For more than 30 years, the tendency has been emerging among the masses of the advanced industrial countries to surrender themselves to the politics of disaster instead of pursuing their rational interests and, chief of all, that of their own survival. While they are promised benefits, the idea of personal happiness is at the same time emphatically replaced by threat and violence; inordinate sacrifices are imposed on them, their existence is directly endangered, and an appeal made to latent death-wishes. Much of this is so obvious to its victims that in endeavouring to understand its workings one finds it difficult to rest content with the decisive task of establishing the objective conditions of mass movements, and not to be tempted into believing that objective laws no longer obtain.

By itself the old explanation that all the media of public opinion are controlled by groups will not do. For the masses would hardly succumb to the brazen wink of untrue propaganda if something within them did not respond to the rhetoric of sacrifice and the dangerous life. To be able to come to terms with fascism it was, therefore, considered necessary to complete social theory by psychology, and particularly by analytically oriented social psychology. The interplay of studies into both social determinants and the prevailing instinctual structures was to provide a full account of the inter-connecting totality. While on the other side of the iron curtain docile scholarship exorcized analytical psychology—the only one seriously to go into the subjective conditions of objective irrationality—as the work of the devil and lumped Freud, along with Spengler and Nietzsche, together with the fascists (a claim Lukács did not shrink from making), on this side the emphasis was, with no little satisfaction, shifted to the inner life and the human being and his so-called existential qualities, the better to elude a binding theory of society. As a result, those subjective conditions are, in the last analysis, sceptically reduced to insubstantial, merely subjective motivations, as indeed was already the case in Freud’s late essay Civilization and its Discontents.

Where any thought at all has been devoted to the relation between social theory and psychology, it has not gone beyond merely assigning the two disciplines their place within the total scheme of the sciences; the difficulties their relation involves have been treated as a matter of employing the right conceptual model. Whether social phenomena are to be derived from objective conditions or from the psyche of the socialized individuals, or from both; whether the two types of explanation complete or exclude one another, or whether their relationship itself requires further theoretical consideration—all this is reduced to mere methodology.

In his study ‘Psychoanalysis and the Social Structure’,footnote1 Talcott Parsons, an exponent of this approach, rightly stresses the irreducible autonomy of the social system, which—and here he is in agreement with both the older German tradition and Durkheim—has to be understood on its own level and not as a ‘composite resultant of the actions of the component individuals alone’footnote2. But here too the distinction fastens on what the sociologist is ‘interested’ in—behaviour and attitudes relevant to the social system. Solely for this reason does he demand that sociological problems of motivation be formulated in terms of the ‘frame of reference of the social system’ and not of the ‘personality’. The sociological models should, though, be ‘compatible with established knowledge of personality’.footnote3 Without any concern for whether the difference is a question not of method but of objective reality, the choice of a sociological or a psychological approach is left to the arbitrary discretion of the respective departments.

Against the primitive notion of a single universal science, Parsons does not blind himself to the fact that ‘the typical problems of the psychologist and the sociologist are different’. For this very reason, however, both ‘need to use the same concepts at different levels of abstraction and in different combinations’.footnote4 This is possible only on the assumption that the divergence of sociology and psychology can be overcome independently of the real nature of their object. If at a higher stage of internal organization both sciences clarified the logical structure of their concepts, they could then, on this view, be smoothly synthesized. Were we in final possession of a wholly adequate dynamic theory of human motivations, the difference between the ‘levels of abstraction’ would, according to Parsons, probably disappear. The way social and individual, objective and psychic, moments relate to one another is supposedly dependent on the mere conceptual schematization imposed on them in the busy academic process; plus the usual reservation that a synthesis would at this stage be premature, that more facts have to be gathered and concepts more sharply defined.

While Parsons, as a pupil of Max Weber’s, acutely discerns the inadequacy of many of the usual psychological explanations of societal phenomena, he does not suspect behind this incompatibility any real clash between the universal and the particular, any incommensurability between the objective life-process, the ‘in itself and the individual that is merely ‘for himself. The antagonism becomes, instead, a problem of academic organization that, with steady progress, would harmoniously solve itself.

An ideal of conceptual unification taken from the natural sciences cannot, however, be indiscriminately applied to a society whose unity resides in its not being unified. Sociology and psychology, in so far as they function in isolation from one another, often succumb to the temptation to project the intellectual division of labour on to the object of their study. The separation of society and psyche is false consciousness; it perpetuates conceptually the split between the living subject and the objectivity that governs the subjects and yet derives from them. But the basis of this false consciousness cannot be removed by a mere methodological dictum. People are incapable of recognizing themselves in society and society in themselves because they are alienated from each other and the totality.footnote5 Their reified social relations necessarily appear to them as an ‘in itself’. What compartmentalized disciplines project on to reality merely reflects back what has taken place in reality. False consciousness is also true: inner and outer life are torn apart. Only through the articulation of their difference, not by stretching concepts, can their relation be adequately expressed. The truth of the whole sides with one-sidedness, not pluralistic synthesis: a psychology that turns its back on society and idiosyncratically concentrates on the individual and his archaic heritage says more about the hapless state of society than one which seeks by its ‘wholistic approach’ or an inclusion of social ‘factors’ to join the ranks of a no longer existent universitas literarum.