Looking back to the 1970s, I always understood psychotherapy as something free from religion and politics. Its focus was the individual client and his or her distress, turmoil, or need to explore the idiosyncratic inner life. Although the 1960s and 1970s were culturally momentous in many ways, some of us turned to therapy as more ‘real’ or pertinent to our situation than moribund Christianity and formal politics. Paul Halmos’s The Faith of the Counsellors (1961) captured this view, that therapy and its psychodynamically-informed social work cousins had growing relevance. I was in Janov’s primal therapy in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and Janov’s belief was clearly that patients immersed in that therapy had no interest in politics or religion because they were rediscovering their deep inner self and proximal satisfactions: political and religious preoccupations were symbolic projections of deep inner needs. Yet at the same time, the Vietnam War had continued into 1975, nuclear disaster was feared in the Cold War (1947 to 1991), and race riots and women’s and gay liberation movements were developing. John Lennon’s song Imagine (1979) urged us to imagine there is no heaven, no countries, and ‘nothing to kill or die for’. Lennon had had primal therapy a few years earlier. This was all many years before the politics of dismantling borders was taken seriously.
Freud was reported to be uninterested in politics. Yet, from the 1930s the Frankfurt School combined Freudian with Marxist ideas to form the critical theory that has been so influential in Western academia. As one of its leading proponents, Erich Fromm’s writings remain beloved in the humanistic therapy world. The vast majority of psychotherapy founding fathers were Jewish, and 20th century therapeutic theories are replete with understandably anti-authoritarian sentiment. Wilhelm Reich’s Marxist-informed therapy was probably the most radical of these. The 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford draws heavily on Freudian concepts, warns against Nazi-like figures emerging again, and is one underpinning element of today’s social and demographic liberalism. Carl Rogers, one of very few non-Jewish therapy founders, created a non-judgemental, non-directive ideology that resonated with Freud’s invitation to patients to say whatever came to their minds. For some years, parents were regarded as oppressive authoritarians whose influence had to be rejected: ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, as Philip Larkin wrote. For some time, therapy was arguably a forum for ventilating anger against all the bad people in your life, and sometimes against the psychiatric establishment and psychopharmaceutical industry.
A vein of Freudo-Marxism has persisted across the years. Socialism-inspired therapies have come and gone. Red therapy, social therapy, Re-Evaluation Co-Counselling, feminist therapy, have all explored ways of integrating individual with socio-economic explanations for distress: patriarchal-colonialist, heteronormative capitalism is the source of all distress and only a revolution will restore sanity. Social materialist psychology, critical psychology and critical psychiatry, whatever they may really be, are practised by self-styled radical but salaried psychologists and psychiatrists. Workshops abound on pushing for greater connections between therapy and climate change, exploring your gender identity and your collusion in racism, embracing your inner voices, your subpersonalities, and your ‘mad pride’. This radical underbelly of therapy is always tacitly present but underplayed by most academic training programmes.
To some extent cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) commends stoicism, which the American Psychological Association regards as an ingredient of toxic masculinity. But you will search far and wide to find much, if any, ‘right-wing’ content or leaning in the therapy literature. The clinical psychology professor Jordan Peterson is a rare exception and suffers accordingly. Pankaj Mishra, in a scathing 2018 New York Review of Books article, yokes Peterson together with Carl Jung under the rubric of ‘fascist mysticism’; Peterson leads a ‘far right sect’ in Mishra’s terms. Psychologists like Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn learned their lesson that openly linking race and IQ, or crime, spelled professional death. Very few clinical psychology academics stick their heads above this political parapet. It is acceptable to knock Freud for being a literary talent rather than a scientist (as in Nick Chater’s 2018 book The Mind is Flat). The psychologist and behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, however, admits that he waited 30 years before publishing Blueprint, his 2018 summary of quantitative genetics that subverts social constructionist orthodoxy. He rightfully anticipated hostility. But research on inherited personality and intelligence has a huge amount to tell us about what is actually changeable and how to change it if possible, yet few therapists read such material. Given the current push to decolonise the curriculum, it may be only a matter of time before psychology is rewritten to incorporate ‘the epistemologies of the global south’, and psychotherapy will succumb soon thereafter. Indeed it is remarkable that so far psychotherapy has not been targeted for its glaring lack of prominent non-white, female, and LGBT figureheads.
Now consider the Brexit and Trump phenomenon in 2016, often inextricably linked in the media. On the heels of the 2015 migration crisis and a rising sense of majority disenfranchisement by minority-driven ‘political correctness’, voters demonstrated a refusal to submit to ongoing Cultural Marxism. While years of conservative governments outnumbered years of leftist governments in the UK, at local and institutional levels leftist ideologies have predominated. I had retired from full-time academic life by that point but was still involved in some part-time work, and it quickly became apparent that in academic and therapy circles Brexiters were regarded as wrongheaded (on the charitable side) or extreme right scum (when expressed in the uninhibited visceral hate speech of the left). I had voted for Brexit and for the most part quickly resorted to silence among colleagues. Some counselling services offered free counselling to people affected by Brexit, as if this was self-evidently devastating. The Wall Street Journal’s 2018 article ‘Therapy is no longer a politics-free zone’ confirmed a similar phenomenon. This was the key moment, I think, when the psychotherapy and counselling world departed from its outward political neutrality.
It should have been obvious to me from my time as a trainer of counsellors that a majority of trainees were female, middle-class, and decidedly left-leaning. The syllabus always partly reflected concerns stemming from the 1970s with anti-discrimination as regards race, feminist and LGBT issues, and it still does. Gay affirmative therapy has been promoted for many years and prohibitions against gay conversion therapy are standard; therapists are alert to gender dysphoria. Yet in the UK around the 1980s or 1990s counselling lost some of its radical edge and outsider status, as the NHS welcomed in part-time counsellors. An ironic aspect of this acceptance is that many more working-class and elderly clients would be seen. No longer was therapy the preserve of YAVIS (young, attractive, verbal, intelligent and successful) clients, many of whom had been female, students, and meaning-seeking. I don’t think training intakes and norms ever really adjusted to these changes. As with Brexit, it probably meant that at least 50% of therapy clients might be working-class, older, and/or right-wing in their political leanings, and were not seeking ‘deep’ psychodynamic therapy but manageable adjustments to life circumstances.
Now, most of my former colleagues are decent, well-intentioned and empathic people who presumably suspend their own political, religious and ideological views while working with clients. One cannot know what cognitive dissonance they may experience with right-leaning clients, torn as they must sometimes be between the need to be perceived as compassionate and non-judgemental on the one hand, and yet being only human on the other. The essence of non-directivity and free association is that clients can say anything they want to and, provided it contains no suicidal, terrorist or otherwise harmful-to-others intentions, it will be heard without judgement. Indeed, ‘transference’ even requires that clients project some dark unconscious feelings on to therapists, who must be able to handle some hostility. A lot of therapy is a mixture of warm support, encouragement, and looking into deep or recent hurts like abuse and bereavement. But Marxist assumptions about false consciousness and immiseration are often background factors for therapists.
Consider the following hypothetical and probably not typical scenario. In 2020 a new client A, who is black, tells the counsellor how hurt and disadvantaged she feels by racism, and deep empathy and unconditional acceptance duly ensue. Next comes client B, who is a straight white male and PhD student. B hesitantly mentions his research into ethnic differences in IQ scores. The same counsellor listens respectfully but anxiously. B, it turns out, is close to publishing some research findings that he knows will be controversial; he isn’t sleeping well, he worries about potential personal attacks from Antifa, and wonders if he should abandon his PhD. Most clients are not like B, nor do most clients bring doctoral anxieties to therapy, but this is not an entirely far-fetched case.
Something never discussed in the psychotherapy and counselling world is that some trainees are more intelligent than others, and indeed some clients may be more intelligent than their therapists; indeed, sometimes students are more intelligent than their professors. Whether or not counsellors’ training takes place within academia, it is extremely likely to be affected by the overwhelmingly leftist academic atmosphere and grading systems. Counsellors and psychotherapists are well-versed from their professional bodies’ ethical frameworks in tuning into anything potentially homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, and racist. In principle, it is possible to refuse to work with clients who may be deemed offensive, but this is easier to deal with in private practice than in settings where clients have a right to therapy. You might ask to see a female, gay or black therapist but not one who is politically sympathetic towards Brexit, for example.
Psychotherapy is ideally a safe but sometimes challenging space for freely exploring one’s personal experiences, feelings and thoughts, but it is not a seminar where intellectual exchanges usually happen, nor a chat between old friends. But client B needs to explore his feelings and career trajectory. His narrative includes the prospect of persecution, should he be outed as a ‘scientific racist’. This is not altogether unlikely when we hear stories about those who have found it harder to come out as politically conservative than as gay. ‘Cancel culture’ may be dismissed by some but known all too acutely as real by the scores of academics who have lost their jobs in our ‘woke culture’. I tread carefully when discussing any of this with students. I sometimes find one lonely, brave soul in a psychology class who cautiously admits to being politically conservative. I know no therapists, trainers or lecturers with conservative sympathies.
Psychotherapy has a more hit-or-miss quality to it than many imagine. Its theories and training norms are steeped in historical problems that are accepted far too uncritically. But the traditional talking therapies appear to be all we can offer people in distress, medication aside. The theoretical wooliness of the talking therapies may not yield to criticism (I have seen relatively little change in 40 years), but I believe the field is now at an unacknowledged ethical crossroads that should no longer be ignored. For a profession resting on faith in letting things out and on honesty and openness, therapy has tacitly limited the scope of what may be said, or it has at least congealed into an implicitly leftist endeavour that dare not disclose its true political colours. Although aiming to facilitate its clients’ ‘real selves’, individuation, or self-fulfilment, it may have succumbed to a collective unconscious bias towards woke leftist conformity. This echoes the dynamics of unintended religious oppression and totalitarian communism. I have been in group therapy-type situations or personal development groups where politics, or the ‘wrong politics’, seemed taboo, and a kind of groupthink prevailed beneath the claims to openness and honesty.
As far as I know, therapeutic literature does not warn potential clients to desist in their sessions from politically incorrect or so-called hate speech. But hypothetical client B is an intelligent, very well-read man who knows what his therapists’ tacit politics are likely to be. In a culture where gender transitioning is almost incontestable and gay conversion therapy is vilified, we have no such entity as pre- or post-vilification trauma therapy for someone like B. Bullying is generally decried now but bullying of people like B is not recognised. In Western civilisation which is currently under siege from an ideology of egalitarianism and emotivism, there is less and less space for dissent. Academia has already fallen to neo-Marxism. Is psychotherapy any longer a universally safe space, a confidential haven in a society forever being scanned for incorrect political views? Are trainees more exposed to promotion of emotional intelligence than to awareness of pathological altruism? Can exposure to viewpoint diversity and critical thinking be expected as well as ethnic and gender diversity and critical theory? Most therapists may indignantly object that they always suspend their political views and work with clients’ own values. But what makes them magically free of unconscious bias against their straight white male, right-leaning, wrong-thinking clients?
How can watertight confidentiality be guaranteed when all therapists and counsellors report to supervisors and engage in case discussions? I was once present at a workshop for supervisors where a well-known tutor freely expressed his contempt for the Tories, and none of the 50 participants questioned this, either because they all happened to agree or because any right-leaning participants were too intimidated to object. Search through the field’s literature and you will be hard pressed to find even in its margins anything other than endorsements of politically correct views and anti-capitalist analyses and remedies. Andrew Samuels’ (2015) A New Therapy for Politics? tackles some relevant problems but veers leftwards. Eliot Rosenstock’s (2019) Zizek in the Clinic likewise promotes a tortuously leftist account. It can of course be argued that capitalism is an utterly indefensible social context for good mental health but the strong socialist argument might undermine individual therapy altogether: critics like William M. Epstein (see his 2019 Psychotherapy and the Social Clinic in the United States) argues that psychotherapy is ineffective and public money should instead be diverted into better housing, jobs, and exposure of therapy as a damaging ‘romantic individualism’.
Meanwhile, clients like B will either not enter therapy, or self-censor and quickly drop out when sensing their therapists’ unvoiced but undisguisable, implicit leftist politics. Arguably, I can only write this article because I am retired.
Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J. & Sanford, R. N. (1950/2019) The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Verso.
Chater, N. (2018) The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind. London: Penguin.
Drexler, P. (2019) Therapy is no longer a politics-free zone. The Wall Street Journal, 23 November.
Epstein, W. (2019) Psychotherapy and the Social Clinic in the United States: Soothing Fictions. Chaim: Palgrave Macmillan.
Halmos, P. (1961) The Faith of the Counsellors. London: Constable.
Mishra, P. (2018) Jordan Peterson and fascist mysticism. The New York Review, 19 March.
Plomin, R. (2018) Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. London: Penguin.
Rosenstock, E. (2019) Zizek in the Clinic: A Revolutionary Proposal for a New Endgame in Psychotherapy. Winchester: Zero Books.
Samuels, A. (2015) A New Therapy for Politics? London: Routledge.
By Colin Feltham, Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.