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Social Madness

Social Madness

Ronald Aronson
In The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope I have
analyzed the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ as an
act of societal madness . We ordinarily use this term
‘madness’ quite freely in conversation, but then abandon it
upon moving into serious discourse and study – perhaps in
trying to be more precise, objective or scientific, perhaps
to avoid a contentious descriptive term. I would argue,
ho~eve.r, that sophisticated thought has ignored an important spontaneous insight. Used carefully and self-consciously, the term ‘madness’ illuminates much of the century’s
genocidal history, including above all the Nazi project to
exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Mad: un tutored and casual reflection contains an insight to be preserved and deepened, not suppressed, by systematic and scientific study. Nazi policies towards the
Jews were mad, as were Stalin’s attacks upon Russian society, as was the American near-destruction of Vietnam. And
in the dynamic structures of these and other quite different madnesses we can find guides for understanding and
perhaps combatting the nuclear madness menacing all of us.

Yet to describe social policies as ‘mad’ immediately
exposes one to a raft of doubts: about indulging in rhetorical excess, about being imprecise, about confusing the
social with the individual, injecting normative conceptions
that have no place in social analysis. For example, even if
we grant that individuals may’ be described as mad – and
this language is contestable as being value-charged, unscientific and obsolescent – how can psychological terms
appropriate to individual mental functioning be applied to
collective behaviour? After all, don’t societies function
according to different processes than do individuals?

This and similar objections are reinforced by the functionalist premise that generally guides studies of social
life. It is no great leap from assuming, quite appropriately,
that all social policy is intentional, to seeing that intentionality as rational – thus gilding rulers’ acts with the
rationality of those studying them. If it had a function and
purpose, the ‘final Solution’ was done ‘in order to … ‘: to
unite Germany, say, or to divert it. It had a particular
function, then, ~ logic. The executioners were guided by or
manipulated according to this logic. But such formulations
tend to cast genocide as another human project among the
universe of projects – whose rationality is either assumed
or lies beyond the specific study in question – rather than
as a policy whose logic is fundamentally rooted in illogic.

Yes, it was just another human act, but it was also an insane one. Yes, understanding it demands that we use customary explanatory categories, but it also stretches them to
their limit.

The Nazi policy and practice of extermination was – in
spite of its overwhelming technical rationality, in spite of
the palpable reality of the extermination-camp universe as supremely irrational as can be imagined. Yet its madness, if felt and intuited, is difficult to locate, more difficult to argue. Was it in the decision to exterminate, in the

machinery itself, in the mental functioning of those who
ordered it or those who carried out their orders, in the
society that made it possible? Although the debate continues, it is at least plausible for us to see, as did Hannah
Arendt, the organisers of the ‘Final Solution’ such as
Adolph Eichmann as banal and mediocre rather than as
pathologically mad . And it is at least possible to argue,
as did Richard Rubenstein, that the key to the Holocaust is
not a crazed intentionality but a rather indifferent and
impersonal process of twentieth-century technological
rationality .

Certainly I agree that ‘madness’ is a methodologically
troubling term – a culturally-bound concept whose use for
socio-historical processes is so problematic and controversial that it would be preferable to avoid it altogether.

But discarding the term will not dispel what it would convey. How else can we preserve what is essential to it – the
systematically and radically deranged character of the
‘Final Solution’? How do justice to the intuition that at its
core it was insane, from beginning to end?

Yet aren’t these subjective responses? Rubensteih has
argued that we should bracket out emotional responses as
interfering with our objective understanding of this event
. Is not our sense of its madness similarly subjective and
distortive? Won’t dwelling on it slant our discussion in a
hopelessly coloured personal direction? Shouldn’t we limit
ourselves to presenting and understanding the facts without
adding any such personal evaluation to them?

On the contrary, if the Holocaust commands our attention it is because we cannot separate data – the numbers
of dead, for example – from our definition of their meaning. The event’s impact and significance is indeed subjectively based: the sheer scale of the catastrophe cannot be
disentangled from our sense of its grotesque character. The
‘Final Solution’ was an end in itself. There is no value-free
way of characterising the Holocaust – its very definition as
the worst catastrophe imaginable short of nuclear war is
rooted in our respect for life, our sense of what humans
should be and how they should and should not treat each
other. Objectivity, insofar as history and society are concerned, is an intersubjective product constituted by those
who share this same space, the earth. It is assumed, perhaps elaborated, as our sense of the collective conditions
for survival, let alone well-being. In its utter gratuitousness, the Nazi extermination programme so violates even
the most minimal of these norms – proper behaviour in wartime – that we cannot help but perceive it by using such
terms as ‘unspeakable’, ‘evil’, ‘barbaric’, ‘horrifying’, or

We perceive it this way: our lenses are inescapably
emotional – subjective and objective, and give us the event
already laden with meaning. We perceive it this way: it ~
this way. In the human world ‘subjective’ reactions are
indeed objective: they claim to illuminate not our feelings
about the Holocaust but its very structure and character.


Conversely, as a human project it has a structure and character only within the human world whose norms it so
systematically outraged. Our objective-subjective reactions
claim to mark it off from other historical events and tell
us how and why it is unique. In this sense such terms do
not call for being bracketed out at the start, but rather
for being retained – clarified and understood, in order to
better guide us to the event itself.

VISIons of great poets, artists and scientists. Their visions
have seen through to deeper layers of the reality, and
allowed future generations access to them. To be sure,
sometimes we cannot tell for sure whether we are witnessing a transcendence of common sense or a mad break with
reality – a visionary of a madman. But then no normative
concept is without its grey areas. Despite these, judgements of abnormality/derangement still rest on a shared
and demonstrable sense of objective reality, its spheres
including intention and feeling as well as perception.


But what does it mean to call social policy and collective
behaviour ‘mad’? How can the intuition be preserved and
rendered usable for research and analysis?

Let us be clear what we do when we call an act ‘mad’.

First, our assertion may be of various strengths, and our
emphasis ma.y ‘-;3ry accordingly. We may simply mean that it
is severely and systematicdlly abnormal – that it departs
considerably from our sense of the normal. ‘Normal’, of
course, is a subjective-objective notion which strictly
speaking conveys our judgement on the range of proper
human behaviour – the norm we apply. But even if we try
to restrict this judgement to behaviour, it is hard to escape
an accompanying reference to the psychological state
underlying the behaviour. In other words, in addition to
considering a ‘mad’ act as extremely abnormal, we imply
that its source is in a mind that is somehow deranged. A
mad action, we may suggest, proceeds from a disordered
psyche. Indeed, if we call an act ‘insane’ we complete this
shift and our emphasis falls more heavily on the mental
state of the actor. Between the milder emphasis on an
action’s abnormalit’y and the stronger focus on its subjective source, I propose to explore ‘madness’ in the middle
sense, as suggested by ‘deranged’ – as judgement of an act
which opens towards, but does not immediately insist. on
focusing on, its subjective source.

Second, we must insist on the normative claim implied
at each stage so far. When we speak of individuals as
mad/deranged, we may have in mind three possible areas:

systematic derangement of perception, systematic derangement of intention, or systematic derangement of affect.

The individual may claim to see things that are not there
or not see things that are there, may seek to do things
that are inconceivable,
may show feelings or responses
that are seriously and sytematically inappropriate. In each
type of madness, a standard is implied against which the
act is measured: what is really there to be perceived, what
is really possible to do, what is normal for human beings to
feel. Obviously we cannot restrict ourselves to commonsense judgements of reality for our standard – revolutionaries, inventors and poets constantly break beyond and redefine what are assumed to be the limits of reality, and
are frequently falsely thought to be mad. This does not
deny that there are standards, however: just that a given
society’s definition of what is real – as in the case of Nazi
Germany – must in turn be judged against more solid

What is their source? Daily life is underpinned by a
shared sense of the real world, its structures qnd limits.

Science uses but sees beyond this, remains guided by its
own, and corresponding, shared sense of reality which is
continuously and collectively refined and redefined just as
is that of common sense. Even a revolutionary social philosophy, Marxism, which projects social transformation – a
radically different reality which if glimpsed has not yet
been achieved – bases its claim to truth on its scientific
character. In other words, it is no more than utopian speculation if its projections are not based on actual, observable tendencies and possibilities of this society.

Even if it is now regarded as intersubjectively based
rather than independent ~and external to us, a structured
real world is central to all our experience. The rebellious or revolutionary – rejection of the common-sense version of
these structures is not mad, nor are the transcending




The three categories of individual madness demand closer
examination to see which are useful for societal analysis.

First, what does it mean to see what is not really there?

The Nazis saw the Jews as the source of Germany’s problems: they perceived them as sub- and super-humans, as a
danger, a pollutant, a parasite, an evil . I do not mean
‘see’ and ‘perceive’ literally in terms of the physiological/optical fact of perception, but inferentially, as in the case
of a belief. When someone sees the devil we assume not a
perceptual but a mental malfunctioning: madness is not
colour-blindness but a mental disorder in which we believe
our world of experience to form a causal pattern which is
radically false. Patently absurd connections or processes of
causation are invented, beings are created for whom there
is no basis in reality. These specific people, the Jews, were
endowed by large numbers of Germans with certain menacing qualities and were linked mentally to their actually
exper ienced problems.

To see this as madness is to concede that at its core
were not the manipulators and the manipulated but rather,
more disturbingly, people who believed the inanities they
spoke. Like the madman who sees the devil, those who
thought the Jews were racially defiling them were sincere.

They believed in their fantasies.

To see what is not there is also to not see what is
there. If one looks at nuclear weapons and does not see
danger but instead security we may speak of a similar
double, and similarly radical, misperception. Again, the
term ‘perception’ is used loosely: the derangement lies in
the mental, not the optical process.

Why not simply speak of an error? Why is it not enough
simply to label as mistaken the man who sees the devil – or,
the Nazi who sees the Jews as the devil? After all, we are
first of all talking about a mistake. The problem is that to
call misperception a mistake locates it within the realm of
reason and evidence we presume in all discourse and indeed
perception. Within that realm a mistake may be corrected,
for example, by demonstrating it to be false. But to call it
madness underscores on the one hand its depth and seriousness, on the other its psychological roots and quality of
being beyond reason and demonstration. If we regard a
belief as mad we see it as being both wilful and beyond

-This is a remarkable combination of opposites: a mad
belief is beyond control, unreachable by any customary process of evidence or reasoning, yet it is wilful. It proceeds
with determination and from a definite intention.

Madness of the first sort, then, suggests a wilful turning away from both normal perception and inference and its
standards of evidence and truth, and a turning away which
proclaims – and acts on the non-existence of what is real
and the existence of what is not. Of course no individual
or social movement turns completely from reality. Hitler
not only showed normal perceptual capacities when he ate
and drank, but in rising to power he demonstrated a brilliant grasp of the political situation down to the smallest
detail of timing. If he was deranged it was only in certain
specific areas. The same is true for those judged and
treated as clinically insane: however far from normal reality they may be in specific areas, they know where and
how to cat, how to walk, what it means to sleep. Total


derangement, if possible, would deprive the would-be
pathological killer of the very capacity to kill: every reality would be scrambled. Derangement is always selective
and limited, leaving intact most of the vast web of one’s
other ties to reality as well as abilities to function within

Which is why we must see madness as lying along a
continuum which stretches from the impossible extreme of
seeing and acknowledging reality completely to the other
impossible extreme of breaking with it totally. If the
second is inconceivable for the reasons just given, Freud
has made clear why the first is also inconceivable: civilized
life demands repression and neurosis. If sane people stand
somewhere along the continuum, the insane stand further
along, having broken with more of reality. It is, however, a
quantitative change which becomes qualitative. To speak of
‘madness’ implies that reality is being denied more fully
and in an area that is decisive for functioning. One could
scarcely imagine functioning without denying some aspects
of reality – this is the meaning of repression and neurosis
as Freud articulated them. Repression is necessary to civilized life as such – for example generating the sublimations
that yield culture as well as protecting humanity from the
impulses that would threaten it. Neurosis, differentiated
from madness only by degree, afflicts every member of
Western society in some way(s) which at some time(s) may
become disruptive. Madness is more pronounced, more disruptive, more syste:tlatic.

If the phenomenon of denial characterises all neurosis
and suggests the (relatively) easy reversibility that treatment or time can bring, a stronger term is needed to describe the wilful, radical, systematic, departure from reality
‘Ne mean by ‘madness’: a rupture with reality. This formulation captures all of the meanings I have been exploring: the
fact that madness involves a relationship with reality; the
110rmative character of the description; the seriousness of
the derangement; its wilful character; and the difficulty of

A second meaning of ‘madness’ emphasises the derangement not of perception but of intention. Of course the two
are linked: belief is an act whose derangement proceeds
from an intention to rupture with reality and so believe.

10reover, madness has consequences – and is thus talked
about and studied – only when it becomes yet more active
and produces practical results. Nevertheless ‘madness’ has
still a further implication, within the practical sphere, of
an act that is undertaken contrary to evident possibility
and in spite of that evidence. To attempt unaided flight
from a tall building is so patently pursuing the impossible
and courting death as to be mad. Of course, as with the
earlier qualifications of misperception, acts that seek to
‘do the impossible’ are regarded as mad when they are sustained, serious and far-reaching. If this madness indeed
contains strong elements of misperception, the emphasis
falls on the misperception of causal relations between act
A and intended result B. ‘If I leap I will fly.’ The absence
of any conducting path between A and B is rejected, replaced instead with magical belief. B can be accomplished
by doing A, in the face of all contrary evidence and
experience. Reality is defied.

The intention is mad not insofar as it is felt or desired,
but insofar as it is willed against reality. I focus on this as
a distinct kind of madness because the intention dominates
so wholly as to be pursued in spite of its patent impossibility. My desire to fly goes against reality, but instead of
submitting to that reality I attack and disregard it by
jumping f”-om the window. If I disregard it with reference
to the laws of physics, I attack it with regard to my own
body. In this sense the realities in and through which the
action takes place are violated in decisive ways – my body
in particular – in hope of achieving B. Madness: an extreme
and systematic violation of reality in the intention of
achieving an impossible resul t.

And yet common sense tells us that many things are
impossible which are later accomplished. Was flight impos-

sible in 1900? Black-white equality in the American South
in 1950? I select a technical and a socio-political example
which were both susceptible to change over time. Yesterday’s impossibility becomes tomorrow’s common sense;
space travel, for example, or women’s equality with men.

This implies that special caution is necessary when talking
about madness. Moreover, systematic analysis of social
structures and tendencies may reveal certain possibilities
which are roundly denied by established ideologies: social
movements sometimes suddenly and momentously extend the
field of possibilities, as when Russian workers created the
Soviets in 1905 .

Thus the intention for social change – even for revolutionary change – cannot be a priori characterised as mad
any more than can the impulse to invept what has not yet
been invented. Defenders of the status quo may see a given
project as mad because of interests which understandably
limit their sense of what is possible. Here it is important to
note not that ‘madness’ is and can be falsely applied – true
of any normative term – but that it is used, and with a
precise but incorrectly applied meaning: to attempt what is
plainly contrary to possibility.


A third meaning of ‘madness’ needs to be considered:

systematic and radical estrangement from oneself. Psychopathic mass murderers are often regarded as mad not only
because they kill but also because they do so without normal affect. ‘Cold-blooded murder’: the assumption is of an
appropriate complex of motivations and feelings which this
killer utterly lacks. We se him as having thus ruptured with
his own moral sensibilities and human fellow-feeling. He
does not feel or react as one is supposed to, meaning in
turn that he is not only abnormal but quite probably radically separated from himself. Acts of extreme cruelty which
spread beyond specific acts of self-defence or revenge can
be easily seen to express this divorce between the person’s
actions and underlying feelings.

Rather than exploring the various problematic aspects
of this meaning of ‘madness’, it will be useful to note that,
like the others, it rests on demonstrable standards of reality and normality and makes no sense without them. Like
the others, it may be arguable – but those who employ it as
a normative concept would willingly shoulder this burden of

I have so far been discussing ‘madness’ as we usually use it
– to describe individuals. In what ways, and with what
qualifications, can it be applied to the social world? Certainly if we focus on a given ruler we can assess his or her
mental state and describe his or her acts using the definitions just developed: Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was mad. To
the extent that an individual decides policy, we might conclude that any and all analysis of individual behaviour can
be used. Was Hitler’s perception deranged? His intention, or
his affect? How are these reflected in Nazi policy?

But if we make no distinction between individual and
social, we would ignore the specifically societal character
and determinants of the acts of even the most powerful
dictator. Hitler matters not because he was an individual
but as the one who managed to become absolute ruler of
that specific society. He became absolute dictator in the
most intimate relation with those specific social and historical conditions – his character expressing and focusing that
situation, right down to and including his insanity. Moreover, his individual qualities themselves were produced in
and through a specific history of a specific social class in
a specific society. Above 311, they 1:>ecame reflected in policy onJ f as Hitler took power: insofar as he led the movement that became the dominant political force in Germany.

The point is that every step and layer of the madness
that became the ‘Final Solution’, even the most individual,
was social. This suggests that the above meanings of ‘mad..:

ness’ cannot simply be grafted from individual to social

,xocess without prior reflection on their suitability. Hitler
lTIay have been mad in a11 the senses described above: our
question turns on the madness of the social policy and collective behaviour he directed.

This difference between the individual and the societal
becomes clear as soon as we ask how political behavior can
be mad in the third sense used above, as systematic and
radical estrangement from self: derangement of affect.

What is the ‘self’ of a society from which it would become
estrange in acting madly? Certainly it might be possible to
describe a ‘sane society’ or a ‘sick society’ in terms of
specific internal relations and standards of health. But such
an exerCise would require a tota11y new definition of catesories rather than a translation of the individual into the
social. Such a redefinition would mark the considerable difference, pace Plato, between character structure and
social structure .

Political behaviour is not individual behaviour ‘writ
large’ – the body politic is a rather different animal than
the individual human being. The affective character that is
inextricable from relations between individuals, for
example, has a who11y different place, if any, in co11ective
relations these individuals direct or participate in.

Kennedy and Khrushchev confronted each other in the
::::uban Missile Crisis of 1962 not as individuals but as leaders of nations. That the difference was decisive can be
gathered from a reading of Robert Kennedy’s memoir on
the near-catastrophe . It was a political conflict which,
however it may have used or been reinforced by individual
feelings, “VdS conducted in political terms, according to a
,)olitical logic, for political ends. Kennedy and Khrushchev
acted not as private individuals might – concerned above
a11, for example, about their children – but as rulers of
nations, concerned about power. For example, the political
consequences of being seen to be backing down were central in Kennedy’s calculations because of his self-conscious
role as president of the country that saw itself as the most
powerful in the world. As such, an abstraction as remarkably distinct from the fate of the world’s people – or of his
own children – as ‘national interest’ largely contro11ed
Kennedy’s behaviour in the conflict. However we interpret
this psychologica11y, we must clearly put its peculiarly political character at the centre of our interpretation.

Thus the example suggests that the third area of our
definition of individual madness, estrangement from self,
offers serious resistance to being applied to political behaviour. But the other two meanings can be more readily
applied. When its rulers organise a society against false
enemies, when they believe, and propagate the view that,
the society is being morta11y threatened although it is not,
when they organise to combat the threat – then we may
speak of madness as surely as when an individual does the
same. For systematic misperception is involved.

But how can we say that the society perceives or misperceives? Especia11y when a society is fragmented into
warring classes or groups? Here the shift from individual to
societal ‘madness’ may complicate our efforts but not cancel them. In speaking of a ruler we may say, simply, that
he sees what is not there and does not see what is there.

Rulers’ perceptions of themselves and their situation may
be so deranged as to merit the term ‘madness’.

In certain situations, however, this deranged perception
is not theirs alone, but rather becomes co11ective madness.

I would cite as an example, insofar as it has been believed,
the Communist ‘threat’ to the United States, or Soviet
society’s organisation against Trotsky’s ‘threat’ to the
Bolshevik Revolution, or (taking a less controversial
example) the Jewish ‘threat’ to Germany. In each case however different from each other – the character and
extent of a societal derangement was so extreme as to at
least arguably warrant the description of ‘madness’. What
makes it a matter of a specifica11y societal derangement is.

not only the obvious fact that it was shared by vast numbers of people, but that this sharing, beyond being an
imposition by a powerful ruler or dominant class, had deep

social roots. The ‘Final Solution’ became policy as a response to what vast numbers crazily regarded as a real
threat to their society. To be sure, along the road to
A.uschwitz there had to be manipulators and manipulated those who consciously used paranoid antisemitism without
sharing it for rea,)’)l1s ~)t power, as we11 as those who acted
according to it because they saw no alternative. But the
manipulations of, and obedience to, authority were not the
secret of the Nazi madness but only its inevitable corollary. Bu11ying and manipulation, submission and obedience
may have rf place in any social movement, but they never
explain it.

But isn’t everything we have been saying served adequately by the term ‘ideology’? Nazism was an ideology – a
class-centered vision of social reality which was offered,
and accepted, beyond the German lower’ middle class because it made sense of the experience of vast numbers of
people and gave them a programme of action. As such it
had to distort aspects of reality, just as it had to render
aspects of it adequately. Nazism, anti-Communism, Stalinism – in speaking of madness aren’t I rea11y describing ideologies which in these key respects are similar to a11 other

Where I quarrel with such analysis is in emphasising
that some ideologies must be seen as mad. A central question, in spite of a11 relativism, is how far ideology corresponds to reality. A.t what point do we c,a11 it deranged?

Granted a11 ideologiE.:s distort in service of specific social
classes; granted also that Marxism set itself up at the
scientific critique of ideology but in power has become just
another ideology. The original Marxian distinction between
a more-or-Iess’ distorted and a more-or-Iess accurate vision
of social reality is decisive. The psychological spectrum,
stretching from (impossible) complete sanity to (impossible)
complete madness, requires only slight alteration to become
as relevant to the discussion of societies as of individuals.

The rulers of any society may impose a more-or-Iess distorted vision of reality on a11 other social- groups and classes, but at a certain point along the continuum ideological
distortion can become so severe as to fundamenta11y lose
touch with reality. The image of the Jew in Nazi ideology
is an example. Quantity becomes quality: the degree of wilful yet believed obfuscation is so great as to merit description as ‘madness’. Even in class societies, then, ones governed by grotesque lies and absurdities, a point may be
reached when the ruling vision crosses a line, the line of

To explain Auschwitz means looking at those who
believed that the Jews were menacing German society, and
humanity, and were a threat that could only be eliminated
by extermination. A ‘misperception’ on this scale, as I have
said, sterns from an intention: the various stresses and
traumas of their experience were shaped by the Nazis and
their supporters into a deranged vision which placed the
evil Jew at its centre and ca11ed for action. The Nazis who
so believed ruptured with the reality before them to create
instead a fantasy-uni:,erse which ‘explained’ their problems
and directed them towards a ‘solution’. That it was evil,
that it was barbaric and ultimately self-destructive, did not
deter (and perhaps attracted) those who chose it. It motivated and united them, gave them moments of victory and
indeed mastery, successfu11y prope11ing them far from their
original pain and stress. Since they were able to reshape
the world around them according to their mad vision, we
might say that their madness ‘worked’ – the mental rupture
led to an actual physical rupture in which the menacing
subhuman parasites were progressively deprived of human
rights and human treatment, and then were exterminated.

I have differentiated derangement of perception from that
of intention, but the ‘Final Solution’ certainly crosses the
line. In perceiving, then treating, people as people-whoare-not-human, the Nazis clearly acted contrary to reality.


Yet they succeeded whenever they exterminated a Jew,
insofar as they did remake reality according to their mad
fantasy. Nevertheless, testimony of survivors indicates that
they failed, utterly. Nbt only did many of these people
retain their sense of humanity while in the camps, as was
demonstrated in acts of solidarity, compassion, cunning and
outright resistance, most dramatically in the successful
destruction of Treblinka. But afterwards, even those who
felt themselves nearly reduced to subhumans by the Nazis
but survived, returned: to reconstitute their sense of
humani ty, to testify, to remember, to remind us. Those who
later demonstrated – or whose children demonstrated against wars they saw as inhumane testified to a resilience
of human fellow-feeling and moral sense which will forever
mock the Nazis’ effort to redefine their reality as human
beings. Indeed, the only way the Nazis were successful in
remaking reality according to fantasy was by committing

I originally spoke of the madness of intention in relation to an individual trying to do the impossible. We are
dealing with action, the category where analyses of individuals have easiest societal application. As with the individual, so with social policy: trying to do what cannot be
done is mad. I have emphasised that it must be clearly differentiated from trying to do what common sense says is
impossible, for common sense always sets its boundaries in
keeping with the prevailing social structures and their
accompanying universe of discourse. But the criterion
remains valid nevertheless: it is not madness to seek to
transform society in keeping with its possibilities and tendencies, according to its demonstrable capacities. It was not
madness to attempt to enslave another people when the
differences of power and of culture were so great as to
render this possible. It is madness to seek to realise a
vision which has no basis in fact, actual tendencies, human
relations, or human capacity.

And so we may judge the Nazi vision: the Reich sought
to subjugate other ‘Aryans’, destroy the national identity
of ‘non-Aryans’ like Slavs or others judged ‘inferior’, and
exterminated the ‘subhumans’. Even if extermination could
be carr ied out – and it was the most successful of all the
Nazi policies – the rest of the vision could not. Indeed,
even without the Normandy invasion, the Soviet Union alone
would have eventually destroyed Nazi Germany.

It is not mad to attempt a brutal or benevolent social
policy whose success is unlikely, nor to attempt an action
in order to test its possibility. The madness, rather, lies in
going against reality, wilfully and obdurately, when it is
quite clear that success is impossible. Great destruction is
a likely corollary in such cases, because those bent on
changing what is unchangeable easily seek to coerce it if
they have the means. In The Dialectics of Disaster I have
explored the dynamic whereby impotence, in power, can
lead to genocide. Societal mass murder, in our century, has
been rooted in ruptures with reality in which the project of
transformation can ony be achieved through violence.

Human reality may be recalcitrant, even to those with political and military power, but human beings can be forced:

threatened, beaten into submission, destroyed if they
refuse. Violence is indeed the only way of reshaping what
resists. Thus was ‘socialism’ created by Stalin; thus was an
‘independent non-Communist South Vietnam’ pursued by the
United States after its unattainability became clear in late
1964. In each case reality was madly assaulted by those
with power to do so, violently made over to resemble the
guiding vision. In each case a grotesque mutant was
created, and at frightful human cost.

the kinds of societal processes that can produce mad social
behaviour. If a society is not an individual ‘writ large’, how
does it become deranged to the point of producing the
kinds of acts we have indicated? And how is this derangement different from the ‘normal’ social conflicts and class
struggles that make up so much of history?

In The Dialectics of Disaster I have explored the dynamics of uneven historical development within and between
societies in search of an answer. For now, however, a more
immediate question involves staying on the terrain of the
concept and its application: how to employ the meanings of
‘madness’ described above to clarify current political behaviour? It may be possible to reflect fruitfully on the past,
but can the understanding help us to clarify the far more
volatile and difficult world in which we ourselves are immersed? Above all, I have in mind the impending nuclear
holocaust. How are we to regard the casual intuition that
the current process of nuclear escalation is mad?

Certainly the notion of radical misinterpretation can be
our starting point. Do the nuclear planners, we may ask,
not see what is there and see what is not there? The question may be posed from two directions – one regarding
their perception of the Soviet Union, its behaviour and its
intentions; the other concerning how they perceive danger
and security vis-a.-vis the spread of nuclear weapons. The
point is not to fall into labelling a given policy ‘mad’ just
because it- is unpalatable, but to use the notion rigorously
as a significant evaluation. It is possible that social policies are mad; it is possible that this policy is mad. The
task is to evaluate the policy of nuclear escalation to
determine whether it is indeed a rupture with reality of
the sort we have been describing.

Secondly, we may ask whether it displays a madness of
intention: trying obdurately to achieve what is demonstrably impossible, assaulting reality in doing so. Here our
terrain would be the supposed quest for security involved
in increasing and diversifying nuclear arsenals: ‘peace
through strength’. Does this in fact only increase the general insecurity? Is this not self-evident to all but those
who insist on building more weapons? Again, the point is
not whether the policy is mistaken, but rather whether it
systematically flouts what is possible, and falsely redefines
reality in doing so. To destroy a village ‘in order to save
it’, as was done during the Tet offensive in 1968 (and indeed describes much of American conduct during the war in
Vietnam), is more than a violation of sense. It is a madness
of intention, trying to do the impossible, and then resorting
to destruction.

I have tried to develop a working notion of ‘madness’ as a
rupture with reality and to indicate how it might be useful
for understanding catastrophic events like the Holocaust. A
number of unresolved questions remain, above all regarding

We cannot yet talk about the nuclear planners actually
destroying the world in order to achieve its security, because they have not done so~. Still, we must not be
mystified by the peculiar character of nuclear destruction:

it is all prepared, waiting to happen, the missiles ready to
be launched. If a mistake sets off the holocaust it will not
only, or even primarily, be the fault of the mistaken machinery or persons, but of the entire process which lies waiting at this very moment. If the world’s destruction depends
on a computer error, we are justified in exploring whether
the human process leading to this state of affairs was mad.

In other words, then (and only then, alas, after the fact)
will the intuition about the systematic rupture with reality
be proven incontrovertibly true. The question now is, how
do we regard the system that so endangers us? How do we
analyze this derangement of intention now, before the
catastrophe? In short, the intention to achieve security by
expanding nuclear arsenals, can and must be evaluated
today, before the holocaust.

Finally, I have left aside the question of estrangement
of self as offering too many difficulties for societal analysis. Trying to assess the possible madness of nuclear war
would force us to reconsider this. It may well be that the
structure and governing logic of states are drastically different from the structure and governing logic of individuals, and that this makes it extremely difficult to diagnose
a political rupture with normal human fellow-feeling. After
all, states have quite ‘normally’ engaged in wars, and virtually all have habituated their young men to fight and die
and their people to support their killing. But adequately
describing nuclear policy brings a new perspective to such

Ultimately the purpose of a society is to further the
well-being of its people. I say ‘ultimately’, understanding
that most societies have been marked by class and other
social struggles – because they have also been characterised by class and other social consensus. When the consensus has totally broken down – and the rulers decide to survive by permanently suppressing a major part of the population – the society is ripe for revolution. Most often a
state apparatus has contradictory functions – it serves all
of its people in some fashion even while guaranteeing the
exploitation of some by others. The point is that even
slaves must be fed and kept alive at a human level adequate to their functioning. The slaveowners who declare
all-out war on their slaves are destroying their own conditions of survival. Mad? Our earlier reservations about the
psychological origins of the concept no longer apply because we are dealing with a self-rupture which is far mqre
basic. They would be made in a structural sense similar to
the estrangement from self discussed earlier. Similar, yet
more profoundly so: actions which attack one’s own survival itself are the most radical rupture with one’s own

Of course, to return to the individual level, suicide is
not necessarily mad, even if it is the most extreme possible
rupture with self. Great pain or suffering or a loss of all
purpose can lead one to choose death over life, just as
death in struggle may rationally be preferable to a life of
subjection. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, although suicidal,
asserted for all time the dignity of the fighters and their
refusal to die passively. It was a sane act. Their suicidal
struggle was self-consciously seen as a testimony: it
implied a world that would continue beyond this battle and
even the Nazis, and it spoke to that world.

Are those who declare ‘better dead than Red’ threatening the same courageous battle to the death? Not at all.

First, nuclear policy-makers are not only choosing their
own death, but that of tens of millions of others. Certainly
the Warsaw Ghetto fighters brought German retribution
down upon the entire ghetto, but this happened in the process of the Nazi attack on the resistance. The primary targets of nuclear war are civilian population centres themselves, because they are population centres. Thus he who

would save Americans from an alleged Communist victory
would ‘save them’ by having them killed. Moreover, the
threat itself is an absurdity. The belief in the Communist
or Soviet threat is one of those madnesses of perception
which has operated, and continues to be revived, against
all evidence, by those whose perception is sytematically
deranged. But above all, the nuclear planners are mad be-:cause nuclear war would destroy the world as we know it.

Even assuming for a moment that their cause were real,
the war they plan on its behalf would leave no one alive to
struggle for a better social system than the one they would

Are there no conditions under which it would make
sense to risk destroying all human life for an end superior
to life itself? Or is it mad to risk destroying all life? We
can find our direction of answering this by asking how we
would respond if the Soviet Union were indeed Nazi
Germany and threatened the rest of the world with nuclear
weapons unless it surrendered. This is the deranged perception of some anti-Communists, notably the Committee
on the Present Danger; let us suppose it were true. Even
then, it would be mad to deprive tens of millions of people
who had made no such decision, as well as virtually all of
humankind, present and future, of the chance of struggling
against and overthrowing such a monster. Yes, surrender
under such conditions would not only be the best course, it
would be the only sane course. Even the mass suicide at
menaced Masada left Jewish communities intact elsewhere:

otherwise no one would recall it today. It would then have
had no meaning at all. Destroying the outside world as well
as those locked in however righteous a struggle against an

evil system would render their own struggle absurd. A continuing existence is a presupposition of every struggle, just
as the continuing existence of an outside world is a presupposition of every individual suicide.

In short, omnicide – the destruction of everything – is
mad in a way that individual or group suicide is not. It is
mad without regard to its reason, mad because it attacks
the basis of all life, of all value, all meaning. To risk this virtually unimaginable – total death is totally different
than risking death amidst an abiding world. Today, ‘better
dead than Red’ points us towards the ultimate rupture with
reality, the nuclear planners’ flirtation with destroying the
human adventure as such. Or rather, we must say that they
have already decided to do so – under such-and-such determinate conditions.

I have willy-nilly been characterising nuclear ism while
still in the process of asking whether our ca tegor ies could
be useful in describing it. The reason lies in the nature of
omnicide itself – it is unlike any evil humans have yet encountered in that it promises destruction without appeal,
the world at an end. It alone threatens the premise of continuing human existence implied by other,. more partial dis-

asters, indeed, by suicide itself. Madness, in al1 of its
forms, suggests a partial but significant and systematic
rupture with reality. How, then, to characterise the preparation for total and ultimate rupture, the destruction of

We can understand the relevance of the
category as we have done, only by briefly exploring the
situation itself.

The rigorous use of ‘madness’ is deeply disturbing, of
course, which is perhaps one reason why it has been so
conspicuously avoided in a century so rife with madness.

The functionalist bias of most systematic thought assumes
that there is a reason of every societal act, a more-or-Iess
rational intention behind political action. It offends the
intellect to suggest that there is no reason behind a major
policy – or that indeed its reason IS profoundly and systematically irrational. ‘Madness’ is even more unsettling in
suggesting that we may be living amidst a profound and
destructive irrationality, one which lies beyond the traditional1y understood irrationalities of history – those of mad
individual leaders, for example, or of irrational class societies in a state of crisis. Moreover, our conventional political sense is deeply troubled by ascriptions of such madness:

what political counter-measures will move the crazy leaders of mad societies? To describe a major social policy as
‘mad’ and to suggest that it is rooted in fundamental societal dynamics, is to rule out the hope of simple reforms
improving the situation, of leaders seeing the light.

Above all, if these implications were not disturbing
enough, much of this essay, and the study where these
reflections began, points to our society, today, in the
United States and the West. If ltcan be seriously discussed
whether the Vietnam War was mad, whether nuclear escala-

tion is mad, then al1 of the above problems may apply to
us, our social structures, our daily life. Not that they do
not or have not applied elsewhere – in the Soviet Union for
example, or in the genocidal transformation of Kampuchea
– but we who study and think and act here have respon~i­
bility for uflderstanding the situation we would influence.

Did most Germans between 1933 and 1945 see the sickness
of their society, or were some of them too deeply immersed
to even question it, others deluded by false hopes? What
assumptions did they share with those who ruled them, and
with the genocidal policies they themselves carried out?

Can the same question be asked, today, by ourselves, of
ourselves? Can we afford to wait until the blinding flash to
acknowledge that they are mad?

Such are some of the challenges of pursuing, rather
than abandoning, a term like ‘mad’ to describe events such
as the ‘Final Solution’. Daunting to the intellect, certainly,
and to the will as well. But too much is at stake to ignore
the challenge.


London, 1983
Eichmann in Jerusalem, New York, 1965
The Cunning of History, New York, 1978
p. 2
See Eberhard Jackel, Hitler’s Weltanschauung: A Blueprint for Power,
Middletown, Conn., 1972
See Jean-Paul “Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the
events of May 1968, in The French Student Revolt, B. Brewster
(trans.), New York, 1968
See Plato, The Republic, F.M. Cornford (trans.), London, 1941
Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of The Cuban Missile
Crisis, New York, 1969
Which is Stanley Milgram’s error in the famous experiments described
in Obedience to Authority, New York, 1974

Edited by Rcy Edgley and Richard Osbome

LUCId, mdependent and poielI1lcai, thJs collect1on ofessays by contrIbutors to lIMIiAl PbiJ.opb, demonstrates a COlTllI1lanent to
questlOns ofetlua;, truth and scIentllicity Subjects covered mc1ude the work of indiVldual philcmphers, such as Kant Hegei and
Althusser; the reaiJst poSluon in the plulcmphy ofSCIence; morahty and pohtJes; and the reJaOons between philcmphyand gender
A group ofsparkJmg ~ dissects fasiuonabie trends m discourse theory, post-structuralism and neo-conservatlSm.


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