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Chapter VIII: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Removing the Disease from within the Body Politic
Richard A. Koenigsberg
The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism

For information on ordering, please click here.
“A truly bold and provocative treatise. The interpretations are intriguing and illuminating, the scholarship creative and careful.” —Dan B. Thomas, Political Psychology
After the publication of Hitler’s Ideology, I read the Collected Works of Lenin (50 volumes) and thought I’d write a companion volume, Lenin’s Ideology.
However, my energy at this point had to be devoted to keeping my fledgling company, Library of Social Science, in business.

But before I said goodbye to scholarship, I decided to share what I’d discovered in a slim, 58-page volume, The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism.

Building on Hitler (see Chapter VII), I found that other ideologies of violence were rooted in and defined by organic metaphors. While Hitler stated that “from a dead mechanism (the state) there must be formed a living organism,” Stalin spoke about the communist party in identical terms. He explained that like every living organism, the party would undergo a process of metabolism: “the old and obsolete passes away, the new and growing lives and develops.”

Given this conception of the nation or party as an organism, several propositions followed logically. The first is that the nation or party is susceptible to “disease,” i.e., to the possibility that germs, infections, cancers, etc., may invade the body, causing it to become “ill.” Thus Mao, typically, suggested that self-criticism within the party

prevents the inroads of germs and other organisms from contaminating the minds of our comrades and the body of our Party. We cannot allow political dust and germs to eat into our healthy organisms.

A second proposition is that the nation’s disease may originate in a certain class of people within the body politic. The German anti-Semite, Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891), described Jews as “carriers of decay who pollute every national culture.” With trichinae and bacilli, Lagarde says, one does not negotiate: They are “exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

Hitler referred to Jews as people “suffering from a poisonous infection” who openly profess their desire to “infest others with the same disease.” While the French revolutionary, Abbé Sieyès (1748-1836), described the “privileged class” as “some horrible disease eating the flesh on the body of some unfortunate man.” It is a “plague,” Sieyès said, for the nation that suffers from it.

A third proposition that followed is that it may be necessary to “remove” a certain class of people from within the national body. “Cure” may require “cutting out” the diseased part of the body politic, just as a surgeon may need to remove a diseased body part whose continued presence threatens the organism’s survival.

Lenin declared that the way of reform was

the way of delay, of procrastination, of the painfully slow decomposition of the putrid parts of the national organism. It is the proletariat and the peasantry that suffer first and most of all from their putrefaction. The revolutionary way is the way of quick amputation, which is the least painful to the proletariat, the way of the direct removal of the decomposing parts.

Similarly, the justification of violence appearing in the writing of the Parisian Commune: “Thus the clever and helpful surgeon with his cruel and benevolent knife cuts off the gangrened to save the body of the sick man.” While Georgi Dimitrov, Stalin’s confidant and ally (1882-1949), described the purge of the mid-thirties in terms of the necessity of “cutting into good flesh to get rid of the bad.”

The preceding passages suggest the presence of a coherent phantasy, which may be summarized as follows:

  • The nation is a living organism.
  • This organism is suffering from a “disease,” the source of which is a particular class of people within the body of the national organism.
  • To cure the disease—thereby to “save the nation”—it may be necessary to “remove” a certain class of people from within the body politic.

I hypothesized that this phantasy was a fundamental source of acts of political destruction carried out in the name of racist and revolutionary ideologies. Perpetrators think of themselves—not as murderers—but as men who have undertaken the “necessary task” of removing a disease from within the nation.

The class of people identified as a “disease element” may be characterized, then, as people who lie within the boundaries of the nation, but are perceived as not belonging there. This class of people is viewed, in short, as an “alien element” within the body of the nation” that must be “rejected”—just as any organism rejects alien entities that invade the interior of its body and endanger its health.

I closed out Chapter II by theorizing that the “rejection of alien elements” is rooted, ultimately, in the tendency of an organism to maintain its own narcissistic integrity: integrity of its body; its psyche; and of the social unit with which it identifies.

I recalled Freud’s hypothesis that the perception of one’s ego derives from perceptions relating to one’s own body (that the human ego, ultimately, is a body ego). Extending Freud’s hypothesis, I suggested that our perception of political units derive from perceptions emanating from our own bodies.