Choose format 

Related topics

Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history

Of love, war and obscenity: a perspective on the fall of Baghdad


Israel, Palestine and the tiger of terrorism: anti-semitism and history 

Life in the death camp

A brief history of blasphemy

Liberalism's holy war

Reconsidering the Rushdie affair

The dark mirror of Islam

The politics of the body

Was Hitler a racist?

Policing racism 

Imaginary homelands




History and hatred

Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred by Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post. 366pp. Yale University Press, 1998

Times Literary Supplement   
10 April 1998              

HALF A CENTURY AGO, the philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood confidently stated his view that ‘irrational elements . . . the blind forces and activities in us, which are part of human life . . . are not parts of the historical process’. At the time they were written, these words reflected the practice of almost all professional historians, and it is only in the past thirty or forty years that serious historical attention has been given to what some would term the forces of unreason. One of the scholars who has done most to shift our perspective in this respect is the historian Norman Cohn. In studying medieval millennial movements, modern transformations of Christian anti-Semitism and the origins of the Great European Witch Hunt, Cohn focused attention on a historical tendency in Judaeo-Christian cultures to engage in massive struggles against vast ‘evil’ conspiracies, which, for the most part, did not exist at all. In becoming, in effect, the foremost student and chronicler of Western paranoia, Cohn has probably thrown more light on the dynamics of prejudice and persecution than any other historian in either Europe or America. 

Yet, for all its immense historical and empirical richness, Cohn’s work leaves a number of questions unanswered. A comprehensive investigation of the role of paranoia in history is certainly needed, and Political Paranoia, which is a study of the role of hatred, tyranny and conspiracy-thinking in modern politics, might seem to be just such a book. Its authors are far from being political or academic outsiders. Robert S. Robins is a political scientist who has served as a consultant in political psychology to several presidential administrations in the United States, while Jerrold M. Post is the psychiatrist who founded the US Government’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. Published by Yale University Press and endorsed on its back cover by the President of the American Psychiatric Association, this book might as well come in a US diplomatic bag. It is precisely for this reason that its contents should be examined with more than ordinary care. 

There can be no doubt at all that Political Paranoia contains, in addition to some significant insights, a great deal of valuable information. Robins and Post have trawled assiduously through the annals of twentieth-century extremism, and have drawn brief and often instructive portraits of some of its most significant proponents. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and the Ayatollah Khomeini are among those whose role in history is described and analysed. Nor are Americans excluded. The political careers of both Senator McCarthy and President Richard Nixon are discussed briefly. The views of a number of other Americans, including Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Lyndon Larouche, Rabbi Meir Kahane and cult leaders Jim Jones and David Koresh are also analysed or subjected to significant comment.

What is common to all these figures, we are told, is that they show the symptoms of ‘the quintessential political disease’. This is to say that they are ‘paranoids’, or that they suffer from ‘paranoid personality disorder’. According to Robins and Post, one of the principal psychological mechanisms involved in this mental disorder is projection. For the main difficulty of those who develop paranoia is that they cannot come to terms with their own ‘badness’. Feelings of rage and hostility in particular are subject to denial and projected on to others. ‘Violently angry and afraid of their own aggression, paranoids defend against their rage by viewing themselves as the victims of persecutors.’ In effect, the paranoid’s impulse to persecute and tyrannize others is denied and projected on to phantom enemies who then become imaginary persecutors who must be hunted down and either subjugated or destroyed.

There can, I believe, be no doubt that a process of ‘projection’ is indeed at work in almost all the cases the authors discuss, and nobody who sets out to analyse political psychology without recourse to such a concept is likely to succeed. To say this, however, is in no sense to endorse the theoretical framework used by Robins and Post, who draw their understanding of projection almost entirely from Freud and, even more crucially, from Melanie Klein. It perhaps needs to be pointed out yet again that the term ‘projection’ did not originate with psychoanalysis. As early as 1854, George Eliot used the term in a psychological sense in her translation of The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach. The process of projection, however, has been implicitly recognized for centuries, as we may see from these lines in King Lear:

Thou rascal beadle,hold thy bloody hand!

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back;

Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind

For which thou whip’st her. (IV, vi 157-60)

If we respond narrowly to Shakespeare’s poetry, we will see a barbed insight directed against the sadism of petty tyrants. If our response is broader and more generous, however, we will see, reflected in the figure of the beadle, nothing other than ourselves. The whole point of Shakespeare’s lines is not that they illuminate a psychiatric illness. It is that they succinctly describe one of the fundamental processes of human psychology.

Yet when such poetic insights were taken over by psychoanalysis, they were both technicalized and pathologized. Melanie Klein in particular conjured into existence an entirely speculative process of psycho-biological development, according to which every infant allegedly passes through several stages of intense sexual and sadistic fantasy. These stages include the ‘paranoid schizoid position’, which is in most cases left behind as the child grows towards maturity. Some people, however, supposedly become fixated at this stage, and the result is paranoia. The denial and projection of aggressive impulses and the splitting of the world into good and evil are, on this view, immature or even pathological defence mechanisms. 

Robins and Post make this pathologized account of projection into the very cornerstone of their argument. By adopting this position, they are able to present their reflections on modern history as a pre-eminently reasonable analysis of other people’s delusions.

The principal objection to this approach is that if denial and projection are indeed pathological defence mechanisms, then these signs of ‘madness’ are exhibited by a great many people whom most would consider eminently sane.  

In their account of Jim Jones, who incited more than 900 people to commit suicide in Guyana in 1978, Robins and Post characterize him as a paranoid who suffered from messianic delusions and who was able to make sense of his followers’ lives by holding out his own redemptive vision. The problem is that much of what they say about Jones (especially that which concerns projection) could equally well be said about Jesus. Was Jesus paranoid? Had he too become fixated in the paranoid-schizoid position? Was Paul paranoid? And if so, are we now to diagnose as ‘paranoid’ the vast number of people who have become Christians throughout the past two millennia? 

Freud, who believed that religion was a neurosis from which he as a rationalist did not suffer, might well have answered these questions in the affirmative. But such crusading and contemptuous rationalism ought itself to be grounds for treating psychoanalytic formulations with scepticism. In fact, Freud himself often had recourse to the concept of evil. More importantly still, the entire theoretical framework of psychoanalysis can perhaps best be understood as a massive exercise in projection. For in psychoanalysis the ‘badness’ of adults - and in particular their sexual ‘badness’- is systematically projected on to very young children. As long ago as 1960, the Harvard psychologist David McClelland suggested that one of the reasons why psychoanalysis had such a great appeal to American intellectuals was because of its insistence on the sexual and infantile roots of ‘evil’. This ‘suited the New England temperament well which had been shaped by a similar Puritan emphasis’. McClelland went on to observe that ‘to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of Calvinistic sermons on infant damnation’. 

If we turn from psychoanalysis to the rhetoric of politicians and journalists, we will find that the habit of splitting the world into good and evil shows no signs of disappearing from these spheres either. Countless educated people throughout the West would unthinkingly and automatically describe Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or the Ayatollah Khomeini as ‘evil’. The objection to what may seem a harmless rhetorical habit is that by using the term ‘evil’ we are not simply articulating a moral judgment; we are implicitly endorsing a traditional apocalyptic world-view. When we do this, we subtly mobilize almost all the projections and delusions which have always attended such views. 

The great danger of demonizing other regimes or their leaders in this way is that, in the crusading zeal which results, we may find ourselves adopting strategies which actually exacerbate or deepen the very moral wrongs we seek, justifiably, to oppose. The history of British and American intervention in the Middle East, and particularly in Iran and Iraq, offers a disturbing example of just such a process at work.  

Yet, though some might object to this use of the term ‘evil’, nobody would characterize such use as the manifestation of a character disorder. Robins and Post themselves acknowledge that splitting and projection are not merely found in paranoids. For always, they write, ‘under the facade of civilization, of mature psychological organization, lurks the primitive psychological savage, prey to destructive feelings, fearing enemies, defensively aggressive’.

The problem with this savage-beneath-the-skin version of Western civilization is that it actually inverts the pattern of history. It would be more reasonable to suggest that the kind of dangerous projections which are in question are not the residue of savagery so much as the precipitate of civilization. They grow directly out of the rigour of Judaeo-Christian morality, and as such they are part of the ‘normal’ defence mechanisms of the mature personality. Such projections, invisibly disguised, can sometimes be just as powerful in the minds of American presidents (or British prime ministers) as they are in the minds of ‘paranoids’. 

We will even find such habits of projection at work in the minds of political scientists and psychiatrists. Robins and Post quite rightly point out the tendency of some political tyrants to project their own feelings of uncleanness, and of tiny insignificance, on to an external enemy. They quote Hitler’s classic portrayal of ‘the Jew’ as a ‘parasite’, a ‘bacillus’ and the source of all infection. They do not appear to notice, however, some of the metaphors which they use themselves. They try very hard (far too hard) to present Islam as an essentially merciful religion. ‘Yet’, they say, ‘Islam is a human organization, subject to the same infections as any other – infections often borne on the winds of history.’ In a remarkable and revealing sentence, they go on to add, with specific reference to Islam, that ‘no institution is safe from the paranoid bacillus’. Elsewhere, they talk about how the ‘germs’ of the primitive may ‘infect’ the thinking of healthy individuals and warn that even Christianity may sometimes be taken over by ‘the paranoid virus’, so that it helps to ‘spread the paranoid infection’. In the face of such rhetoric, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Robins and Post are viewing ‘paranoia’ through the very forms of splitting and projection which they have themselves identified as its primary symptoms. 

If, however, we were to conclude from its use of such extreme and dangerous rhetoric that Political Paranoia should immediately be consigned to history’s dustbin, we would merely be taking a destructive process of projection one stage further. Like many psychoanalytically oriented works, this book is remarkable for the way in which the uncritical acceptance of baseless psychological theories is interspersed with occasional insights, some of which are extremely valuable.  

At one point in their book, the authors apply the ‘inherent bad faith model’ of foreign policy to international relations in general. They suggest that international relations ‘are necessarily riven with suspicion, deception and betrayal. Even the promises of the best and longest of allies are lies, and each party, in the dead of night, if not in the usual course of business, realizes this.’ The authors go on to conclude that ‘the objective situation so blurs the line between paranoia and prudent reaction that we are led to characterize the normal condition of international relations as paranoid, or at least significantly paranoiagenic’. 

These words imply that both presidents and prime ministers may, in spite or even because of the psychological advice they receive, be all too easily pressurized into accepting a view of reality which is both delusional and irrational. If the true force of this insight had been allowed to inform the larger argument of Political Paranoia, then the entire book would necessarily have been transformed. Yet this insight seems almost immediately to be lost or overpowered by the theoretical claims which surround it. It is because its authors repeatedly defer to theories which enjoy great cultural authority, but which possess little or no explanatory power, that they are unable to harvest the considerable crop of insights their book undoubtedly contains. The unsatisfactory result is an essay on paranoia which is not simply misleading but which might, were it to be accepted uncritically by the kind of senior politicians Robert Robins and Jerrold Post have advised in the past, cause real political harm.

Times Literary Supplement, 10 April 1998



© Richard Webster, 2002