Essays by the panelists related to this roundtable can be found here.

“Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” is a strange text. It presents itself as a dynamic interpretation of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which, in its turn is, also, according to Adorno, a “dynamic interpretation” of Le Bon’s description of the mass mind.[1] It is, therefore, technically speaking, a dynamic interpretation of a dynamic interpretation. Despite the initial lengthy quotations from Le Bon,  Freud went well beyond his predecessor in the analysis of the psychology of the masses. Equally so, despite his pledge of adhesion to Freudian theory, Adorno went well beyond Freud. And, as I would like to suggest in the following remarks, precisely in doing so, he provides particularly incisive insights as to the nature of contemporary fascist propaganda, included the type we have recently witnessed with Trumpism.

To begin with, recall the structure of Freud’s Group Psychology. After of few chapters of quotations from Le Bon’s and other theorists of mass psychology, where Freud takes into consideration both stable and unstable masses, emphasizing the existence of all kinds of such groups, he suddenly shifts to the question of whether the presence of a leader is a conditio sine qua non for the existence of a mass (Chapter 5). It is at this point that he also shifts to his two main examples, the church and the army, which, as Adorno among others noticed, are in fact two peculiarly hierarchical groups. Yet, it is via these examples and through the analysis of the process of identification via idealization, that Freud arrives to the analogy between the mass and the primal horde. It is therefore late in the text, to be precise in Chapter X, that this analogy is introduced: the head of the mass is the psychological equivalent of the father of the primal horde, the archaic phantasy that mass psychology revives within the midst of civilization. Interestingly enough, though, there is no sustained argument of why this analogy “mass = primal horde” would be justified. At the beginning of Chapter X, Freud himself mentioned those who had criticized his theory of the primal horde as a “Just so story”, and yet he continues to insist on this “Just so story” by simply saying that it should not be discarded because it can be applied to so many different fields — as if the variety of possible applications would by itself be a justification of its validity.

On the other hand, the analogy between the mass and the primal horde with its powerful male figure remains the major reply offered to the question of whether masses need a leader in order to come into being and persist over time. All the different types of masses that were mentioned at the beginning of the text seem to be reduced to just one type: the cephalic type, which is held together by the identification with the leader, and which feeds on the reactivation of the archaic father figure of the primal horde.

Freud operates here the same sort of reductio ad penis that has been observed in many other parts of his work — from his writings on feminine sexuality to his writings on religion and culture — where everything revolves around the figure of the father and that of the mother is persistently marginalized. This certainly reflects the patriarchy of the epoch, which Freud embodies so well, but which — it should be remembered — he also provides the tools to understand and to unpack. This I take to be the virtue of an intellectual genius: transforming one’s own sickness into a medicine for it, and which, in the case of Freud, takes the shape of transforming the cure of his own neurosis into an entire discipline that can potentially treat it.

Certainly Adorno did not live in a less patriarchal environment. Yet, in contrast to Freud, he manages to avoid any simplistic reductio ad penis. The reason why I think he does so is because, despite his reference to the story of the primal horde with its omnipotent father, he limits that diagnosis to fascist masses. Adorno explicitly argues that that type of psychology described by Freud in his mass psychology is the psychology typical of the fascist masses, and explicitly denies that it could be applied to other types of masses. As he put it:

“Furthermore, one may even ask: why is the applied group psychology discussed here peculiar to fascism rather than to most other movements that seek mass support? Even the most casual comparison of fascist propaganda with that of liberal progressive parties will show this to be so. Yet, neither Freud nor Le Bon envisaged such a distinction. They spoke of crowds ‘as such’ similar to the conceptualizations used by formal sociology, without differentiating the political aims of the group involved. […] Only an explicit theory of society, by far transcending the range of psychology, can fully answer the questions raised here”[2]

Adorno’s argument is thus twofold. Firstly, Freud’s reconstruction of the formation of masses via identification with the leader does explain the peculiar psychology that sustains the fascist community of the people. Secondly, fascism is not, however, a psychological issue. The two claims may appear to be in tension with one another, so let me unpack them further.

Despite the fact that, as Adorno observes, both Freud and Le Bon had in mind the early socialist masses when they wrote (rather than the fascist crowds that followed them), Freud does not share with Le Bon his reactionary contempt for the mass movements of the time. And this neutral attitude leads him to a far deeper understanding of its mechanism of formation: the cement that keeps them together is a specific type of libidinal tie, that is narcissistic identification. The member of the mass can identify with one another as members of the same group because they have substituted one and the same object, which is the image of the leader, as their ego ideal. They are, so to speak, equal in the image of the leader. This, in turn, explains why the leader has to appear as the big narcissist and why he can actually do so while appearing as a rather average person.

In order to explain the first aspect, narcissism, Adorno quotes Freud, once again, who stated that “the leader himself need love no one else.”[3] But then rephrases the same sentence by saying that “the leader can be loved only if he himself does not love.”[4] The issue of love, as Jamieson Webster has has pointed out, is really crucial. But notice how Adorno actually went beyond Freud by adding that little qualification: “only if.” By doing so, Adorno further emphasize a feature that is not only typical, but I would even say essential of fascist propaganda: the emptiness of the fascist agitator’s speech, the absence of anything they may actually “give”, and the consequent prevalence of the register of threat and violence. This is what Adorno calls the hatred and aversion for the others as a “negatively integrating force”, which, in fascism, takes the peculiarly empty name of race.[5]

This is, in my view, the distinctive feature of fascist propaganda, one that finds common ground between the 1950s American fascist agitators that Adorno refers to at the beginning of his essay, with Hitler and the other fascist agitators of the 1930s, who are also clearly central to Adorno’s thinking here. But with an operation similar to that of Adorno, we can extend this analysis to Donald Trump and the other fascist agitators of our time and see exactly the same type of group formation via narcissistic identification with the image of the leader. Certainly Trump is not Hitler, and we do not live under Nazism, but the rhetoric that Trump uses and the libidinal ties which binds his followers to him are fascist.

So many features of Trump’s propaganda correspond to those enumerates by Adorno here: from the rigid distinction between the ‘beloved in-group’ to the ‘rejected out-group’, to the technique of personalization centered on the ‘great little man’ figure, from the “sheep and goat” device to the repetition and standardization of slogans, so typical of stereotypical thinking, and so on. All of the features that Adorno ascribes to the American fascist agitators of the 1950s do read like a perfect description of the American fascist agitators of our times, so much so that, as Jay Bernstein noted, while reading this text now one has the impression it was literally written to describe Trump.

Many features of Trumpism that have left commentators astonished and unprepared could indeed be summarized with Adorno’s succinct formula: the paradox of the fascist leader, who appears at the same time as a superman and as an average person, “just as Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and the suburban leader.”[6] Since, for most of his followers, their ego ideal is not very distant from their ego, the fact that Trump appears as simply a little bit better than they are, just richer, and more audacious, actually facilitates the process of identification. Hence the ironic character of the fascist leadership, the phoniness, which Vladimir Safatle also underlined and which indeed explains how disinhibition is possible. As Adorno openly put it:

“The category of ‘phoniness’ applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people really believe in the depth of their heart that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but acts this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participates in their leader’s performance. It is through this performance that they strike a balance between their continuously mobilized instinctual urges and the historical stage of enlightenment they have reached, and which cannot be revoked arbitrarily. It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable.”[7]

These remarks on ‘phoniness’ lead us to the second line of argument: The performance of identification, which lies at the basis of the psychology of fascist masses, cannot explain fascism per se. Psychology can at best describes what are the psychological mechanisms triggered by fascist propaganda, but it does not explain why they are triggered in the first place. We need an entire theory of society in order to explain why such a propaganda happens in the first place and what kind of interests sustain it. Adorno is crystal clear in stating that it is a question of sheer manipulation, of rationally calculated techniques able to bring about the supposed “natural” irrationality of the masses. To sum up, we could perhaps say that Freudian theory can help us understand the how of fascism but not yet the why. For that, like Adorno and with Adorno, we need to go beyond Freud.

Even more so: if we remain confined to the level of the psychology of the masses in our understanding of fascism, Adorno states, we could end up reinforcing the very same ideology that sustains it. In a puzzling passage Adorno explicitly states:

“This, however, corroborates the assumption that fascism as such is not a psychological issue and that any attempts to understand its roots and its historical role in psychological terms still remains on the level of ideologies such as the one of “irrational forces” promoted by fascism itself. Although the fascist agitator doubtlessly takes up certain tendencies within those he addresses, he does so as the mandatory of powerful economic and political interests. Psychological dispositions do not actually cause fascism: rather, fascism defines a psychological area which can be successfully exploited by the forces which promote it for entirely non-psychological reasons of self-interest.”[8]

Whether Adorno is right in saying that self-interest is not a psychological issue is a tricky question that goes beyond the scope of my brief remarks. But we can certainly agree with him when he say that fascism defines a certain psychological area and that is precisely that area that we see mobilized both by the American fascist agitators of 1950s and their contemporary version. Yet, remaining at the level of a pure psychological and psychoanalytic explanations could indeed be very dangerous, because it would mean remaining at the level of the ideologies that justify it. Adorno’s formulation, in the passage just quoted, is very synthetic and leaves space for different interpretations, but it also hints at a number of further questions we may want to raise while reading this text today: What is the kind of ideology that we end up reproducing when we remain at the level of psychological explanations? It is the patriarchal ideology that is reflected in Freudian theory or, much more radically, in psychoanalysis itself? Can we understand the nature of the psychology that sustains fascism today by applying the psychoanalytic tools elaborated by Freud to unpack the foundations of the European bourgeois family structure, centered as it is on the triad mom-daddy-child, without reproducing it? What happens if, as some have noticed, the Oedipal complex is just a European bourgeois issue? Are we not falling into some form of Eurocentrism?

By uncritically applying the Freudian theory to such different contexts, there is indeed the risk of Eurocentrism, of implicitly reproducing the every same European bourgeois family model as the model whereby to measure others. But the danger is not just Eurocentrism, and thus that of a bias based on a peculiar history which may prevent us from understanding radically different contexts, such as those with a very different family structure. By making the European bourgeois family structure implicitly appear as the normal family structure, centered as it is on the mother-father-child relations, we risk indeed to present an historically situated social arrangement as a natural one, which is indeed the typical operation of ideology. Even worse: while trying to understand fascism, with the patriarchal ideology that sustains it, we may even end up reinforcing its very conceptual foundations. If that is the case, then in our attempt to understand contemporary fascism, we too, should proceed with Adorno, but also beyond him.

Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda”, ed., in The Culture Industry, J. M. Bernstein, (London: Routledge, 1991), 134.

[2] Ibid, 149.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid, 144.

[6] Ibid, 141.

[7] Ibid, 150.

[8] Ibid, 151.