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Eric Rayner The British
Independents: A Brief History

The British psychoAnalytical Society was founded by Ernest Jones in 1919. There were soon more than fifty members. Although rather autocratic by nature, Jones was a convinced egalitarian in his principles so that the Society soon became thoroughly democratic in spirit. For instance, medicals and non-medicals, and men and women, were equally allowed to join from the start, so the Society soon became remarkably wide-based in skill and knowledge. Publication of The International Journal of psychoanalysis started in 1920 and book publishing began in 1924.

Those that assembled under Jones had brilliance as well as vigour. Well known were: John Rickman, James and Alix Strachey, Edward Glover, Ella Sharpe, Joan Riviere, Susan Isaacs, Sylvia Payne - an early writer on issues of femininity; Marjorie Brierley and J.C. Flugel -distinguished academic psychologists; Karen and Adrian Stephen, who incidentally was Virginia Woolf's brother. Fairbairn, Bowlby and Winnicott came a few years later.

In 1925 Alix Strachey met Melanie Klein in Berlin and recognised her qualities. Klein was invited to London to speak and came for good the following year. About the same time Anna Freud in Vienna published her first book on child analysis. Encouraged by Jones to give her opinion, Melanie Klein trenchantly attacked the book. The Freud's, father's and daughter's, suspicion of Klein probably started from that time. This was only one cause of friction between London and Vienna; more generally, a competitiveness between the analysts in the two cultural centres developed. By the early thirties the atmosphere was so tense that an exchange of views was arranged to inform both sides. Meanwhile Klein herself continued to be liked and respected in the British Society.

However, events in mainland Europe halted hopes of further peaceful debates between analysts. Hitler came to power; Jewish analysts were particularly under threat and Jones fearlessly went to Berlin to start helping people to leave. Anna Freud, equally bravely, helped from Vienna. But in 1938 Hitler marched into Austria and the Freuds themselves were under threat. Again Jones went bravely to Vienna to help them out. The Freuds came to London. Anna and Melanie were now together in the same Society.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 most people in England forgot their differences to fight the common enemy. However even by 1940 the tension between Anna and Melanie was becoming acute. By 1941 the atmosphere in the Society was electric. In 1942, after much debate it was decided to hold a series of formal discussions in the Society to air the differences between the Anna Freudians and the Kleinians. These are now well known in psychoanalytic history as 'The Controversial Discussions'. A clear account of these events is given in the book 'The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941-45' by Pearl King and Riccardo Steiner, (1991; London; Routledge).
It should be noted that neither of the two warring factions consisted of much more than a dozen analysts each. The vast majority of the Society, about sixty members, took neither side. Unfortunately the discussions failed to bring peace between the two factions. However, an important fruit of the debate was that by the late 1940s major changes in the Society's structure were beginning to be shaped. Anna Freud and her colleagues were recognised as a particular group in the Society's training.
The same was accorded to Melanie Klein and her associates, however she still wanted to be part of the main body of the Society; so, formally, only two training groups were formed. The 'A Group' consisted of the original British and the Kleinians while the 'B Group' consisted of the Anna Freudians alone - later called the Contemporary Freudians. The original British members were called non- aligned or the 'Middle group' (the name was changed later to 'The Group of Independents').

By the mid-1950s the three groups had become quite distinct in the Society. Though not actually equal in numbers - the Middle group was by far the largest at that time - it was agreed that all three should equally share representation on administrative committees. These committees are many and complex, but they share the work-load of the Society in an equitable way and have run outstandingly well for fifty years. They have been a model for many psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic societies.

The title 'Independent' was chosen to indicate the philosophical attitude of mind held in common by its members. However it fails to describe its heritage from the original Society. It is now nearly a century old, and the early British pioneers of psychoanalysis gave a particular spirit of intellectual democracy to psychoanalysis in Britain.

The original British members and their descendants in the Independents include many famous psychoanalytic names: As well as those already mentioned, there were: William Gillespie, Marion Milner, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Charles Rycroft, Paula Heimann, and Michael Balint. Some time later were: Enid Balint, Adam Limentani, Jock Sutherland, Margaret Little, Masud Khan, John Klauber and Pearl King. Later still there has been Harold Stewart, Nina Coltart, Neville Symington, Christopher Bollas, Patrick Casement, Gregorio Kohon, Roger Kennedy, Rob Hale and the present writer. There have been many others just as distinguished, those mentioned here are known mostly through their writing.

What characterises the British Independents? There are about 130 paid up members now; some are explicitly close to the Kleinians, others incline to the Contemporary Freudians. But most owe ideas to both sides; and probably all follow approaches from their forbears in the original British Society, not to mention other theorists as well. Remember that there is a long intellectual tradition in Britain - probably five hundred years old - that blends political liberalism with philosophical empiricism which of course has affinity with scientific thinking. The early British analysts had inherited this tradition; and the Independents tend to carry this on. It was probably William Gillespie who first began to work out a definition of the Independent point of view. It went something like this: The Independents have many differences of opinion about theory and technique, but they share a basic attitude in common. This is to evaluate and respect ideas for their use and truth value - no matter from whence they come. Here the positive use and enjoyment of doubt is essential. Ideological certainty is alien to this spirit. It is this attitude which has continually informed the development of the Independent Group to the present day. We are at the present time again 'rethinking our thinking' and will be conveying more about it on this website as ideas emerge.

Eric Rayner


Copyright 2000 British Psychoanalytical Society & Institute of Psychoanalysis.


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