Schwartz, Howard S. 

The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness

New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003 234pp. Cover price: $24.95 (paper)

ISBN: 0765805375  


Review by James Glass

Department of Political Science

University of Maryland


Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society

December, 2006, pp. 331-335



The Revolt of the Primitive: an Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness examines contradictions and injustices in the exercise of political correctness, primarily in educational institutions.  Schwartz's dissent from political correctness derives from a psychoanalytic reading of what the demands for political correctness represent: the giving over of the self and group to the primordial or primitive maternal.  What results is the emasculation of the Father, the appearance of social policies and groups dominated by the maternal ego ideal, and the disappearance of respect generated by the imagery and practices of authority.  This is particularly the case in Universities where traditional authority has been supplanted by the values of political correctness, and a set of public assumptions about behavior that psychoanalytically 'expresses the premise of the primordial mother whose children have no need, and certainly no right, to have their own minds' (p 155).  In this view, political correctness is an assault on paternal law, on rationality, and on balance in the institution.  Further, it is an attack on moderation and fairness; it replaces guilt with shame, and demonstrates extreme impatience with the ambivalence and doubt associated with the superego.           


In this meticulously argued, lucid and well written book, Schwartz does present some interesting theoretical ideas and questions: I found his use of the concept of projective identification as a way of describing group reactions to abhorrent values to be useful.  We often hate others to avoid hating ourselves; and there is no reason to think such a mechanism does not condition strident ideological attacks coming from both left and right on University campuses.  The notion that the world holds us like the primordial mother (p 132)--'our desire to deny the world outside ourselves and what that world tells us about our own limitations' (p 111)--give us fascinating insight into the sense of entitlement, narcissism, and the range of feeling behind entitlement demands..  For Schwartz this sense of being contained and held by righteousness leads often to intolerance and an unwillingness to subordinate individual feeling to a rational construct that seeks fairness.    


Schwartz contends that as political correctness gained ground in the university the maternal totally eclipsed the paternal, and thereby elevated feeling and emotion over reason and prudence.  The result, he argues, is a culture of the oppressed, including women and ethnic groups, blaming white males for their victimhood and suffering.  Schwartz categorizes this in the following way: 'The university turns into a setting for a Manichean battle between the forces of goodness, as personified by the victims and their righteous allies, and the force of evil, personified by the oppressors,' or the white power structure (p 145).     Schwartz argues that political correctness has totally altered the teaching and learning environments of the universities to the point that specialized, social/cultural courses trump the great books.  'Knowledge becomes advocacy research.whatever ideas express hatred of the oppressors and love of the victims' (p 147).   Schwartz exaggerates to push a polemical point; and the value of his book does not lie in the notion that somehow the traditional university has disappeared, but in what he makes us think about, and in our reactions to his extreme positions.  At the University of Maryland, where I teach, knowledge production in the social sciences is fairly traditional; by no stretch of the imagination can one argue that PC defines the intellectual and academic environment in the college of Behavioral and Social Sciences.   Further, PC, or another label, like sensitivity to human rights or awareness of the history of victimization, sometimes has offered a real corrective to reactionary tendencies in many universities.   Schwartz lists a number of ridiculous PC courses and attitudes, primarily in the 1980's and 1990's,but are his examples representative?  After all, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia exist. From what I've seen some universities try to protect women, homosexuals, and ethnic groups from discrimination: is this wrong?  The concept of victmhood surely is not a myth, and doing what's right to address injustice is still right, even if it is seen as 'PC.'  On occasion things are said in a university environment that are abhorrent, but that's free speech.  And free speech should work both ways - right and left. But it would be a mistake to equate all examples of free speech with political correctness.  The examples Schwartz gives from Berkeley, Michigan, Wellesley, Oberlin, and St. Cloud College--including one example of a T.A. demanding that a male student be penalized if he continues to use 'sexist' examples or argument in his exams--appear to be inappropriate or excessive uses of political correctness to embarrass, shame or prevent the assertion of contrary speech.  Whether one can use these examples to indict the whole system as a primitive regression to the maternal embrace is doubtful and something of a stretch.  Schwartz's defense of white males and the great books tradition against feminist critique, while often as uncompromising as the feminist's he describes, portrays the white male as victim.  It is difficult to sympathize with his view that white males are being unfairly trivialized by the oceanic forces of PC and feminism.    


Many of the examples provided are fascinating: they show egregious violations of the rights of the dissenter from political correctness. Nevertheless, to argue that political correctness has turned the university into an ideologically driven knowledge machine, biased against white males and the history of the great books tradition, is just simply wrong--or I should say wrong in terms of the universities of which I have knowledge. Further, although the 1980's and 1990's produced instances of excessive manifestations of political correctness, whether the intensity of those positions still dominates individual departments within universities is questionable.              


Schwartz gives this abstraction--the 'university'--too much power. I'm not sure the university mandates 'one's feelings and even makes one responsible for the feelings that others may have about one's feeling' (p 134).  In fact, I'm not so sure the university cares much for feeling at all.  Maybe it should--indeed, maybe it should pay more attention to the teaching of ways we can understand feeling.  Instead, universities primarily care about production of books and articles, promotion, and the generation of grants; that is often as close as 'higher' university administrators get to their local colleges, schools and centers.  Let's not sell the father short; he may be alive and well in university administrations that rely primarily on bureaucracy and local decision-making to further the interests of promotion, tenure, hiring and salary, and course proposals.  PC as an ideology driving the university appears not to be as powerful a force as Schwartz suggests. I did find it enjoyable to ponder some of Schwartz's examples of PC transgressions, both because they are presented well and because I've never seen anything quite like the PC grotesqueries  Schwartz locates in the 80's and 90's.  I remember at Berkeley, where he draws one of his most dramatic examples, that in the 60's the students had to almost shut down the university to allow free speech on the campus.  It would be hard to call that demonstration, or the Vietnam War protests,  exercises in political correctness.  Sometimes protest advances rights and positions that political and administrative authorities ignore.  Again I think he attributes just too much power to these movements that represent PC, particularly in the post 9/11 universe.           


Where I would respectfully disagree with Schwartz is on how to evaluate and position what he calls the 'sexual holy war':  He argues that '[w]hat underlies the sexual holy war is something far more dangerous than even a war between the sexes.  It is nothing less than a revolt of the primitive and the emotional against the mature and the rational.  It is driven by the most powerful forces within the psyche' (p 117). The feminine mystique, the sins of the father, the Lacanian notion of law and word, the rationalized bureaucracy versus the primordial mother introject, the postmodern university, the alienated student and the rejection of paternal authority: all of these are useful and important concepts to think about, but the way in which Schwartz asks us to consider them may not be the most productive.  And while the revolt of the primitive is a critical idea in these times, its most frightening dimension is not, in my view, to be found in the struggles between men and women, in the departmental faculties, and on the last-stand measures of the white male.   It seems to me that the revolt of the primitive may appear in our public life:in the political institutions of war and violence, in the arrogant exercise of sovereign power, and in the indifference of the public space to human suffering.  Thus the best model may not be, as it is for Schwartz, Chasseguet-Smirgel's notion of the primitive maternal ego ideal. It may appear in the more ominous preverbal universe of dread, anxiety, and terror: the inability of the maternal to contain disintegration anxiety; the dangers of the paranoid/schizoid position, the falling into what Michael Eigen calls the 'black hole' of psychosis (Eigen, 1986).  Finally, it may be seen in how the abject world of violence and pain, Kristeva's 'abominable' (Kristeva, 1982), finds itself manipulated and used by Law and Authority to keep the boundaries firm and rigid.  Indeed, maybe it is the 'good' mother who is under assault by Law and Authority.  It is certainly the case that the Lacanian Father had utterly no sound for those suffering in New Orleans, and no solace for the tens of thousands dying in Iraq or the increasing anxieties of the middle and lower classes in America.  Maybe now is the time to look to the Maternal for some sort of protection from the horrors wreaked by the Father' political Law.  


To conclude, Schwartz has much to say both about psychoanalytic interpretation and the history of political correctness.  He provokes the reader, argues a consistent position, and uses a massive amount of sound social science evidence to present his psychoanalytic position. While many may object to his hypotheses, The Revolt of the Primitive is a good, thoughtful read that raises serious and important questions.    



Kristeva, J. (1982).  Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Eigen, M. (1986). The Psychotic Core. New York: Jason Aronson.