Against psychopolitics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 29 12:57:39 MST 2000

Michael Parenti, "History as Mystery":


In recent times, a considerable number of historians, political scientists,
psychologists, and others have begun to rely on psychology to explain
political phenomena. These academic subfields of "psychopolitics" and
"psychohistory" treat leaders and masses as driven by covert, personal
emotions having little to do with the manifest content of public issues.
Here I want to argue that psychoanalytic precepts and "depth" psychology
theories tend to distort our understanding of political life and trivialize
the political significance of history.

Depoliticizing the Political

"Many great public issues" C. Wright Mills once wrote, "as well as many
private troubles are described in terms of the ‘psychiatric’— often, it
seems in a pathetic attempt to avoid the large issues and problems of
modern society." The psychologistic approach often serves as a means of
avoiding the realities of political economy. This might help explain why
psychopolitics and psychohistory have enjoyed generous finding and a ready
reception as respectable academic subfields. This is in marked contrast to
the relentless attacks and outright exclusion long endured by scholarship
that deals explicitly with class exploitation and class power. The
controversies that a psychopolitical analysis might stir up are not too
controversial, since "the large issues" Mills mentioned are painlessly
avoided or reduced to problems of personal mindset.

Among the foremost pioneers in psychopolitics was Harold Lasswell, a
political scientist by training but heavily influenced by Freudianism, and
himself a lay analyst. Over sixty years ago Lasswell postulated the
following formula to explain "political man": p } d } r = P. The private
motives of the individual (p), "nurtured and organized in relation to the
family constellation and the early self," are displaced (d) onto public
objects. The displacement is then rationalized (r) in terms of public
interests to produce political man (P). Regarding political displacement
Lasswell writes: "The prominence of hate in politics suggests that we may
find that the most important private motive is a repressed and powerful
hatred of authority, a hatred which has come to partial expression and
repression in relation to the father." And "the repressed father hatred may
be turned against kings or capitalists." Individuals who condenin "the
merciless exploitation of the tool-less proletariat by the capitalists" may
be just voicing "the rational justification" of earlier unresolved family
animosities. Not just individuals but whole "political movements derive
their vitality from the displacement of private affects upon public objects."

Consider some examples of how this displacement-rationalization model has
been applied. In 1969, the noted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim ascribed the
student antiwar protests that were sweeping the nation ‘s campuses to the
influence of a permissive society and to the "guilt" the students suffered
because they had avoided military service. As Bettelheim explained to a
special House Education Subcommittee: the guilt-ridden students, having
evaded military service, "feel like parasites of society and hence come to
hate a society which they think makes them feel this way." In a word, the
students were not bothered by the Vietnam War as such but by the fact that
they were able to evade their moral obligation to fight in it.

Reaching beyond Bettelheim, Lewis Feuer diagnosed practically every student
rebellion in the twentieth century as suffering from irrational hostility
toward surrogate parental figures. He maintains that Fidel Castro, who
developed his rebellious ways during his student days, "repeatedly blamed
others, that is, his father, for his own entry into legal study" a field he
did not really wish to pursue. This "suggests some of the roots of Castro’s
own generational conflict and indirectly his anti-Americanism. In his
blaming of others for having misled him, the United States became a
surrogate father to be blamed."

However, not all student uprisings have pursued such "pseudo-goals,"
according to Feuer. University rebels in Communist countries —whose efforts
he applauds —were the exception; they were not acting out their filial
resentments, rather they were engaged in a "quest for real freedom."

For a group of social scientists, including Ernest Van den Haag, Nathan
Glazar, and Stanley Rothman, who believe that capitalism is the finest
economic system ever devised, the continued opposition to it from
intellectuals and others defies logic. Such hostility, they reason, can be
understood only by putting aside economic arguments and concentrating on
the psychological disturbances of the anticapitalist critics: the
"emotional and irrational causes" that leave consumers frightened by the
very freedom the free market breeds, the guilt feelings some have about
their good life, the envy that others feel toward the more affluent, and so

Historians Henderson and Chaloner describe Frederick Engels, Marx’s
collaborator, as driven by a personal fury against the English bourgeoisie
and factory owners in particular. His "extreme political views . . .
represented a violent reaction against the whole way of life of the highly
respectable [capitalist] household in which he had been reared." Engels was
"a young man in a bad temper who vented his spleen in a passionate
denunciation of the factory system." This explained "the unrestrained
violence of his language." Henderson and Chaloner were referring to
Engels’s book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (which I would
not at all describe as written in a language of "unrestrained violence"),
whose content convinces them that "Engels was suffering from an
overwhelming sense of frustration."

Psychologizing about the disturbed psyches of protestors and dissidents is
not the exclusive province of political psychologists and psychohistorians.
In 1972, acts of insubordination and minor sabotage, along with a growing
antiwar sentiment and increasing numbers of desertions, were becoming a
serious concern to the U.S. Navy. Admiral Charles Duncan publicly labeled
the resisters in the enlisted ranks as "those few with mental aberrations,"
"anti-social, anti-military" individuals.

The voluminous file that the CIA kept on the revolutionary leader Che
Guevara contains reports telling us that Che "hates to wash and will never
do so," "is fairly intellectual for a ‘Latino,"’ and his "attitude towards
the U.S. is dictated. . . by somewhat childish emotionalism and jealousy
and resentment." After Philip Agee defected from the CIA and publicized
some of its worst practices abroad, the agency produced a psychiatrist who
announced that Agee was "sick and unstable." (As one who knows Agee
personally, I find him to be healthy and stable.)

As these illustrations suggest, psychopathological explanations tend to
ignore the political content of things and conjure a latent predetermining
apolitical need. Thus Lasswell does not deal with the seemingly more
evident possibility that people hate kings or capitalists not because of
filial conflicts but because they often find the social conditions imposed
by autocracy and plutocracy to be insufferable.

Likewise, Van den Haag and his associates do not consider the idea that
hostility toward capitalism might stem from justifiable grievances relating
to economic deprivation, job insecurity, poor work conditions, low pay,
high rents, environmental devastation, undemocratic concentrations of
political power by moneyed interests, and many other such things.

And the historians who see Engels as venting only a personal frustration in
his exposé of the factory system do not entertain the possibility that he
might have felt outraged by the sight of battered children working
twelve-hour days for near-starvation wages under the most horrific conditions.

So with Feuer. In a Cuba ruled by a much-hated American-backed tyrant like
Fulgencio Batista, where the major industries, markets, land, labor, and
capital were in the profiteering grip of U.S. corporations while a large
segment of the populace lived in poverty, are we to believe that a Cuban’s
grievances toward the detested "Yanquis" were primarily a displacement of
filial hostility anchored in a resentment at being required to go to law
school? And what of the many thousands of others who joined revolutionary
ranks? Were they all bestirred principally by unresolved familial
antagonisms — as Feuer claims was the case with the Chinese students who
joined Mao? If so, history owes a remarkable debt to the deficiencies in
father-son relationships.

Psychologistic investigators presume that the filial relationship not only
precedes but supersedes the experiences of later life and the influences of
the wider social sphere. But that premise remains unexamined; it is a
self-determining psychologism. It not only fosters political ignorance, it
relies on political ignorance for its credibility. By ignoring important
political data, psychological speculation gains plausibility.

To illustrate: anyone who listened to the outrage that students expressed
against the Vietnam War, who witnessed what they were actually saying,
reading, writing, and doing, can be forgiven for rejecting Bettelheim’s
contention that they were motivated by guilt about not fighting in the very
war they detested. The observable evidence of their words and deeds
suggests that they opposed the war because they believed it unjust and
destructive of innocent lives. What is missing from Bettelheim’s view is
just such observable evidence. All we have are imputations that deny the
actual content of political struggle and ascribe a stock motive best known
only to Bettelheim through a process of discovery he does not reveal.

While these kinds of psychological explanations tend to depoliticize
political reality, they do so in a politically selective way. For example,
Bettelheim has never thought it necessary to sift through the psyches of
those who ordered and conducted the B-52 carpet bombing of Indochina. Nor
did the anti-Communist Feuer ever consider searching for hidden motives
among dissident students in Communist countries —whose rebellions he
supported and deemed free of psychopathology.

Similarly, Arnold Rogow seems to equate political deviancy with
psychological abnormality when he writes: "While most political leaders
neither require nor merit a psychobiography, the form is particularly
appropriate when we are dealing with odd or deviant political careers . . .
right and left extremists." A political judgment is being made here. The
leaders referred to by Rogow are "odd and deviant" politically speaking,
not psychologically. That political deviance is in special need of
psychological investigation is what needs to be demonstrated rather than
assumed. Whether a leader is acting with admirable "firmness" or
"aggressive rigidity" in a situation will often depend the political values
and views of the observer. In a word, is or is not a "psychological
displacement" may be determined less by the psychology of the political
actor than by the politics of the psychologist.

Discovering a hidden psychological need in political person ages tells us
very little about the political significance of they are doing.
Nevertheless, the psychopathological explanation does cast a pale on
political things. Once convinced that revolutionaries are impelled by
unresolved feelings about their fathers, for instance, we cannot help but
wonder about the value of the revolution itself— even though nothing is
established about the revolution’s substantive issues. When Bettelheim or
others reduce the student protest movement to a collective guilt trip or to
some infantile or adolescent disorder, the inevitable impact is to devalue
the protest, making the protestors the issue rather than the thing they are

This kind of 'argumentum ad hominem' tells us very little, if anything,
about the political worth of an issue or action. We might decide that
people opposed the Vietnam War because they (a) had an irrational,
displaced hatred of authority or (b) a sense of justice and a love of
peace. And we might conclude that people supported the war out of (a) love
of country and a desire to stop Communism or (b) a taste for violent
activity. But none of this brings us to an informed position regarding the
war itself, for the question of whether to support or oppose armed
intervention as a policy rests on a body of data that extends beyond the
private motives of particular individuals.

Individuals involved in public protests are often accused of merely seeking
to escape boredom or vent their anger. Indeed, politically active people do
sometimes feel more engaged with life. Communists, revolutionaries,
radicals, liberals, centrists, conservatives, reactionaries, and fascists
have all testified to the personal invigoration experienced in active
political engagement, especially when the effort brought results. But,
again, this tells us nothing about the political significance of their
particular actions and ideologies. In sum, personal motivations — as
opposed to political ones — are, if not irrelevant, then certainly of
marginal importance for evaluating public policy.

Society’s view of who is psychologically disturbed rests to a great extent
on existing standards of normality. By definition, rebels are people who do
not accept some of society’s conventional beliefs and dominant interests.
Not surprisingly, such rebels are more likely to be diagnosed as driven by
aberrant private motives. Rycroft observes that many "world-shakers" and
other exceptional people have been "manhandled by psychiatrists and
[psycho]analysts.... Jesus Christ has been diagnosed schizophrenic,
Beethoven paranoid, the Old Testament prophets (collectively)
schizophrenoid, Leonardo da Vinci schizoid-obsessional, etc. etc."

Some of us believe that people usually rebel because all is not well in the
world. In contrast, the psychopolitical belief is that people rebel because
they are not well. Rebels are diagnosed as troubled because they are
troublesome. Because they see a particular authority as unjust, it is
concluded they oppose all established authority—which is not the case with
most political reformers or revolutionaries. For the political
psychologist, rebellion against authority becomes prima facie evidence of
rebellion against parental authority once removed. There is no need to
demonstrate the linkage; it has been established by a reference to
"clinical evidence" that itself has no command over political data unless
one imagines it does.

The psychological explanation, then, harbors the fallacy of "affirming the
consequent": the political rebel is really rebelling against parental
authority. Proof? the rebel is rebelling. This problem obtains in all
"innate drive" theories that purport to explain observable behavior. Thus
we are told that people are impelled by an inborn drive for power or love
or wealth. Evidence for such claims is then found in instances of people
pursuing power, love, and wealth. The theory uses as evidence the very
phenomenon it is trying to explain.

Louis Proyect
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