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Marx, Nietzsche, Freud: on the (im)possible dream of freedom

Lecturer: Lachlan Ross

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2017

Check out this interview on 3CR with Lachlan about the course. (Interview by Julian Bourchier. Recorded at 3CR studio in Collingwood)

This twelve-week course will study a tension in the respective theories of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. On the one hand, each thinker has a model in which the individual lives of human beings and the broader history(ies) of the species unfold without any reference to human agency, will, volition, or freedom, with the ‘I’ in each case being an ‘unconscious agent of historical forces’, a ‘feeble windbag’/spontaneously formed polyp, or an ego that is not master of its own house, under a state of constant siege. We are speaking, in Althusser’s terms, of history without a subject, of a theatre without an author. In parts of the works of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud the self is no actor but is rather an impotent I who at best ‘acts’ impulsively/unconsciously and does not understand anything about why/how she ‘acts’ (making up ill-informed and incorrect reasoning and motivations for supposed ‘actions’ only after they have been done), and who at worst is no kind of ‘I’ at all (but rather a passive bundle of reactions to something, to a means of production trying to overcome contradictions within itself, or to a nebulous realm of contradictory drives and external exigencies: as Nietzsche famously writes, the doer is a fiction added to the deed as an afterthought). And yet each primary thinker in this course does dream of freedom, and of the coming of a human being who will in actuality have the freedom that we have in semblance today: a human being that is the source of its owns needs, actions, feelings and desires: a self that controls and shapes its own form and destiny: a self that has the right to make promises. These thinkers do not, with Althusser, discover that no individual human agency is driving either individual lives or history at large and then close the books there, satisfied that everything is now understood, and that the work of philosophy is done: it has discovered our inviolable impotence and can rest. Each of these thinkers, in different ways, view the non-agency of human ‘actors’ as a problem, and each, to varying degrees, see it not as a simple fact but as a horror and indignity to be remedied. None of these thinkers believe in Geist, in Reason or Nature as a providential force (in Gods by other names), and none believe that a world that is good for human beings can be produced by anything except the conscious willing of human beings. This course will study the tensions in each thinker between a strong belief that human beings do not rule their own lives and histories, and a strong desire for human beings to become human: for freedom to become possible, as an end in itself, and (for Marx and Nietzsche) to avert disaster, either the coming of the last man or endless human servitude to objectified human activity (i.e., capital).

Course Schedule

Part 1: Marx: ‘Not the gods, not nature, but only man himself can be this alien power over man.’

Week 1: Introduction to the course. I will present quotes from each thinker demonstrating strong deterministic leanings and quotes demonstrating a yearning for humanity (or in Nietzsche’s case, a select few humans) to better itself (to begin in actuality to match its current self understanding).

Introduction of terms (if required): determinism, humanism, structuralism

Traditional readings of Marx: There once was a grubby young humanist philosopher who became, in 1845 or thereabouts, a beautiful scientist, leaving philosophy and Hegelian/idealist nonsense behind him and opening a path to a perfect world of Soviet chauvinism, terror and bureaucracy ...

Overcoming some myths:

1: Marx cares about workers qua workers/ Marx cares about equality/ Marx’s communism is about equal distribution of wealth/Marx is a great guy who really cares about you and all underdogs/sufferers

2: Marx’s final works must be ignored by freedom loving people, being a recipe for totalitarianism

3: One can only understand Marx via Hegel (Lenin’s maxim, taken up by ‘Western’ Marxism via Lukács and later ‘Orthodox’ Marxism via Althusser).

4: Marx’s communism is based in a return to some past glory/past epoch 5: Marx’s communism is post-industrial

6: There is a coherent theory of communism in Marx

7: The young Marx and the old Marx are two different people (and it is the young Marx who is Hegelian)

8: The ‘mature Marx’ did not care about freedom, individuality, and other bourgeoisie nonsense 9: Marx and Engels had the same beliefs about everything

10: Dialectal materialism is the same as the materialist conception of history, only having been ‘developed’ to a greater degree

Positive statement of Marx’s goals. They are this and only this: that the dead stop ruling the living.

Reading: Markus G (1980) Four Forms of Critical Theory: Some theses on Marx’s development. In Thesis Eleven.

Althusser L (2003) The Humanist Controversy. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings: (1966-67). London & New York: Verso.

Further Reading:

Althusser L (2005) Marxism and Humanism. In For Marx. London & New York: Verso. This text is readily available on the internet.

Week 2:

‘The mature Marx’: On Marx the materialist scientist ‘The young Marx’: On Marx the humanist philosopher

On a real split in Marx: the unification of work and life in the early works versus the divorce of work and life in the later works.


Marx K (1978) Preface to Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and excerpts from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In The Marx-Engels Reader. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Week 3:

Rejecting the split: on Marx as a unity, and on Marx as a theorist of freedom qua de-alienation.

On the important difference between Marx and Hegel/Marx’s critiques of Hegel (all applicable to Marxism/Leninism).

On the actual differences in Marx’s works. Marx abandons a concept of full de-estrangement, however, alienation remains a focus. Also: Marx earlier rejects specialisation. Later, he rejects vocation. Finally, Marx accepts necessity. Freedom is no longer about overcoming necessity but of demarcating and reducing it.

A critique of the idea that Western/Humanist Marxism is Hegelian. There is nothing more Hegelian than the orthodox Marxism/Leninism (and especially the final Stalinist perversions of Marx).


  • A selection of quotes on freedom from The Holy Family, Capital, Grundrisse, 1844 Manuscripts, Capital III.

Week 4: Alienation and Estrangement in Marx: the problem of the dead and the problem of the living.

  • Selected excerpts from Capital. The 1844 Manuscripts is not the primary Marx text when it comes to alienation. It is rather Capital, and Althusser’s claim that Capital is a text that studies processes without reference to subjects is incorrect. Also an excerpt from Markus’ The Concept of Human Essence in Marx where The German Ideology is newly translated and quoted.

Part one questions:

  • What oppressed human beings in the 19th Century? What oppresses them today?
  • What is the world? How is it made? How are human beings made? What is the relation between human beings and the world?
  • Is Marx a determinist? What is the goal of communism? How do we get there?
  • What is alienation in Marx? Why did Althusser go to such lengths to argue that alienation is a concern of the young Marx only, when it is the mature Marx who speaks about it most frequently and eloquently, and in his most frequently read texts such as The Communist Manifesto and Capital?

Part 2: Nietzsche: ‘Greatest of all is the one who can be the most solitary, the most hidden, the most different, the person beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the one with an abundance of will. Only this should be called greatness ...’

Week 5: Nietzsche the determinist: the waterfall.

This week will discuss Nietzsche’s idea, frequently discussed, that the ego does not exist.


  • Nietzsche F (1996) The Waterfall. In Human, all too Human: a book for free spirits. UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Excerpt from Gardner S (2009) Nietzsche, the Self, and the Disunity of Philosophical Reason & Leiter B (2009) Nietzsche’s theory of the will. In Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Week 6: Who is the Übermensch? Is it the ‘Sovereign Individual’?

This week will study the Übermensch as a being who can make promises and make a claim that in Nietzsche’s works, the ‘ego’, though being far from what common-sense believes it to be, has been slowly coming into being, along with a soul, being a product of the abuses of the slave morality on the human organism.

We will also study the difference between the ‘improvement’ of ‘man’ and her progress (which are for Nietzsche antithetical).


  • Nietzsche F (2006) Prologue. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

A selection of quotes from Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols.

Week 7: Rejecting the idea that for Nietzsche, free will is impossible and unfree will is not. Both are impossible today. But free will (as a sire of strong will) could perhaps become possible.

This week will study a passage of Beyond Good and Evil.

More generally, this week will be a discussion of a crucial element of Nietzschean theory: the relationship between truth and error.

Readings: Excerpts from Beyond Good and Evil, Human, all too Human and The Gay Science: ‘Let us Beware’, ‘Origins of Knowledge’, ‘Life not an argument’ and ‘The Madman’.

Week 8: On the disaster of the Reformation: a study of what the second transvaluation of values means.

On Foucault’s rejection of grand projects of ‘the next man’: the danger of such ideas in Marx and Nietzsche, the danger of giving them up. On Marx and Nietzsche’s hatred of ‘modern man’, who refuses to see that she is but a bridge to something better.

Readings: Excerpt from The Anti-Christ.

  • Foucault M (1984) What is Enlightenment ? In The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Part two questions:

  • If Nietzsche is no ‘improver of man’, does this mean he does not believe in human ‘development’? Is Leiter more convincing than the reading put forward in this course? Why?
  • What is truth for Nietzsche? Is perspectivism a kind of relativism? If not, by what yardstick can we measure one thing with another when deciding what is good?
  • What kind of Nietzschean is Foucault?

Part 3: Freud: ‘This may have spoilt the structure of my paper; but it corresponds faithfully to my intention to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.’

Week 9: Giving up on Utopia. Freud’s acceptance of civilisation (mainly) as it is.

Reading: Freud S (1933) Lecture XXXV The Question of a Weltanschauung. In New Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis. Excerpts from Civilisation and its Discontents.

Week 10: On guilt in Freud. How close and far from Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, excerpt from On the Genealogy of Morals. Freud S (1998) Why War? In Classical Readings in Culture and Civilization. London and New York: Routledge.

Week 11: The customer is always wrong: Freud on agency and subjectivity.

Reading: Freud S (1933) Lecture XXXI The Dissection of the Psychical Personality. In New Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis.

Week 12: On the possibility (and desirability) of freedom. An overview of the course.

Final Reading: Castoriadis C (1993b) Social Transformation and Cultural Creation. In Political and Social Writings Volume III.

Part three questions: Is Freud the ‘odd one out’ in this course? Does he dream of a sovereign individual like Marx and Nietzsche do, or is he just out for the more modest dream of ‘ordinary unhappiness’ for everyone who can manage it? What does ‘where id was, there ego shall be’ mean? Is Freud correct to worry about the psychic consequences of peace? Nietzsche wants cruelty to again become creative, he wants us to stop discharging it on ourselves, whereas Freud wants us to keep hurting ourselves, seeing civilisation as being worth this pain/unease (and better than the alternative). Why does Freud take this position? Do we think differently about Marx’s communism after reading Freud? How do we feel about Nietzsche’s claim that civilisation is a sickness after reading Freud?

What is wrong with our world today according to Castoriadis? Why was the emergence of an astounding book like The Castle possible last century but not this century?


Evening Sem 1 2017