It is regrettable that so many thinking people today – even those in the discipline of psychology – regard the work of the founder of psychoanalysis (which is by no means synonymous with psychology) as being of no more than historical importance, and Sigmund Freud himself as a historical curiosity. And yet, Freud is more relevant than ever, as demonstrated by the work of many international scholars, of which I have personal experience (for example through my participation in an international book project on what Belgian philosopher and psychoanalytic theorist Philippe Van Haute calls “patho-analysis”, or the analysis of suffering).

In the present historical situation, particularly in South Africa, one of the most enduringly significant works by Freud is his “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (in Freud: Complete Works, Ivan Smith e-book 2011). I say this because of the prominence of group behaviour, particularly of a destructive nature, in recent months – from student protests last year to political protests such as those in the Tshwane area recently. The question it prompts is the same one that Freud set out to answer almost a century ago, namely: Why do groups sometimes behave in such strikingly different ways compared to individuals?

Freud was not the only author reflecting on this issue at the time just after the First World War, which had demonstrated the importance of understanding group behaviour – it is no accident that one of the two highly organised groups that Freud discusses here is the army. In his text he takes due cognisance of all the important thinkers who had written on it before him and, good researcher that he was, first weighs up their contributions carefully before either showing why it should be discounted or what he wishes to retain from it before forging ahead with his own investigation. In the course of considering the contributions of a number of thinkers, Freud distinguishes between “unorganised” (or random) and “organised” groups, and adds what he regards as a crucial element ignored by other writers, namely “libidinal ties” among the members of groups, ties through “identification” with leaders and with one another, as well as focusing on the relevance of suggestibility and hypnosis.

Gustave Le Bon, the author whose work on the “group mind” Freud (2011, p. 3768-3776) refers to most approvingly (before extending it with his own ideas) characterises it, first, by insisting that a group’s collective behaviour is completely distinct from that of the individuals comprising it – generally, individuals in groups lose “higher” modes of functioning in favour of more regressive behaviour. According to Le Bon, in contrast with individual behaviour, groups are “impulsive, changeable and irritable”, “led … by the unconscious”, un-premeditated, feel omnipotent, are credulous, uncritical, do not doubt themselves, incline to extremes, want to be “ruled” by strong masters, lack the inhibitions of individuals, show signs of regression to mental primitivity (like tolerating contradictions, as in the case of the unconscious, as Freud reminds one; p. 3774), are susceptible to the “magical power of words” instead of reason, and (like neurotics) desire illusions instead of truth. As Freud approvingly puts it (p. 3775): “ … in the mental operations of a group the function of testing the reality of things falls into the background in comparison with the strength of wishful impulses with their affective cathexis.”

Freud’s criticism of Le Bon begins (2011, p. 3768) with his insistence that Le Bon overlooks the fact that there must be “something” that unites the individuals in the group in the first place. His own answer to this question is twofold: Le Bon overlooks the important unifying role of leaders (p. 3776; 3788-3792), and most importantly – after examining the structure of two highly organised groups (church and army) – Freud corrects and amplifies all the theories he has considered by positing libido (love or Eros in the encompassing sense; p. 3786) as the most significant unifying force in the psychic functioning of groups (which must be presupposed to explain phenomena such as suggestibility and “contagion” in groups). To the degree that a group (of which there are many kinds, varying in durability and organisation) displays a cohesion of some kind, libidinal ties are present, but importantly, if something should occur to weaken those libidinal or emotional ties, the (organised or historically cohesive) group’s functioning would be fundamentally disrupted – for instance in the form of panic (in the case of an army), or in the eruption of “acts of violence” (2011, p. 3790-3792). Importantly, though, Freud also says the following about “random” groups, which connects with Le Bon’s characterisation (Freud 2011, p. 3814):

“The psychology of such a group, as we know it from the descriptions to which we have so often referred – the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction, the predominance of the affective side of the mind and of unconscious psychical life, the tendency to the immediate carrying out of intentions as they emerge – all this corresponds to a state of regression to a primitive mental activity, of just such a sort as we should be inclined to ascribe to the primal horde.

“Thus the group appears to us as a revival of the primal horde. Just as primitive man survives potentially in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random collection; in so far men are habitually under the sway of group formation we recognise in it the survival of the primal horde. We must conclude that the psychology of groups is the oldest human psychology … ”

Does this ring a South African bell? I have written on student protests in Freudian terms as “acting out” here before and it will be recalled that “acting out” is a phrase denoting action that is irrational, and is rooted in repressed feelings like frustration, anger and/or anxiety. When this is placed in the context of the group psychology mapped out by Freud, new insights arise, for instance that “acting out” may easily occur in unorganised groups (including organised groups that have lost their libidinal ties).

In light of the above I want to propose that the recent events in Tshwane can be understood by considering the different aspects of group psychology operative there. Firstly one has an organised political party bound together by historically cemented libidinal and leadership ties, and secondly what appears to be unorganised groups that went on the rampage, where reason disappeared and made way for immediate gratification of desires. Reports indicate that, in response to the ANC’s announcement of Thoko Didiza as mayoral candidate for Tshwane in the upcoming local government elections, groups of dissatisfied residents took to the streets to express their outrage, setting vehicles alight, blocking roads and looting businesses. There were even reports that people had been killed in protest-related violence. In response to the violence, the ANC has warned that party members involved in the violence would not be “protected”.

In the light of Freud’s analysis of group psychology this may be understood as follows. The ANC is a highly organised group, for decades sustained by the kind of libidinal ties Freud describes. For various reasons (too many to be discussed here), these libidinal ties have been weakening for some time, with regular reports (and complaints) of factionalism in the organisation. Under these circumstances actions that are perceived by ordinary members as signs that the organisation’s leaders are acting contrary to members’ interests would understandably “weaken” or destroy the emotional/libidinal ties holding them together; hence the ensuing violence by “random” groups.

I am well aware that there is another factor to consider in relation to protests surrounding local elections, too – which probably functions alongside, and complementary to, the one discussed here – namely that of fierce competition between various individuals for positions on the nomination lists for these imminent elections. The reason is obvious – there is money involved. But this very fact testifies to the weakening of libidinal ties that customarily held the party together, and which have been eroded by the virus of money, among other things.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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