The pattern of fascist propaganda

Image: Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura


Considerations on a research by Theodor Adorno

The debate on the reasons that lead to the emergence in the contemporary world of leaders with very evident regressive characteristics is growing in the public space. And let it not be said that this is just a Brazilian phenomenon: with undoubtedly marked national differences, the G7 countries are also witnessing the emergence of authoritarian leaderships. In the United States, even notorious members of Donald Trump's Republican Party have spoken bluntly about this: "there is a name for Trump's type of policy: neo-fascism".[1]

On the other hand, the debate about the circumstances that generate authoritarian regimes is much older than is supposed. Approached already by Espinosa in his Theological-Political Treatise – which shrewdly recalled that, if the causes of tyranny remain, an overthrown tyrant will soon be replaced by another –, it crosses all of modernity until it reaches the 1951st century, where it was taken up again by prominent thinkers. Among them, there is a text by Theodor Adorno that deserves to be highlighted. This is an essay from XNUMX entitled Freudian theory and the pattern of fascist propaganda.[2]

The text is part of a broader research program that Theodor Adorno developed at different times in his life (in partnership with Max Horkheimer and other researchers), a program that also generated the voluminous book the authoritative personality. As for the aforementioned essay, although known in more specialized circles of philosophy and the human sciences, it presents, in our opinion, vectors still to be explored, which draw attention precisely because of their relevance. This happens because it is located in a very fertile field of intersection between philosophy, social sciences and psychoanalysis, mobilizing concepts that seek to clarify the complexity of the historical moment lived by Theodor Adorno, which presents developments that today affect us in full.

Theodor Adorno begins his text calling attention to the relevance of some categories developed by Freud in 1921 – prior to the apogee of fascism, therefore – in the book Group psychology and analysis of the ego. The 30-year gap that separates Freud's writing from Theodor Adorno's essay did not prevent the latter from safely pointing to the productivity of the elaboration of the father of psychoanalysis.

Summarizing a long path here, Freud asks himself about the mechanisms that provide the strong cohesion obtained by a leader among his subordinates. An analysis of it reveals the libidinal link existing between them,[3] promoting a union around the same object, the leader himself. Even if desexualized, this bond provides the support of a certain type of social bond where the unique traits of each participant are secondary, in the name of the cohesion of the group now formed. Freud particularly highlights the importance of the “identification” processes that take place both between each of the followers and the leader, as well as, horizontally, between those who form that group.

A decisive moment in Freud's argument is when he demonstrates that the leader starts to occupy a precise place in the psychic economy of his subordinates. It is the “I ideal”, a psychic instance of archaic origin, related to what we form as our ideals, a place that guarantees us recognition. We are faced with “a number of individuals who put a single object in the place of their ego ideal and, as a result, identified themselves with each other in their ego” (Freud, p. 59).

A consequence of this, we add, is that the leader's image is lodged in the psyche of his followers, becoming indistinguishable from that of the follower himself. It is this identifying glue that allows us to understand why even blatantly wrong actions by the leadership can be endorsed by their followers. And it also explains why the criticisms directed at her are summarily rejected: everything happens as if the followers themselves felt criticized...

Moreover, for those who cultivate an idealized view of the human psyche, one of the most disconcerting moments in the Freudian text is when he maintains that the quality of affection shared by those who are led does not need to be positive: even hatred is capable of uniting different subjects (Freud, p. 42). Here, the social bond takes on its darkest features. Instead of the possibility of a civilizing project, a group with evident destructive characteristics comes into play.

Given the recurrent presence of Freudian categories in Adorno's essay, one could assume a quasi-identity between the two authors' positions. But this impression is not entirely correct. From a certain point in his text, Theodor Adorno mentions the need for an explicit theory of society to understand the fascist mass that he is interested in analyzing. The reader then witnesses an ingenious argumentative turn, which reveals a new facet of Adornian thought: “fascism as such is not a psychological question….In a completely reified society…, in which each person has been reduced to a social atom, to a mere function of the collectivity, the psychological processes, despite persisting within each individual, ceased to appear as determining forces of the social process” (Adorno, 2018).

So what at first seemed like a restitutio in integrum of Freudian theory, ends up operating in it an inflection that, while maintaining its productivity, now introduces decisive societal determinations. Among the latter, a central question arises: who are those, after all, who fall into the fascist leadership's nets? In the final segment of his essay, Adorno, a scholar of the reification of relations in a capitalist society, stands out: “The secret of fascist propaganda may well be the fact that it simply takes men for what they are – the true children of standardized mass culture. today, largely stripped of autonomy” (Adorno, 2018).

We are facing a peculiar “individualism without an individual”, a historical moment that, while proclaiming the importance of individuality, in practice empties the effectiveness of each individual, making him a plaything of impersonal forces. In this sense, the fascist leader responds both to the psychic instances of his followers and to the absence of horizons and to the deep divisions of a commodified society. In Adorno's words, he therefore becomes an “mandator of powerful economic and political interests”: now, the focus of the analysis falls on a precise historical configuration.

Incidentally, this explicit reference to the objective interests present in the fascist regime allows testing the relevance of Theodor Adorno's study in an approximation with contemporary Brazil. The academic production already available on the Jair Bolsonaro government (characterized by many as neo-fascist) draws attention to the fact that a purely political analysis of the current regime is insufficient. In addition to the president's noisy statements – which occupy a prominent place in the media – there is a particularly perverse economic agenda being implemented, which greatly penalizes the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

In this regard, among the various examples available, let us cite the one precisely chosen by historian Marcelo Badaró: Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to the STF in May 2020, accompanied by no less than 15 leaders of business entities, “in a theatrical ‘march to the Supreme Court’ ', with the clear objective of pressuring the judiciary to give up constitutional guarantees to human life, in the name of 'rescuing the CNPJ'”.[4] (And if we take the classic German case as a reference, its financing by giants such as Krupp and Siemens is well known).

Returning to Adorno, it is worth remembering that, like every prominent author who generated an interpretative cycle, there are criticisms of his work that deserve to be known. It would be beyond the scope of this brief paper to list such criticisms. Let us just mention the one made by the philosopher Anselm Jappe who, while recognizing the relevance of Theodor Adorno's project, diverges from his tacit postulation of a fully managed society, as it ends up disregarding disruptive contradictions that are characteristic of different social formations.[5] This failure to discern the fissures of capitalism in his time is paradoxical, if we take into account the fact that Theodor Adorno was also a student of Hegel, precisely the thinker who, distancing himself from the philosophies of identity, offered a seminal contribution to the understanding of the contradictions.[6]

That said, even so the test Freudian theory and the fascist propaganda pattern ends on an optimistic note. Theodor Adorno maintains that, although intense, the domination of those led by their leader contains an artifice that makes it vulnerable to the irruption of a real that insists on manifesting itself. Even the hypnotized are not alien to the convulsions of reality. Hence the beautiful Adornian metaphor that suggests that, once the initial alienating enthusiasm has eroded, they will finally “awaken those who keep their eyes closed despite no longer sleeping”.

*Mauricio Vieira Martins is a retired professor at the Department of Sociology and Methodology of Social Sciences at UFF. Author, among other books, of Marx, Spinoza and Darwin: materialism, subjectivity and critique of religion (Palgrave macmillan).

Originally published on Anpof Bulletin [].


[1] This is the case of Daniel Pipes: There's a name for Trump's brand of politics: neo-fascism. Available in:

[2] There is a Brazilian translation available on the Boitempo Editorial website:

[3] freud, s. Group psychology and analysis of the ego. Company of Letters, p. 44.

[4] Mattos, Marcelo Badaro. A horror story: Bolsonaro’s Brazil and the pandemic. Available in:

[5] Jappe, Anselm. The Adventures of Commodity. Ed. Antigone, p. 109.

[6] I have more leisurely developed Hegel's contribution to the study of contradictions in the article Hegel, Spinoza and Marxism: beyond dichotomies. Novos Rumos magazine, v. 57, p. 29-46, 2020.

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