Dr. Alain Vanier is an analyst and president of Espace Analytique Paris. He completed a medical degree and worked in child and adult psychiatry for more than 15 years. He has also worked together with Maud Mannoni at the Experimental School of Bonneuil-sur-Marne. Since 1996 Alain has worked as a professor at Université Paris. He had written more then 280 publications, 4 books and delivered more than 800 lectures across the world. In 2018 he was made a Professor Emeritus at Université de Paris.

Although nothing predestined Lacan to come into contact with
Marx, that encounter did take place early in his life through people
works influenced by Marxist theory. In the 1930s Lacan frequented
surrealist circle of poets, and between 1933 and 1938 he attended
lectures on Hegel given by Alexandre Kojève at the Ecole des Hautes
Etudes. A more remote connection was Lacan’s friendship with the
Communist psychologist, Henri Wallon, for whom Lacan wrote Les
complexes familiaux in 1938. Of course, the events of modern history
also involved Lacan with Marx. Finally, it is well-known how important
Marxist thought was for the French intelligentsia of the postwar
Lacan stressed man’s social being in his earliest writings, and
used Freud as a major reference, quoting, in particular, a passage
Group Psychology in which Freud notes how “in the individual’s
life someone else is invariably involved as a model, as an object, as a
helper, as an opponent; and so, from the very first, individual
psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable use of the words,
is at
1 Conference at the APCS 5th annual meeting « Social symptoms », Columbia
University, New York, 29-31 Octobre 1999
the same time social psychology as well”2
. The Other is thus involved
with the subject from the beginning. In the same way, Lacan’s stade
miroir — which he borrowed from Wallon and a number of other
psychologists — demonstrates the necessity of an Other from which
subject can differentiate in order to build personal unity in the image.
The “other” at that time was the subject’s fellow man, his look-alike,
also the Other who names and whose mediation is needed to confer
image. For Henri Wallon, the premature birth generic to our species
attested the biological roots of man’s social being and explained the
importance of imaginary capture. Lacan once said that Wallon’s
observation concerning premature birth was the basis for his whole
work. Indeed, the idea of premature birth allowed Lacan to theorize
anticipation of the maturation process eividenced in the stade du
a concept which accounts for the importance of imaginary capture in
man’s life. We should note here that, at this stage in Lacan’s writings,
subject’s involvement with the group was mainly imaginary.
from Hegel’s Master-Slave dialect, Lacan initially described desire as
derived from the imaginary, and evidenced especially in jealousy.
fundamentally alienated, is also the expression of the nonindividuality of
the subject. In addition, he observed that the paternal figure was in
decline, although this figure was, for Freud, a necessary condition for
there to be a group.
An important difference between Hegel and Lacan is that the
always situates jouissance with the slave. “Hegel”, Lacan writes, “tells
that the labor the slave submits to by renouncing jouissance because
fears death will be the very way in which he will attain freedom. Both
politically and psychologically speaking, nothing is more patently
Jouissance comes easy for the slave, and thus labor will remain the
2S. Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”, S.E. XVIII,
p. 69.
servitude it has always been.3
” Thus, for Lacan, unlike for Marx, we
in a society of slaves, and all of us stand on the same side of the
of production, since we have renounced jouissance, something we
to do to be part of the social link. However, we all participate in the
modern promise — constantly hammered into us — that in the
wonderland of democratic consumerism one can recover lost
We should note here that it is with Hegel’s successors — and
especially Marx — that Lacan will reorganize the idea of jouissance
which he had left in abeyance in his seminar on ethics (1959-1960).
Lacan will reconsider the question in economic terms — I use
“economic”, of course, in the Freudian sense of the
I do not wish to try the reader’s patience by enumerating all the
times that Marx appears in Lacan’s work. I will therefore restrict
to mentioning two or three stages in the development of Lacan’s
in respect to Marx. This means that I will refer to a limited number of
Lacan’s texts and deliberately omit some references. I believe that
best place to start is by stressing the crucial place that Lacan gives
as Hegel’s interpreter when he posits in 1966 that Marx is the
inventor of
the Freudian symptom. Lacan claimed that “Marxist criticism”
underwent “a shift in direction with Hegel” and “returned (…) to the
question of truth”. This shift, occurring before the advent of
psychoanalysis, introduced “a dimension of what we could call the
symptom organized around the fact that this dimension represents a
3J. Lacan, “Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir dans l’inconscient
freudien”, Ecrits, Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 811. Lacan adds: “The cunning of reason seduces
by what resonates in in the obsessional’s well-known individual myth of the individual
whose structure we know to be quite common in the intelligentsia. But even if the
obsessional eludes the bas faith of the teacher, he has trouble fooling himself into
believing that it is his own labor which will give him access to jouissance. In doing truly
unconscious hommage to history written by Hegel, he often finds his alibi in the death of
the Master. But what good is this death? He merely waits for it.”
return to truth as such in the rift of knowledge”4
. Thus, Marx is
introduced at this time in reference to
Marx’s status as the inventor of the symptom before Freud will
developed by Lacan in two stages. First, the symptom will be
as a metaphor of truth and thus symbolic. It is a word which has been
stifled, a hidden, buried truth, a metaphoric figure which, just as for
Freud, permits surrogate sexual satisfaction. Lacan, however, does
yet develop this aspect of “satisfaction”. The symptom is waiting to be
decoded and read. Later, when Lacan investigated psychosis, this
idea of
the symptom led to the concept of foreclusion. In this context, both
symptom and interpretation always refer back to the œdipal
dimension, at
least in the case of neurosis. At the time, Lacan’s disciples were
extremely uncomfortable with foreclusion of the Name-of-the-Father,
since these concepts seemed to preclude any possible treatment of
psychosis. Lacan argued that, in order to interpret and thus unravel
symptom by bringing out the truth encapsuled in it, what was needed
the Oedipus complex, the basis for all metaphor — the figure of
castration. Without an Oedipus complex, interpretation was
Lacan was a man of his time and took part in the great debates
his time — psychoanalysts today would do well to take note of this.
When Lacan introduced the symbolic dimension as a way out of the
entrapment in the mirror, and of the subject’s relationship with his
image, his look-alike (a reference to death as the Absolute Master),
Lacan was actually taking issue with Sartre and the French
In the same way, the return to Marx in Lacan’s teachings coincided
the turmoil of 1968.
For Lacan, Marx’s criticism of the cunning of reason is the sign
the return to truth. Far from leaving the idea in the background and
4J. Lacan, “Du sujet enfin en question”, Ecrits, Paris, Seuil, 1966,
p. 234.
thinking of history as the accomplishment of reason, Marx thought
that it
was ideology itself which had to be examined in a critical light. In like
manner, Lacan argued that the symptom was distinct from the sign
should be distinguished from the psychiatric and medical symptom.
symptom is a signifier and means something only in respect to
signifier. Here, according to Lacan, “is where the truth of the symptom
lies”. Therefore, the symptom is not the mere representation of a truth
that emerges — the symptom is the truth. What Marx had taught us in
writings was the importance of examining the structure latent in
economy. In psychoanalysis, the underlying structure had likewise to
laid bare.
During this period (1966), Lacan reorganized his theory of the
symptom. His work was to have considerable impact on his clinical
approach and the ultimate goal of psychoanalytic treatment. It was
occasion for Lacan to re-read Marx in a different light and stress not
Marx’s criticism of ideology, but also the economy of jouissance. We
should observe that, at this stage in Lacan’s theoretical progress,
pratically no distinction was made between the social symptom and
idividual symptom.
Lacan’s next step was to posit the “real” dimension of the
symptom. Immediately after 1968, Lacan introduced the theory of
discourses as an attempt to formalize the social link from a
psychoanalytical viewpoint. What Lacan calls “discourse” is a
organization for managing jouissance in order to limit and channel it.
the aftermath of the turbulent events of 1968, the questions,
expressed in
simple terms, that Lacan asked were the following: In today’s world of
technology, how can we interpret the Discourse that dominates the
field of modern capitalism? Are we witnessing a reorganization of the
social link? To address these questions, Lacan proposed four
although he wavered on how to consider what characterized
and modernity.
First came the figure of the Discourse of the Master — although
the figure of mastery has changed since Antiquity, the “antique”
still serves as a matrix. This figure was followed by that of the
of the University which held sway on the other side of the Iron
Initially, Lacan attached the Discourse of Science to the Discours of
University, but afterwards he chose to attach it to the Discourse of the
Hysteric. Later, Lacan proposed a fifth Discourse — the Discourse of
Capitalist, the result of an “inversion” of the Discourse of the Master.
What characterized the “antique” master — identified with the
emergence of philosophy — was his appropriation of knowledge from
the know-how of the slave. The Master’s distinctive trait was that he
not work. Today, the Master’s desire is that everything operate
that things function. However, Lacan did not identify the modern
property owner with the figure that appears in the Discourse of the
At the end of 1960s, Lacan was also investigating the other side
what psychoanalysis has revealed along with symbolization (the
Discourse of the Master is the model of symbolization and this is why
is the discourse of the unconscious) — the leftover something that
symbolization produces, the residue that can be neither assimilated
symbolized. This residue-object which is often referred to in the
of Anglo-American analysts — in Winnicott especially, but also in
Melanie Klein — interested Lacan because, in line with his study of
Freud’s work, he was concerned with the question of the phantasm
as one
of the key factors at work in psychoanalytical treatment. This shift in
respect to the symptom accompanied Lacan’s reworking of what he
called the “objet a”. The objet a which is, above all, imaginary,
to desire and situated in the relation to the petit autre (designated by
initial “a”), was put into a series with the signifying dimension in the
writing of the Discourses. This is how the a first appeared, a
of the imaginary but also of history, because at a given moment the
unassimilable aspect of the a “emptied itself”. What was once
disconnected from the truth in the plus-de-jouir was “counted up” or
“entered into the accounts” as a surplus and accumulated as capital5
Psychoanalysis, by reorganizing this surplus value as a plus-de-jouir,
interprets what has been welded together in contemporary discourse
thus restores the disconnection between the plus-de-jouir and
Marx’s work helps us to better understand better the real
of the symbol, since Marx shows that it does not suffice to denounce,
simply state the truth, in order to incluence the discourse which the
hidden truth seems to support. It is with this in mind that Lacan will
examine Marx’s approach to surplus value6
. Surplus value (Mehrwert)
that part of the value of production which does not go back to the
Although the topic concerns another paper that I am currently writing,
would like to point out that, here, the dimension we are talking here
about is time. In any event, the proletarian is the wage earner who
produces and valorizes capital and who is thrown out on the street
moment he is no longer needed by Mr. Kapital. Marx notes that the
proletarian is not a man who lives in the primal forests, or part of the
poverty-stricken masses, since in some respects the proletarian owns
forest. But I do not want to get caught up in the distinctions between
absolute and relative surplus value. I simply wish to stress that, with
capitalism, labor has become a commodity which, like any other
5Cf. J. Lacan, L’envers de la psychanalyse, Le Séminaire, Livre XVII, Paris,
Seuil, 1991, p. 207. 6K. Marx, Das Kapital.
commodity in the capitalist system, is not designed to be consumed,
rather exchanged so as to produce surplus
This reminds me of a Jewish joke 1 recently
Two men — acquaintances — meet and the one says to the
“What are you up to right now?”
“I’m selling sardines”, his friend answers.
“Really?” says the other. “Mind if I open a can and have a
“Not at all, go right ahead”, his friend
“Mind if I have a taste?” the first man
“Not at all, go right ahead”, his friend
The first man tastes the sardines and nearly chokes on them.
“They’re awful!” he screams. “No one could ever eat
“Who would ever want to eat them?” the other man replies.
“They’re made to be bought and sold, bought and
This anecdote illustrates what Marx calls the fetichism of
merchandise. Goods are no longer intended to be used, but rather to
exchanged in order to create capital. The next question that may be
is the following: Once capitalists have made their profit, or surplus
— and here we are talking about something that could be referred
back to
Weber — do they experience jouissance? Not really, since they are
supposed to reinvest profits in order to increase productivity. Thus,
jouissance which eludes the wage-earner, or the proletarian, also
the property owner. Rousseau once remarked that wealth was not
accumulated for the pleasure of using objects but solely for selfesteem
and the desire for distinctions, something that needs the gaze of
others. In
society, what is earned is spent not for jouissance, but to preserve
Capitalism is completely organized around the constant
of objects that appear to be coveted objects, the objects of the desire
the inhabitants of today’s world. Lacan demonstrates this very clearly
with the writing of his Discourse of the Capitalist in which the objet a
in direct relationship with the divided subject. Such a view dovetails
what Hannah Arendt says about the condition of modern man when
examines the way the economy is constantly revived through orders
the military sector and shows how such consumption or, as Lacan
puts it, “consumation” amounts to the manufacturing of destruction7
shows how the objects thus produced are designed to be destroyed.
find, of course, the best example for this in weaponry and other war
material, but the same holds true for consumption in general. Fashion
is a
good example, since fashion fulfills the object’s ultimate fate, which is
be thrown away. For Lacan, these token objects, or semblances, are
precisely what makes it possible to define the objet a as the cause of
desire, and not its ultimate aim. Why is it the cause? Because each
we possess one of the token objects offered for consumption, we will
inevitably end up saying: “That’s not what I wanted!” Thus, the subject
wanders from one object to the next, from singifier to signifier, since
these objects have value only because they participate in the field of
signification. They do, however, also refer back to what was initially
to the jouissance which the subject had to give up and which gratifies
one. It is this jouissance which is produced by the Discourse of the
Master, by symbolization, but it is also the jouissance that circulates
the social link and makes it work. It is the subject’s renunciation of
jouissance which produces the objet a as a fragment of jouissance
gratifies no one — a residue of the incest prohibition, an object which
causes desire, even if the subject replaces it with a series of
touted as being the goal of this desire. The destruction which objects
ultimately suffer is also the manifestation of the death drive, which is
7H. Arendt, The Human Condition, trad. G. Fradler, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1961,
p. 321.
jouissance. The death drive derives from the compulsion to repeat
from the effect of the signifier, of the symbolic, since the word is the
murder of the thing. Thus, the death drive refers back to the question
jouissance as something which the subject is deprived of, but which is
also connected with death — the death, or danger of death, that the
chose not to risk. The plus-de-jouir is therefore the lost object, a lack
which circulates unceasingly as a fragment of this object, but it is also
what allows for jouissance.
In 1974, Lacan reconsidered these questions by asking whether
psychoanalysis itself was a symptom. What statute, he queried, does
psychoanalysis have in respect to other discourses? In which
does “the real form a crisscross”, so that things do not function in the
way the capitalist master would like them to. Or do all discourses fit
the capitalist scheme, and even foster
Is psychoanalysis a symptom? Lacan argues that it is, but does
say that it is a social symptom. Psychoanalysis is a symptom
because it is
attached to the question of the Real — it stresses the Real. Without
symptom, the only thing left is the Real “that forms a crisscross so
things do not work in a way that they can account for themselves in a
satisfactory manner — satisfactory at least for the Master, but this
mean that the slave suffers in the least. Not at all. The slave in all this
having a much better time than anybody might suspect. It’s the slave
who gets the jouissance, contrary to what Hegel thought.8
” In this
psychoanalysis is a symptom because it stands in the way of what
in capitalist discourse, or the Discourse of the Master. This is why
psychoanalysis, if it is to survive, must fail. Lacan argues that if
psychoanalysis were to succeed, it would become no more than a
forgotten symptom. Psychanalysis is thus a new discourse, but it is
one that enables us to write the others. In some ways, it takes the
place of
the non-existent sexual relationship. Surplus value is thus transferred
the ledger, or account book, that is to the unconscious, which counts
because of the signifier. The plus-de-jouir is needed if the machine is
keep running. “Surplus value is the cause of the desire upon which an
economy is based: the desire for extensive and unrelenting
production of
the manque à jouir. On the one hand, it is accumulated in order to
increase the means of this production in terms of capital, but it also
expands consumption without which production would be useless —
consumtion of its inability to procure a jouissance which could it slow
” However, in Marx’s discourse we find a residue of “humanist
entification” in the form of the historic mission of the proletarian10
The proletarian is deprived of everything, but something
which supports “what is produced under the guise of surplus value”.
Thus, it must be said that, although Marx’s denunciation did not stop
machine — and might have even helped it run better — we have
forced to have recourse to something “older which may be found at
very beginning of all discourse, since it is the discourse of
This is what the plus-de-jouir is, beyond surplus value. This is the
discovery of what Freud called the “sexual component” and which, for
Lacan, is the sexual relationship in as much as it does not exist. What
opposes the sexual relationship is a result of
For Lacan, there is only one social symptom — that is, a return
the Real in today’s social context. “Each individual is really a
meaning that the individual has no discourse with which he can
8J. Lacan, “La Troisième”, Lettres de l’Ecole freudienne, n° 16, Paris, Nov. 1975,
p. 186. 9J. Lacan, “Radiophonie”, Scilicet, n° 2/3, Paris, Seuil, 1970, p. 87. 10J.
Lacan, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant. Le Séminaire, Livre XVIII, a
session held on June 16, 1971, unpublished.
a social link — in other words, a semblance.11” The use of the word
“individual”, which in its literal sense means “that which is not
shows unequivocally that Lacan is not talking of the subject in the
of the “subject of the unconscious”. Each individual, each ego, or moi,
a unit of the crowd, each element of the social body is really a
— “really” in this context refers to the Real. In Roman society,
“proletarian” designated those people considered useful only in
respect to
the number of children they engendered (cf. Saint Augustin). The
proletarian was someone who sired or gave birth to children.
who experiences jouissance, someone not separated from jouissance
deprived of knowledge. The other of the Master, an individual without
unconscious. The proletarian, Lacan argues, is a part of that which
we all
are — we are all so many objets a, “so many miscarriages”, as he
put it. The social symptom refers to a certain dimension of the
in the individual sense, since jouissance of the symptom isolates the
subject. Isn’t this what Freud meant when he insisted on the
nature of the neurotic? Psychoanalysis as such is not a social
since it is the link that replaces the missing sexual relationship. As
said, “It is not enough to make of psychoanalysis a social symptom,
the sexual relationship is missing in all forms of society.
Psychanalysis is
linked to the truth which structures all discourse. This is why there is
no veritable society founded on analytic discourse.12” For Freud, the
possible society is one founded on the paternal function. What,
is the possible structural link between the group and the
In his last seminars, Lacan was forced to return to the question
the father. This was not what he wanted to do. His ambition had
been to try to go beyond the limits set by Freud. However, to keep the
structure from collapsing, the Name-of-the-Father is needed, although
11J. Lacan, “La Troisième”, op. cit., p.
paternal function quickly becomes dual — the Name-of-the-Father on
symbolic level and the father-of-the-name — that is, the father who
names, who accomplishes the act of naming, with the implied
Here, Lacan uses the example of Joyce’s life and work to show how
something, which he calls the “sinthome”, can take the place of the
Name-of-the-Father13. Joyce, by constructing a piece of the Real in
writing — especially in Finnegans Wake with its imaginary inflation —
used his megalomania to turn his ego into a “sinthome” and was
able to keep the structure together. The symptom, therefore, can take
place of the Name-of-the-Father and, paradoxically, the father himself
can be considered as a symptom, the neurotic’s
The father cannot be completely reduced to a symbolic function.
The real father — the agent of castration — and, thus, the relay of the
symbolic father (it is the real father who enables the symbolic father
function) is not only the father in reality, meaning the castrated father.
is also a figure of the real father who experiences jouissance because
it is
he who finds gratification with the mother who, for a time, is the
par excellence for the subject. The neurotic’s Real is that the father
speaks, and names. This, of course, is a kind of imposture and
why Lacan says that no one is ever analyzed as a father. The
father is not the father of the patriarchy — an imaginary figure and
who would actually clog up the system more than anything. On the
contrary, he is the point where castration can be located. Lacan
of castration as numeral, as in the numeration of royal dynasties.
Father is never anything but referential. We interpret such and such a
relation with the father (…) The Father is a term of analytical
12Id. ibid. 13J. Lacan, Le sinthome, Le Séminaire, Livre XXIII, unpublished. This
reassessment of the paternal function is important, since it will open up the prospects
for the treatment of psychoses. Lacan’s initial study of psychoses led to the elaboration
of the concept of the-Name-of-the-Father.
interpretation. Things are referred back to him.” This is because it is
the father who speaks, but language. It is not the father as such who
pronounces the incest prohibition, the prohibition is deposited in
language, because language separates and distinguishes. The
makes this point speak, the point of the Real — the Name-of-theFather.
However, since the psychotic has no such point, nothing directs
for him, and there is no fixed boundary. This is why, with psychosis,
analysis is used to construct a piece of reality that stops the
ceaseless interpretation. However, we should remember that, in
we also find a new way of dealing with the symptom. The final aim of
analysis is to allow the subject to reach some part of the Real and not
remain “the Father’s dupe”, as Lacan expressed it, and thus learn to
without the Father, while at the same time using
However, if the father is a symptom as such, does this not mean
that, ultimately, Lacan reversed his position in respect to Freud? For
Freud, the neurotic’s jouissance, his symptom, makes him asocial; for
Lacan, it is the symptom itself which is needed for there to be a social
component, since jouissance must circulate in it. The mode, the way
which jouissance circulates is the symptom, which is necessary for
inscription of the subject in discourse and thus in the social
Translated from the French by John