The Science of Evil: A Personal Review of Political Ponerology
A new edition of Political Ponerology, by Andrew M. Łobaczewski, edited by Harrison Koehli, is now available on Amazon.1 This strange and provocative book argues that totalitarianism is the result of the extension of psychopathology from a group of psychopaths to the entire body politic, including its political and economic systems. Political Ponerology is essential reading for concerned thinkers and all sufferers of past and present totalitarianism. It is especially crucial today, when totalitarianism has once again emerged, this time in the West, where it is affecting nearly every aspect of life, including especially the life of the mind.
When I first encountered Political Ponerology, I had been struggling to understand just how totalitarian leftism had effectively taken over the United States of America. Ever since my encounters with the rabid social justice warriors as a professor at New York University—recounted in my book Springtime for Snowflakes—I began to note, with no little alarm, the totalitarian character of the contemporary Left. Then the emergence of “woke” ideology and its metastasis from academia into the entire social body set me on a mission to understand the rise of totalitarianism—because I believed, and still do, that “wokism” is totalitarian. Far from being “liberal” in the classical sense, woke ideology is akin to the Jacobinism that fueled the communist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere. It aims to tear down the established order in its entirety, and to remake the world in its image of utopia.
I began with the study of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and continued by examining the exportation of Bolshevik variants to Eastern Europe and Asia. Communism was more interesting to me than Nazism and a much more neglected terrain in the US academy. Further, it was more relevant in the current context. In attempting to research leftist political criminality, I was both amazed and enraged at how the academy had buried much of the history. For example, searches for the practices of “struggle sessions” and “autocritique,” which were so prevalent during the Cultural Revolution in China, yielded next to nothing. These and related topics were either not treated or else simply disappeared. I suspected that a vast coverup had been undertaken.
Mind you, this area of study had never been my specialty. I had been an academic for almost thirty years. My work had been in the history of science and its intersections with culture in nineteenth-century Britain. I had latched onto a little-known development called “secularism,” founded by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851.2 So, having relegated myself to this academic niche, I had quite a bit of catching up to do. Naturally, I foraged in The Black Book of Communism, a volume that is infamous among Western Marxists and which, thanks to their blithe dismissal, was a book I’d never even bothered to open while a Marxist myself, let alone read. There was so much studying to do, including digging in the Stalinist Digital Archive, which is available to me as an official retiree from NYU. I also read the classic texts on totalitarianism, the literary accounts written by now famous but still too-neglected authors, and later, the works of the Austrian school of economics.
Łobaczewski made the bold claim that he’d uncovered “the general laws of the origin of evil.” If true, the book was on par with Newton’s Principia in the physical sciences, while being of greater practical importance. And he approached this domain from the disciplinary perspective of psychology. Such an “individualist” methodology had been dismissed as mere “psychologism” in my own and many other fields of the humanities and social sciences. Łobaczewski’s insistence to focus on individual psychological disorders to understand the unfolding of “macrosocial evil” seemed mistaken to me initially, but this approach accords well with Joseph Schumpeter’s methodological individualism, which became a hallmark of the Austrian school. My assumption had always been that one needed to study political ideology and economics and that political ideology and economic theory explained nearly everything one needed to know about how and why totalitarian evil comes about.
But I started to become convinced that indeed a “mass formation psychosis”—a phrase recently reintroduced by dissidents and maligned by mainstream media in the context of covid propaganda—could begin with pathological individuals and spread throughout society, overtaking entire nations.
Łobaczewski walks the reader through the process, from beginning to inglorious end. I recognized the patterns that the author takes great pains to lay out. First, readers mistake the writing of schizoidal personalities—like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example—for profundity that they should take seriously:
That is the first mistake. The oversimplified schema of reality—pessimistic regarding human nature and devoid of psychological color—tends to be suggestive, exerting an intense attracting influence on individuals who are insufficiently critical, frequently frustrated as result of downward social adjustment, culturally neglected, or characterized by some psychological deficiencies of their own. Such writings provoke others to harsh criticism based on their healthy common sense, though they also fail to grasp the essential cause of the error (189).
Interpretations of such “doctrinaire” writing falls into three categories: aversion on the part of many on moralistic grounds; “critically-corrective” acceptance by normal people who incorporate the more valuable elements of the work and “trivialize the obvious errors” while supplementing “the schizoid deficiencies by means of their own richer worldview”; and “pathological acceptance” by those “afflicted with personality malformations or who have been injured by social injustice.” This last type of interpretation “often brutalizes the authors’ concepts and inspires acceptance of violent methods and revolutionary means” (189–90). I like to think that my own earlier acceptance of Marxism was of the second type.
The doctrinaire writing of often schizoidal personalities attracts “characteropathic personalities,” who take the ideologies purveyed and “recast them into an active propaganda form, and disseminate it with their characteristic pathological egotism and paranoid intolerance for any philosophies which may differ from their own” (191). These characteropathic personalities thus take what had circulated in limited circles and activate it on a societal level. Thus, the stage is set for psychopaths to emerge as party leaders.
This pattern matches the facts of historical totalitarianism. And I noted that the pattern holds today, down to the percentage of people that succumbs to totalitarian political ideology as well as the percentage that resists.
Speaking of ideology, Political Ponerology explains a phenomenon that had vexed me. How did Communist ideologues manage to convince the masses that they undertook their crimes for “the workers,” “the people,” or egalitarianism? But even more perplexing, how did the ideologues convince themselves that their crimes were for the good of the common man? Łobaczewski explains that totalitarian ideology operates on two levels; the terms of the original ideology are taken at face value by true believers, while the party insiders substitute secondary meanings for the same terms, and normal people are subjected to gaslighting. Only the cognoscenti, the psychopaths, know and understand the secondary meanings. They recognize that actions purportedly undertaken on behalf of “the workers” translate into the domination of the party and the state on behalf of the psychopaths themselves. The truth is the opposite of what the party insiders claim to be the case, and they know it. Political Ponerology thus explains the origin of “doublespeak,” which George Orwell portrays so well. Coincidentally, Łobaczewski finished Political Ponerology in 1984.
The book is both an anomaly and a monumental achievement. It represents the inaugural volume in a new science—ponerology, or the science of evil. It explains the emergence and development of macrosocial evil thoroughly and with scientific precision.
Just how did this book come to be written and this scientific field discovered? Both were born in a living laboratory. Łobaczewski was not only one of the scientists developing its methods. He was also a subject in that laboratory. Łobaczewski came of age under Nazism, during the German occupation of Poland, and later lived under communism. He became a psychologist and, given his clinical understanding of psychopathology, began to descry the psychopathological character of the Communist political system that had overtaken his homeland.
As I have mentioned, in Political Ponerology, Łobaczewski intervenes in the science of evil with a methodology that had been thought inapplicable to it—the methodological individualism and materialism of psychology. He claims for this new science of ponerology the prospect of understanding, and more or less remedying, what is among the most pernicious developments in modern history and the source of untold suffering.
Łobaczewski argues that an adequate study of totalitarianism had hitherto been impossible because it had been undertaken in the wrong registers. It had been treated strictly in terms of economics, literature, ideology studies, history, religion, political science, and international politics, among other approaches. One is reminded of the literary accounts and studies of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and Nazi Germany—of the classic works by Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Benda, Václav Havel, and many others. These made indispensable contributions but had, owing to no fault of their own, necessarily failed to grasp the root of the problem—namely, the psychopathological dimension of the inception and development of “pathocracy,” or rule by psychopaths.
The responses of normal human beings to the gross injustices and disfigurement of reality perpetrated by the ruling bodies had hitherto only been understood by members of the social body in terms of conventional worldviews. Emotionality and moral judgments blinded victims to what beset them. The deficiencies in the approaches of scholars, as well as the moralism of laypersons, had left pathocracy essentially misapprehended and likewise left humanity without any effective defenses against it. Łobaczewski redresses these deficiencies and provides these defenses. In this sense—that is, in using a scientific methodology to treat socialism—Łobaczewski’s work is analogous to Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, first published one hundred years ago.
Like Mises, Łobaczewski considers an appropriate taxonomy crucial to conveying scientific knowledge. He goes to great lengths to explain the necessity of taxonomy and to justify the introduction of objective, scientific terms, as well as the concepts they convey. Every science that enters an unknown territory has had to do the same, the author reminds us. Łobaczewski rightly deems terminology essential to the task of the scientific endeavor at hand because it isolates and defines the elements and provides the tools for controlling them. “I had no choice,” Łobaczewski writes, “but to resort to objective biological, psychological, and psychopathological terminology in order to bring into focus the true nature of the phenomenon” (5). Such naming, he makes clear, provides the best defense against the development and spread of pathocracy.
Sections of the book say so much that they may seem to convey mere generalities. But the reader must pay close attention as Łobaczewski discusses the normal psychological and psychosocial conditions of individuals and societies so that pathological characters, with their telling characteristics, can be discerned. Only with this knowledge can pathological characters be recognized, and, if possible, prevented from coming into positions of power. Łobaczewski discusses their characteristics with penetrating insight and remarkable lucidity. As I did, the reader living under similar conditions will take note of patterns and will validate the author’s findings by comparison to his or her own experience. The reader will thereby begin to find the defenses against the effects of pathocracy that the author promises. As Łobaczewski writes, “With reference to phenomena of a ponerogenic nature, mere proper knowledge alone can begin healing individual humans and helping their minds regain harmony” (8). Reading Political Ponerology thus constitutes an extended therapy session for those struggling to maintain their own sanity and humanity in the midst of insanity and inhumanity. It did for me.
Thus begins “an overall therapy of the world” (8).
- 1. Andrew M. Łobaczewski, Political Ponerology: The Science of Evil, Psychopathy, and the Origins of Totalitarianism, ed. Harrison Koehli, trans. Alexandra Chciuk-Celt, with a foreword by Michael Rectenwald, rev. ed. (Otto, NC: Red Pill Press, 2022).
- 2. See for example, Michael Rectenwald, “Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-Century Scientific Naturalism,” British Journal for the History of Science 46, no. 2 (2012): 231–54, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007087412000738; Michael Rectenwald, Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion, and Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and Michael Rectenwald, “Mid-Nineteenth-Century British Secularism and Its Contemporary Post-secular Implications,” in Global Secularisms in a Post-secular Age, ed. Michael Rectenwald, Rochelle Almeida, and George Levine (Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 43–64.