11th January 2022
“Mass formation” #1 – A concept invented by Freud in 1921
This concept has recently surfaced and I thought I’d have a quick look at its origin. There seems to be no standard book on this topic but this 1988 article has a discussion:
GROUP FORMATION AND IDEOLOGY. TEXT AND CONTEXT by MAX HERNANDEZ – The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis; Jan 1, 1988; 69, Periodicals Archive Online pg. 163. The paper was presented at the 35th International Psychoanalytical Congress, July 1987, Montreal, Canada.
Durch die gleiche Ubertragung ihrer Gesichtspunkte, Voraussetzungen and Erkenntnisse wird die Psychoanalyse befahigt. Licht auf die Urspriinge unserer grossen kulturellen- Institutionen, der Religion, der Sittlichkeit, des Rechts, der Philosophie zu werfen. (S. Freud, 1913.)
The relationship established by psychoanalysis with the ideological and social field must take account of the questions posed by the social sciences on the one hand and psychoanalysis itself on the other. We may perhaps only be able to confer validity on our own ideas by a continuous and constant comparison of the psychoanalytic viewpoint, which asserts the radical individuality of man, with that of sociology, which takes into account the totality of social relationships (cf. Dahmer, 1983). It is a difficult task, therefore it is necessary to dispel the confusions that have arisen by equating social conflicts with conflicts within and between individuals. We are confronted with a twofold demand from the very start.
Freud (1913) suggested a critical function rather than a systematic contribution by psychoanalysis to the fields of culture and society. I will confine myself to this point of view. Namely that the purpose of psychoanalysis is not to provide answers but to open, or re-open, questions. This at least has the virtue of reminding us that these answers are in vain unless we do maintain the wish to know what gave rise to the question, i.e. if they do not leave enough space for further questioning.
‘The claims of psycho-analysis to scientific interest’ (Freud, 1913) was written during the period when Freud was establishing his definitive views on transference (1912, 19 I 4a, 1915). It contains a precise reference to the ‘transference’ of viewpoints, hypotheses and knowledge which enables psychoanalysis to throw light on the origins of our major cultural institutions. It is interesting to note that Strachey, in the passage quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of this paper, translated Obertragung by application (Freud, 1913, p. 185). So if it is a transference that allows us to apply psychoanalysis, we are obliged, beyond the play on words, to apply to the study of applied psychoanalysis what psychoanalysis has discovered on the relationship of the thinker to his objects—in this case, cultural or social objects.
The understanding of mass psychology and ideology calls for an examination of social realities. The challenges presented by these realities are just as numerous as the possibilities they offer when we endeavour to grasp them through our conceptual instruments. The possible recourse to social analysis and the presence of a particular historical perspective in this paper point towards a better understanding of the situation of the psychoanalytic research worker investigating mass phenomena and the production of ideology.
I shall consider in particular one aspect of the very broad subject which brings us together: the relationship between the nature of the tie that links the mass and its leader, on the one hand, and ideological discourse, on the other. The field of inquiry must obviously be circumscribed for this purpose. Furthermore, in order to understand this, we must briefly review some of the realities whose historical unfolding has required a long period of time (longue duree).
We shall begin with a point emphasized by Moscovici (1985): the individual appears simultaneously with the appearance of the masses (in the modern sense of the term). This being said, it should be recalled that individual consciousness arose parallel to the passage of centuries of human history. As Freud said: ‘In the course of our development we have effected a separation of our mental existence into a coherent ego and into an unconscious and repressed portion which is left outside it; and we know that the stability of this new acquisition is exposed to constant knocks’ (1921, p. 131). This process began at the dawn of mankind, but it only became a matter for reflection when man shrugged off the ‘happiness’ in which he had supposedly lived in classical Greece, seen as an Arcadian image. The Greek polls was based on social relations that knew nothing of subjectivity and the unique value of the individual. ‘In the Apollonian order of citizens who were equal and united in the common weal, the person, the “self”, had not yet arisen: the individual was merely “an unreal shadow”‘ (Papaioannou, 1978, p. 8).
The social development that took place over a period of centuries was marked by fractures, discontinuities and regressions and involved the gradual realization of individuality—or, in Hegelian terms, the emergence of the self from its unreality. The history of the West is to an important degree that of the emancipation of the individual. The appearance of the individual coincided with the formation of two fundamental creations of modern times: the state and civil society.
In the field of ideas, even a cursory review of the development of the concept ‘person’ shows that it is one of great complexity, built up over a long period of time by way of a set of mediations occurring within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The construction of this concept constitutes another aspect of the development of the notion of the subjective, shaped and defined in relation to the concept of the objective. This, in turn, was gradually worked out starting from the dichotomy introduced by the Ionian philosophers, between the psychic and physical worlds; internal representation and external reality. All this has had its effects, both on the representation of the self and on men’s awareness of themselves. It also confined our thoughts to those aspects of experience defined by the concept ‘person’.
It was just at the time when the ‘principle of subjectivity’ (Hegel, 1821) was being taken to the extremes of personal particularity that Freud’s critical ideas emerged. These made it possible for man to recognize himself as the subject of drives and drive derivatives. The ego was ousted from its presumed central position by the discovery of the unconscious. We can now return to Moscovici’s observation concerning the coincidence of the appearance of the individual and of the masses. This simultaneous event is grasped by Freud’s thought in both its aspects; on the one hand, the pathetic helplessness of the emancipated individual and, on the other, its dissolution in the mass. Thus harrassed, the human subject takes refuge in the narcissistic satisfactions of pathology or in the homogenizing gregariousness of the mass. If there is no acknowledgement of the split between conscious and unconscious, this will result in individual and mass pathology.
Two types of processes converge to make the appearance of modern masses possible. The first is a socio-historical phenomenon which is specifically urban and modern: the massification of society. As a result of the increased pace of demographic change, the individual particles, with their unsatisfied libidinal and aggressive valencies, are placed in a highly receptive position for them to be acted on by the psychological mechanisms which give rise to ‘mass formation’ (Massenbildung), which is the second type of process.
Freud’s study of the phenomenon of mass formation was undertaken through the analysis of a large number of examples (Freud, 1921). Thus, he considers the unruly crowds seized by panic, as described by le Bon and other nineteenth-century writers terrified by the possibility of a regression by civilized humanity to earlier and primitive forms of social organization (cf. Miller, 1983); the organized ‘masses’ of the Church and the Army; the primal horde and the phenomenon of a ‘group formation with two members’ (Freud, 1921, p. 115) in hypnosis, i.e. a mass of two.
Psychoanalysis has made vital contributions to our knowledge of the phenomenon of mass formation and to explaining the nature of the bond that unites the individuals in the group. From this point of view, ‘On narcissism: an introduction’ (Freud, 1914b) and ‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’ (Freud, 1921) offer us an approach that is the key to such an explanation. To oversimplify somewhat, a mass forms when the individual puts the leader in the place of his ego ideal. In this way the individual making up the mass can feel idealized because of the approval obtained from his ideal, i.e. idealized like an ideal ego. In this way, the unsatisfied libidinal valencies give way to a narcissistic saturation. The translations of the original text by Strachey into English and Lopez-Ballesteros into Spanish have not always respected the subtleties of the concepts Ideal, Idealich, das ideale ich and Ichideal (cf. De Gregorio, 1977). This has caused us some difficulty in our understanding of the formation of the ideal.
These ideas had, at the time, an enormous influence on the psychoanalytic technique and the theory of the therapeutic effects of psychoanalysis. This is clearly evident in three classical papers by Alexander (1925), Rado (1925) and Sachs (1925). For our purposes, these papers demonstrate the theoretical efforts to free the analytical couple from the condition of a ‘group formation with two members’ to which it might have been confined by a specific theory of technique. This was no easy matter because such a situation arose at least in the early stages of treatment. At the same time, the very corn- position of the papers shows that the process as described does not escape the connotations of an indoctrination.
In the light of these essays, one clearly sees the reasons which explain the suggestibility of the masses as well as that of the hypnotized subject. The leader and the hypnotist are both in structurally homologous situations: they both occupy the position of the ego ideal, for the hypnotized subject no less than for the member of the mass. Whether in the ‘group formation with two members’ or in the crowd, the fundamental motivation of the phenomenon is that it emerges as a response to helplessness. This is what causes the subject to lose himself in the fusion with an ego ideal. In this way he obtains the illusory security of having recovered his lost narcissism.
On the theoretical level, the ego referred to in ‘Group psychology …’ shows its essential bondages. Beyond any illusion of mastery, it is an ego dependent on the leader, ensnared in a mass formation in which it becomes alienated, liable to fascination and falling in love and the willing victim of suggestion and hypnosis. We may wonder with Repetto ‘what developments of his own theory Freud would have made to take account of the transition between the Narcissus who looked at his reflection in the pool and this “universal” man lost in mass psychology’ (1984, p. 101).
Certain aspects remain insufficiently developed in Freud’s formulation. One of these is the place of the early relationship between mother and child. The only reference to this in Freud’s text is in a footnote (Freud, 1921, p. 101). Another concerns the amplification and reverberation of violence and hostility in groups. Guttman points out the following in a paper on Waelder’s contributions to the application of psychoanalysis to political and social phenomena: ‘The presence of free aggression in those who make up the mass, the intensity of motives for its formation, the desperateness of the population, their susceptibility to the intoxication of merging in the adventure of war all are factors which contribute to the generation of group volatility’ (1986, p. 846). In explaining the extreme forms of group hostility, Bion (1955) states that the classical concept of the primal scene is insufficient to explain group phenomena and he suggests that it should be reformulated in accordance with its group expressions. Both aspects might help us to arrive at a more accurate interpretation of aggressive phenomena in group behaviour.
Analysis of the tie that is at the base of mass formation throws some light on the relationship between the leader and the individual. Examination of the leader’s speech when he speaks as if he embodied the will of the mass can help us to understand some of the factors underlying ideological formations. Through his oratory, the leader appears to give shape and expression to widely scattered contents and wishes. An additional advantage is that the use of formulae means that no effort of thinking is necessary.
Freud reminds us that le Bon refers to ‘the truly magical power of words’ (1921, p. 80), that ‘Reason and arguments are incapable of combating certain words and formulas’ and that the individual forming part of a group ‘is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will’ (p. 76).
To an important extent there is a direct relationship, an internal kinship, between the leader’s words and what is commonly understood by ideology. The word ‘ideology’ seems to have been coined by de Tracy (1754-1836). With Cabanis and a group of philosophers, he used it to refer to the correct way of approaching the study of the role of the human mind in the formation of ideas: a kind of genetic theory of ideas. In Die Deutsche Ideologie, Marx uses the term in a different sense, referring to the system of ideas governing the spirit of a man or social group. Mannheim (1936), from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge, and Reich (1946) and Money-Kyrle (1951), from the psychoanalytic approach, contribute to the clarification—and complication—of the term in a period which witnessed bitter ideological feuds.
Together with ‘Civilization and its discontents’ (1930), ‘The future of an illusion’ (1927) is the work of Freud which is most directly related to a psychoanalytic understanding of contemporary history and society. The two works are closely connected with each other and the propositions they contain enable us to determine the connexions between the social dimension of ideology and its intrapsychic function.
On the basis of Mannheim’s ideas (1966), we consider that ideology embraces a particular human group’s vision of the world, history and its relationship with these; it therefore conforms to the logical criteria proper to the culture which produces it. As Geertz (1971, p. 13) points out, ‘one of the minor ironies of modern intellectual history is that the term “ideology” itself has come to be entirely ideologized’. Mannheim’s attempts to arrive at a value-free conception of ideology are clear proof of the difficulties inherent in the very notion of ideology. With this reservation, we can attempt a definition of ideology suitable for our purposes. Ideology assembles a set of values, beliefs and ideals by which people take account of their social reality.
The aspect of ideology which I wish to discuss is that connected with forms of thinking in which, on the basis of ‘one overriding hypothesis’ (Freud, 1933, p. 159), it is claimed that answers can be given to all questions. It is true, and Ricoeur (1974) has argued this convincingly, that social groups need an image which represents them in order to take part in the scene of the social drama in which it has fallen to them to live, and this is why ideology is constitutive of all social action. It is also true that some ideological propositions contain positive critical aspects, often in the form of utopian aspirations (Habermas, 1982), I will concentrate, however, on the aspects of ideology which approximate error and falsehood, i.e. those configurations of ideology which are at best illusory if not actually delusional (cf. Reich, 1933). As such, they are the rationalized aspects of complicated unconscious motivations.
I am referring to that cognitive strategy which subordinates facts to ideas and proves to be schematic in relation to the reality which it claims to take account of and which it often distorts. Ideology thus sets itself up as a discourse which aims to rule the behaviour of the so-called agents of history. It is inherent in the constitution of ideology that, rather than purporting to be a mental map of reality, by its nature it seeks to guide reality in a specific direction. It is therefore clear that ideology is always connoted. One of the objects of the ideological proposition is to impose its logic on other groups. Hence there are ideologies which uphold the status quo and others which call it into question.
By analogy with Freud’s comments on the term Weltanschauung (1933), it seems necessary to locate ideology as an ideo-affective structure and compare it with beliefs, religious conceptions, world views and cognitive organizations of the type of scientific paradigms. As a systematic set of attitudes, beliefs and explanations, ideology straddles belief and critical thought. It may be noted that while some ideological formations appear to arise from a consensus or a tradition, others have apparently been constructed and put into circulation by ideologists or politicians. Again, the acceptance of ideologies may be particularly important for the psychical economy of certain individuals—for instance, when the ideological affiliations take the form of defences against depressive feelings or persecutory anxieties—but they may also be accepted for conventional reasons (Money-Kyrle, 1951).
From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, ideology then shows the effects of the omnipotence of thought. This narcissistic hypercathexis of ideas is at the root of the production of a defensive structure which excludes painful aspects of reality—by selective idealizations and denigrations—at the same time as it furnishes the illusory and immediate satisfaction of wishes trapped by mechanisms of idealization and set in circulation by identificatory processes. In this way, it is shared by a group. Just as investigation of the aspect of identification is the key to an understanding of mass psychology, the study of the processes of idealization is fundamental to the understanding of ideology.
The question that immediately arises is: what is the form taken by the type of affective, ethical and aesthetic sensitivity which upholds the set of shared beliefs which can be maintained only at the cost of denial of the perception of everyday reality? As already stated, we are for the present leaving aside the elements of ideology which can contribute to lucid criticism and appropriate action with regard to current social and political situations. We are concentrating on the aspects of ideology which form a kind of ‘false consciousness’ which, although claiming to be all-embracing, is segmental and partial.
In discussing the ‘belief complex’, Rosolato (1978, 1983) proposes that, in addition to the suppression of the individual’s own drives, we must take into account an ‘abandonment of the very powers of reason [in a] .. . mental sacrifice’ (1978, p. 18). This attitude of belief which predominates in ideological affiliations may perhaps explain the co-existence of pi-opositions which bear witness to the presence of an appropriate reality testing and forms of reasoning that are so distorted by pathological mechanisms as to appear as delusional ideas. I am referring principally to those caused by splitting, denial and disavowal.
The hinge-mechanism which joins the phenomena of group formation and the production and propagation of ideology (in the sense in which we have been using the term) is provided by the convergence of unconscious processes which establish, on the one hand, the bond between the individual in the mass and the leader and, on the other, enable the latter to internalize and take over the massive support which activates the omnipotence of ideas which, in turn, sets in motion the production of the ideological discourse. The individual in the mass relates to the leader in such a way that he accepts the leader’s discourse as if it were his own. On the emotional level, it is a matter of the denial of any lack, whether in the field of suffering, renunciation of pleasure or the brevity of life. From the standpoint of ideas what is involved is sharing in an omnipotent ideation. The formation of the mass contains the germ of acceptance of the ideological proposition.
It is worth repeating that, just as both masses and the individual are modern creations, so too are ideologies. Ideologies, in the strict sense of the term, replace the traditional legitimations of the hierarchies of order and domination. As Habermas says, ‘legitimations that are no longer (1927, pp. 30-1) and arises from our inability to accept our helplessness and defencelessness. In order to develop emotionally and unfold his creative potential, man requires a more realistic vision of the world; he ‘will have to admit to [himself] the full extent of [his] helplessness and [his] insignificance in the machinery of the universe’ (p. 49).
This need for protection and this intolerance of helplessness may explain the function of domination conveyed by ideology and the acceptance of this domination it engenders (even in the dominating groups themselves). Submission to the leader is explained by the fact that he has been granted the function of absolute dominion over the individual. The granting of this function is based on surrender of the idealized powers of the individual himself. In this way the leader ‘acquired’ control of the imaginary means of control and reproduction of the social universe. As the anthropologist Godelier nicely put it, ‘in this way the dominant groups in pre-statal societies assumed the imaginary monopoly of the social imaginary’ (1979).
Ideology, constructed from the remains of the shipwreck of the magico-religious systems of social legitimation and explanation of the world on the reefs of scientific thought, presents itself to the individual consumer as a means to deny differences and lacks, and as a commodity that enables him to participate in an illusion of omniscience. The structure of an ideology takes the form of a system of ideas which sets out to explain the world and society, its coherence conceals the error on which it is based and its simplicity glides over the shortcomings it conceals. As a restitutive formation, it endeavours to cover the narcissistic wound caused to mankind by the progress of rational knowledge. To paraphrase Freud, we may say that ideology is the delusion of mankind and delusion the ideology of the individual. The schematic nature of this formulation warns us that it might itself be ideological.
This effort to apply psychoanalysis to the understanding of ideology, in its relationship to mass psychology, has followed the displacements of a ‘transference’ of psychoanalytic viewpoints, hypotheses and findings. It is this transference which enables us to consider and evaluate social deeds beyond our clinical practice. A critical sound are replaced by new ones which, on the one hand, stem from criticism of the dogmatism of traditional interpretations of the world and thus lay claim to scientific character and, on the other hand, maintain legitimating functions . . (1982, p. 75). Because of these two aspects of ideology—its claims to scientific validity and its dogmatic function—ideologies tend to be held immune from analysis and they are thereby enabled to take refuge in the individual’s split consciousness.
From the point of view of this paper, the presence of mystifying elements in ideologies which go beyond the illusory—in Winnicott’s (1971) sense of the word—and border on the delusional, may be understood as the result of a complex process whereby the individual remains fixated in a narcissistic posture. As a result of the omnipotence of ideas on the one hand and the ‘mental sacrifice’ effected by splitting, projection, denial and disavowal on the other, the narcissistic posture is maintained, fluctuating between feelings of narcissistic depletion which guarantee submission to the leader alternating with oceanic feelings of elation which are experienced as the conjunction of opposites.
Let us accept that this happens at the level of individuals. If we now turn to the social aspects of the phenomenon, we see that groups need to have a representation of themselves. The root of the problem is that individuals are apparently bringing to the group ideology the representation of the relationship which they perceive as existing between themselves as individuals and the conditions of their existence (Althusser, 1973, 1984). Althusser advanced the following thesis: ‘It is the imaginary nature of this relationship [not with the real world but with its conditions of existence] that sustains . . . the imaginary distortion that can be observed . . . in all ideologies’ (1984, p. 56). The convergence of individual, partial and distorted points of view in the figure of the leader helps to maintain the illusion of possessing an all-embracing, transcendental and transubjective vision.
An error of judgement of the same kind as illusion contributes to the formation and persistence of ideology. However, as Freud reminds us, an illusion ‘is not the same thing as an error; nor is it necessarily an error’; it is characteristically ‘derived from human wishes’ analysis of this paper could prevent it becoming an ideological projection of personal or institutional viewpoints. The explicit presence of a psychoanalytic theory of ideology could mean our reading of social phenomena avoids being distorted by the excessive weight of the ideological dimension. The theory underlying our clinical practice together with our institutions play a role of the utmost importance in our relation to society at large. The inclusion of this theme in the agenda of this Congress allows us to reflect on the conditions upon which our thinking is based.
Having said this, I should like to point out that soon we shall be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the voyage which not only proved that the Earth was round but also incorporated the geographical realities of this hemisphere in the Western Empires. It subjected the inhabitants of these human realities to domination and transposed the centre of this new world to Europe. What happened, and sometimes still happens, is that ‘the men who form the peoples marginal to the culture that gave birth to Western philosophy are put in parentheses: their humanity is viewed with suspicion’ (Zea, 1984, p. 61). During the last two centuries, Western rationalism, whose narrow-mindedness was demonstrated by Freud, dominated social and cultural thought. However, the flourishing of reason also opened up the way to critical reflection without arrogance. We believe that psychoanalysis facilitates a radical understanding of the problems of subjectivity and its place in society when structures of domination are internalized. It also supplies us with the tools to overcome ignorance due to forgetfulness, amnesia, suppression or denial. It also helps us to work through the traumas of a past which weighs down the historical present.
Now that we are gradually discovering the roundness of the world, we are beginning to realize that each of the large number of cultures that has existed is merely a circumstantial expression of the universe. Beyond ideological fictions, reality invalidates any attempt to impose any form of cultural monopoly. Gradually, painfully and fortunately, we are beginning to see that we belong to a single species: the human race. Within the values of truth, justice and respect for the individual, there is room for a thousand different expressions of humanity. It is up to our science to help to enhance the status of our vision and the breadth of our tolerance.
The relationship between the phenomenon of ‘mass formation’ (Massenbildung) and the production and circulation of ideologies is examined. The explanation of the said relationship must take into account both the social dimension as well as the intrapsychic structure of the ideological. To achieve this a brief review of Freud’s ideas on group psychology and of some definitions of ideology, namely those proposed by Ricoeur, Althusser and Habermas is expounded. In the same way as the understanding of the vicissitudes of identification is crucial to gain insight into ‘mass formation’, the investigation of the processes of idealization is vital to the understanding of the ideological.
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 It should be noted that Klein tells us that, on re-reading ‘Group psychology …’ she had the impression that, although Freud concentrated on introjective mechanisms, he was to some extent describing processes of projective identification (Klein, 1955)
 It is appropriate to remember that ‘this violence .. . has nothing to do with the struggle for life. The object of aggression in the primitive ceremonies of death is … biologically speaking indifferent: the subject eliminates it … for pleasure so to speak … so as to complete the loss of the maternal object’ (Lacan, 1978, p. 51).
 In Freud’s thought, the separation of the level of representations from that of affects which follows from the concept of drive, facilitates location of omnipotence in a specifically ideational and wishful dimension. In the Kleinian model, the overall notion of fantasy makes the separation of ideas and affects a defensive artifice (cf. Costantino & Seiguer, 1987; Seiguer, 1987).