Bion at War: two exemplary stories and a working definition

In a wonderfully evocative account of ‘Working with Bion in the 1940’s’ (Trist 1985), Eric Trist tells the following story. As a military psychiatrist Bion had been a prime mover in  the development of the War Office Selection Boards, set up to meet the need for recruiting a body of candidates for officer training, many of whom, given the requirements of a large land army, would have to be drawn from “outside the customary officer class”. Bion’s innovations and notably his introduction of the Leaderless Group method, pioneered in Scottish Command, had proved highly successful and had won the backing of the military side, enabling them, as Trist puts it, “ to make better decisions without finding themselves either bemused or over influenced by ‘the shrinks’”

Despite, however, the growing military acceptance of the Boards, there was a dearth of candidates being put forward. Ordinarily, nominees were sent forward to Selection Boards by a Regiment’s Commanding Officer. But the number of nominees was falling short of the need, the more so the nearer a unit came to the theatre of war. Bion now proposed that alongside the nominees sent forward by a CO, any regiment “that had shown itself to be a good unit, should be given the privilege of sending to a Board candidates voted on by every soldier in the name of the Regiment”. With the backing of the Adjutant General, Bion was given the go ahead to try this out as an experiment with 4 units. A procedure was worked out with Eric Trist whereby, following a briefing by the CO of the army’s need and their own obligation to give up some of their best men, “each man entered on a secret ballot the names of those he considered should go forward”. Voters were divided into categories ( the in platoon and out platoon vote; and the votes of privates, junior and senior NCO’s and officers). Any soldier who showed up well on three or more categories could go to a Board if he wished. The pass rates of these candidates, who were seen blind by the selectors, turned out to be the same as that of the ordinary candidates. As Trist puts it, “ Bion’s suggestion had led to the discovery of a way of of overcoming the in group mentality (a hazard of the regular procedure) and inducing co-operation in the larger enterprise of the army” (Trist 1985, pp12-13).

Excited by what had happened, the experiment threatened to snowball. Other divisions began asking for Regimental Nomination. Bion himself, concerned that premature enthusiasm might wreck the scheme had urged caution. But he was now leaving his post at the Board, en route to Northfield Military Hospital and John Rickman. According to Trist, the Adjutant General who had sanctioned the scheme and was both encouraged and relieved by its success, was “ tickled with the idea that the army might get one up on the authoritarian enemy by making judicious use of the democratic traditions of British society”. He made reference to the scheme in his fortnightly letter to the Generals in Home Commands, which was in turn drawn to the attention of the Commander in Chief. Despite the C in C having previously given permission for experimental work with WOSB’s to proceed , and with the agreement of the Army Commander who had himself specifically approved Regimental Nomination, the suggestion was made that the Adjutant General had exceeded his authority. In the ensuing row a full meeting of the Army Council was called. Despite support for the scheme from the soldiers themselves, both politicians and civil servants unceremoniously voted it down as “possibly subversive”.

Borrowing from the later Bion, I want to take this story as a kind of ‘definitory hypothesis’ of the ‘ethical imagination ‘:  that is as a “group of facts that remain together within the word in constant conjunction”. This ‘group of facts’ include the following:

  • an emergent dilemma in practical life (for the individual, the group, or the social institution)
  • an implicit or explicit developmental undertow
  • an acknowledgement of human resourcefulness and agency,
  • a capacity to re imagine forms of human association
  • the presence and evocation of resistance (external and/or internal)

I have chosen Trist’s story as exemplary, since it is less familiar in most of the accounts and references made to the war time origins of what was later to take shape as a distinctive working philosophy within the Tavistock tradition. Bion’s subsequent transfer to Northfield and the short lived innovations which Rickman and himself were to introduce in the treatment of soldier patients offer a more complex and in some ways more influential development, both in practice and later in theory. Again there is an implicit challenge to a professional orthodoxy, though this time medical rather than military: namely the assumption of neurosis as a medical and psychiatric disorder. In contrast, Bion’s starting point is to construe the developmental challenge through a military analogy; how to create an organisational framework in which, “ through means both indirect and direct, neurosis can be displayed as a danger to the group (the enemy within) and its display be made the common aim of the group”(Bion 1961). This framework, drawing perhaps on his earlier experiments with leaderless groups and foreshadowing the more theoretical explorations he will embark on post war, forgoes the dependency model of professional leadership and turns around an implicit belief that, simply through being brought into observing and learning from their own experience in and of the group, the men, related to as soldiers who happen to be patients, not vice versa, can rediscover the capacity for cooperation and courage in addressing the challenges they  face. As Bion puts it, returning to themselves as “self respecting men, socially adjusted to the community and therefore willing to accept its responsibilities whether in peace or war”.

I have argued elsewhere (Armstrong 2012) that Bion’s later explorations in groups, with their emphasis on the regressive pull in group behaviour have both overshadowed and drawn attention away from the social radicalism of this early venture. That is, the way it was directed to draw out the group’s capacity for recovering a sense of internal agency, a capacity which was compromised not only by the group’s own internal dynamics, but also by what Bion later was to name as “some sort of equilibrium of insincerity….achieved by patients, doctors and community alike”. And this links to the last of the ‘group of facts’ constitutive of the ‘ ethical imagination’, suggested earlier: namely the presence and evocation of resistance.

In the event, after just six weeks, Bion and Rickman’s venture was abruptly terminated and both were summarily dismissed. The exact reasons remain somewhat obscure and contested. It seems likely though that they were, one way or another a reaction to the way Bion’s procedure challenged both the medical and the organisational assumptions on which the whole hospital was run, indeed took those assumptions, with their unquestioned acceptance of conventional hierarchy and the superiority of professional expertise,  as part of the problem.[1]

Bion post War: “spiritual drift” and a call to arms

In a paper written after the War and now largely neglected, Bion returns to and generalises from this experience (Bion 1948). 

(In reading this paper one needs to keep in mind that it dates from just after the period during which the Tavistock had embarked on what was known  as ‘Operation Phoenix’, in effect the re framing and re constituting of the Clinic and its mission in the light of the war time experience, with its wider psycho social perspective, an evolution in which Bion himself was a prime mover, as colleague, consultant to staff groups and chairman , a role Trist later referred to as ‘executive steersman’.

 Written as a presidential address to the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society, Bion’s paper circle’s around the role of psychiatry in the wider society. As Trist describes it,“read now, it seems a rather rambling presentation: heard then it sounded more like a call to arms”. At one level the paper can be taken as a plea for colleagues to join him in exploring and testing the ways in which psychoanalysis and related disciplines, including work with groups “had brought a new type of knowledge to humankind, a type of knowledge which, if used, could be the means through which western  societies could learn how to surmount their manifold crises and develop to a further stage”. At another level though and perhaps more striking is Bion speculating on the nature of a society’s collective discontents. So, at one point, circling around the emotional sources of such discontents he comments:

“we also have to bear in mind those organisations which in themselves produce problems for the majority of those living in that organisation. It is possible for a society to be organised in such a way that the majority of its members are psychiatrically disinherited”.

What he seems to have in mind is the way in which the specialization and stratification of a society and its organisations can restrict the scope for development of man’s (sic) political appetite, that is the range of his participation in human affairs and relationships, a kind of “spiritual drift”, he says, “which leads communities into forms of association which are as destructive of the individual as a community without a public health service would be of its physical health”. And then, “even if we admit that the individual is a more than willing participant in depriving himself of the full range of personal relationships, we still have to bear in mind the educational system of home and school which has allowed him to progress along a path of progressive limitation without any awareness that he was in fact doing so”. Skip a paragraph and one reads:

“the value of a group decision in an industrial concern may derive from a restoration to the individuals of a group a part of their inheritance. As a prelude to scientific investigation it is worth speculating on the possibility that the Trade Union movement and now unofficial strikes represent a reaction against psychological disinheritance far more profound than wages or lack of material comforts”.

It is as if here Bion is sketching out an agenda for the exercise of an ethical imagination, rooted in a socio psychological/psychoanalytic understanding but moving towards a more structural opening out than he was himself to pursue.

Opening out: the finding and making of organisational choice

It was this ‘opening out’ that was to become a hallmark of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, separately incorporated within the ambit of the Tavistock Clinic shortly after Bion’s address and embodying the wider social element in its new mission [2] Interestingly, though, this opening out owed nothing in the first instance to any psychoanalytic or socio analytic perspective. It’s origin lay rather in a spontaneously generated innovation in the collective practices of a group of South Yorkshire coal miners. This had come to the attention of one of the Industrial Research Fellows ( Ken Bamforth ) at the Institute, a miner by background, through a mutual acquaintance. At the time the Institute had been asked by the National Coal Board to make a comparative study of a high producing, high morale mine and an equivalent but low producing, low morale example. Excited by what Bamforth reported the two of them sought and obtained permission to visit. In an interview later in life Trist again tells the story:

After going down into the coal mine this time, I came up a different man. I was certain that the things I observed were of major significance….It was the same sort of discovery that we had made with Bion in studying leaderless groups. All of the work on therapeutic communities that led to group work at the Tavistock and all of Lewin’s work on group dynamics came together in my mind as I was seeing it happen” (Trist 1980)

Working in a new more mechanized coal seam, the miners had spontaneously evolved a form of work organisation based on earlier pre mechanized practices, centering around multi skilled, autonomous work groups, interchanging roles and shifts with a minimum of supervision:

“ Now they had found a way at a higher level of mechanization of recovering the group cohesion and self regulation they had lost and of advancing their power to participate in decisions concerning their work arrangements…Cooperation  between task groups was everywhere in evidence, personal commitment obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent” (Trist 1993, p17).

When, however, the Tavistock negotiated to make an in depth study in the industry, drawing from this experience, “permission was difficult to obtain.. At divisional headquarters they were nervous about anything like this being studied or published. They sensed that this study could stir up union relations. It would upset traditional managers, who were very authoritarian. They didn’t want to touch it, so our study was stopped”. It is the pattern of Regimental Nomination and of Northfield all over again. With one significant exception, that this time it is the primary work group itself that generates the imaginative response, a response which the wider organisational and societal system is unable to contain.

Sovereignty and power:  addressing the dynamics of resistance

This pattern, which I am thinking of as a failure in systemic containment, was to recur throughout the early history of the Tavistock Institute, both influencing and sometimes compromising its strategy of address, the ways it framed the socio psychiatric vision which had informed its foundation.

In my view, the underlying dynamic is best captured, not so much in Bion’s first venture in exploring experiences in groups as in his second. By this I am referring to the model he offers in Attention and Interpretation of the relation between the creative individual, the group and the Establishment and the ways in which, within the internal world,  the explosive and transformative potential of an emergent thought, threatening an existent psychological equilibrium, can evoke an internal countervailing power that , as it were, claims sovereignty over all development (Bion 1970:pp112-113).

( In parenthesis, Bion’s model is, in my view, a neat example of what I see as his major contribution to conceptualising the links between psychoanalytic and group or social experience: namely their mutuality, the two way reciprocity of the relations between external and internal, outer and inner worlds).

 It is worth recalling that in the Introduction to Experiences in Groups, Bion said that he regretted “not having discussed sovereignty and power” which, he claimed “do not develop to maturity” in the small group. One might think of a good deal of the later work within the Tavistock tradition, in particular as represented within the Institute by Eric Trist and Fred Emery, as seeking to incorporate and address this more political dimension, shifting the focus from the primary work group to the broader organisational and societal context in which the group is contained. One can track this evolution in the subsequent development of the concept of industrial democracy, in the innovative use of Future Search conferences and later in Eric Trist’s intriguing and now largely forgotten or ignored interest in and development of the idea of what he termed “continuants”: that is “independent innovating organisations”, created by sometimes conflicting interest groups, with “no formal authority over their constituents but nevertheless acquiring the power to undertake an overall change mission on behalf of the community”. As Trist described it, such “reference organisations” aimed to create “ enabling conditions for substantive change both to be initiated and sustained” in circumstances where established organisations had failed. “They have therefore to display stability as persisting good objects—to be continuants that can contain the change making anxieties and the volatilities these produce” ( Trit 1987)[3], ie manage the resistance.

Trist’s description, here as elsewhere, tends to elide the more ethical dimension, as if it were enough that concurrent changes in the  inter organizational environment could, as it were, by themselves trigger what he refers to as “the value reversal” from competition to collaboration. In my view, however, this risks seriously detracting from an imaginative undertow that seems to underscore both individual, or more particularly group agency, in much the same way and with much the same impact as Trist’s encounter with the Yorkshire miners.

Beyond resistance: “new directions of hope”

This undertow runs like a thread across Eric’s late and, again, sadly neglected account of what he describes as “four very innovative real world (community) projects”, in the USA, Canada and Scotland which he came to be involved in, towards the close of the 1970’s (Trist 1979). (Note that as with the Miners, these projects seem to have emerged and been driven initially independent of any external research or consultancy input). What, for Trist, linked these projects together he termed their ‘directions of innovation’, for him ‘four directions of hope’. Aimed to combat areas of multiple deprivation and economic decline, each were driven from the ‘periphery’ not the ‘centre’, the ‘community’ not the ‘national’ level, ‘bottom up’ not ‘top down’, and through ‘network leverage’  not ‘formal channels’, which together one might think of as means of circumventing habitual loci of power and sovereignty. Trist himself saw these directions as potentially heralding a new societal paradigm, a necessary condition he felt for “ enabling a more viable human future to be realised”.

Whether or not he was right about this, looking back 30 years on, is, to say the least, a moot point.  What I want to draw attention  to ,though, has more to do with the way Trist characterises the socio psychological drivers in view. The last of these projects, for example, was of a community development organisation arising spontaneously in a low income and deprived area of Edinburgh, comprising some 25,000 residents clustered around run down housing estates. Known as the Craigmillar Festival Society, it had begun as a community arts venture inaugurating a “festival of the poor”, with  pageants, street theatres, musicals, created by and involving community residents, (symbolically a “defiant counter” to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival). As confidence grew it expanded and diversified, growing from “being simply a festival” to becoming an all round community development organisation, drawing up its own Comprehensive Plan for Action as a basis for negotiation with public and policy agencies. This is how Trist described what happened:

“It may seem paradoxical that in a multi deprived community the tide was turned by activities in the field of the arts. But paradoxes are apt to contain important meanings. The creation of art in  any of its forms is perhaps the most profound and powerful affirmation of life against death that we as humans can make, of harnessing the constructive and positive forces against the destructive and constraining forces. The cultivation of the imagination develops a resourcefulness  which enables reality, however grim, to be contended with more innovatively. The Craigmillar folk had not much else than their imagination to fall back on. Their imagination was their open road to greater self reliance. They have used it to the full”(Trist 1979, p447).

The psychoanalytic underpinning of Trist’s account and it’s relevance to the work of what I am terming the ‘ethical imagination’ could scarcely be more clearly stated, namely the way in which the resourcefulness of the imagination consciously and unconsciously mediates the always precarious balance between life and anti life, Eros and Thanatos.It is as if, on such a view, there are forms of social innovation that can function like works of art, simultaneously creative and interpretative. What, I think, makes this perhaps difficult to grasp psychoanalytically goes back to what I referred to earlier as the tendency (maybe I should say our tendency) to concentrate more on the regressive pull than the developmental push; alternatively the basic assumptions as against the work group. As Gordon Lawrence was to put this in another context:

“Followers of the Tavistock tradition have always believed in the existence of the unconscious in social systems; nevertheless it comes across as negative and joyless… Practitioners can become blind to the positive aspects of the unconscious (as) the source of thinking and creativity” (Lawrence 2003).[4]

Similarly, in the field of Group Relations, it is striking how little attention has been paid to the unconscious drivers behind work group mentality, which regularly appears either to be taken for granted or interpreted simply in terms of ego functioning, without reference to maybe deeper, if not instinctive at least basic human drives operating unconsciously, under the surface.

In the American philosopher and psychoanalyst, Jonathan Lear’s,  recent account of the way in which, under the leadership of their Great Chief, the Crow Nation responded to the imminence of  cultural devastation, the dismantling not only of their way of life but of the concepts through which they gave it meaning, there is a fascinating discussion of the part played by an ideal of courage and its transformations, for the Crow warriors a traditional virtue. As Lear puts it:

at a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways…What is it about courage, he asks, that makes it a virtue? ”  “Courage is a virtue, I think, because it is an excellent way of coping with, responding to and manifesting a basic fact about us: that we are finite erotic creatures”, finite in the sense of being vulnerable, subject to limitation and loss, erotic in the Platonic sense of a “reaching out to the world (and to others) in yearning, longing, admiration and desire for that which, however mistakenly, we take to be valuable, beautiful and good” (Lear 2008).[5]

One might perhaps think of this as an enlarged concept of attachment, which simultaneously evokes and anticipates the shadows of resistance.

Each of the several examples I have drawn from can themselves be seen as originating from a need to face up to reality in new ways, eliciting an imaginative response which I suggest is unconsciously driven by and in turn exemplifies just that feature of work group mentality which, it seems to me, Lear’s account hints at. Each in turn would seem to imply what elsewhere Trist refers to as a surrender of sovereignty, that is any assumption of precedence as regards ownership, either of the problem or of its solution.

Social and cultural defences in a changing context

For Trist, as for Emery, writing in the early 70s (Emery and Trist 1972),[6] such projects heralded and illustrated the challenges presented by what they termed changes in the causal texture of the social and organisational environment and the ways in which these might imaginatively be met. At the same time they foresaw the emergence of new countervailing social and cultural defences:

  • superficiality or lack of depth: that is denial of the deeper human roots that bind social fields together and, on a personal level, a denial of psychic reality
  • segmentation, in which sub goals become goals in their own right pursued independently of any over riding purpose
  • dissociation, a reduction in the willingness to coordinate one’s behaviour with others or to allow ones actions to be regulated by others.

In a paper written for the Eric Miller Memorial Lecture  four years ago  (Armstrong 2012), I found myself wondering whether this, to my mind, remarkably prescient “contextual appreciation” might be  our own century’s version of “spiritual drift”, now leading communities into forms of di  ssociation, a withdrawal of social bonds, no less destructive ( than Bion’s ‘ forms of a ssociation’) of human capacities, in which  an unconsciously sensed psychological disinheritance (denial of the deeper roots of well being) is dealt with (and disowned) through projection into others”, notably now the migrants and refugees we conceive to be flooding us. The risk again though is to focus on the drivers of resistance, perhaps itself a defence against an anxiety about the professional and imaginative limitations of our practice.

Beyond interpretation: futures for a psychoanalytic study of organisations

In more recent years, I think, the tradition of work I have been trying to describe, made and/or found in collaboration with others, has weakened. The action research mode on which it drew has tended to be replaced by a more consultancy driven model, foregrounding client centred problems or concerns arising within specific bounded contexts: as against the more open ended ‘existential quality’ which Trist saw as attaching to the kind of socio analytic engagement recalled from the war time projects; of “experiencing those with whom he works as travellers on a common journey rather than as clients who have requested his particular help” ( Emery and Trist 1972, p114).  Where the problem or dilemma is experienced as “his also..(belonging) to both as members of the wider society which it permeates”.

In my view, given the nature of the emergent dilemmas within our current organisational and societal contexts, for example the erosion of work, the ‘unhumanising of intelligence, the widening gap between rich and poor,  the ecological challenges consequent on climate change, or what a colleague, Simon Western,has referred to as the ‘disruptiveness of a network society’ this trend is precisely the wrong way round. As also, I think, is the over interpretative use of a psychoanalytic lens, which, however apparently compelling, in the absence of imaginative engagement is too readily liable to leave things exactly as they were.

What forms such engagement might take (or indeed are taking) and in respect of what challenges is, for myself at least, an open question and one reason for sharing this paper is simply to pose that question, to widen out the range of what we take to be the object of a psychoanalytic approach, not so much just to studying as to engaging in organisational and social life; to rediscover or re own the active voice, not least in thinking about our own engagements and dilemmas here and now, both as a Trust, and as the inheritor of a unique tradition.


David Armstrong (2012) ‘Terms of Engagement: Looking backwards and forwards at the Tavistock Enterprise’, Organisational and Social Dynamics 12(1):106-121

Wilfred Bion (1948) ‘Psychiatry at a time of crisis’, British Journal of Medical Psychology XXI, Part 2:181-189

Wilfred Bion (1961) Experiences in Groups, London:Tavistock Publications

Wilfred Bion (1970) Attention and Interpretation: A Scientific Approach to Insight in Psycho-Analysis and Groups

Fred Emery and Eric Trist (1972) Towards a Social Ecology: Contextual Appreciation of the Future in the Present. Plenum Publishing

Gordon Lawrence (2003) ‘Social Dreaming as Sustained Thinking’, Human Relations 56(5):609-623

Jonathan Lear (2008) Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Eric Trist (1979) ‘New Directions of Hope: Recent Innovations interconnecting Organisational, Industrial, Community and Personal Development’, Reginal Studies, Vol 13, pp439-451, Pergamon Press

Eric Trist (1980) ‘Interview by Marshall Sashkin’, Group and Organisational Studies 5,2:144-166

Eric Trist (1985) ‘Working with Bion in the 1940’s: the Group Decade’ In Malcolm Pines (Ed) B ion and Group Psychotherapy: London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley:pp

Eric Trist (1987) Introduction to a Plenary Paper given by Harold Bridger at the ISPSO Annual Meeting, unpublished

Eric Trist (1993) The Social Engagement of Social Science, A Tavistock Anthology, Vol 2, A Socio- Technical Perspective. Phila\delphia, University of Philadelphia Press: p 17

[1] In a report written by Lacan on his visit to London after the War, reviewing the role of British Psychiatry  and in particular the significance of Bion’s innovation, he refers to what he calls the ‘noli me tangere’ state of mind characteristic of the medical profession, standing in the way of any approach that places “every member on the same footing as oneself”

2, I am grateful to Jim Krantz for alerting me to this strand in Trist’s later thinking and for the paragraph from which I am quoting. This was due to be presented by Trist during his introduction to a Plenary paper being given by Harold Bridger at the ISPSO annual meeting in 1987. In the event he was unable to give this in person due to health reasons.

[4] Lawrence,W.G. Social Dreaming as Sustained thinking, Human Relations 56 (5): 609-623.

[5] Lear,J. Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation. Harvard: Harvard University Press 2008

[6] F.E.Emery and E.L.Trist  Towards a Social Ecology: Contextual Appreciation of the Future in the Present, London, Plenum Publishing 1972