Lessons in Individual Psychology for Socialists

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Alfred Adler

Political Education Snippet #8

“Only in socialism did the feeling of community remain as the ultimate goal and end as demanded by unhampered human fellowship.” -Alfred Adler, creator of Individual Psychology

People are drawn to socialism and DSA for many reasons. Our different backgrounds and motivations lead to political conflict, and at times interpersonal conflict. I propose healing the interpersonal conflict and unifying the left with a robust foundation of ethics and human psychology such as those in Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology. 

Alfred Adler saw in socialism the application of his psychological theories on a societal level. He did not set out to create a socialist psychological theory, but his psychological theory concluded in socialism. This is an important distinction because his theories can be used to argue in favor of socialism, and can give socialists a shared groundwork to build their beliefs. I offer here a primer on Individual Psychology for the socialist layperson.

Individual Psychology

Perhaps one of the worst translations from Adler’s native German, “individual” is better understood as “whole” or “holistic.” Adler’s theory views not just the nature of an individual, and not just the environment (nurture) of an individual, but the whole picture and how they interrelate. Key to this is that the environment includes social relations and these relationships reflect the internal state of a person.

Inferiority and Striving for Superiority

Humans are inferior in nature. Children are born weak and rely on adults to care for them. As we grow older humans develop skills and strength, but still have weaknesses. Some people may become disabled, some may have deficits in skill, some may be made to feel weak, and all have limits to their ability which create feelings of inferiority. Humans are striving to go from inferiority to superiority, a felt minus to a felt plus. One way to overcome feelings of inferiority is to compensate for a deficit. Adler was an ophthalmologist by trade and witnessed how children could adapt to their poor vision and keep up with their peers. Another way to overcome feelings of inferiority is to strive for power and domination. “Vertical striving,” “comparing to others,” “climbing the ladder,” and competition. This is the “fictive goal” of capitalism, individualism, and America. Adler argued that this is a mistaken goal and does not lead to happiness. Other sources of mistaken goals can be the result of our upbringing and experiences, trauma and rewards and our interpretations and internalizations. It is important to understand where our goals originate and introspection and therapy can help.

Communal Life as Axiom

The reason individualism is a mistaken goal is because it goes against human psychology and the laws of nature. Human beings have always lived in groups out of necessity to meet physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Alone we are weak, but working together and dividing labor has allowed humans to create societies and civilization.


Social Interest

The crux of Individual Psychology is gemeinschaftsgefühl, literally “community feeling” but better understood as social interest. Social interest is not a goal to be achieved, but a mode of being: “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.” Adler argued that social interest was an innate ability and orientation for humans. Belonging has been recognized by Maslow and other psychologists as a basic need as important as food and water for human flourishing. All of our various tasks in life can only be achieved with another. It is therefore when one strives for the mistaken goal of individualism and power that the incongruence with their desires and contradictions with reality creates suffering. If individualism and power are vertical striving, growth with social interest is horizontal. One finds their place in the community, their unique contribution that lends to the strength of all and is fulfilled by their relationships and shared bounty. Competition and comparisons are no longer necessary because the rewards are shared and each contribution is valued.

Conclusion

It should be easy to see now how applying the theory of Individual Psychology to society leads to the conclusion that socialism is a solution to achieve wellness for the individual on a mass scale. I call on all socialists to keep the ultimate goal of unhampered human fellowship in the forefront of their minds, especially when engaged in “the work” of building a better world. Remember that community feeling is not something that is achieved but something that is demonstrated and felt. When interpersonal conflicts arise, I challenge you to question how you feel inferior in that moment and notice how you are striving to overcome. Are you striving for power or are you striving for empathy and understanding? I believe it matters how we build the world we want to see and we achieve that by creating it in ourselves and in our relations with each other right now. All we have is each other.

by Jordan L

For further reference and bibliography

Books by Alfred Adler:
The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1927)
Understanding Human Nature (1927) 
What Life Could Mean to You (1931)
The Pattern of Life (1930), The Science of Living (1930)
In his lifetime, Adler published more than 300 books and articles.

Wikipedia Article on Alfred Adler

To Heal and Educate, an online biography of Alfred Adler