Affects, Groups, and Illusions – Freud’s Group Psychology essay as foreshadowing fascism

By LENE AUESTAD  – June 28th at 6 pm London time/ 7 pm Berlin time/ 8 pm Cape Town and Jerusalem time/ 1 pm New York Time/ 12 noon Chicago time/
10 am Vancouver time

Part of the Psychoanalysis and Politics series Crises and Transmission

“A group,” wrote Freud, “is clearly held together by a power of some kind: and to what power could this feat be better ascribed than to Eros, which holds together everything in the world?” “If an individual gives up his distinctiveness in a group and lets its other members influence him by suggestion, it gives one the impression that he does it because he feels the need of being in harmony with them rather than in opposition to them—so that perhaps after all he does it ‘ihnen zu Liebe’.” The binding force of Eros is revealed in Freud’s Group Psychology as more complex and contradictory than one might have imagined. He elaborates on the nature of identification and ambivalence to understand “the fact that when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts […] are stirred up to find free gratification”. Though “groups are always capable of high achievement in the shape of abnegation, unselfishness, and devotion to an ideal.”

When Freud wrote his essay on group psychology, the First World War had just ended in the autumn of 1918. In 1919 the Versailles Treaty followed, and the Austrian Republic was proclaimed in 1920. In Germany, Hitler was beginning to make use of the SA, Storm Troopers, and Mussolini was gathering the Fasci di Combattimento, the fighting leagues that gave their name to fascism. Freud’s essay foreshadows the growth of fascist movements  in Europe in providing some key concepts to allow us to understand the potentially destructive dynamics of masses and of the ties between us. Slightly more than 100 years since its publication in 1921, we find ourselves in a new crisis – in the aftermath of a pandemic, with a war in Europe and with fascist movements and parties that have gathered strength in several European countries and beyond. Freud’s descriptions are once again highly relevant. I shall argue that while the dominant mode of thinking in our late neoliberal age is what John Rickman, would call one-person psychology, we need to be able to think from the point of view of groupings, of the complexities of affective ties and identifications between and within us, to understand the frightening world we live in.

Lene Auestad is a Dr. of Philosophy from The Ethics Programme, University of Oslo, the Founder of Psychoanalysis and Politics and an Associate member of the Norwegian Psychoanalytic Society. She is the author of Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice: A Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Discrimination, Karnac/ Routledge, 2015, and a number of other publications. She writes and lectures internationally on ethics, critical theory and psychoanalysis, with a particular focus on prejudice, racism, discrimination, trauma and nationalism.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky (1911) Aquarell 6, Kunstdrucke auf japanpapier. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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