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Freudian Theory and The Pattern of Fascist Propaganda

Part 3

This article is the text of one of four presentations delivered at the roundtable entitled “Reading Adorno’s Fascist Propaganda Essay in the Age of Trump,” held at the New School for Social Research on September 11, 2017. The other contributions can be found here.

Adorno is quick to pick up what I think of as the central theme for my remarks and touches on a great deal of what I have worked on in Freud and Lacan, namely on the question of love and family. Adorno says that Freud’s article is prophetic probably because he was able to glean these tendencies from the unconscious of his patients, which I think is true about Freud, and analysts should be able to hear something about the present moment. In this vein, I will try to say something about what I think I hear in the clinic in relation to some of these questions concerning love and group psychology.

To begin, Adorno says that Freud dwells on the fact that in organized groups, always for Freud the Church and Army, “there is either no mention of love whatsoever between the members, or it is expressed only in a sublimated and indirect way, through the mediation of some religious image in the love of whom the members unite.”[1]

Adorno says that there is hardly any mention of love at all, not even of the displaced variety talked about by Freud in today’s fascist masses, whose predecessor can be found in Hitler, who shunned the role of loving father for threatening authority, though the concept of love was relegated to a very abstract love for Germany. But how, Adorno asks, can a group give up the idea of a loving father for a feared authority? How can they go against their self-interest? To answer these questions, we need to understand the mechanisms of identification.

Freud says, that the narcissism of leader is essential. Adorno extends this claim, writing: “the leader can be loved only if he himself does not love.”[2] Furthermore, the leader substitutes himself for an ideal, but not an ideal that goes too far, too far beyond the group’s narcissism, so the leader falls short of the ideal, necessitating the “great-little-man.”[3] The discourse is so empty, so spiritually bankrupt, that it requires a foundation in hatred, the in-group and out-group structure, latching onto something concrete, pseudo-natural, such as race, which “is inescapable and therefore can be applied even more mercilessly that the concept of heresy in the middle ages.”[4] Freud anticipated this in 1921, dispensing with the illusion that civilization brings tolerance… showing that even religions of ‘love’ need to hate the outsider, and praises disbelief and indifference-perhaps a vicissitude of analytic neutrality.

The leader, Adorno says, following Freud, performs a kind of oral magic, which is to say, via the identification, the leader speaks or represents formally what is inhibited in the masses. He does this by turning his unconscious outwards; noting that in this there is no quality of intrinsic superiority in and of itself. Here we might remember, from this series on “Fascisms Old and New,” Judith Butler’s remark on the left having come to be seen as super-egoic for the right, and Trump, a figure of disinhibition.

What is important for Adorno, in the end, is that this isn’t a psychological disposition in a few, but rather something universal in psychology, one which can be exploited. Freud called it an “artificial regression” through the replacement of individual narcissism by identification with the leader. Towards the very end, Adorno states that the psychoanalytic tenet, that Id should become ego, is in fact the abolition of psychology, and it is this that fascism achieves, in a twisted perverted manner, anticipating the post-psychological de-individualized fascist collectivity. I might remind you, that Lacan read Freud’s statement against itself as well, which in any case is always taken out of context, translating the famous “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden,” as “where it just was, I should come to be” — reversing the direction of the action.[5] Where the leader is or just was… we should come to be, could also be one way of rendering it.

That is my book report reading of the text. I want to follow up with just a few comments. I spoke about this earlier in the conference with Chiara Bottici and Judith Butler, so I apologize for the repetition. As we seem to have come to see, it is difficult to say something new about fascism. I think it is important to note that Freud’s first mention of the idea of the “narcissism of minor differences” so important in the Group Psychology essay, first appears in his 1918 essay, “The Taboo on Virginity” which is his final essay in the Psychology of Love series. The first two were on men and the special type of object (Madonna, whore, and the helpless woman might be put into contrast with the half-omnipotent leader identification), and the universal tendency towards self-debasement in the sphere of love, which might also be thought about with mass psychology. The “Taboo on Virginity” essay is the one on women finally and he grounds the narcissism of minor difference in the dread of women:

woman is different from man, forever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore apparently hostile. The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman, infected with her femininity and of then showing himself incapable. The effect which coitus has of discharging tensions and causing flaccidity may be the prototype of what the man fears; and the realization of the influence which the woman gains over him through sexual intercourse, the consideration she thereby forces from him, may justify the extension of this fear. In all this there is nothing obsolete, nothing which is not still alive among ourselves.[6]

This dread of sexual difference is seemingly eclipsed in the Group Psychology essay by racial difference, in the famous in-group/out-group solution. What happened to the dread of women? Freud does say that the exclusion of love and the exclusion in some form, of women, or love of women, is important to mass psychology.

Again, the clarification of this by Lacan is helpful coming from his 1971 interview “Radiophonie.”[7] The problem here is that women and the love of women, is the first Other, both for the boy and for the girl. Sexual difference is always primary in psychoanalysis. So the homosocial bond in group psychology must exclude women, even if the group is made up of women. Women can hate women just as much, perhaps even more at times, than men. Lacan also made many remarks on the rise of racism and the politics of segregation. He links these two moments in Freud from the Psychology of Love and the anatomical difference between the sexes with the Group Psychology and Civilization and its Discontents. He says that the more the sexual relationship is posited as possible (that love of women and the family are possible — and we should think here of the difference between Clinton, Obama, and Trump marriages and family; including the absolute rage at a black family that represented themselves as a family that enjoyed one another), erasing the question of the problematic vicissitudes of sexual difference that psychoanalysis discovered, the more we will have to latch onto race — this visible trait — in order to deal with what is being foreclosed.

Also a powerful moment in Lacan’s Seminar “The Logic of Fantasy” when speaking about the question of masochism (again important for the group’s submission to the threatening leader), he says that a moral judgement of masochistic behavior had creeped into the work of certain psychoanalysts.[8] They referred to masochists as injustice collectors who love to be refused and excluded, something that women in particular seem to do. Lacan is quick. He asks: what idea of justice can these analysts possible have? They act as if it is something you can just show up to the dinner table and have your fair share of. Furthermore, what is so great about acceptance? Isn’t this just capitalist ideology that makes entry the greatest good? Do we not see in masochism the attempt not only to bear the Other’s mark (lash of the whip), but the attempt to give this Other a place, and offer oneself. And is this Other not the unconscious, making this a demand or desire for analysis par excellence? I’ll leave to the side the question of how awry analysis had to go to fail to hear this demand.

So, I think we have here three important moments here, Freud 1921, Adorno 1951, and Lacan 1971.

A more positive, perhaps un-Adornian way to end.

There are three things that threaten group psychology or the bond that unites leader and follower in Freud that can be gleaned from the Group Psychology Essay: 1) sexual satisfaction because group relies on instincts kept in check (which is also why the groups are so fragile and the bonds can dissipate like smoke when the spell is broken), 2) love of women (which cuts across group ties of nationalism, race, etc. and puts a check on narcissism), and 3) neurosis (which creates a private mythology that can be analyzed and which is generally allergic to group ties; as Vladimir Safatle and I say, “long live sickness, down with well-being”).

Lacan saw the end of analysis as a creation that didn’t cover over impossibilities of sexual relationships, the fact that “The Woman” does not exist, and the lack of any authority of guarantee, but did something unique with them that allowed for satisfaction, love, and unique traits of one’s neurosis. Again, as I always say, this is on a case-by-case basis. It is difficult to generalize this, at least for me, to the question of politics, except to continue to try to work in this critical vein.

What do I hear I from patients in the elite bubble of New York: that the rebellion of the body in sickness against the demands of efficiency and mental health is one place where neurosis still has a serious grip, pulling people away from group ties, away from the demand that we seamlessly enter into the work place. Granted it is caught in the contradictory desire for science — both as an explanation and for the object (pharma) on the one hand and the ethos of well-being and that massive industry on the other. Some of this is breaking down now, though the desire is strong.

The celebration of libertarian sexual pluralism on the one hand, and entrenched conservative family values, which often flourish in the same person, are strong, and the mourning for the ‘family’, the ‘ideal of the adult’, the ‘ideal of freedom’ is a large part of analysis. Only then can something else come into being… this work feels difficult and it hinges on work surrounding questions of sexual difference. I realize this is a basic Freudian hypothesis- but without it, I don’t see the possibility of getting this ‘far’ in an analysis; and more and more, the question of the sexual and sexual difference is being attacked in the new psychological theories as Freudian hogwash. Maybe this is some group bond on my part, some allegiance to Freudianism, but I don’t think so. I think I’m shocked every time it rears its head so powerfully in an analysis.

As well, race is always there… the figure of the black man or Asian woman (I get this a lot you can imagine) and their jouissance appear in patient’s dreams, in the transference, and is unavoidable in this short circuit between the question of sex and the question of race. Patients are embarrassed by it, as I said they are all good liberal New Yorkers. But it is there. Finally, the multi-generational question of how families handle money, the violence of what is passed down from generation to generation with regards to money, is like a final frontier in analysis… we can talk about sex, and yet we can’t talk about money… and the neurosis, the pleasures and displeasures, what can be thought and what simply cannot, the horror of poor people who are the figure of the abject detritus of the world — and whom we treat them like trash to be got rid of — and who bind us around this object, money, so strange in its imaginary contours. It is the site of our deepest melancholia… and there is so much work to be done, it is overwhelming.

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at The New School, is a member of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and founding-member of Das Unbehagen: A Free Association for Psychoanalysis. Her new book, Conversion Disorder, is forthcoming with Columbia University Press (2018). She is currently working on The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Lacan, with Marcus Coelen.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda”, ed., in The Culture Industry, J. M. Bernstein, (London: Routledge, 1991), 137.

[2] Ibid, 141.

[3] Ibid, 142.

[4] Ibid, 144.

[5] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 100. See also: Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), p. 347.

[6] Sigmund Freud, The Psychology of Love, (New York: Penguin, 2007), 267. Italics mine.

[7] Jacques Lacan, Radiophonie, untranslated. Audio found here.

[8] Jacques Lacan, “The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XIV: The Logic of Phantasy,” trans. Cormac Gallagher,

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