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The Psychological Man

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

In traversing that excellent gallery of military thinkers, “Makers of Modern Strategy,” which has been assembled by the scholars of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, I recently stumbled on one figure who exerts for me a suggestive fascination. He was not one of the great captains. An obscure officer of the French Second Empire, he was almost unknown during his lifetime, and his name, Ardant du Picq, is even now something less than familiar. But in two ways he struck me as a portent. He was virtually the first in military literature to approach the problem of war not as a strategic chess-game but as a problem in the actual mechanics of battle. He was interested in what really happened upon the battlefield, in just how charges were in fact delivered or repulsed, in the precise point at which men would lie down or run away, in the importance of fear in combat. His investigations, in short, led him from the generalizations of policy, strategy, and formal tactics direct to the human reactions, the emotions, which he perceived to be, after all, the basic stuff with which the soldier has to deal. And finding almost no available material on such matters, he set out to get it by circulating a questionnaire among his fellow officers.

He was himself killed in the Franco-Prussian War, and only a few of his deductions survived to be misapplied, as usually happens, by subsequent disciples. Perhaps there is really nothing very remarkable in this. Yet here was what amounted to a directly psychological approach to one of the great fields of human activity; and here was an early use of the questionnaire technique, which has since grown into so mighty a weapon of scientific and pseudo-scientific attack upon all social problems. Cannot one hear the wings of a pregnant future already beating about the head of this French colonel? No doubt there were many others like him appearing at about the same time in other fields. Factory managers were already, I suppose, beginning to study the reactions of their workers in the interests of a greater efficiency; the sociologists were moving from the theoretical constructions of the political economist direct to the human material; it is certain that the philosophers were beginning to investigate psychology and that the physicians were laying the foundations of a scientific psychiatry. If du Picq seems a particularly interesting example, it is because he happened to appear in that great and grim field to which we rarely look for its sociological significance, but which has now expanded to embrace every aspect of our world society, which has swallowed politics, economics, and sociology alike to enforce its terrible imperatives upon them all. Du Picq was a student of war; and it is the masters of war and the exponents of brute violence who have contributed more than any others to effecting the great revolution of which he was a modest forerunner.

That revolution, I suggest, is nothing less than the birth of the Psychological Man; and perhaps it is as significant in its way as the many other revolutionary changes occurring all around us. That something of the kind has been taking place is certainly no discovery of mine. The deaths of his two famous predecessors, of the Economic Man and before him of the Political Man, have often been celebrated. One may recall Mr. Thurman Arnold, far back in the early years of the New Deal, executing a graceful tarantella upon their graves; later, on the eve of war, Mr. Peter Drucker more solemnly and more elaborately buried the Economic Man for good under the ruins of Marxism and the rise of the Hitler terror. Doubtless many similar observations could be cited from other authors. Rut though the demise of the Political and the Economic Man has been widely accepted, there is less agreement as to their successor, or, indeed, as to whether they have had a successor. Mr. Arnold nominated the Sociological Man, but he was an elusive and to me not particularly convincing character. Mr. Drucker seemed undecided; something new, he felt, would have to emerge, but he hesitated to predict its nature. Mr. Hermann Rausch-ning was even more pessimistic; the great revolution of our times, which he was one of the first clearly to discern and name, was to him a “revolution of nihilism.” Beyond it there was nothing; unless it were halted, it could lead only to chaos.

There is no longer any doubt about the necessity for halting the Hitler revolution. But that it was a revolution of total nothingness, that in all the agony which it has imposed upon the world there was no constructive contribution of any sort to the development of our society, is a thought at once too terrible and too unconvincing to be accepted. Whatever one thinks of Napoleon—and most today would regard him as a monster of misapplied egotism—it is still evident that the Napoleonic Wars were a fiery crucible in which a new social era was compounded, in which a great deal of the accumulated slag of time was burned off and from which the new shapes were poured which were to harden into the political, social, and economic forms of the nineteenth century. One need entertain no particular respect for Hitler to believe that out of the catastrophe of which he is the central figure many things of value are bound to come.

What these values may be is still a good deal of a mystery, and one upon which many millions of words have already been expended. I do not flatter myself that one brief essay can add much to its elucidation. But at any rate, where so much has already been said, it can do no harm to offer one more suggestion; consequently, I advance the appearance of the Psychological Man as possibly one of the more fundamental and essentially constructive contributions which these fearful times are making toward the progress of society.

Sigmund Freud died in London in 1939. It may seem extravagant to suggest that the man who had reviled, despoiled, and driven him into exile will also prove, in the long perspectives of history, to have been the one man who did more than any other to establish Freud’s ideas as a permanent part of our political and social outlook and a mighty weapon in our armory of thought. Yet a strong case can be made for that contention. Hitler himself is a phenomenon which seems inexplicable in any save Freudian terms. He is an obvious problem in abnormal psychology; and no investigator has attacked that strange character without stressing his rebellious boyhood, his frustrate youth, his unhappy relations with his parents, and the many other clinical details for which the Freudian approach has taught us to look.

But much the same thing can be said of Hitlerism and Fascism in general. It is “irrational.” It makes no sense against any of the accepted political, economic, or humanitarian frames of reference which we have been accustomed to accept as embodying the immutable laws of social dynamics. It impoverishes its people in order to provide them with economic opportunity (“lebensraum”); it crams its concentration camps in the service of “freedom”; it instigates gigantic wars in the name of “peace.” To Rauschning it was “nihilism”; to Drucker it is “non-economic”; it is certainly non-political and profoundly anti-humane. Where, then, can one look for an explanation of it if not in the concepts of modern psychology—the one discipline which approaches man neither as a political nor economic nor spiritual phenomenon alone, but seeks to describe the total operation of man as an organic whole?

There is hardly a contemporary discussion of Hitlerism which is not forced, as it were, to grope after psychological explanations of what could not otherwise be explained. Sometimes this need is only half admitted; sometimes it is carried to absurd lengths, as when it is seriously suggested that Germany may be a “paranoid nation” or a book can gain wide popularity by asking “Is Germany Curable?” It may be confidently replied that Germany is not “curable” by any method as yet known to psychiatric science. If Burke, speaking in the idiom of his time, declared that you “cannot indict a whole people,” we may say with equal assurance that you cannot psychoanalyze one. But what is significant is the fact that the idiom is changing; whether we like it or not, we are being compelled to think about society in essentially psychological terms.

But these are only superficial evidences to the coming of the Psychological Man; his infant footsteps are much more clearly discernible if one makes a somewhat closer examination of recent historical trends. If Hitlerism is “irrational” by all the accepted frames of reference, it has been anything but irrational by its own laws. Konrad Heiden quotes one of Hitler’s early adjurations to abandon reason for the emotions—”Reason can treacherously deceive a man; emotion is sure and never leaves him”—immediately adding the dry comment that “nowhere in the present day has politics been conducted with so much calculating intelligence as by Hitler.” One cannot follow the history of Hitlerism without feeling that there was reason—and a remarkably cold, un-deviating, and technically accurate reason—behind that fatal development. Hitlerism represents, in fact, the highly shrewd and rational discovery that great societies can be swayed, energized, and controlled by the manipulation of the irrational within them, by the direct appeal, in other words, to the psychological reactions, the emotions, of men. On its far wider, more sophisticated level, Hitlerism is dealing wholesale in the same basic human stuff to which Ardant du Picq was led by his investigations into the structure of war.

In all this, it may be objected, there is no discovery; every demagogue and spell-binder since the dawn of history has known and exploited the fact that men are governed by their emotions. No doubt; but neither the demagogues nor the spell-binders ever dared to erect their knowledge into an independent, explicit philosophy of government. Traditionally, they have always exercised their arts within some larger political or economic or religious system. The ends of the given society were agreed upon or assumed; the demagogue could only operate so long as he appeared to fulfill them. He needed their support to sustain his magic. A spell-binder proclaiming, for example, such a slogan as “the full dinner pail” was no economist, but he was sustained on, and was exploiting, an accepted economic concept of society. And a more persuasive spell-binder could always overthrow him by attacking the economic holes in the argument. In the past, the demagogues, however artistic their achievements, had always worked within the rules. It was Hitler’s peculiar genius to realize that he did not need the rules. Hitlerism had no concept of society, or utilized all concepts indifferently. It was immaterial to Hitler if there were holes in an argument, for it was not the argument which counted but the direct emotional effect. He could make the most wildly contradictory promises, because he knew that it was not by the logic of his promises that he was getting results, but by the power of the deep, illogical, psychological drives which those promises tapped. It had always been essential to the demagogue’s success that he conceal the nature of what he was doing. Hitler gloried in explaining exactly what he was doing, in detail and at length, and making a system out of it.

It was Mussolini who announced that programs did not matter; action came first and the programs afterward. But although Hitler in fact did start with a program, it was Hitler who more remorselessly applied this theorem in practice. Mussolini never seemed quite easy under his own dictum. No sooner had the action been completed than he set battalions of bright young men to produce the program —and reams of Fascist philosophy, assaults on the “pluto-democracies,” blue-prints of the Corporative State, and all the rest continued to attest to Fascism’s bad conscience throughout its career. It could not get along without the rules; and since it had abolished all the available rules, it was desperately concerned to invent new ones that would answer. Nazism, of course, was not without its own philosophers and rationalizers, but it paid far less attention to them and was not bothered by conscience at all. The program, the concepts, the social ends were alike unimportant. It had learned how to get results direct, without ends or programs, without appeal to any frame of reference, without obeisance to any particular set of political or economic or social sanctions, by operating upon the primitive stuff of human psychology itself. In this sense it was anything but “irrational”; it was, rather, a perverse triumph of reason, developing a technique of social management as remarkable, as subtle, as powerful in its way as the techniques developed by modern mathematics, modern scientific investigation, or other achievements of the modern intellect.

Nazi Germany is not merely a “police state” or a propaganda state or a war-making state. It is our most extreme example so far of the “psychological state.” It makes positive use of the most primitive and destructive human impulses and of all other impulses as well. It consciously plays on its subjects’ aggressions, on their fears, their wants, their loves; impartially it exploits their ignorances and sadisms, their skills and social drives. It deliberately mobilized their blood lust by offering them the Jews as a sacrifice; equally, it mobilized their social instincts, their feeling for one’s fellow man, by giving them the massed phalanxes of the Nazi marching demonstrations or the high self-dedication of war. It has even played upon their sexual instincts with a directness which few other states have ever attempted. And in none of this has it asked the intervention of the philosopher, the politician, or the economist; for it had its skillful hands direct upon more powerful levers than any which they commanded.

Moreover, the society so constructed, hideous as it seems in most of its aspects, has shown a startling practical strength and efficiency. To most western political thinkers of the past thousand years such a system, cynically violating every accepted social and moral imperative, would probably have presented a picture of impossible anarchy; they would have felt convinced that it could never survive. So it seemed to many of us as recently as five or ten years ago. Rut the somber fact is that the system has survived. The experiment appears doomed in the end to failure. But the immensity of the effort required to halt and bring it down is sufficiently suggestive. The “psychological state” has proved a thing of strength as well as horror. Those elements which make it so horrible are now being destroyed by an outraged human kind. But the elements of strength within it are likely to endure in one form or another.

Nor is Nazi Germany by any means the only contemporary case of the Psychological Man in action. Japan is another and singularly interesting one. Japan likewise presents a society shrewdly operated by an astute ruling group through essentially non-economic, non-political, directly emotional controls. But whereas the German example represents a deliberate modern creation, successfully implanted in one of the most advanced and most highly civilized of the world’s communities, the Japanese example represents a primitive survival preserved in what is socially the most archaic of all the great powers. The masters of both communities have utilized the most primitive and pre-rational of social mechanisms; both are managed and regulated by a system of myths, totems, and taboos such as anthropologists had been accustomed to study only among the most backward of Polynesian tribes. But whereas the Nazis had to invent their system, the Japanese militarists found it ready at hand, deeply imbedded in the Japanese cultural tradition. No doubt there was almost as much calculated premeditation in their use of it; certainly much of the present apparatus—the exaggerated emperor-worship, the fantastic myth of the Sun Goddess, the perversions of history, the romance of Bushido, and the rest—seems to be more a deliberate revival than a survival. But if so, the past which has thus been revived is a very recent one; the ancient, non-rational, emotional modes of thought which these institutions embody have lingered in Japan long after they have been discarded or overlaid by more progressive societies. In everything save their technology, the Japanese are among the most primitive of the world’s peoples; in everything save their present political and social structure, the Germans are among the most advanced. The close correspondence between the two systems is instructive—instructive as to the innate strength of this method of social organization and the depth to which it actually reaches into the foundations of the human spirit.

Both the Japanese and the German examples seem hideous to us. In the one, the Psychological Man appears as a barbaric survival, sedulously maintained to preserve the power and ambitions of what is itself a somewhat primitive ruling group. In the other, the Nazis deliberately mobilized him in the service of an empty and barren purpose—a purpose that hardly seems to have gone beyond the personal satisfactions and aggrandizement of the Nazi gang. Because it had nothing more than that to offer to humanity, the psychology was grossly one-sided, and the social potentialities of the method are likely to be overlooked in one’s horror at the result. In both Japan and in Germany, the Psychological Man advances like a Frankenstein’s monster, an appalling and soulless machine constructed out of the gadgets of modern psychological discovery, modern mass communications, radio loudspeakers and high-speed presses, modern administrative and propaganda techniques. But the actual descendants of Frankenstein’s imaginary robot, it is well to remember, have long been busily and peacefully engaged all over the world, running automatic factories, operating complex tabulating machines, and performing a thousand other helpful tasks. The Psychological Man may prove no less useful in the end. Already he can be discovered at work elsewhere than in Germany and Japan, and usually in far less destructive a guise.

Drucker’s observation that it was the collapse of the Marxist dream—the end, that is to say, of the Economic Man in the moment of his highest development—which brought on the totalitarian revolutions is an acute one. But the case of Russia not only confirms the observation; it also shows how readily the Economic Man tends to transfer his authority to his psychological successor. Russia was the one great state remorselessly dedicated to a rational, logical concept of society. But as that concept began to fail in practice, it was not to a new logic, a new rational construction, that its rulers turned. It is not too much to say that Stalin has saved his great people, in the hour of their most fearful peril, by a far-sighted and very careful study of their psychology and by a shrewd, long-term development of those essentially non-rational, emotional, or psychological controls which are here under discussion.

We have seen such purely economic ideals as the emancipation of the proletariat, world social revolution, the institution of the classless society, quietly subordinated and finally abandoned in favor of a mystic, which is to say an emotional, Russian nationalism. In working this change, the Stalinite state has employed many devices which operate directly upon the popular instincts rather than through the medium of a formalized political or economic philosophy. One thinks of the way in which the Five Year Plans were presented as “battles of production,” of the martial enthusiasms which were mobilized in order to conduct them, of the medals and honors which were given for their victories. One thinks of the very deliberate way in which the old Russian national and patriotic traditions were revived; of the emphasis laid upon pre-Soviet national heroes, on the great soldiers, artists, writers, and composers of the past. One notes the gradual conversion of the Red Army from the army of a Communist dictatorship into a great Russian national force—a process which has reached the point of reviving not only the ranks, the titles, and the disciplines, but even the actual uniforms of Tsarist times. One observes the interesting stress which has been laid upon local patriotism and local cultural autonomy within the national framework, the care which has been taken to ease the rigidities of centralized government by reviving and maintaining the arts, the dances, the varying customs, languages, and literatures of the component peoples.

Out of all this, Stalin has forged a society whose courage, unity, and power have startled the world. Again the Psychological Man has proved a giant. Again he is not without his alarming aspects for western democrats. The Stalinite state has used both propaganda and the police as freely, and often quite as ruthlessly, as have the Nazis. But in Russia the Psychological Man, whatever his faults, is at least much less terrifying, much more closely in harmony with the accepted values of our civilization, than in Germany or in Japan. In Russia, he has not been at the service of a gang of criminal adventurers and madmen; he has not been devoted to perpetual war; he has not dreamed of world domination—he has, in fact, deliberately abandoned the visions of universal revolution and conquest entertained by his economic predecessor. However crass his methods, most of his basic aims correspond with those which our civilization assumes to be good—peace, scientific truth, artistic and technical progress, racial tolerance, the conservation and enrichment of the lives of common men, “the greatest good of the greatest number.”

If the totalitarian dictatorships, moreover, show the Psychological Man in his most obvious form, one can trace his growing influence in the democracies quite as easily. It is a little disconcerting, while expressing our superior scorn for the Japanese Emperor as father-god, to ask what, after all, is the British Crown? That mystic, elusive, almost wholly depersonalized symbol serves a very real and useful purpose, our British friends tell us, in holding together the loose skeins of empire. Is it not essentially the same device as Japan’s god incarnate, merely reappearing in a far more advanced, more sophisticated form? The British Crown in its present significance is at any rate of quite recent development; it is but one example of those non-rational controls which the democracies seem to be increasingly recognizing and using in the conduct of their own affairs.

In the United States the development of the mass advertising industry would alone have been almost enough to bring the Psychological Man to birth. The advertising pages of any mass-circulation magazine are enough to show how deeply our whole politico-economic system already rests upon the direct appeal to and manipulation of every kind of emotion and non-rational reaction, good, bad, and indifferent. Many have discerned an ominous portent in the development of the public-opinion poll (itself an outgrowth of the advertising industry). Here is a mechanism tending to make the operation of our political system dependent, not on what the public thinks at those stated periods at which it enters the voting booths, but on what it feels from day to day. In the face of the public-opinion poll, with its interesting revelations as to the way in which popular verdicts are actually formed, as to their confusions and contradictions, it is not easy to maintain in their original naivete the great logical fictions on which representative democratic government is supposed to rest.

But the fictions have at best been growing more and more transparent in recent years. The controversies which have raged around the innovations of the New Deal have led to a pretty thoroughgoing popular re-examination of the actual, as distinct from the theoretical, foundations of our political and constitutional system. The comfortable theory, for example, that ours is “a government of laws and not of men” could not survive unmodified after the embittered fight over the Supreme Court, with its obvious demonstrations that the law is what the men say it is, with its searching debate over the actual nature and functioning of the court in the play of political power. No one who paid any attention at all to that debate could retain the naive idea of the Supreme Court as a body which simply ascertains and states the dicta of a pre-established, abstract law—in the same way that a body of scientists might ascertain the natural laws involved in some problem of physics or chemistry. A subtler view is necessary. It is obvious that the value of the court is not that it is a scientifically exact instrument for determining the “law” (itself a largely non-existent entity in those fields with which the court is usually concerned); the actual value of the institution lies in the fact that people will believe that this is what it does, or at any rate that they will agree to act as if they believed it, whether they do or not. Again, we are not so far from Japan’s irrational emperor-father-god, though on an infinitely more advanced level. The court provides an emotional, a psychological sanction of the utmost practical importance to the successful operation of our democratic system. So understood, the device loses none of its effectiveness; indeed, one only admires the more the true beauty, intricacy, and utility of this social invention. But one is already outside the realm of purely political theory, entering a wider, a more complicated, but perhaps even more fruitful field.

So one might go on through our whole political and constitutional structure. At almost every point one cannot fail to observe the widest discrepancy between the actual day-to-day functioning of the system and the political theories upon which the founders constructed it. The separation of powers, the nice balance of class and sectional interest, the very notion of “representative” government, even of “the people’s will”—these things fade into remote and insubstantial ideals or myths against the practical operations of political machines, party bosses, labor lobbies, industrial pressure groups, and organized social and economic powers about which the Constitution says nothing. Yet the founders’ system has functioned and is continuing to function with an astonishing stability, success, and continuity. One can only explain the paradox by the use of psychological concepts. The authors of the Constitution, although they cast their ideas in the terms of political mechanics, built a system which responded so subtly to the actual emotional drives by which human society is impelled that it has survived to this day, transformed in almost all its details, yet as a whole essentially the same instrument which they created. In social matters we are like the physicists, who have moved from the elementary mechanics and optics on which modern technology was founded deep into the intricacies of the molecule, the atom, and the electron, which lay behind the more elementary principles first discerned. In so doing, a Niels Bohr or an Einstein have not invalidated the soundly inspired work of a Galileo or a Faraday; they have enormously enriched its potentialities.

The Psychological Man has been mobilized, with greater or less crudity, by the dictatorships; but there is every reason for believing that he is being and will increasingly be employed by the democracies and that in the process our society will be enriched rather than impoverished, that it will be made more free rather than less so, that it will become a subtler vehicle for meeting the actual needs of civilized humanity. The marvellous ingenuities of electronic physics can be applied equally to furthering the barbarian conquests of a Hitler or to repelling them, to the terrible arts of war or to the creative advances of peace. The same may perhaps be said of our increasing understanding of society as a psychological rather than a purely religious or political or economic phenomenon.

For the Psychological Man, it must be remembered, does not advance as a destroyer of the Religious, the Political, or the Economic Man; rather, he subsumes them all. Religious feeling, the need for ordered liberty, the need for economic security and advancement—all these are fundamental elements of the human psychology. The Psychological Man does not actually introduce anything new either into humanity or into the practical operation of our social mechanisms. All he brings is a new and somewhat broader way of thinking about the ancient facts of our common existence which have always been before us. We are beginning to feel that neither purely religious, moralistic, political, nor economic concepts offer an adequate basis for the logical understanding and direction of society; we are therefore beginning to construct a new base which will include them all, as well as take into account the many other powerful impulses, needs, and aspirations which in fact do govern the affairs of men and which any satisfactory social organization must seek to serve and reconcile.

The Psychological Man may resemble Frankenstein’s monster in his first appearance. One suspects that he will actually develop during the next century or so into one of the most versatile and most powerful servants which the human intellect has yet produced for the advancement of the well-being of mankind.


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