[This brief essay was originally published in “Psycho-analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa” volume 19(2) 2011, 121-133.]

As many people now know, Professor Ignacio Martín-Baró was a radical psychologist, prolific scholar and Jesuit priest, who was killed by the Salvadoran army in 1989, a few days after his 47th birthday. It is reported that a squad of an elite counter-insurgency unit, the ‘Atlacatl

Battalion’ which had been trained by the United States Army, entered the Professor’s home on the campus of Universidad Centroamericano in the middle of the night. Martín-Baró was working on a manuscript while five other resident members of faculty, as well as their housekeeper and her daughter, all slept. The squad executed them all. Previously, there had been about six politically motivated attempts on Martín-Baró’s life – a barbaric response to his scholarship and to his humanitarianism in taking the political stand that the mandate of liberation theology calls a ‘preferential option for the poor’ (Anon, 1992; Aron and Corne, 1994; Hassett and Lacey, 1991). This is just one chapter in the period of El Salvadoran history from 1980 to 1991, during which, according to the Report of the U.N. Truth Commission onEl Salvador, nearly a hundred thousand dissenters disappeared or were known to have been murdered, and millions were forced to leave the country because of the conflict (IACHR, 1988; U.N., 1993). Martín-Baró received his PhD in Social and Organizational Psychology

from the University of Chicago. Although his commitment to psychoanalysis as a clinical practice may have been slight, it is evident that he had read Freud’s work with interest, produced powerful writings

on the social and historical context of mental health and developed a mandate for ‘liberation psychology’ (Watkins and Shulman, 2008). My Spanish is weak and I am no expert on Martín-Baró’s prodigious output (eleven books and over a hundred articles), but I know well those twelve essays that are the most readily available in translation (Martín-Baró, 1974-1989; 1988). As I will suggest, these are inspiring precisely because they challenge us to reconsider the sociocultural and political impact of intellectual work, the specific question of mental health or ‘normal abnormality’ in the context of oppression, and the potential of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as modalities that can either perpetuate the ideologies of injustice or constitute a liberatory praxis. I write this tribute for these reasons, outlining some of Martín-Baró’s ideas and then offering some personal reflections on the sociopolitical positioning and the cultural implications of psychoanalytic labour.

Central to Martín-Baró’s visionary commitments is not only Aristotle’s insight that the political is personal and the personal is inherently politicized, but also that psychology has a potentially crucial role either in endorsing oppression or in empowering the processes of liberation. Much of his writing serves both as a critique of the mechanisms by which this discipline becomes an ideological conveyance that sustains the status quo, and concomitantly as a mission to redesign the venture in terms that might be characterized either as free of such biases or as implementing what he calls a ‘preferential option’ for those who are marginalized and oppressed by the dominant order. He argues that psychology – as developed in the past 150 years in an almost entirely European and North American environment – generates a fictionalized image of what it means to be human. The fiction is that of a decontextualized  or ahistorical individual, and it functions as an ideological mechanism by which oppression is perpetuated. Martín-Baró’s writings demonstrate how the production of this falsifying image, which leads people to misinterpret their situation in the world, depends on three ideological components that have characterized the social sciences throughout the 20th century.

1) Scientistic mimicry is the error by which psychology typically studies, analyzes and interprets the motives, behaviours and personalities of people as if from a position of external neutrality (and, of course, we might immediately ask ourselves how true this is of our versions of clinical practice). He successfully shows how such specious ‘neutrality’ invariably reverts to an endorsement of the status quo and how, from such a position, the voices of the marginalized and oppressed are rarely listened to, and instead are routinely objectified and often pathologized.

2) The next falsifying component is a collection of five features that Martín-Baró dubs ‘inadequate epistemology’, although, by the logic of his own arguments, ‘inadequate’ is too mildly pejorative. Positivism treats reality as if it is merely a ‘given,’ even where it is indubitably a social construction (e.g. economic and political structures). Individualism reduces social problems to matters of personal characteristics, competing interests and aspirations. Hedonism depicts humans as ultimately motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure, whereas Martín-Baró is deeply impressed by the self-sacrificial and altruistic aspects of our behaviour. Homeostatic vision is – in my view – an aspect of the preceding features and refers to what Martín-Baró sees as the social sciences’ inherent distrust of change. Then there is ahistoricism, which Martín-Baró considers the most seriously flawed assumption

of the prevailing psychology. Depicting human nature in terms of its allegedly universal qualities, it leads to a belief that, as he illustrates it, ‘there are no fundamental differences between, say, a student at

MIT and a Nicaraguan campesino, between John Smith from Peoria, Illinois, and Leonor Gonzales from Cuisnahuat, El Salvador’ (Martín-Baró, 1974-1989, p. 23). Thus, the discipline lauds as universally applicable the drivel of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy or the hegemony of the Stanford-Binet concept of intelligence.

3) Martín-Baró calls the final component of social scientific ideology ‘provincial dogmatism’. This refers to the way in which the discipline of psychology has a history of preoccupation with fatuous

debates of little relevance to the actual lives that are touched – beneficially or not – by its labours. Among other issues, I found myself reminded of the somewhat absurd discussions over the scientificity of psychoanalysis, which occupied so much of the literature in the mid and late twentieth century, and which thus distracted so many of us from the more salient question: what sort of a science, and what sort of healing, is involved in psychoanalysis?

In considering the possible redesign of the discipline – his prescriptions for a ‘liberation psychology’ – Martin-Baró is most provocative and original. He vividly articulates what we, as clinicians, should surely know: in addition to nutrition, safe and sanitary shelter, healthcare and meaningful work, every human needs vision, dignity, the opportunity to know compassion and to learn to love. In relation to this, Martín-Baró specifies three urgent tasks for psychology in El Salvador.

1) A principal task is to help with the recovery of historical meaning or memory, for he clearly understands how the personal or private internalization of the public structures of oppression results in a legacy of shame and guilt that attenuates the possibilities of liberation. He writes, ‘the predominantly negative image that the average Latin American has of himself or herself when compared with other people indicates the internalization of oppression, its incorporation into the spirit itself – fertile soil for conformist fatalism, and so very convenient for the established order’ (19741989, p. 30).

2) Another urgent task for psychology is the ‘de-ideologizing’ of consciousness. Here Martín-Baró leans on the ideas of Paulo Freire (e.g. 1971) on concientización as the development of ‘critical

consciousness.’ His discussion of the way in which commonsense is inevitably infiltrated with ideology to the extent that we can neither trust nor learn from our own experience is powerfully thought-provoking (even though presented in a manner very different from the way in which similar ideas have been advanced by more psychoanalytically-oriented commentators). As a social psychologist by training, Martín-Baró was understandably focused on the way in which mass media are manipulated both to keep the Latin American population unaware of its own oppression, and to convey the cultural aspirations of the dominant culture (e.g., Hollywood sitcoms being rerun in remote El Salvadoran villages). This manipulation serves to deflect the potentials of critical consciousness in relation to the here-and-now of poverty, exploitation and oppression. In this context, Martín-Baró also refocuses the problems inherent in the clinical criteria of disorder, mental health and ‘abnormality.’ He persuasively argues how readily such concepts are accommodated to endorse the prevailing reality and the dominant order; indirectly, he asks us to explain how we define the individual’s ‘abnormal psychology’ in an

environment that is structurally dehumanizing, exploitive and violent.

3) The final urgent task for psychology, Martín-Baró sees as ‘utilizing the virtues of the people.’ Here too, his training as a social psychologist comes to the fore as he demonstrates how research using conventional survey instruments and opinion polls can be used to raise critical consciousness and then turned against the dominant order. It is this aspect of his labours that perhaps most immediately brought him to his untimely death at the hands of a tyrannically cruel regime. At times, Martín-Baró seems to go into a near reverie as he writes rhapsodically about ‘the people.’ To me, this is reminiscent of the discourse of some overly optimistic Marxists who, prior to the writings of Antonio Gramsci

(1926-1934) and others, were inclined to believe that miraculous social changes would occur as soon as power is reclaimed by ‘the masses.’ It is in relation to this dimension of Martín-Baró’s writing that I find myself painfully aware that I am inescapably a son of the ‘first world,’ whose vision and wisdom is thus distorted, perhaps myopically and perhaps pessimistically. In short, there is much in

his writings that prompts me to an acute awareness of my own limitations – which is surely the proper  definition of writing that is inspiring.

So what of psychoanalytic psychology? Does psychoanalytic theory and practice not also need to be redesigned, just as much as MartínBaró demands the redesign of the entire discipline of psychology? I came away from this study of his writings with three areas of concern in relation to our field of specialization: the issue of scientistic mimicry and faulty epistemology; questions about the aims of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis; and the potential of psychoanalytic praxis as a critique of ideology. I will briefly discuss each of these in turn.

There is no doubt in my mind that psychoanalysis is a science but not, in Thomas Kuhn’s terms, an ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal science’ (Kuhn, 1962). Rather, it is an enigmatic and extraordinary science (Barratt, 1984; 1993; 2012). Yet it is evident that its progress (and the possibility of its liberatory praxis) has been arrested by its scientistic mimicry, its efforts to be the sort of science that it is not. Freud himself stumbled around this issue. For example, in a 1933 passage that has a discernibly neo-Kantian flavor, he declared that there are ‘two sciences, psychology and natural science,’ (p. 194) but then, five years later, he announced that psychoanalysis is ‘a natural science like any other’ (1938, p. 80). Specifically in the context of clinical practice, when we talk as if our labours with patients are ‘value free’ or ‘objective,’ our claim to be scientific is a masquerade (as I have extensively argued elsewhere). Such scientistic mimicry is always tied, overtly or covertly, to the values of the dominant sociocultural order, and thus colludes with the ideological systems of alienation and oppression. Against this, psychoanalysis has the inherent value of freeing the patient from the suffering caused by repetition-compulsivity, which is what Enrique Dussell (1977) and others would call a ‘praxis of liberation’.

One of the most conspicuous examples of scientistic mimicry in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy is the excessive influence of developmental models. Many of these models are quasi-biological, being presented as an objectively verifiable series of psychological phases or behavioural stages that are – allegedly – universally applicable and that constitute a linear sequence along which the individual may variously progress, regress or become fixated. There are at least five problems hidden within the assumptions involved in such models. First, such models entirely ignore Freud’s discovery of what André Green (2002) called the ‘shattered time’ (temps éclaté) of the mind, the pluritemporality of our psychic realities that Freud tried to describe by announcing that the unconscious is ‘timeless’ (zeitlos) and by his complex notion of Nachträglichkeit, wherein the determinative

or even traumatic significance of an event can be caused by something that occurs subsequently (Barratt, 2012). If we lose the discovery that the ‘time of the mind’ weaves forward and backwards in non-unitary and nonlinear twists and turns, then we actually erase the distinctiveness of psychoanalytic inquiry.

Second, this sort of developmentalism renders a depiction of ontogeny in which every

phenomenon must be explained by earlier phenomena (thus reverting to mother-infant bonding, to birth trauma or even to in utero occurrences); this effectively denies Freud’s discovery of the Oedipus Complex as an epistemological rupturing that reorganizes all that has preceded it.

Third, at the same time, such developmental thinking implicitly installs a pseudoscientific teleology, in which each phase comes to be defined as a deficient or ‘immature’ version of the next and thus can only be understood by a preconceived developmental endpoint, rather than in terms of its own meaningfulness and interior dynamics.

Thus, fourth,  this type of thinking exemplifies many of the issues raised by Martín-Baró’s general critique in that it is a depiction of the human condition that is positivist, decontextualized and ahistorical, laying a spurious claim to universality on the basis of its quasi-biological appearance.

Fifth, developmentalist models endorse the status quo by providing an objectifying account of the individual’s life journey in which the endpoint of ‘adaptation’ is conformity to realities that are

taken as ‘given,’ and in which ‘maturation’ is similarly pre-decided in terms of accommodation to prevailing sociocultural arrangements. This effectively erases the liberatory potential of clinical discourse in its capacity to listen creatively to the existential particularities of that which appears ‘maladapted’ or ‘immature.’

What then are the aims of the clinical discourses that we know as psychotherapy and psychoanalysis? By ‘clinical,’ I am now referring only to modalities of conversation with an individual client or patient (as contrasted with the labours of community psychology). Elsewhere I have argued that a distinction must be made between clinical practices that overtly or covertly articulate goals of adaptation and maturation toward which they intend to direct the individual’s functioning, versus

what I take to be the unique character of the psychoanalytic method in freeing the individual’s functioning from the grip of repetition-compulsivity. In actuality, each particular treatment may be a

mixed case, but nevertheless this distinction is polemically heuristic, for it compels us to examine the hidden assumptions behind whatever we consider to be a successful treatment – assumptions about healing and health.

Some would slide past such an examination by claiming that the aim of treatment is the individual’s ‘happiness,’ but this is hardly a decontexualized characteristic. Alternatively, some would invoke Freud’s formula that the aim of clinical practice should be to enable the individual to love and to work (sadly, as we all know, he omitted ‘play’ from what should have been a triad). However, as clinicians we know that a multitude of attachments pass under the rubric of ‘love,’ including those that are quite inflected with sadism and hostility. And the capacity to work might imply either the individual’s

accommodation to the drudgery of alienated labour, or alternatively it might be defined – as MartínBaró defines it – as our power to transform the realities in which we live. Against these approaches, can we not articulate the aims of clinical practice in terms of the individual’s freedom? But then, as we shall see, we have to address the embedding of the individual in relation to the collective constraints on freedom.

This brings us to the potential of psychoanalysis as ideology critique. Perhaps Martín-Baró’s central challenge to us as psychoanalytic practitioners is to understand the problems incurred whenever suffering is analyzed solely on the level of the individual psyche, without being also understood as a pervasively collective experience. In this respect, his challenge returns us to Freud’s admonition in 1921 that individual psychology must also be understood as social psychology. Consciousness is a psychosocial reality, a privatized production of a collective history. If psychoanalysis attends to consciousness (its functioning as suppressive and repressive along the ‘horizontal axis,’ or

as splitting and projective along the ‘vertical axis’), then surely what should emerge from its praxis is not just the individual’s comprehension of self as if autochthonous and unique, but a critical comprehension of the collective forces that have produced his or her private interiority?

Clinical practice typically devolves toward ideological assumptions when it equates social adaptation and an ideal of maturity with healing and health. Having practiced psychoanalysis in the United States for over three decades, I have had to face the fact that, as often as not, I was helping people enjoy a ‘normal’ life in a world which is far from normal and, indeed, in a world where the ‘normality’ of North American life is obliviously dependent on its global domination, economically and

culturally. I frequently observed among my fellow practitioners implicit and explicit assumptions as to what should eventuate from a successful treatment. For example, it is ‘normal’ to commit to a single ‘love relationship’ for the duration of one’s adulthood (despite the fact that research shows such exclusivity is achieved only by a statistical minority, and usually not happily at that). It is ‘normal’ to hurt one’s body and to treat it as if it were a machine – merely a market commodity. It is ‘normal’ to hate one’s job, ‘normal’ to want to feel superior to one’s neighbour, ‘normal’ to aspire to great wealth (and to pay one’s employees as little as possible), ‘normal’ to believe that the United States can indeed genuinely claim to be ‘the land of the free,’ and so forth.

What goes unexamined in such assumptions is the hard fact that so much of the lifestyle accomplished by the middle and upper classes in the United States is the result of a systematic exploitation of the proletariat and the peasantry of the tricontinental world (the ‘third-world’), as well as domination over minorities within its own borders. In the pursuit of ‘happiness’ that passes for wellbeing, forgotten are the genocides on which the country was founded, and overlooked are the genocides in multiple foreign lands by means of which the economic, cultural and political ‘successes’ of the USA have subsequently been attained. I became acutely conscious of all this, even while struggling to avoid lapsing into some of the ideological assumptions that pervade our clinical practices.

But this is not the place for an apologia pro vita meae, but rather for a confrontation with the radical challenges that Martín-Baró offers us. The articulation – the voicing – of suffering, whether individual or collective, opens us to what is other and otherwise in a manner that is authentically liberatory. Psychoanalysis continues to provide us with one of the most powerful ways of understanding some of the critical issues that face humanity. Its method offers us the possibility of a journey of ideology-critique that Martín-Baró calls the ‘de-ideologizing’ of consciousness. To realize this potential, it is imperative that, as practitioners, we hold in mind that the individual and the society that is inhabited by the individual are not in and of themselves real. Rather, they are mutually co-created. Perhaps, in recognition of this truth, we need to ask ourselves daily whether our clinical discipline enables us to engage in an authentic rethinking of the priorities by which we conduct our lives or whether it accommodates us to the default thinking of the status quo. Ignacio Martín-Baró’s life and

death prompt me to re-engage in a struggle with this question, as his ideas challenge practitioners of psychoanalysis to ask what this praxis portends in a complexly challenging economic, political and

sociocultural environment. In a paper written five years before his assassination, he quotes Salvatore Maddi as saying that the authentic power of any method of psychological healing depends ‘on the dosage of its break with the dominant culture’ (Martín-Baró, 1974-1989, p. 120) – these are surely both inspiring and profoundly challenging words for those of us who practice psychoanalysis and its derivative psychoanalytic psychotherapies.


Anon. (1992). Biografía Ignacio Martín-Baró. San Salvado: Universidad Centroamericano, José


Aron, A. and Corne, S. (1994). Introduction. In A. Aron and S. Corne (Ed.). Writings for a Liberation

Psychology, pp. 1-11. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barratt, B. B. (1984). Psychic Reality and Psychoanalytic Knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Barratt, B.B. (1993). Psychoanalysis and the Postmodern Impulse:Knowing and Being since Freud’s

Psychology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Barratt, B.B. (2012). What is Psychoanalysis? 100 Years after Freud’s ‘Secret Committee.’ London:


Dussell, E. (1977). Philosophy of Liberation. Trans. A. Martinez and C. Morkovsky. Pasadena: Wipf and

Stock, 2003.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. M. B. Ramos. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. In J. Strachey (Ed.). The Standard Edition

of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII, pp. 65-144. London: The

Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed.). The Standard Edition

of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII, pp. 1-182. London: The

Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1938). An outline of psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed.). The Standard Edition of the Complete

Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII, pp. 139-208. London: The Hogarth Press.

Gramsci, A. (1926-1934). Prison Notebooks. Trans. J. A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press,


Green, A. (2002). Time in Psychoanalysis: Some Contradictory Aspects. Trans. A. Weller. London: Free

Association Books.

Hassett, J. and Lacey, H. (1991). Towards a Society that Serves its People: The Intellectual Contributions

of El Salvador’s Murdered Jesuits. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

IACHR (1988). Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission onHuman Rights 1987-1988: El Salvador.

 Washington, DC: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd Edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago

Press, 1996.

Martín-Baró, I. (1974-1989). Writings for a Liberation Psychology (Ed. A. Aron and S. Corne). Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Martín-Baró, I. (1988). From dirty war to psychological war: The case of El Salvador. In A. Aron (Ed.).

Flight, Exile, and Return: Mental Health and the Refugee, pp. 2-22. San Francisco, CA: Committee

for Health Rights in Central America.

U.N. (1993). Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador. Washington, DC: United Nations.

Watkins, M. and Shulman, H. (2008). Toward Psychologies of Liberation. New York, NY: Palgrave