For Socialist Psychologist Alfred Adler, Collective Feeling Was the Cure

Alfred Adler was ahead of his time in centering what he called “social interest” in his psychological theories. His approach sought to combat shame and alienation and encourage concern for the common good — a psychological application of his socialist values.

Austrian physician and psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870–1937) emphasized the importance of social interest for the healthy individual. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

It’s a sunny spring day in 1909 at the Stadtpark in Vienna. Leon Trotsky, fresh off another jailbreak, kicks a soccer ball toward his kids and waves back at his wife, who’s sprawled beneath a maple tree on a picnic blanket with another couple. Trotsky waltzes over and chats with his friend, one of the most renowned psychoanalysts in all of Vienna. No, not Sigmund Freud — the man with Trotsky would actually be expelled from Freud’s inner circle two years later. But while he’s less remembered today, he remained highly influential on an international scale for decades, his ideas taking center stage during the city’s interwar socialist period known as Red Vienna. This man was Alfred Adler.

Adler’s break with Freud in 1911 was a long time coming. He had joined Freud’s famous Wednesday Psychological Society at its inception in 1902, but over the course of the next decade, the two men’s thought diverged. Adler had entered the group already a socialist, and his political views shaped his psychological thought. Freud, meanwhile, preferred to keep politics out of the clinic. Because of Adler’s early involvement in the group and his widely recognized clinical skill, he felt empowered to challenge Freud. But Freud found the challenge increasingly frustrating, and eventually the group dynamic became untenable.

Adler entered the Viennese stage in 1898, with his first professional publication at the age of twenty-eight. His Health Book for the Tailor Trade aimed “to describe the connection between the economic condition of a trade and its disease, and the dangers for public health of a lowered standard of living.” Adler outlined the diseases common to Viennese tailors, their etiologies, their psychological impacts, and the potential of various reforms to improve workers’ lives. He examined how industrialization had changed the tailor trade and argued in favor of robust government regulation to improve conditions and rights for workers. At the start of his career, Adler was already emphasizing the social aspect of disease and advocating for a more preventative type of medicine, both biologically and socially.

This would become the basis of Freud and Adler’s conflict. Freud found Adler’s emphasis on the way social forces shape the psyche unconvincing and regressive. Adler first articulated his idea somewhat crudely by way of what he initially called the “aggression drive,” a socially situated drive that, in his view, was totally separate from Freud’s famous “sexual drive,” or libido. Freud initially tolerated this variant view, but within a few years began to openly reject Adler’s thinking in the group and insist upon the primacy of the sexual drive. Later, after living through the horrors of World War I, Freud would develop his concept of the “death drive,” a drive altogether separate from libido and strikingly similar to Alfred Adler’s initial conception of the aggression drive.

After his exile from Freud’s group, Adler found intellectual freedom. Though the two regarded each other bitterly, talking a bit of smack at every opportunity, they mostly stayed out of each other’s way. During the First World War, Adler was drafted as an army physician and worked psychiatrically in Austrian military hospitals, an experience that left its mark on the man. He would later talk about the guilt he felt in treating his patients with such care, only for them to be sent back out for slaughter.

The experience of World War I inspired Adler’s most enduring concept: Gemeinschaftsgefühl. An inelegant though good-enough English translation might be “a community of equals creating and maintaining feelings of social interest,” often shortened to just “social interest” in Adlerian circles. Adler started to view social interest as an inherent psychological trait and one that could be measured in the individual. In fact, Adler believed that most psychopathology was rooted in a maladaptive sense of social interest. To what degree do we care about our fellows? About the common good? Indeed, the Adlerian clinician seeks to help patients move toward more adaptive social interest in order to alleviate their symptoms and improve their conditions.

This idea has persisted, though not necessarily in Adler’s precise terms. From Adler’s student Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” to work on the psychological benefits of altruistic action, to research showing how reward chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin are released during socialization, Adler was ahead of his time in promoting social interest. His focus on collective well-being was deeply informed by his socialist politics. In one of his more poetic moments, he claimed, “Socialism is deeply rooted in community feeling. It is the original sound of humanity.”

The Gospel of Gemeinschaftsgefühl

After the war, Adler’s influence spread across Vienna. He had a thriving practice where he saw patients and taught courses at institutes, lecturing to both professionals and the general public. He worked toward educational reform while serving as the vice chairperson of the Workers’ Committee of Vienna’s First District. He also started his own psychological society that met on Mondays. Where Freud’s Wednesday group was becoming increasingly exclusive, Adler’s maintained the egalitarian spirit that drove his work: all were welcome to attend. “The door was left wide open,” as one student put it.

Between the world wars, Vienna came under the leadership of socialists, a period known as Red Vienna. During this time, Adler’s attention turned toward the youth. He observed their demoralization after the war, and embarked on a venture to connect psychological clinicians to Viennese schools and set up “child guidance clinics” around the city. Adler trained students, teachers, and parents in his developing psychology, proselytizing his ideas about social interest. The effort was monumental: Adler’s contribution can accurately be said to have created a new educational milieu and shared emotional understanding among Viennese youth, educators, and parents. One of the many tragedies of the Third Reich would be the annihilation of this effort.

Adler started to gain international recognition for his progressive work, especially around child development, marriage, gender equality, and a host of other issues all infused with Gemeinschaftsgefühl. In the late ’20s, he began traveling to the United States to spread the message, and picked up a teaching post at the New School. His American sojourns produced a popular book called Understanding Human Nature, which catapulted Adler to prominence in both the American public and academic circles. While in America, Adler became less overtly political, but his psychological perspective maintained its characteristic egalitarianism and consideration for economic and social conditions.

The less socially conservative American audience greeted his contributions with enthusiasm, especially his lectures on the gendered power dynamics in marriages. Adler toured across the country and would go on to influence Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, Harry Stack Sullivan, and most other major mid-century American psychologists. Adler’s influence on American popular psychology was profound: one need look no further than the contemporaneous emergence of Alcoholics Anonymous and its primary philosophical principle — that by helping another alcoholic, you are actually helping yourself — to see Gemeinschaftsgefühl weaving itself into the fabric of American culture. While the United States in the interwar period was no Red Vienna, Adler’s ideas matched the political mood here as well, particularly as the New Deal fostered a more inspired imagination of the prospects for social interest among the American public.

In 1929, Adler decided to move to New York City to begin teaching at Columbia University’s medical school and to run a child guidance clinic at the university six days a week. His wife, Raissa, intended to come later, preferring to stay in Europe to continue her revolutionary work, which at that point primarily consisted of assisting their dear friend Trotsky in trying to topple Joseph Stalin. (Raissa was a committed Trotskyist, and her politics no doubt served as the foundation for much of Adler’s political thought.) Adler’s association with Columbia was short-lived, and his 1930 exit is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that when Adler’s name was put up for a permanent position, it was quickly denied by the loyal Freudian psychoanalysts populating the Columbia University medical faculty.

Nevertheless, Adler continued to popularize his ideas, mostly by touring and lecturing. He kept himself busy promoting his theories on the ground, his published works consisting of little more than patched-together lecture notes. In fact, one reason Adler’s afterlife has suffered is because his writings are not very good. His early German work has not been properly translated into English, and his English work is second-rate. Where Freud wrote with great care and skill, Adler phoned it in, at times just passing his notes to students to compile into something digestible. In a great irony, his active promotion of his ideas from the lectern and in the clinic made him wildly influential during his lifetime, while his neglect of published works has caused that influence to go unrecognized.

Adler died suddenly in Scotland in 1937. He had just completed a lecture and written a letter to Raissa, now living in New York, announcing his intention to travel on to Russia in an effort to locate their missing daughter, the sole Adler still in Europe. Their daughter’s disappearance was weighing heavily on the sixty-seven-year-old Alfred, and he suspected the worst, considering the family ties to Trotsky. In 1942, a friend of the family and great admirer of Adler, one Albert Einstein, would deliver the news to Raissa that their daughter had died in a Siberian prison camp.

Solidarity Versus Shame

Even beyond his concept of social interest, Adler’s thought offers us useful concepts today as we continue to move toward a more emancipatory future.

Perhaps his most famous contribution to the field of psychology is the idea of “compensation.” Adler posited that when a person experiences some deficit in their being, whether natural or imagined, they will then compensate in other ways for that perceived inferiority. Compensation is often healthy: Adler was quick to cite a study done in a German art school showing that a majority of the art students claimed a congenital optical abnormality. When our experience of coping with this inferiority becomes maladaptive, we develop a neurotic complex — hence the now popular concept of overcompensation.

Adler believed that most neuroses stemmed from leftover feelings of inferiority from childhood. As children develop, they begin to recognize their natural inferiority to their caretakers — physically, socially, and emotionally. When not properly cared for, encouraged, or empowered toward healthy compensation, these feelings of inferiority can begin to take a different shape and send them into maladaptive behaviors and away from social interest. Adler believed that the effects of this process carried into adulthood. In today’s terms, we would call this feeling of characterological inferiority “shame.” Many psychological studies have since borne out Adler’s theory, finding that shame increases disconnection, alienation, and isolation.

These ideas can help us understand the psychological factors at play in the current political climate, where overcompensatory personalities dominate and social interest is in short supply. They are also instructive for the Left as we conceptualize how to pursue our project of repairing that sense of investment in the well-being of society. Moments of perceived inferiority will inevitably arise in both the individual and collective experience; comparison is part and parcel of human existence. But it is how we compensate for those perceived inferiorities, how we find nuance and maintain mutuality in dealing with these dynamics, that makes all the difference. We can choose overcompensatory status jockeying and corrosive individualism, or we can choose solidarity.

Adler came to his emphasis on the social while working psychotherapeutically within the working class, championing gender equality, and surrounding himself with people devoted to social transformation through political action. When Vienna turned red, Adler was in the trenches. He walked the dialectical line between emphasizing the individual and society, seeking to empower individual people in order to encourage collective feeling. Adler knew that Freud’s initial neglect of the social was not going to suffice to get to the root of the tailor worker’s issue or the oppressed wife’s woes. He started from a belief in equality among people, and trusted that the answer to our problems lay in each other.