The Causes of War and the Attempt of Lloyd de Mause to Identify Them

The almost cyclical “eruption” of armed conflict in the 19th as well as the 20th and now, in the early 21st century has led again and again to exclamations by war critics that war and the prevailing sentiment of both leaders and masses that predates it, is “pure madness.”  Such a diagnosis is of course emotional; it is rarely underpinned by thorough investigation and a theory guiding such an investigation. One of the few serious researchers who ventured into the direction of an attempt that might  provide a serious underpinning of the spontaneous emotional diagnosis is Lloyd de Mause, a professor who taught and did research at Columbia University in New York. He has become known, among specialists, as the founder of a theoretical branch of either history or psychology that is called psycho-history. Like ethno-psychology and ethnomusicology, it is a disputed branch of the humanities. Like psychology of literature and psychology of music it is an attempt to establish an inter-disciplinary discipline.

H.-D. König, a German political scientist who specializes in  political psychology, critiqued de Mause in 1988 during a colloquium of the 'Political Psychology Working Group' that forms a section of the German Political Science Association. The colloqiuum (or “tagung') took place on the premises of the Sigmund-Freud-Institute in Frankfurt (West Germany) on May 7 and May 8, 1988.

As Ralph J. Butzer summed it up in his report (published in the journal Luzifer-Amor, Zeitschrift fur Geschichte der Psychoanalyse, vol. 1, issue 2,1988, p.155), König carried out a depth-hermeneutic  analysis (tiefen-hermeneutische analyse) of the bellicose conflict between the US and Libya that took place in spring 1986. He relied for this purpose on the method of “scenic comprehension” developed by Lorenzer. Based on this research, König endeavored to critique the interpretation provided by de Mause.  König pointed out that the psycho-historic school [founded by de Mause] sees the causes of war “rooted in national, collective guilt-feelings which prompt an attempt to attain a cleansing from sin through war.”

König then commented that de Mause indeed succeeds to discover “the material underlying the formation of masses” (das Material der Massenbildung) – i.e. “the typical fantasies” [shared by the masses, in the context of the phase leading up to the outbreak of a war]. According to König, de Mause fails, however, to identify “a critically mediating perspective,” because he does not investigate the instrumentalization  [funktionalisierung]  of these fantasies that is undertaken by “actual politics” (durch die aktuelle Politik, a category that amounts to a hypostasis, or a pars pro toto that is used, perhaps as a linguistic short-cut, in order to refer to the totality of the political interventions of the leading politicians of the dominant bloc, i.e. the politics executed, through media interventions, by those politicians who are heard, who are present in the media). 

Relying on discourse analysis, König pointed out that this mediation [between fantasies present in the masses and their instrumentalization by the classe politique] was effected during the “Reagan era” by the image of the “cowboy.”

König's critique of de Mause culminated in the charge that de Mause ended up engaged in an inappropriate “applied psychoanalysis” (schlechte “angewandte Psychoanalyse”).  More to the point, König  said that  de Mause was hypostasizing  “the basic manic-depressive pattern” (das manisch-depressive Grundmuster) by turning it into an anthropological constant which permitted him  to invoke – in non-sociological and unhistorical fashion – ancient rites of sacrifice of the Aztecs. “In this way he shortchanged [or voided] the cognitive potential inscribed in his approach,” turning into the opposite of an 'aufklärer' [a term that in German culture refers to philosophers of the enlightenment, and to all those who succeed to dispell misconceptions and who help to enlighten the public today]. Thus the summary given of König's critical intervention by Ralph J. Butzer.

It is of course a bit too easy to simply accuse de Mause of neglecting a sociological interpretation of his material when he himself makes amply clear that the concept of “society” is, in his view, a theoretically unacceptable hypostasis, to which corresponds  no factual reality.

Lloyd de Mause rejects, in fact,  a materialist conception of history that operates with concepts such as  society, class, means of production, social relations, class relations, and relations of production.  Privileging psychic reality rather than bodily (physical) reality and taking motivations to be “the causes” of acts, he rejects (by implication) the hypothesis that “being” (l'être, das Sein)  / or “existence,” for that matter / predates “consciousness” / or “essence.”

De Mause obviously rejects materialist interpretations attributed to the theoretical approach chosen by Marx and those indebted to Marx. But he comprehends the “materialist types of determination” suggested by the critiqued thinkers in a way that would be criticized by Karl Korsch, by Gramsci and others as  a deficient, crude, “vulgar” type of  materialism. 

Regarding the concrete, historical relationship of Being and Consciousness, Frederick Engels pointed out already that “Consciousness” exerts, in turn, a determining influence on “Being.” The relationship must be conceived as a dialectical relationship. In his preface (On Method) to his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre defined the historical subject as that determined human being which is at the same time endowed with the capacity to transcend that which is. Man, though situated and determined by situations, as well as by the “weight of past generations,” has the ability to surpass excactly that which he became due the determining impact of  external social forces (class relations, given dominant discourses, institutions, the impact of technology, the mode of production). For Sartre, the creative potential of man, or his potential to transcend that what has been made of him, and that which surrounds him in terms of social reality, is tied to human praxis. But praxis was also the key criterion emphasized by Marx and Gramsci, both predecessors of Sartre. Changer la vie, et changer le monde, the surrealists demanded. Both becomes possible because man is capable to act consciously, effecting change that transcends the status quo. All materialists would agree that effective social change, though relying on the activation of numerous individuals, is not possible as an individualist endeavour – but only as  the joint, coordinated action of groups, classes, and social movements. In a class society that is antagonistic in nature, the defenders of the interests of the dominant bloc will attempt to either preserve the status quo defensively or to change it offensively in their favor, while the subaltern classes – to the extent that they develop an active comprehension of their humane needs and their vital stake in their own human emancipation, as well as an understanding of their ability to jointly accomplish that emancipation and reach the goal of a freer, more democratic, more equal and just, as well as ecologically sustainable society – are basically able to accomplish positive, humane transformations of the given society, for the benefit of all men (even the suppressors), and for the sake of the protection and preservation of the sustainable ecological balance of the planet.

If Marx pointed out, in opposition to idealistic interpretations of man and society, that Being determines Consciousness, he overemphasized – for pedagogical reasons, in the context of a discoursive debate that overwhelmingly rejected materialist interpretations (at least in Germany, at his time) –  the logical  primacy of nature, with regard to consciousness.  And therefore, the logical primacy of man as a physical being [naturwesen] with physical needs, subjected to the impact of the forces of nature, as well as that of man as a social being [gesellschaftliches wesen]. A being, according to Marx that is subjected to the impact and constraints of society  – in the 19th century, as much as  in preceding the centuries and those that were to follow, until today. And subjected thus to the conditions of his class in a class society characterized by rule of man by man and  exploitation of man by man. Exposed, in other words, to the subjection of (most if not all) men to politico-economic forces. 

As a dialectical thinker, he saw; of course, the need and the possibility to transcend that which is. And this, not in order to arrive at a new stage of subjection to politico-economic forces, but in a realm of freedom where all men, jointly, would attempt to consciously deliberate on and realize new possibilities of a good human commonwealth.

Economist indebted to Marx have often pointed out the constraints that even the ruling class – even capitalist – are subjected to in the context of a capitalist mode of production. They are not free, they often argue, to be different from a Mitt Romney who pronounces, I love to fire people. They must seeek to realize the maximum profit possible, they must exploite labor maximally, and they must accumulate – they must go forward, in other words, and compete with competitors, or go down and sink. They have no choice, these economists argue. 
This material, both natural and social “determination” of not simply their free will ( – being an abstract philosophical postulate, this is not being debated at all – ) but of their psychic disposition and psychic ability to swim against the tide and “disobey” the commands of the market (its “logic”) is rejected by idealistic psychologist and historians, like de Mause, as a fiction, as they defend and privilege the complete autonomy of our psychic life, the dynamics  of which may escape us, while we – being unconscious of them – cannot escape them. The hypothesis of the primacy of real, material, social forces is rejected in favor of a hypothesis stipulating the primacy of real psychic forces at work in all of us.

As is well known, the scientific progress achieved in the late 19th and early 20th century resulted also in the serious discovery of, and reflection on, the human pre-consciousness (vorbewusstes) or “unconsciousness” (unbewusstes) – an advance in knowledge connected, mainly, with the name of Freud. Later on, group psychology and the study of group dynamics provided valuable new insights, or corroborated insights held only intuitively in preceding centuries. Insofar as the dominant class, the bourgeoisie, consists of often competing factions and groups, group theory and the study of group dynamics can be of value to  sociological research.  The absorption of peasants, landless laborers and of parts of the petty bourgeoisie by an industrial working class the core of which had initially been formed by highly skilled artisans, produced a stratified working class, comprising technicians, skilled workers, ordinary (semi-skilled) workers, helpers,  temporary and day laborers, etc. Original class background and the socio-cultural impregnation by the class that factions of the working class sprang from continued to affect consciousness, even though the homogenizing effects of the new class situation, thus of the factory and of daily contact and exchange of opinions with other workers must  not be underrated. Neither must we underrate the exposure of the working class to the thoughts and ideology of the dominant bloc, or the ambiguous effect of permanent, covert and open threats that the dominant class, in a context of favorable relations of forces, exerted and exerts on those “forced to sell their labor.” The threat of wage cuts often has the psychological effect of  increasing either militancy and group (or class) solidarity, or fear and a tendency to show less solidarity with other workers (de-solidarization).
The focus of Freudian psychoanalysis on the individual as a member of the family embedded in the family's psychostructure (including its psychic conflicts) and in an authoritarian, libido-repressing society widened the original scope of Freud's theory. Freud had already looked into the phenomenon of hysteria among combattants – a psychic effect of traumas (gr., traumata) suffered in wars. The psychic causes of war and genocide became a primary concern of Lloyd de Mause. De Mouse's approach was endebted to Freud, and was strictly person-centered and group-centered (the group being constituted by individuals); it has been critiqued in so far as idealistic and individualistic. This charge is not entirely unfounded, as he rejected, in fact, research into material “factors” or “contributing causes” leading to wars, and he also rejected an approach that was focusing on broad socio-cultural and socio-psychological forces that might “co-determine” individuals. In other words, he rejected the assumption of Marx that Being determined Consciousness or Sartre's hypothesis that man is that “determined human being which is capable to transcend its determination” and act as a conscious historical agent, in combination with others, in order to change a situation that is already a historically produced, and thus a “determined one.” [If de Mause derived the psychic disposition of men from pre-natal and birth experience, he “anchored” the psychic of course in the material; in so far the charge of idealism is not wholly well-founded. It would be more to the point to say that he is blind to, or rejects as secondary, and to some extent irrelevant, later material factors – with the exception of child-raising strategies, thus factors relevant for psychic formation of the individual in early childhood.] 

De Mause's basic premis is that everything in society that exists is brought forth by the activity of individuals – admittedly, of consecutive generations of individuals – and that we must seek to understand the “motivation” of the acts of individuals, as a cause that must be further explained, in terms of a preceding psychic history as their determining cause. 

The one-sideness of this approach that neglects the dialects between “being” and “consciousness” (between  material, determining conditions and socially situated man, capable of acting consciously with regard to these conditions) is hard to overlook. De Mauses's main and thus, basic hypothesis, that it is not early childhood which has a formative psychic effect on the psycho-structure of men, but the pre-natal (foetal) and birth experience is well-documented by ample material, and therefore not easily discarded. In his view, this pre-natal and birth experience, undergone by all human beings, is basically severely traumatic. [This is of curse debatable, as a variety of pre-natal experiences, a broad spectrum, so to speak, may be possible.] According to de Mause, the resulting psychostructure, that is due to overwhelmingly traumatic pre-natal and/or birth canal experience, is modified by a spectrum of various (obviously, socially situated) child- rearing modes or strategies. De Mause assumes that man, as an individual anchored in concrete groups (as pointed out already, he rejects the concept “society” and like Sartre, thinks of the group as a decisive, empirically researchable unit formed by individuals), transports and infuses the trauma originally experienced into the “group dynamics” of the group he belongs to, such a group being either a family, a  tribe, or the group that defines itself as “we Americans,” “we British,” “we Chinese,” etc.  Analyzing the available material that originated in diverse phases of history, in periods leading up to wars and during wars, by way of a combination of content analysis of literary, political, philosophical and other texts from each period, and psycho-analytic interpretation of the material, de Mause arrives at ahistorical constants. Again and again, according to his theory, the original trauma is relived in a symbolic, fantasized “cleansing” from guilt. Outsiders in the group and the Others outside the group (thus, another group or other groups) are seen (or fantasized) as “polluting,” and a hysterical obsession with this brings about war hysteria and finally war. In the fantasy of the members of the group (i.e. both individuals that form masses, and leaders) war becomes an act of “purification.”  (I ommit here the part of his complex theory that refers to internal group dynamics [the group being composed of leader(s) and led], the questioning of the moral authority of the leader, how this forces the leader to deflect the pressure on an outside object or target, and how this re-stabilizes the leader's position and the fantasized stability of the group.)  Basically, thus, an anthropological constant – the assumed inescapable early trauma –   predisposes man and groups formed by human beings to relive the Urszene or original experience in an attempt of fantasized exorcism of the pre-consciously remembered “terror.”  And only by becoming conscious, thank to psychoanalysis, of this psychic mechanism, can man free himself from the compulsion to repeat this circle, throughout history.

I apologize of course, for doing perhaps injustice to de Mause by attempting to sum up the essence of his theoretical paradigm. I have already said that a CRITICAL ARGUMENT against his theory is that he rejects the concept of society, and that he does not recognize the reality of what Sartre called the practico-inert. He refuses to acknowledge the reality (or rather, relatively autonomous existence, and relatively autonomous causal impact) of INSTITUTIONS, MEANS OF PRODUCTION, AUTOMATIZED SPEECH AND LITERATURE (THUS – “LANGAGE” IN CONTRAST TO “PAROLE”) –   that, all of them, preserve in this moment, right now, in a “frozen state,” the result of the praxis of a preceding generation or preceding generations, or even  of our physical deeds and speech acts committed yesteryear.  At the same time, his concept of cause-effect (SOURCE OF MOTIVATION – motivation – act) is one-sided and deterministic, in a way; it fails to be supple, open, and dialectical. I must add here that there is no strict determination outside the natural sciences; in the social field, determination is no more than a tendential likelihood of a fact or constellation producing certain outcomes or results, for instance that X  leads to Y  or that X leads to either Y or Z  but not P. Dialectical comprehension of social determination means that X has a determining effect on Y but Y' (the changed Y) has also, in the context of the historical timeline, an effect on X' (an X that has already evolved over time, and that is further affected by the impact that Y' has on it, thus becoming X''). 

If, as I pointed out,  most Marxist or Marx-influenced economist will conclude that the freedom of the individual capitalist to break with the logic of the market IS NON-EXISTENT (because he will go bancrupt and cease to be a capitalist, if he does), a more existentialist opponent of this view might however argue that of course the individual capitalist is free to “cop out” or “opt out” – he may in fact say, Workers, I give you my factory, I'll join a monastery – or, I'll be a hippie, and I'll go and demonstrate against the system in Zuccotti Park. Unlikely, yes – but against all tendential likelihood, the son of the Elberfeld manufactory owner, Engels, switched sides and worked for the project that he shared with so many artisans and workers at the time: the liberation of the working class from misery, from exploitation, in fact, from wage labor.

I come back here, to this sideshow, in the debates of most of us, in order to point out that de Mause's concern with motivations is not “crazy” – HIS APPROACH IS MERELY ONESIDED, ALSO UNDIALECTICAL (as pointed out already), AND BENT ON DEMONSTRATING THE SOLE IMPORTANCE OF ONE PRIMARY EXPERIENCE. Which is comprehended in a singular fashion, to boot, rather than in the variety of its possible forms or appearances. And whose effects are, quite compulsively, “demonstrated” as being inescapable and repetitive (unless the cycle is broken by psychoanalysis). I would interpret it as professional partial blindness to everything outside his field of specialized  knowledge, and as over-interpretation of his findings. I think, however, that de Mause is not a fool and that many of his observation, taken in isolation from his untenable general theoretical model, are valuable and worthy of being carefully considered. – In a similar vein, certain sociologists, like Max Weber and Schumpeter, who tried to refute and reject Marx, were indebted so much to Marx' basic insights that it makes their work highly readable. While rejecting the general polemical intention and the attacks on Marx that are polemical and merely due to this intention, we can learn from certain specific insights that they added to the body of sociological knowledge. For instance, we owe to Schumpeter newly formulated insights on the innovative potential of capitalism as far as the means of production, thus technology, organizational principles, and marketing strategies are concerned. Schumpeter embraced  the defensive backwardness of the managerial stratum (a stratum close to the Capitalist class, and often coopted by it), and thus a backwardness that becomes apparent when new social forces begin to transcend the given mode of production, thus given class relations, even though he was wide awake when he saw that in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, thus for the time being, the system was capable of modifying and “modernizing” the latter, in order to keep them intact. 

De Mause's content analysis-based research on the build-up of “group” (or in fact, mass) hysteria and his analysis of the socio-psychological “group dynamics” at play between 'democratic' leaders (like Carter, Bush, etc.) and masses in the United States in the periods leading up to wars ignited or almost ignited by US governments is certainly worth reading. It is up to the reader to critically assess this contribution to what is in fact social psychology, not psycho-history – or psycho-history only insofar, as a historical dimension is added to socio-psychology, something that is highly desirable.

That the analysis of the power play between factions of the dominant bloc in the United States and an analysis of the OVERALL POLITICO-ECONOMIC GOALS of the dominant blocco historico in the United States as well as the particular, often very specific economic interests of its various factions is missing, has already been indicated. Specialized investigations of partial aspect of reality, from the point of view of a given scientific discipline, are not entirely in vain, as long as they are integrated (and can be integrated, after all) into a more holistic, overall analysis of the social respectively politico-econonomic dynamics of the system given at present. The critical assessment of research results that throw light on reality from a particular perspective and in a theoretically biased, thus one- sided and partially blind way, does not invalidate everything – even if shortcomings can be pointed out. 

– Arnoldo Hammer

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