Freud and the Fascists

In 1938 Sigmund Freud was 81 and close to the end of his life. He lived long enough to see Hitler’s troops roll into Vienna, and in some of his final writing he addressed the question of why people flock to dictators like Hitler. You can read about this in “Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge” by Mark Edmundson, in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine.

(Be sure you read Edmundson before tackling “The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal” by Peter Beinart, also in the NYT Sunday magazine. Beinart would have benefited from reading Edmundson also, I suspect.)

I’m going to skip the historical background and also the explanation of Freud’s concepts of Id, Ego, and Superego in the assumption you’re acquainted with ’em (if not, click the link). Let’s plunge directly into the juicy parts:

Freud had no compunction in calling the relationship that crowds forge with an absolute leader an erotic one. (In this he was seconded by Hitler, who suggested that in his speeches he made love to the German masses.) What happens when members of the crowd are “hypnotized” (that is the word Freud uses) by a tyrant? The tyrant takes the place of the over-I [superego], and for a variety of reasons, he stays there. What he offers to individuals is a new, psychological dispensation. Where the individual superego is inconsistent and often inaccessible because it is unconscious, the collective superego, the leader, is clear and absolute in his values. By promulgating one code — one fundamental way of being — he wipes away the differences between different people, with different codes and different values, which are a source of anxiety to the psyche. Now we all love the fatherland, believe in the folk, blame the Jews, have a grand imperial destiny. The tyrant is also, in his way, permissive. Where the original superego has prohibited violence and theft and destruction, the new superego, the leader, allows for it, albeit under prescribed circumstances. Freud’s major insistence as a theorist of group behavior is on the centrality of the leader and the dynamics of his relation to the group. In this he sees himself as pressing beyond the thinking of predecessors like the French writer Gustave Le Bon, who, to Freud’s way of thinking, overemphasized the determining power of the group mind. To Freud, crowds on their own can be dangerous, but they only constitute a long-term brutal threat when a certain sort of figure takes over the superego slot in ways that are both prohibitive and permissive.

Is some of this sounding familiar?

As the Nazis arrived in Vienna, many gentile Viennese, who had apparently been tolerant and cosmopolitan people, turned on their Jewish neighbors. They broke into Jewish apartments and stole what they wanted to. They trashed Jewish shops. They made Jews scrub liberal political slogans off the sidewalk, first with brushes and later with their hands. And they did all of this with a sense of righteous conviction — they were operating in accord with the new cultural superego, epitomized by the former corporal and dispatch runner, Adolf Hitler.

Freud describes the attributes of a Dear Leader:

In his last days, Freud became increasingly concerned about our longing for inner peace — our longing, in particular, to replace our old, inconsistent and often inscrutable over-I with something clearer, simpler and ultimately more permissive. We want a strong man with a simple doctrine that accounts for our sufferings, identifies our enemies, focuses our energies and gives us, more enduringly than wine or even love, a sense of being whole. This man, as Freud says in his great book on politics, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” must appear completely masterful. He must seem to have perfect confidence, to need no one and to be entirely sufficient unto himself. Sometimes this man will evoke a god as his source of authority, sometimes not. But in whatever form he comes — whether he is called Hitler, Stalin, Mao — he will promise to deliver people from their confusion and to dispense unity and purpose where before there were only fracture and incessant anxiety.

Dear Leader’s appeal and message is simple and unambiguous. It shines forth with blazing moral clarity. And that moral clarity gives permission to hate, to eliminate, anyone who is not One of Us.

For Freud, a healthy psyche is not always a psyche that feels good. … For Freud, we might infer, a healthy body politic is one that allows for a good deal of continuing tension. A healthy polis is one that it doesn’t always feel good to be a part of. There’s too much argument, controversy, difference. But in that difference, annoying and difficult as it may be, lies the community’s well-being. When a relatively free nation is threatened by terrorists with totalitarian goals, as ours is now, there is, of course, an urge to come together and to fight back by any means necessary. But the danger is that in fighting back we will become just as fierce, monolithic and, in the worst sense, as unified as our foes. We will seek our own great man; we will be blind to his foibles; we will stop questioning, stop arguing. When that happens, a war of fundamentalisms has begun, and of that war there can be no victor.

These guys at Berkeley write that “intolerance of ambiguity” is a common psychological trait of conservatives, which I ‘spect is what makes them susceptible to the charms of our own home-grown Dear Leader — who (with the help of Karl and a good camera crew) seems to embody the image of a completely masterful man, a man with perfect confidence who needs no one and is entirely sufficient unto himself. Now, you and I know that’s a crock, but righties seem to see Bush that way.

I want to skip over to the Peter Beinart article for a moment. Poor Beinart has been struggling for years to explain to liberals how we can make people like us better, but he should go into a quiet place and think things through for a while before he writes articles for the New York Times. But Beinart talks about Reinhold Niebuhr —

Niebuhr was a dedicated opponent of communism, but he was concerned that in pursuing a just cause, Americans would lose sight of their own capacity for injustice. “We must take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization,” he wrote. “We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.” Americans, Niebuhr argued, should not emulate the absolute self-confidence of their enemies. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. Rather, they should cultivate enough self-doubt to ensure that unlike the Communists’, their idealism never degenerated into fanaticism. Open-mindedness, he argued, is not “a virtue of people who don’t believe anything. It is a virtue of people who know. . .that their beliefs are not absolutely true.”

George Kennan, architect of the Truman administration’s early policies toward the Soviet Union, called Niebuhr the “father of us all.” And in the first years of the cold war, Niebuhr’s emphasis on moral fallibility underlay America’s remarkable willingness to restrain its power. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States represented half of the world’s G.D.P., and the nations of Western Europe lay militarily and economically prostrate. Yet the Truman administration self-consciously bound America within institutions like NATO, which gave those weaker nations influence over American conduct. “We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength,” Truman declared, “that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”

In other words, early Cold War liberals like Truman and Niebuhr believed in a style of citizenship, and patriotism, that denied itself the easy gratification of absolutism and nationalism. But conservatives have had no patience with that. Admitting fallibility seems to them to be self-hatred. Deferring to other nations that we could push around seems like weakness. Tolerance of other values seems like immorality. Above all, communists must not be understood, but demonized.

If different views about moral clarity produced different views about American restraint, they also produced different views on how best to defend democracy, at home and abroad. The Marshall Plan’s premise was that the survival of European democracy depended on its ability to deliver economic opportunity. In “The Vital Center,” his famed 1949 statement of cold-war liberalism, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. compared communism to an intruder trying to enter a house. The American military could keep it from knocking down the door. But if the people inside were sufficiently desperate, they might unlock it from the inside.

To conservatives, this talk of communism’s root causes looked like an effort to rationalize evil, to suggest America’s real foe was not communism itself, but the forces that produced it. “The fact that some poor, illiterate people have ‘gone Communist’ does not prove that poverty caused them to do so,” insisted Barry Goldwater, the first National Review-style conservative to win a Republican presidential nomination.

FDR’s and Truman’s liberal (and mature) approach to foreign policy was the beginning of the meme that liberals were “soft on communism” and weak on foreign policy. In fact there was nothing weak about either guy. But conservatives’ simplistic, black-and-white mode of thinking made the equation clear — communists were absolutely evil; therefore, we should just wipe them out and damn the consequences. Liberals, thinking ahead to those consequences, counseled caution. Ergo, liberals were weenies. Even if our approach turned out to be the right one, we were still weenies.

In the years since 9/11 restored foreign policy to the heart of American politics, these cold-war debates have returned in another form, with the critical difference that only one side knows its lines. Even before the attacks, many conservatives feared America was emasculating itself yet again. In a one-superpower world, they argued, America no longer had to tailor its foreign policy to the wishes of others. And yet, in the conservative view, the Clinton administration had permitted constraints on American power, playing Gulliver to foreign Lilliputians intent on binding it in a web of international institutions and international law. Predictably, conservatives attributed this submission to America’s lack of faith in itself. The “religion of nonjudgmentalism,” wrote William Bennett in the book “Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism,” “has permeated our culture, encouraging a paralysis of the moral faculty.”

Beinart goes on to blame liberals for not standing up for the old liberal Cold War principles, rather ignoring the fact that for the past several years we’ve been shouted out of the national conversation. He goes ahead and writes a bunch of stuff that we all know about why America is screwed up. But not so long ago Beinart was one of those who argued liberals should get behind the Iraq War to prove how tough we are. Like I said, Beinart needs to go to a quiet place and think it all through.

I’m not sure if we’re going to survive the American right wing. No matter how badly they bleep up the nation, no matter how many disasters they cause, they remain supremely confident that they hold the keys to truth and that we liberals are morally compromised loonies. We need to address the American people and say, look, we let the righties try things their way, and it isn’t working. Let us explain our way. And hope enough of ’em are capable of listening.

However, as long as “liberalism” is being represented on TV by Joe Klein, it’s not gonna happen.

Update: See David Sirota, “Peter Beinart Has No Clothes.”

10 thoughts on “Freud and the Fascists

  1. Leave it to Freud to explain it all. I hadn’t read much of his later writings. Thanks for bringing this and Beinart’s article to our attention, Maha. Much to think about.
    Ambiguity – the bugbear of conservatism. I think my kids grew up as thoughtful liberals in part because whenever they were curious about a social or political topic, I would explain both (or more) sides of the issue. They were raised with ambiguity. Ambiguity is a friend of ours. Life is ambiguous.
    And if I hear another conservative praise Reagan for ending the cold war, I’m going to scream. Remember how Rush ridiculed Gorbachev during those years? Recent Russian history is astonishingly complex in how the USSR dissolved. Reagan had little to do with it compared to numerous other factors including, most of all, Gorbachev. Now there was a man comfortable with ambiguity.

  2. This will be a longish post because I want to type in a paragraph from a 1945 book that is out of print. The book is titled, “Listen, Little Man” and written by Wilhelm Reich.

    Wilhelm Reich was a student of Freud, but diverged from Freud over some psychiatry issues in the 1920’s. Wilhelm Reich was brilliant [if ponderous] in his book, “Mass Psychology of Fascim”.[yes, he was banned from his homeland, Germany] Wilhelm Reich, by the way, died in prison in the USA in the 50’s….and his books were burned by federal agents…..a shameful piece of national history, given the fact that Reich’s original and thorough spadework on character analyses still provides, to this day, the indispensable ground for all subsequent study of character patterns in our psychiatry and psychology programs..

    But here are Reich’s own words to ‘Little Men’ everywhere, distinguishing them from the Hitler types whom he calls ‘little great men’ who manipulate the masses:
    “In distant nations, little men have industriously studied your craving for being anybody’s slave and have thus learned how, with little intellectual effort, one can become a little great man……They shorten the process of changing masters. They have learned that a hundred years of hard intellectual work on your freedom, of personal sacrifice for your happiness, even of sacrificing life for your freedom, was much too high a price for your new enslavement. What really great thinkers for freedom had elaborated and suffered in 100 years could be destroyed in less than five years. The little men from your ranks, then, shorten the process: they do it more openly and more brutally. More than that, they tell you in so many words that you and your life, your family and your children, amount to nothing, that your are stupid and subservient, that one can do what with you what one pleases. They do not promise you personal freedom, but national freedom. They do not promise you human self-confidence but respect for the state, not personal greatness, but national greatness. Since ‘personal freedom’ and ‘personal greatness’ are nothing to you but vague concepts, while ‘national freedom’ and ‘the interests of the state’ make your mouth water like a bone that of a dog, you loudly acclaim them. None of these little men pays the price for genuine freedom, as did Jesus, Karl Marx or Lincoln. They do not love you, they dispise you……..They have sacrificed you to a symbol, and you carry them to power over yourself….”

  3. Sounds t’ me like Ol’ Sigmund slurped down a couple beers with George Orwell at some point…

    And this Reich fella ought’a be known as the “John the Baptist” of the “Advertising Age”…

  4. Maybe Frued is right about our relationship to Dear Leader being an erotic one…it seems he has screwed us all.

  5. re Comment 4, I saw something on PBS a year or two ago (or was it the History channel?), that was about Hitler’s pathologies, both physical and mental. I thought the program was brilliant, and wish I could provide you a link. Anyway, one of the things I remember about it is that Hitler’s eroticism became very messed up – he often had erections while delivering his speeches – at some level he had a sort of love relationship with the German masses. The way we know about this, is that he sought treatment for this physical “problem”.

    Thanks Donna for the info and quote from Wilhelm Reich. I am impressed by the large number of writers and thinkers from that time and place who left us analyses of what happened. I’m hoping that our national nightmare won’t be as dramatic as what happened to Germany, but I have my doubts.

  6. Swami, you are so succinct and so funny! Thanks!

    D.R, you nailed it……Reich understood the mechanisms of hitlers and advertisers.

    alyosha, another tidbit about Reich. When he was imprisoned, he set out an imperative to his heirs that they not publish any of his unwritten works until 50 years past his death [which is about now]. Seems he came to believe that he was ahead of his time in his expounding about human behavior. After 50 years, I wonder if we’ve all grown some and would more receptive to his material today….. but for sure the fundamentalists would burn his books today, inasmuch as a theme of his work was that violent behavior is powered by unfulfilled sexuality…..especially when teens who are biologically/hormonally ready must sublimate and deal with that unfulfillment for many years before society allows them ‘appropriate outlets’ in marriage.

  7. Another classic Maha post. I am glad someone else out there has a Liberal eduction!


  8. I thought the program was brilliant, and wish I could provide you a link. Anyway, one of the things I remember about it is that Hitler’s eroticism became very messed up – he often had erections while delivering his speeches – at some level he had a sort of love relationship with the German masses.

  9. They shorten the process of changing masters. They have learned that a hundred years of hard intellectual work on your freedom, of personal sacrifice for your happiness, even of sacrificing life for your freedom, was much too high a price for your new enslavement.

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