In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on Freud’s contributions to mass psychology.
“The function of mass psychology is to explain all past and present political, historical and cultural phenomena. This was known. It is, however, the first time that its task has been so clearly defined. As long as it remained inside its original setting, its sole concerns were political ones. It was liberal and conservative, and its task was to preserve the existing social order, not because it was the best, but because it was the most tolerable one. In spite of his fierce criticism of repression and his denunciation of the conditions imposed on the mass of humanity, and in particular on those who were most humiliated and exploited, Freud is still associated with that tradition. He seems to have expressed the kernel of his political thought to Zweig, who admired him in those early days:
In spite of all my dissatisfaction with present economic systems, I have no hope that the road taken by the Soviets will lead to any improvement. Indeed, any hope of that kind that I had has disappeared in the ten years since the Soviets came to power. I am still a liberal of the old school.
His own words express the truth of his position with regard to the historical situation. Taking that into account, he saw that man experienced a hell on earth. His thought at that stage was quite naturally concentrated on theories and methods aimed at making man conscious of that hell and at helping him to free himself from it. It was not aimed at re-awakening the illusions that he had had from time immemorial and which (so he believed) helped to make his earthly misery bearable, but at destroying them. Men were to be drawn out of their waking dreams, made aware of their own strengths and abilities and enabled to transform reality so that illusions would no longer be necessary.
It was in order to destroy illusions that Freud, in the best atheistic tradition, made The Future of an Illusion into a pitiless indictment of religion and the fictitious solutions that it proposes for the problems of human existence. In that book he showed the similarities between religion and obsessional neurosis, which, through its rituals and repetitions, blights the lives of individuals and cuts them off from reality. It should not be forgotten that for him as well as for Le Bon and Tarde, religion was the first structure of all collective beliefs. In denouncing it he was, it can be justly claimed, denouncing all views of the world, whatever their particular content might be.
Several texts, of which the earliest was Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, seem to be devoted to the task of exposing the reality of the link between the leader and the crowd. The leader is generally evil, a manifold and yet entirely naked force distinguishable behind the hypnotist, who is his prototype. Hypnosis is a violent form of attraction used against the individual, and the regression so evident in the crowd is the price that has to be paid for it. In Freud's view, the great seducers were not Don Juan or Casanova or their imitators (seducing a couple of hundred women was no great achievement) but leaders of the calibre of Napoleon, Stalin or Mao, who could move whole crowds to flights of amorous folly, diverting them, as swindlers divert funds, to their own use. Enormous masses of people gather to acclaim such men, go into ecstasies when they hear them speak, try to be like them and kill or are killed on their behalf. During their lifetime such leaders are objects of worship, and even when they are dead they continue to arouse passions and to play havoc with the emotions and memories of all of us. Freud was right, for what is involved here if not stolen love?
In all Freud wrote at this period there is a spirit of merciless revolt. Ideas and realities are uncompromisingly swept aside. Crowd psychology, which had been an apologetic discipline, suddenly became a critical weapon. Like all his earliest followers, Freud was perhaps an 'old-fashioned liberal', but in his iconoclastic attitude to all the intellectual complacency of the times he represented the most coherent form of that view, decanting the ideas of crowd psychology into a different social milieu which was critical of society and preoccupied with revolution.
An earlier generation, that of Le Bon and Tarde, had stressed the streak of conservatism in the masses, seeing it as a bulwark against revolution. Those who succeeded them had affinities with Freud and were concerned about that same conservatism since in their view it was a hindrance to revolution. They set out to explain it and to discover why the masses could not be caught up in revolution even when social and economic conditions were ripe for it. Their conclusion was that the explanation must be of a psychological nature (Korsh, 1970).
There grew up here and there a mass psychology, initially inspired by Fromm and Federn, which was revolutionary or leftist in nature and set out to analyse the nature of this obstacle. Paul Federn, a disciple of Freud, wrote a book with a title that itself sets out a whole programme: Contribution ala psychologie de la revolution: la societe sans pere. Its argument was that an authoritarian, patriarchal structure of the kind found even in socialist parties ensured the survival of bourgeois societies. If this structure, which the family perpetuated in us, did not collapse, the chances of a real revolution were small.
The book fervently pleads the case for workers' councils ('soviets' in short) which create a new fraternal ethic (Glaser, 1979). All previous mass organisations had been constructed from the top downwards. This pyramid shape provided an ideal model for the father/son relationship. The new organisation, however, grew from the masses, upwards from the base, whence it drew the appropriate impetus and psychic system, that of fraternal relationships. Federn, however, was pessimistic and saw the family as the greatest obstacle to a lasting victory for workers' councils.
It can thus be seen that, even before Freud's studies of crowd psychology had appeared, the discipline had already come to the notice of his circle, bringing with it several new themes which were to be continually developed. A number of the more creative of his disciples were attracted to it in their search for better ways of dealing with political and cultural crises. Their writings and their actions prove that psychoanalysis includes crowd phenomena amongst its legitimate concerns and is not restricted to what takes place in individual clinical situations.
Outside Europe, in America and even in England, intellectuals were not obliged to take an interest in such questions. In Germany and Austria, however, poised between a socialist regime and the Nazi threat, the distance was less great. Not only had revolution failed; counter-revolution was under way. Everywhere in Europe the masses were howling approval while their leaders were binding them hand and foot. Wilhelm Reich was perhaps not the first intellectual, but he was certainly the most passionate, to try to achieve the aim of psychoanalysis within the framework of the political left, and he asked those questions already raised by crowd psychology in connection with other leaders:
How is it possible that a Hitler, a Dzhugashvili (i.e. Stalin) could reign supreme over eight hundred million individuals? How can it be possible? It was in 1927 that I raised this question on a sociological level. I talked at length about it to Freud.
(Reich, 1972: 46)
This two-way traffic is worth noting. Reich (like Fromm, Brach or Adorno) immersed himself in crowd psychology to understand Hitler and the Nazi movement. He was, of course, not aware that Hitler had mastered the subject in order to create his movement, to become Hitler, in fact. Reich was interested in it in order to understand social reality, Hitler in order to apply it to that same reality. The former soon saw that the marriage of psychoanalysis and Marxist economic and political theory would provide an explanation, as the two systems were complementary: Hence, the line of questioning of mass psychology begins at precisely the point where the immediate socio-economic explanation hits wide of the mark. Does this mean that mass psychology and social economy serve cross purposes? No, for thinking and acting on the part of the masses contradictory to the immediate socio-economic situation, i.e. irrational thinking and acting, are themselves the result of an earlier socio-economic situation.
(Reich, 1975: 54)
Breaking with his teacher's theory, he showed that the family, itself the product of economic conditions, creates a type of character-structure through the process of bringing up children of the very type to support the political and economic order of society as a whole. The result is the repression of sexuality, physical discipline and conformity to the forces of order. By the time we emerge from childhood we are ready to conform and expect to be commanded by a leader.
It must be admitted that in one sense what Reich maintained is also present in one way or another in the work of Le Bon or Tarde, and even more clearly in that of Freud. But the ingredients of the mixture he concocted and his vigorous assumption that the triumph of Nazism in Germany cannot be explained solely by Hitler's charisma or the machinations of German capitalists but were also the result of the psychic complexion of the German masses mean that the mixture is an explosive one.
There is at the very least one other level at which we must understand and explain the tyrannical and authoritarian phenomena of our time. Reich's assertion that 'fascism is to be regarded as a problem of the masses and not as a problem of Hitler as a person or the politics of the National Socialist party' (Reich, 1975: 131) has remained engraved in the minds of several generations down to our own day. We can also see reflected in it the flames of the autos-da-fe and the many sombre ceremonies that he himself witnessed. In fact, most of Freud's close pupils saw sexual repression as one of the main mechanisms of political domination and the family as the producer of authoritarian ideology and conservative character-structure (Robinson, 1970).
Their ideas bring us to Herbert Marcuse, who took up these themes and modernised them. He moved in the opposite direction to Reich, moving from Marxism to psychoanalysis, largely via the famous Frankfurt School, which saw as its task the combination of the notion of the class society with that of the mass society. It attempted to criticise the former from the point of view of the anonymous and solitary masses and the latter by pointing out the facts of its exploitation and class content as shown in Marxism. This meant both infinite variety and a very wide horizon. In any case, Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego was the work most often quoted by the Frankfurt School (Jacoby, 1975: 44) and provided the framework for what its members wrote. All their work expressed the same idea, namely that mass psychology was one of the major issues of our world.
That critical and revolutionary wing stressed the possibilities of liberation and of resistance to authority by the masses. They were seen as capable of overcoming all sexual and economic repression, a power which had been denied them, and of smashing the bolts on the door blocking the way to a revolt against the social order, an ability which had seemed doubtful. The leader, especially when his name was Hitler or Stalin, was not the answer to their psychological wretchedness: he was that wretchedness itself.
Adopting this point of view meant that crowd psychology was changing direction and declaring itself to be of the left. It legitimised mass society and then became its critic and its teacher. But that was not all. As a result of the combined influence of Freud's creative disciples (of whom Reich was the most vital) and of those subtle minds he inspired (of whom Adorno and Marcuse seem the most aware) and their influence on recent social movements in Europe and the United States, crowd psychology once again made an impact on history, showing that it could serve not only leaders but also the masses. Freud's work is at the root of these changes. As one of those who brought them about was to write, 'In the end it was modem depth psychology which finally purged the findings of Le Bon's mass psychology of their political equivocation' (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1973: 77). All this, of course, happened without Freud intending it and even against his wishes.
In the last analysis, most of the human sciences - and one has only to look at economics, history, sociology or anthropology - have undergone similar changes. They started as branches of study concerned with order and became disciplines concerned with revolution. Nevertheless, in each case this change of direction was taken without distorting the fund of classical ideas that had been accumulated.”