Sunday, December 29, 2013

Karen Horney and Stalin’s institutionalized neurosis

Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth

is one of those rare books capable of fundamentally transforming your understanding of the world. Horney’s work is also sadly underappreciated today,* even more so than Erich Fromm’s – added to the reflexive dismissal of anyone or anything connected to Freud (even of those like Horney who themselves came out against the most problematic aspects of Freud’s arguments, at a time when it was professionally difficult to do so) there’s the fact that she was a woman.

But the undeniable light her work can shed not just on individual psychology but on culture and politics has been appreciated by some. Recently, I ran across “Memoir of a Stalin Biographer” by Robert C. Tucker, published in 1982. As the essay’s title suggests, Tucker is best known for his three-volume biography of Stalin, of which two volumes were completed before his death in 2010. In this piece, he describes how reading Neurosis and Human Growth while living and working in Stalinist Russia led him to conceive the hypothesis that Stalin was an example of a neurotic personality, institutionalized in the political system. He offers a nice summary of Horney’s arguments (which, of course, doesn’t begin to do justice to the richness and nuance of the book):
Horney's subject was the ‘neurotic character structure’. To summarize the core of her argument, a person who experiences ‘basic anxiety’ resulting from adverse emotional circumstances in early life may seek and find a rock of inner security by forming an idealized self-image. Its content will depend upon the direction the child takes in relations with others -- moving against, toward, or away from them. For example, one whose tendency is to move against others may idealize himself as a great warrior, while one whose tendency is to move toward others may imagine himself as saintlike.

Gradually and unconsciously, if the anxiety-causing conditions do not change, the child moves from self-idealizing to adopting the idealized image as his real identity. Then the energies available for growth toward self-realization are invested in the quest to prove the idealized self in action. Horney calls this the ‘search for glory’.

Because the idealized self is absolute -- free of the faults, blemishes, and limitations that go with being human -- it can't be actualized. Hence, the individual begins to feel estranged from, and to accuse, hate, and condemn, the fallible, merely human ‘empirical self’ that he proves to be in practice. The drive to enact the idealized self is, however, compulsive, with extreme pain of anxiety and self-condemnation as the price of failure.

Consequently, the by now inwardly conflicted individual develops a system of unconscious defenses against the experience of failure. These include repression of the disparity between the idealized and empirical selves; various forms of rationalization; the seeking of affirmation of the idealized self by significant others; and the projection upon still others -- who can realistically be condemned and combated -- of both the repressed faults and the self- hatred that they arouse.

Repressed self-hatred is then experienced as hatred of others. The particular others on whom it is projected are likely to be those who have incurred the neurotic person's vindictive animosity by somehow failing to affirm him as the idealized self that he mistakenly takes himself to be. A ‘need for vindictive triumph’ is, therefore, a regular ingredient, according to Horney, of the search for glory, especially in those who have a tendency to move against others in a drive toward mastery.
Tucker continues:
When I was reading and rereading this book, my work consisted in directing a translation bureau operated cooperatively by the British, American, and Canadian embassies. It produced a daily bulletin of complete or condensed translations into English of articles selected by me from eight Soviet daily papers, and separate translations of articles selected from periodicals ranging from the Central Committee's monthly Kommunist to Soviet journals on history, law, philosophy and the arts. Because my Russian wife, Eugenia, whom I had married in 1946, was not given an exit visa to enable her to accompany me back home, I was, so to speak, serving an indefinite sentence in Moscow.

What would one day be called the ‘cult of personality’, with Stalin as the centerpiece, was at its zenith. Unlike Orwell's Big Brother, Stalin really existed. But he was a recluse and hardly ever appeared in public save for the parades in Red Square twice a year, May Day and November 7. Nevertheless, a heroic portrait of him, usually in generalissimo's uniform, appeared almost daily on the front pages of Soviet newspapers, and in a myriad other ways he symbolically figured in Soviet public life as an object of reverential tribute.

Two years earlier, in 1949, the cult of Stalin had reached a climax in the celebration of his 70th birthday. This amounted to what can only be described as his virtual deification….

One Saturday afternoon in 1951 I had been browsing in the Academy of Sciences bookstore and was walking down Gorky Street toward the U.S. Embassy on Mokhovaya. In full view below was Red Square and, off to its right, the Kremlin. It may have crossed my mind that Stalin was at work there. Suddenly the thought occurred to me: What if the idealized image of Stalin appearing day by day in the party-controlled, party-supervised Soviet press was an idealized self in Horney's sense?

If so, Stalin must be a neurotic personality as portrayed in her book, except that he possessed an unprecedented plenitude of political power. In that case, his personality cult must reflect his own monstrously inflated vision of himself as the greatest genius of Russian and world history. It must be an institutionalization of his neurotic character structure.

So this Kremlin recluse, this ruler who was so reticent about himself, must be spilling out his innermost thoughts about himself in millions of newspapers and journals published in Russia. He must be the most self-revealed disturbed person of all time. To find out what was most important about him there would be no need to get him onto a couch; one could do it by reading Pravda, while rereading Horney! I began to do just that, and in the process grew more convinced of my hypothesis….
As Tucker goes on to describe, he tried to be conscientious about respecting the uniqueness of the subject rather than simply trying to illustrate a conceptual framework: “Instead of dealing in such abstract categories from a book of psychology,…I was now using that book as guidance in a biographer's effort to portray his subject as an individual.”** (I haven’t yet read the biography, so I can’t attest to how successful he was.) This is perfectly in keeping with Horney’s own views; she regarded her categories and types as useful heuristics that shouldn’t be imposed on individuals but used to guide the understanding of their psychology as it came to appear from the evidence in each case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Horney’s concepts don’t have great applicability for understanding cultural and political dynamics and how individuals are formed in conditions of oppression. They’re potentially extremely useful for understanding political cultures and social movements as long as glib extrapolations and identifications aren’t made between individual psychology and cultures, institutions, and systems. Horney wasn’t a revolutionary, but her ideas have revolutionary possibilities.

* A telling illustration of how dismal the situation is: last year, the head of the Karen Horney Clinic, Henry Paul, published a book entitled When Kids Need Meds.

** It’s noteworthy that in his discussion of how his loathing for Stalin grew in proportion to his knowledge of the man and his actions, he emphasizes Stalin’s use of torture (called by the euphemism “physical pressure”):
Khrushchev testifies in the secret report that on January 20, 1939, Stalin dispatched a coded telegram to high party and police officials throughout the country saying that ‘physical pressure should still be used obligatorily as an exception applicable to known and obstinate enemies of the people, as a method both justifiable and appropriate’. This is amply documented by other sources. ‘Physical pressure’ meant torture. Stalin was determined that those labeled enemies must be tortured. If, as I believe, the worst of human vices is cruelty, this man may have been the most vicious individual ever to wield power. Certainly he was one of them.
Even while the US government installed, funded, trained, and supported governments who systematically tortured presumed “enemies,” Tucker could still assume the reference to torture would be seen by a US readership as an indication of extreme cruelty and viciousness naturally to be greeted with the utmost contempt.

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