Primitive horde

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Charles Darwin and evolutionist sociologists of the nineteenth century used a term of Tartar origin, "primitive horde," to refer to the simplest possible form of social formation in existence during prehistoric times. The horde was a link between the state of nature, ultimately unknowable, and the state of culture. The word has also been used by some ethnologists to characterize groups that engage in hunting and gathering in a given territory.

The notion of the primitive horde was described in Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871). Freud, in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a), wrote "Darwin deduced from the habits of the higher apes that men, too, originally lived in comparatively small groups or hordes within which the jealousy of the oldest and strongest male prevented sexual promiscuity." James Jasper Atkinson returned to this hypothesis in Primal Law (1903). He referred to the horde as a "cyclopean family." Andrew Lang, in The Secret of the Totem (1905), also acknowledged Darwin's theory: "The first practice was that of the jealous Father: 'no male can touch the females in my camp,' which was accompanied by the expulsion of the adolescent sons." It was Freud, in Totem and Taboo, who provided greater insight and scope for Darwin's theory. In spite of the criticisms that appeared when the book was published, he maintained this idea and returned to it again in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), The Future of an Illusion (1927c), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), and especially in his last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939a). The importance he assigned to this is reflected by a communication he had with Abram Kardiner in which he wrote, "Don't take this too seriously. It's something I dreamed up one rainy Sunday afternoon." Freud's principal contribution was the idea of the murder of the Father of the primitive horde: "One day, the brothers who had been driven out, came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end to the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually." The collective crime is correlative with the birth of a group and, later, the birth of humanity. "One day" man was living in a primordial age. To leave it a foundational act was needed, one that was irreversible. Certainly, it is possible that, before this, one of the children in a horde may have succeeded in killing the father. He would then have taken his place and the group would have gone on as before. But it was the unanimous decision of murder ("the brothers came together") that enabled mankind to enter history. For the sons only became brothers when they were able to overcome their powerlessness—which could have (and should have) heightened rivalry among them—and achieve a sense of solidarity. This was a relation in which each recognized the other as an equal, which enabled them to escape the deadly fascination they experienced, that is, the admiration and fear they experienced before the omnipotent father. Atkinson had already assumed that the "young troop of brothers" had finally acquired strength and had "taken from the paternal tyrant his wife and his life." But he did not see this as a new beginning. Moreover, he failed to make use of another theory that was crucial as far as Freud was concerned, that of William Robertson Smith. Smith, in his The Religions of the Semites (1894), had used the totemic meal, during which a sacrificial victim is put to death, as a central element in the ritual reestablishment of the clan, a celebration at which the clan experiences the solemn transgression of a prohibition, a transgression that can only be justified "if the entire clan shares in the responsibility." For Freud the totemic meal, "which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of the memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things—of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion." The conspiracy, prepared long in advance, promoted group cohesion. The murder followed by the meal in common made brothers of the sons, a brotherhood of equals, united by the same blood, identifying with the father, and each appropriating, through the act of cannibalism, part of his strength. However, it is important to remember that due to the ambivalence of feeling, the brothers loved their father as much as they feared him. Moreover, the brothers felt guilty for having killed the father. They then decided to reject the object of desire for which they had banded together: ("what had up to then been prevented by his actual existence was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves, in accordance with the psychological procedure so familiar to us in psychoanalysis under the name of 'deferred obedience."') They idealized and mythified the father they had established as totem, experienced as the founder of the group and the bearer of symbolic law. The world of relations of force gives way to the emergence of a world of alliances and solidarity. In Moses and Monotheism Freud returns to this idea. But he insists on the monopolization of speech by the Father of the horde. By killing him, the sons appropriate nascent language (see P. Kaufmann [1979]). As a result of the act, great importance is given to the "omnipotence of ideas that will bring about such extraordinary progress in intellectual activity" and the development of spirituality. Totem and Taboo was strongly criticized by anthropologists. Paul Radin (1929) felt it was a "deplorable performance," Alfred Louis Kroeber, in 1920, rejected Freud's hypothesis, which he denounced as a "conviction without substance." In 1939 he returned to the book and criticized the use of history to cloak a "psychological intuition." In contrast, Géza Róheim, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, used Freud's grid in his work while focusing on the analysis of the "actual carriers" of culture and forgetting the "bewitching phylogenesis." Claude Lévi-Strauss (1949) took the hypothesis of the murder of the father seriously, not as a historical event but as a "durable and ancient dream" that has even more importance "since the acts it evokes have never been committed because culture has always and everywhere opposed them." It was a writer, René Girard, a man opposed to psychoanalysis, who in 1968 praised Totem and Taboo in the clearest terms, even though he contested its reasoning. Eugène Enriquez (1967) had already adopted the hypothesis of parricide to explore the notion of power; Serge Moscovici (1981) used Freud's book to understand the role of the charismatic leader.

It is worth pondering why Freud invented this narrative. The unconscious desire for murder and fantasy would have been sufficient. Didn't Freud himself say that the only currency used by psychoanalysis was fantasy? Yet, in spite of the clinical data (Sándor Ferenczi's little man-rooster and Freud's "Little Hans"), Freud wanted to tie the Oedipus complex to an event. He had always been sensitive to the "act." ("In the beginning was the act," as Goethe wrote.) He always believed that ontogenesis reproduced phylogenesis. For Freud it was necessary to inscribe the history of each subject within that of social organization. The work of Ernst Haeckel seemed to provide the best way of doing this. And, by linking this to the origin of religion, he knew that he risked a break with Carl Gustav Jung—a not altogether disagreeable possibility for Freud.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1912-1913). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  2. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1949). Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Reprinted 1968, The Hague: Mouton.