The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941-45 
edited by Pearl King and Riccardo Steiner.
Routledge, 958 pp., £100, December 1990, 0 415 03170 2
Show More
Show More

There is a growing consensus among scholars and practitioners of psychoanalysis that the most important developments since Freud’s death have taken place in object relations theory. Both American ego psychology and the French school of Lacan provide alternatives, but these have proven less fecund than the British tradition of object relations, which comes in distinct Kleinian and Independent forms. The Freud-Klein Controversies makes it possible to understand why psychoanalysis in Britain should have achieved this preeminence.

The story in its broad outlines is by now familiar. In 1926 Melanie Klein, bereft of intellectual support in Berlin after the death of Karl Abraham, accepted Ernest Jones’s invitation (mediated by Alix Strachey) and settled in London, where her ideas gained a sympathetic hearing. When in 1927 Anna Freud published a book on child analysis, it was sharply criticised by Klein, whose doubts were shared by other London analysts. These aspersions appeared in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, antagonised Freud and led to a rift between the psychoanalytic societies in Vienna and London. In an effort at reconciliation, Jones and Paul Federn arranged a series of exchange lectures in 1935-36, those from London being given by Jones on ‘Early Female Sexuality’ and Joan Riviere, and those from Vienna by Robert Waelder. In June 1938, the Nazi annexation of Austria forced Freud and his family to flee to London, whither they had been preceded by a number of Berlin analysts. (Most of the Viennese analysts went on to America; only Willi and Hedwig Hoffer settled in London.) Freud died 15 months later, but London became Anna Freud’s permanent home, and she and Melanie Klein were forced into proximity. With the outbreak of the war, many analysts (including Klein and her followers) got out of London, and others were called to emergency medical or military service. Klein continued to elaborate her theories about early childhood, which centred on the depressive position – the sense of guilt experienced by the infant when it begins to recognise the mother as the object of its destructive fantasies – and which were rebuffed by the Viennese group. The British Psycho-Analytical Society became unofficially divided into three camps: those who supported Melanie Klein, those who supported Anna Freud, and those, mainly indigenous British members, who were not aligned with either faction. By the end of 1941, many analysts, including Klein, returned to London, and tensions came to a head. A series of Extraordinary Business Meetings was called early in 1942 to address the situation, and what became known as the Controversial Discussions began.

The battles in the British Society were fought on three distinct but inter-related fronts. In addition to the theoretical issues at stake, there were disputes over matters of administration and training. Since 1913, Jones had been the sole president of the British Society, and Edward Glover, an abrasive and unpopular man, loomed as his heir. If the main plot of this epic personal and intellectual struggle is the collision between Klein and Anna Freud, its leading subplot is the downfall of Glover. This was the outcome of a bitter secondary clash between, on the one hand, Klein and, on the other, both Glover and Melitta Schmideberg, Klein’s daughter, who had been Glover’s analysand and with him became Klein’s most implacable opponent.

Although Jones has been justly taken to task for his biased portrayals of Ferenczi and Rank in his Freud biography (he described both of them, unfairly, as mentally ill), he could be critical of Freud. In particular, he showed great independence by supporting Klein (as well as W.R.D. Fairbairn) and by taking the lead in the exchange lectures. He also made life difficult for Klein, however, by bringing Anna Freud to London and by making Glover his deputy. Jones’s attempts to placate both powerful women, each of whom had reason to feel injured by him, may be construed as either diplomacy or doubletalk. On 21 January 1942 he wrote to Klein that Anna Freud was ‘a tough and indigestible morsel’ who ‘has no pioneering originality’; on the same day he wrote to Freud that Klein ‘has neither a scientific nor an orderly mind’ and ‘is also in many ways neurotic’. Jones’s politic equivocations reflect the divided loyalties felt by all members of the Independent group.

Klein could tolerate Jones’s invitation to Anna Freud and the other Viennese to come to London, but found it much more difficult to reconcile herself to his view that Glover was his only conceivable successor. One candidate, John Rickman, Jones ruled out because he lacked sufficient force to be an effective administrator. Quoting a letter from Jones to Klein, dated 6 April 1941, in which Jones terms Glover ‘the only medical analyst who can appear before a non-analytic audience without arousing sharp criticism or even ridicule’, Riccardo Steiner wonders why Jones did not float the name of Sylvia Payne, a medical doctor and distinguished member of the Middle Group, as a possible alternative. Steiner’s transcription, however, contains an important error, for, as the original in the Klein Archives in the Wellcome Institute shows, Jones actually wrote ‘male medical analyst’. Thus, despite his challenge to Freud’s phallocentric views of female sexuality, Jones could not conceive of authority in the British Society passing to a woman, a blindness that becomes especially ironic given that Payne in fact succeeded him as president in 1944.

Like Freud, Klein had the quality of inspiring people to abandon or subordinate their own careers in order to follow her. She gathered an array of gifted associates, many of them women, which included the acerbic Joan Riviere and Paula Heimann, a formidable analyst from Berlin who became a surrogate daughter to Klein but later broke away and became an Independent. None, however, acquitted herself with greater distinction than Susan Isaacs, an educational psychologist and former principal of the Malting School in Cambridge. Isaacs not only wrote the first, and pivotal, Kleinian position paper, ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’, but showed throughout an exemplary absence of dogmatism and openness to criticism that gave her much in common with the Independents.

The Independents, too, had several women among their foremost representatives. In addition to Sylvia Payne, whose wisdom and leadership made her what in an unpublished letter to Klein she disavowed being – the Karl Abraham of the British Society – there were Ella Sharpe and Marjorie Brierley. Sharpe stands out for her evocative clinical writing and her ‘Memorandum on Technique’, which eloquently highlights the importance of pace and process in analytic treatment and the inevitable limitations imposed by the analyst’s own ‘resistances and complexes’. Brierley, a razor-sharp theoretical mind, also defines therapy as ‘a continuous process of learning from the patient’ – a line of thought which has in recent years been extended by Patrick Casement.

The supporters of Anna Freud, men and women alike, were less impressive. The most vitriolic diatribes come from Melitta Schmideberg and her husband Walter. Melitta, in particular, repeatedly exacerbates tensions by comparing her Kleinian opponents to the Nazis. Dismayed, Payne hears in these quarrels ‘a tiny reverberation of the massive conflict which pervades the world’ and Brierley aims ‘not merely at an armed truce, but at a real lowering of tensions’. Similarly, the warnings of Isaacs and Sharpe, among others, about the threats posed to the Society by uncurbed transference emotions contrast with Glover’s fulminations that ‘present partisans should retire from training’, without recognising that this admonition could equally apply to him.

Although some of Anna Freud’s supporters, such as Barbara Low, also advocated democratic reforms, the Kleinians and Independents were united on the need to introduce the mandatory rotation of officers. Particularly outspoken on this matter were Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother, and his wife Karin, both of whom protested against the concentration of economic as well as transferential power in the hands of Jones and Glover. (As the best-known public representatives of psychoanalysis, they could control referrals of patients, especially to lay analysts.) The negotiations were complicated by the fact that matters of training were under the jurisdiction not of the British Psycho-Analytical Society, but of the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, a smaller body consisting only of senior members, and Jones initially attempted to stymie reforms by preventing the Society from discussing Institute business.

As the Kleinians and Independents were political democrats, so, too, were they intellectual freethinkers. The lines of battle were drawn from the start of the controversies when Klein’s opponents introduced resolutions affirming that the purpose of the Society was ‘to further Freudian psychoanalysis’, while her supporters countered that its purpose was ‘to disseminate psychoanalytical knowledge’. In a letter to Low on 22 May 1942, Brierley explains that she prefers the term ‘psychoanalytic’ to ‘Freudian’ because ‘psychoanalysis is not a creed but a science, and the work of Freud is not a final revelation of absolute truth but a system of hypotheses.’ Despite their revisionist tendencies, however, the Kleinians sought to present their ideas as the logical extension of Freud’s work, and to this end Klein – an organisational as well as a stylistic genius – circulated a letter on 27 June 1942 to her followers in which she said that they should all, herself included, ‘refresh our memory on every word Freud has ever written’. Both James Strachey, an Independent, and Isaacs asked what the reaction would have been if Freud’s speculative later works had been written by someone else. Outclassed by their opponents’ scholarship and handicapped by the approbation they themselves had earlier bestowed on Klein, Glover and his allies made a number of demonstrably false charges – on Klein’s failure to cite authors whose teachings anticipated her own, on the number of Kleinian training analysts – and were forced to beat an equal number of ill-tempered retreats.

Contending that ‘the onus of proof lies on those who advance new theories,’ Glover insisted that it was up to the Kleinians to show that their views could be reconciled with ‘accepted Freudian teaching’. In so doing he handed the initiative to his adversaries, who proceeded to set the terms of the discussion. The crucial question to be decided was formulated at the outset by Brierley: ‘Is a theory of mental development expressed mainly in terms of the vicissitudes of infantile object-relationship compatible or incompatible, in principle or in detail, with theory in terms of instinct vicissitude?’ In posing this question, Brierley presciently charts the course not merely of the Controversial Discussions but of the ensuing fifty years of psychoanalytic history.

According to Anna Freud, an ‘outstanding difference’ between her views and Klein’s is that ‘for Mrs Klein object relationship begins with, or soon after, birth, whereas I consider that there is a narcissistic or auto-erotic phase of several months’ duration.’ On this fundamental point, recent infant research, such as Daniel Stern’s, has conclusively vindicated Klein. Accepting her father’s subordination of objects to drives, Anna Freud mistakenly holds that for infants ‘the person of the object remains interchangeable so long as the gratification remains the same’. Klein, conversely, emphasises that the child’s emotional life ‘is from the beginning constantly influenced by the impact of external reality’. This attention to environmental factors contrasts with the priority ordinarily given to innate drives in Kleinian theory. (More characteristically, in these discussions she and her followers also champion the death instinct, a fallacy complementary to that of primary narcissism.) Isaacs’s attempt to broaden the concept of fantasy to cover all of psychic reality, moreover, was greeted with widespread scepticism, as evinced by Brierley’s query whether Isaacs did not thereby risk ‘obscuring the genetic relationship of reality thinking to these same primitive experiences’.

The Controversial Discussions reached a crisis in late 1943 when James Strachey submitted a preliminary report of the Training Committee recommending that ‘those principally concerned on both sides of the controversy’ not be permitted to act as training analysts. In so doing, he simultaneously offended Klein, on the one hand, and Anna Freud and Glover, on the other. Strachey’s proposal, a quintessential gesture of disenchantment by a member of the Middle Group, grows out of the state of mind expressed in a letter to Glover on 23 April 1940.

I’m very strongly in favour of compromise at all costs. The trouble seems to me to be with extremism, on both sides. My own view is that Mrs K. has made some highly important contributions to PA, but that it’s absurd to make out a. that they cover the whole subject or b. that their validity is axiomatic. On the other hand, I think it’s ludicrous for Miss F. to maintain that PA is a Game Reserve belonging to the F. family and that Mrs K’s ideas are totally subversive ...

    In fact I feel like Mercutio about it. Why should those wretched fascists and (bloody foreigners) communists invade our peaceful compromising island?

Strachey’s position is not one of benevolent neutrality, but rather advances his own personal and group interests. His active hostility toward both factions of ‘bloody foreigners’ parallels Jones’s more feline efforts to appease the contending forces.

Although Strachey sought to pronounce a plague on both houses, they did not respond to it in like fashion. Whereas Strachey’s draft report prompted Glover’s resignation from the British Psycho-Analytical Society, a step he had been contemplating for some time, and Anna Freud’s resignation from the Training Committee, it led Klein to write a hard-hitting rebuttal, in which she responded not only to Strachey but also to Brierley’s suggestion that she might have become an over-idealised object for her followers. Unfortunately, this crucial 17-page document is missing from The Freud-Klein Controversies, and in a footnote Pearl King explains that no copy was attached to the minutes of the meeting of 9 February 1944 at which it had been presented. It can, however, be found in the Klein Archives, and I would urge the editors to rectify their oversight by publishing it in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.

Although Low considered his resignation ‘absolutely fatal’ to the British Society, and Melitta Schmideberg and Kate Friedlander took his part, Glover had aroused additional enmity by his intemperate attacks in the public press on Army psychiatrists. Motions of censure were proposed by William Gillespie and John Bowlby, both still younger members, but in the event, they were withdrawn, as Glover tenaciously defended his conduct and had already fallen from power. After retiring from British psychoanalysis, he joined the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society. Anna Freud and her followers did not take part in the Controversial Discussions after her resignation from the Training Committee, but she retained her membership of the Society and after the war co-operated with Payne’s compromise plan to set up two parallel courses of training, one for candidates of her group and another for the rest. Although these arrangements have evolved over the years, the Society remains divided into three contingents – Kleinians, Independents and Contemporary Freudians – and candidates define their psychoanalytic identities through their choice of a training analyst.

As so often, those who subsequently became leading actors appear here in supporting roles. D.W. Winnicott, now recognised as the dominant Independent psychoanalyst of the post-war period and a trenchant critic of Klein, figures as a respected but peripheral Kleinian loyalist, though in the discussion of Klein’s paper ‘The Emotional Life and Ego-Development of the Infant’ he makes his now-famous remark, invoking Merrell Middlemore’s The Nursing Couple, that ‘there was only a baby-mother relationship’. (The animus felt by some contemporary Kleinians towards Winnicott can be explained by the fact that they regard him as a defector from their ranks.) Similarly, Bowlby, whose studies of attachment behaviour have radically challenged and extended psychoanalytic theory, is here an Army psychiatrist principally concerned with the future of psychoanalysis after the war and an implacable foe of Glover. Bowlby had started off as a Kleinian, but the future direction of his work was signalled by his 1939 membership paper, ‘The Environmental Factor in the Development of Neurosis and Neurotic Children’, which, as Melitta Schmideberg recalls in the business meeting of 13 May 1942, was received with disfavour by members of his own party, including Winnicott.

The outcome of the Controversial Discussions was a victory for Melanie Klein, but even more for British psychoanalysis, which by avoiding a split has reaped the benefits of continuous intellectual cross-fertilisation. All such victories come at a price, however; and the unfortunate side-effects here are that there remains only one psychoanalytic institute in all of Great Britain, in contrast to the multiple training avenues available in France, Germany and the United States, and that the British Society suffers from a residual insularity and reluctance to forge alliances with the universities and other bodies in order to build a wider psychoanalytic culture.

As Steiner points out, the self-scrutiny to which Klein incited her colleagues, some of whom were mourning the double loss of Freud and their native country, ‘involved not only neurotic but also psychotic anxieties’, and it is no diminution of the achievement of the British Society to say that, like an analysand in deep regression, it passed through a collective experience of madness during these war years. Steiner and King, both distinguished analysts as well as historians of psychoanalysis, have performed an invaluable service by bringing these documents before the public, and their significance will not easily be exhausted by the readers who are sure to pore over them. The Freud-Klein Controversies is marred only by too many careless misprints and an unsatisfactory index, as well as by an unconscionably high price.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 13 No. 24 · 19 December 1991

In his review of The Freud-Klein Controversies, edited by Pearl King and myself, Professor Rudnytsky (LRB, 7 November) has rightly pointed out an omission in a quotation I used from one of Ernest Jones’s letters to Melanie Klein. Whereas I quoted Jones as saying that he considered Glover to be ‘the only medical analyst who can appear before a non-analytical audience without raising sharp criticisms’, Jones actually wrote ‘the only male medical analyst’. While I am grateful to Professor Rudnytsky for pointing out this omission, it leads him to suppose that it confused me, because, according to him, I wonder why Jones did not float the name of Sylvia Payne for the office of President of the British Psychoanalytic Society. She was, after all, medically qualified as well as being a distinguished psychoanalyst. Professor Rudnytsky feels that my omission of ‘male’, which he calls an ‘important error’, led me to assume that Jones could not conceive of authority in the British Psychoanalytic Society passing to a woman.

It seems to me that Professor Rudnytsky has not understood my text, however. It is not I who wonder why Jones did not float the name of Sylvia Payne, but Melanie Klein in her letter to Jones. In fact, I quote Klein on the matter: ‘in your view Glover was your only available successor and this made things more difficult.’ I summarise Klein’s words on Sylvia Payne: words which Professor Rudnytsky attributes to me. Thus though I missed out the word ‘male’, Jones’s views are clearly represented by Melanie Klein’s answer. I also stress in my text that Melanie Klein had to find her own way in a still male-dominated culture.

Yet one cannot reduce everything to Jones’s personality and his lukewarm or contradictory anti-phallocentrism, as Professor Rudnytsky seems to claim. In order to understand Jones’s attitude in defending the choice of Glover as his successor one must bear in mind the difficulties he had in trying to develop psychoanalysis in Britain in the face of a scientist medical establishment dominated by male doctors.

Two other points need to be made. Professor Rudnytsky states that recent infant development research by Daniel Stern has ‘conclusively vindicated’ Melanie Klein’s disagreement with A. Freud’s views concerning an initial narcissistic and auto-erotic phase lasting several months in the psychic life of the baby. This, however, appears to be Professor Rudnytsky’s own understanding of Stern. The latter openly stated his disagreement with Klein in a lecture organised by the British Psychoanalytical Society on 5 December 1990.

Finally, Professor Rudnytsky overlooks the fact that labels such as ‘Middle Group’ or ‘Kleinian Independents’ can only be applied retrospectively to the analysts whom he mentions. Melanie Klein, for example, did not want to be called ‘Kleinian’ at the time of the controversies. It is my conviction that, contrary to what Professor Rudnytsky states, the important developments in object relations and clinical practice which have characterised post-war British psychoanalysis were largely due to the fact that analysts who were deeply committed to different viewpoints were able to stay within the same society and engage in continuing debate. The narcissistic destructive ‘French can-can’ of the various ‘groupuscules’ which today represent Lacan’s psychoanalytic heritage in France is perhaps the saddest example of what splitting and fragmentation can lead to.

Riccardo Steiner
London NW3

Peter Rudnytsky writes: Riccardo Steiner has made an error, but claims that he is not confused. He does not say whether he considers his slip important. I pointed out that Jones could only conceive of a male as his successor. I did not ascribe this blindness to his personality, though it does seem to me to contradict his theoretical views. Doubtless Jones believed that a male president was in the institutional interests of the British Society. Sylvia Payne’s gifted leadership subsequently proved him to have been mistaken. Mr Steiner writes in his introduction: ‘Wouldn’t it at least have been possible to hint at Payne as a possible president?’ He does not indicate that he is paraphrasing Klein.

Concerning Daniel Stern, I did not assert that he agreed with Klein in all respects. As a psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist who gives full weight to environmental factors in infancy, he is far closer to John Bowlby. I merely cited his work as vindicating Klein’s critique of the concept of primary narcissism. I realise that the term ‘Middle Group’ is anachronistic. I stated that the British Society became ‘unofficially divided’ into three camps at this time. I did not use the phrase ‘Kleinian Independents’. Naturally, Klein did not want to be called a ‘Kleinian’; her entire strategy depended on casting herself as the legitimate heir of Freud. This does not mean that there were no Kleinians. I am puzzled that Mr Steiner should think we differ about the success of British psychoanalysis, though I do contend that it has exacted a price. As I wrote in my review, ‘the outcome of the Controversial Discussions was a victory … for British psychoanalysis, which by avoiding a split has reaped the benefits of continuous intellectual cross-fertilisation.’

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences