not be seen as abstract or idealistic. The soul is about seeking the guidance of the whole person; it is not about attaining ‘perfection’ or ‘holiness’, and it can be envisioned from a theistic or a non-theistic perspective. The soul often fosters quietness, but it can also be festive and celebratory. At its core, the ensouling process is about lessening the influence of the ego—which is full of compulsions, drives and goals—and about allowing an expansion of consciousness that permeates what was previously identified as purely ‘me’ and ‘mine’. In the soul life, we are required to allow our personal will to step back, integrating both love and wisdom, in order to become receptive to a bigger frame of existence and in the service to others (Assagioli 1974).

This by itself has subversive implications because we become more likely to question our attachments to conventional thoughts, ideologies, personal possessions, and ways of relating to others, recognizing our own particular lens with all its fallibilities. Whereas the ego strives to preserve the status quo of the personality, the soul often wants change. This might require us to withdraw from false securities in the hope of living something truer, more profound, but also potentially more risky from the perspective of the ego, yet healthier overall. Indeed, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (Jiddu Krishnamurti 1966, as quoted in Purser 2015, 42).

The journey from ego- to soul-consciousness may thus quickly represent a threat to many, and this can increase the traveller’s marginalization—including within activist circles. On top of this, because the soul demands our authenticity, it easily makes us vulnerable. The journey is therefore not an easy one, and it requires a good deal of outer and inner work. A key task—amply discussed by Jung—is to gradually assimilate unconscious material and make it conscious. Unprocessed emotions can be transformed into feelings, a progression that generates holistic responses instead of localized reactions or the projections of unpalatable parts of our selves onto other people. Love is here a middle ground able to hold disparate categories, including an understanding of the enemy’s viewpoint. “Love is the great binding force”, writes Bhaskar (2017, 159), but this “does not mean hug everyone; it means that you treat each person according to what their higher self would want”—which may also include firm opposition when fears or egos are dictating speech and actions.

Paradoxically, the only way to experience the soul life is to stop wanting it. The idea is to abandon having it on our own terms while making ourselves receptive. Slowness, commoning, conviviality and simplicity are central to the soul life—just like these notions are central to the Degrowth project. As Tetlow (2020, 255) puts is, “wanting ‘to have’ should be the first casualty; excessive ‘doing’ is the second. It is instead the capacity for ‘being’ that grows the soul. The best political systems endorse individual growth in the context of communal ownership that gives everyone their share, living the ‘I’, whilst experiencing the ‘we’. Then nobody needs to cling to their privatized ego, allowing also a greater freedom in relationships, needing neither to be merged, nor cut”.


Thank you to Sebastian Berger, Gottfried Heuer, Shivani Kaul, Rolf Steppacher and Katherine Tetlow for commenting on earlier versions of this article and for our ongoing discussions on this and related topics. The late and regretted David Graeber made possible a visiting fellowship at the Department of Anthropology of the London School of Economics where several of these ideas took shape. Two anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged. Charles-Alexis Couvreur, Ananta Kumar Giri and Andrej Grubačić were all helpful in their own ways in shaping this essay. All shortcomings are solely mine.


Incidentally, the first letters of Carl and Karl are already symbolic of their differences: the C evokes a circle, the symbol of the soul, while the K has something more angular and trenchant. Carl/Karl means ‘free man’ in Old Scandinavian.


Steuernagel (1978) showed that Marcuse’s conception of the psyche was much more Jungian than Freudian. Like Jung but unlike Freud, Marcuse saw the resources of the unconscious as a potential support for positive social change.


Erich Fromm gets close to these three Jungian contributions—and he was undeniably deeply influenced by Jung despite criticizing him. In my opinion, Fromm’s roadmap to the soul is not as differentiated and integrated as Jung’s.


In English, French, German or Spanish, the term ‘Jungian Marxism’ (or its translation) was apparently mentioned in only one publication (Walker 2017) where its possible meaning is only very briefly discussed.


But Jung’s philosophical position is not purely idealist. As a medical doctor, he was well aware of the psyche’s physical basis and had a lot of respect for empirical scientific methods. More broadly, his notion of unus mundus refers to the ultimate unity of matter and psyche, a non-dual position that transcends idealism (as well as materialism).


Jung can thus also be considered, like Wilhelm Reich, a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine (Conger, 1988).


In a degrowth kind of way, Jung built his own house in Bollingen (Switzerland), living as simply as possible, without electricity and running water.


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