frontline issue 3

Erich Fromm and "The Fear of Freedom"

Erich Fromm (1898-1972)

Erich Fromm (1898-1972) is little known in this country. He nevertheless made important contributions to psychology from a Marxist point of view. In the following article Harry Brown deals with the theme of one of Fromm's major works, 'The Fear of Freedom', from which the quotes in the article are drawn. 1

"One looked back upon these periods as one might at a volcano which for a long time has ceased to be a menace. One felt secure and confident that the achievements of modern democracy had wiped out all sinister forces; the world looked bright and safe like well-lit streets of a modern city. Wars were supposed to be the relics of older times and one needed just one more war to end war; economic crises were supposed to be accidents, even though these accidents continued to happen with a certain regularity."

The twentieth century saw an explosion of dictatorships across the planet. Some were the result of military coups imposed on populations from above. But others, like Nazi Germany, had the mass support of sections of society. This raises a number of crucial questions. Why did this happen? What were its roots? Can it happen again?

The end of the twentieth century, with the collapse of the Stalinist states, seemed to usher in an era where democracy would rule supreme. The G8 powers would stand aside and even encourage local populations as they sought to remove brutal dictatorships and unjust regimes and resolve intractable problems. Democracy was now free to solve the problems of South Africa, Indonesia, Palestine and Northern Ireland.

So, if democracy is the supreme problem solver and for people all over the planet it is the greatest aspiration, why was there mass support to give up freedom and democracy? In The Fear Of Freedom, written in 1942, Erich Fromm looks at these problems from the psychological point of view.

The Middle Ages

Fromm takes us back to the Middle Ages as his starting point. At the beginning of this period there was a lack of awareness of people of themselves as individuals. Instead they were identified by their particular role in society: peasant, artisan, knight. The question, what do you do? would never have been asked. A persons whole life was fixed. What they could wear was usually set and restricted. Even the universe was fixed, with the earth as its centre. But there was a certain freedom of expression within work and in emotional life. The Catholic Church did promote a sense of guilt but there was confidence in being forgiven through confession. The purpose of life was to prepare to be happy with God for eternity. Society did not deprive people of their individuality because the individual did not yet exist.

But the old order gradually eroded. In the towns the guild system changed. Originally it enforced co-operation and had strong rules to prevent competition. Now some masters became much wealthier than others, employing larger numbers of journeymen. The opportunities for journeymen to become masters declined.

In the Renaissance period new classes of rich people emerged along with the growth of trade, a wealthy nobility and the early monopolists. Individualism grew while the old certainties of life diminished. Some might prosper, more might flounder. Individual freedom had different implications and produced different psychological reactions in the various classes and groups in society. A new religious belief developed in Central and Western Europe in response to the problem that freedom brought along with it. The individual now felt isolated and alone, anxious and uncertain. The lower middle class in the towns now felt their individual lives to be full of possible danger and uncertainty. They were now responsible for their own success or failure and this was frightening.

The peasants' existence was worsening too. More and more of their produce was demanded in dues. More time was being spent on the lord's land. And the lords were claiming greater amounts of the common land as their own. They felt as if they were being reduced to serfdom.

The precarious position of the lower middle classes in the towns was fertile ground for Luther and Calvin to plant the ideology that would prepare people psychologically for capitalism, although they would have been horrified at this result. As human beings we are fundamentally evil. Salvation is outwith our hands. But we can overcome our feeling of insignificance by masochistically bowing to the supreme being, who offers us no guarantees. If we are nothing ourselves, we are something in his corner. All we can do is work hard and leave it to God to decide our fate.

The poor in the cities and the peasants were attracted to the millennial message of Luther, his attacks on authority. They were in a revolutionary mood but Luther could not support them in the threat to destroy all authority and the foundations of the social order.

The Psychology of Protestantism

Luther was psychologically suited to leadership of the middle class, which, despite its position, had privileges to protect against the poor and the lower orders. In analysing Luther's character structure Fromm uses the method used by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire Louis Bonaparte. The reasons why people think and do certain things are often unknown to them. They come up with rationalisations which are quite different from their real roots in their position in society and in the general social conditions. Luther had experienced an extremely strict and harsh childhood with little love or security. He had an ambivalent attitude towards authority. He hated and rebelled against it but at the same time he tended to admire and submit to it. He felt deeply his doubts and inadequacies but with a great desire to dominate. This contradictory type Fromm calls the 'authoritarian character', a type which appears many times in the period since the Reformation: the rebel as opposed to the revolutionary.

Luther psychologically crystallised most clearly in his character the traits of the middle class. He looked on the poor masses with contempt, calling them the 'rabble'. He was filled with their doubts and uncertainties. He felt insignificant. The answer was to accept individual insignificance, to submit, to give up individual will and strength and hope to become acceptable to God. The answer to the problems of individual freedom is submission to the all-powerful. External authority is replaced by the internal rule of the conscience. And how do you revolt against yourself?

This side of the Protestant ideology (the other side is positive, emphasising individual freedom) prepares the way psychologically for the middle class belief that its natural to submit ones life to the boss system and the reappearance of this form of escape in the submission to Nazism.

Freedom and fear

Because the period since the Renaissance and the Reformation have been characterised by struggles which psychologically have been struggles for freedom from they have been lopsided and have left the individual feeling small and powerless. Without the other side of freedom, the freedom to, in the modern capitalist era people have sought mechanisms of escape. The main three such mechanisms are authoritarianism, destructiveness and automaton conformity. These need to be viewed in the longer-term historical context of the basic problem of being human.

When early people first started to become self-aware, even vaguely, the primary bonds with nature were cut. For instance, the realisation that we are mortal arouses feelings of pointlessness and insignificance. The split with nature, over time, leaves us increasingly aware of our aloneness. This provides the basis for the basic philosophical question about the meaning of life The struggles for freedom from constitute a revolutionary leap forward towards a solution but without unleashing and harnessing the forces of freedom to, the individual's aloneness is actually accentuated.

Authoritarianism allows the individual to give up their own independence and gain some significance in someone or something greater. The individual seeks outside themselves for strength because they lack inner strength. They look for secondary bonds to substitute for the primary bonds with nature which are gone forever.

Usually individuals who seek this mechanism of escape exhibit both masochistic and sadistic tendencies in the psychological rather than the sexual sense (although this is not excluded). They try to gain the strength they lack in two ways. They wish to submit to someone or something more powerful whose greater power they can feel a part of. This is rationalised as love or loyalty. On the sadistic side they try to compensate for the inner power they lack by dominating someone else and so give themselves a feeling of being powerful which will never be truly satisfying. These tendencies are less conscious and are more rationalised. "I know whats good for you." "I've done so much for you, now I'm entitled to have things my way."

Destructiveness is different. Its aim is not incorporation or the wish to be incorporated but the complete elimination of the object. This is an attempt to escape from a feeling of aloneness form the world by the destruction of it. Any reason will be dragged up to rationalise it. "Love, duty, conscience, patriotism have been or are being used as disguises to destroy others or oneself."

Powerlessness on its own is not enough to explain the amount of destructiveness in human life. The other sources are anxiety and the thwarting of life. Life has its own dynamic. It tends to grow, it needs to be expressed, it needs to be lived. Under capitalism, where the lives of individuals and whole populations are thwarted, that energy is not destroyed but diverted negatively into destructiveness.

The Urge to Conform

The most common form of escape in modern capitalist society is automaton conformity. Because it is so widespread in the developed democratic countries and people do not see themselves as doing anything different from everybody else, there is a lack of realisation of anything being wrong.

In fact the whole system blesses this form of conformity. Capitalism does not need fully developed healthy human beings. It needs automatons, cogs who fit neatly in the machine. They turn up on time for their work and carry out whatever is commanded of them. Their leisure time is spent resting from work and recharging their batteries for more work. The produce of their work is alien from them and, if they want it, they have to buy it back. Their individuality is expressed in the particular products and services they choose to spend their wages on.

Everyone thinks of themselves as an individual with their own individual thoughts and feelings. But this is generally a dangerous illusion which prevents people from changing the conditions responsible for this situation. Few people think any original thoughts. Not in the sense that no one has thought of it before but in the sense that it is genuinely the result of their own thinking. Instead the system doles out a series of pre-packaged opinions and attitudes, mostly now through the media. Someone who reads The Guardian, when asked for their opinion on some event, will generally come out with an opinion from that paper. They will then come out with a series of rationalisations for holding that opinion. This gives them the feeling that this is the result of their own original thought.

Fromm illustrates this by inviting us to imagine we are on an island with a fisherman and two people from the city. All three have heard the weather forecast on the radio. We ask them to predict tomorrows weather. The fisherman with his long experience and concern about the weather starts to consider, weighing up all the different factors, including the weather forecast. Whatever answer he gives will be the result of his own original thinking, based on his knowledge and experience.

The first person from the city admits that they dont have any experience of forecasting weather. All they know is what the radio predicted. The second person thinks it over and then tells us his opinion, which is identical to the forecast. He starts to rationalise, to come up with all sorts of reasons why he has come to this conclusion.

The fisherman's thinking is the product of genuine original thought. It doesnt matter whether he is right or wrong. The second person from the city's opinion is the result of pseudo-thought. It is not original or genuine. Its better for the human being to be real and wrong than fake and right.

Nazi Germany

The most hideous of mass escapes from freedom happened in Germany in the 1930s. It found its basis in the lower middle class. Although their economic position was already in decline before the First World War, this was not catastrophic. They looked up to the monarchy and looked down on the working class. Parents were respected in their own homes. They had a definite place in a stable social and cultural system.

The revolutionary post-war period changed all that. The position of the working class grew stronger while they grew weaker. Many lost years of savings following the economic crash of 1929. What was the point of being thrifty and saving when it could be wiped out overnight? They lost the respect of their children as they were no longer the bankers of their future. They became the passive backbone of the Nazis, their children the active support.

Where their parents were bewildered, the children looked for solutions. They could not hope for the secure independent business existence that their parents had had. The basis did not exist anymore. There was no room for them in the professions. Many of them had fought as officers in the war. They were an easy target for Hitlers fulminations against the Treaty of Versailles. They could not deal with their problems individually because of their individual weakness. But they could submit themselves to the German nation which had been badly treated and feel superior to other nations as a part of that. They could transfer their anger at the thwarting of their individual lives to the thwarting of Germany by lesser nations.

The working class opposed Hitler but, after a series of defeats, was psychologically incapable of producing a leadership capable of defeating Hitler. After Hitler and the Nazis seized power they became identified with the Fatherland. Any criticism of the Nazis was a criticism of Germany. It is very difficult for any individual to have the strength of character to stand against the views of the rest of society. Only a few individuals with an international ideology were able to do this.

In the years before the coup, the Nazis criticised big business and promised to sort them out. But they ruled in favour of and with the support of that class. Why was this?

For the ruling class democracy wasnt working. Elections produced almost equal support for the Socialists and Communists on the one side and the fascists on the other. The fascists they could work with.

Under the Nazis the lower middle class found their position. They moved into the positions in the professions taken from the Jews, the socialists, etc. They could look up to the big bourgeoisie and had others to look down on. They could destroy those at home and abroad responsible for the thwarting of their lives. Hitler provided the 'authoritarian character' who best expressed how the lower middle class felt. He came from their background. In his own words, Hitler felt he was a 'nobody'. He felt like an outsider (he was Austrian) who dreamed of a Greater Germany. He expressed the desire to dominate and be dominated.

Capitalism Against the Individual

Fromm is absolutely clear that the psychological conditions on their own could not have produced fascist dictatorship in Germany. That needed their combination with the economic and social conditions. But these psychological conditions are flourishing in the developed democracies: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual. Capitalism, while portraying itself as the champion of individuality, has both hands round its throat.

The socially accepted norm is the automaton, the atom of production. Spontaneity is throttled from childhood on. Children are taught not to express genuine feelings. Maturity is the inability to tell a decent person from a scoundrel unless they have obviously caused harm. Plastic smiles replace real cheerfulness and friendliness. Someone who is 'emotional' is unbalanced. The balanced individuals life is characterised by its flatness. We have lost the sense of tragedy.

"Instead of allowing the awareness of death and suffering to become one of the strongest incentives for life, the basis for human solidarity, and an experience without which joy and enthusiasm lack intensity and depth, the individual is forced to suppress it."

Knowledge is reduced to the acquisition of scattered, unrelated facts. A whole sector of society is devoted to creating a fog so that it is hard to see issues clearly. Problems are supposed to be too difficult for the average individual to grasp. The result is that individuals are both cynical and naïve. They are discouraged from doing their own thinking and making their own decisions. People are taught what they should want: a better job, house, car. They are told what is supposed to bring happiness. But when they get these things, what then? Is it really themselves who want to make this the point of their life? Spontaneity and individuality are relinquished for dulling conformity, Life is thwarted. The automaton is biologically alive but emotionally and mentally dead.

The struggle for the full realisation of the individual began with the Renaissance. At that time the material basis for it did not exist. Now it does. Capitalism has created it. The fully mature individual can only come with the conquest of the other side of freedom, the freedom to. This comes when the opportunity for genuine activity is restored to the individual. Where people can direct their initiative and effort into work which has real meaning in terms of their human needs. Where they can express themselves genuinely emotionally and creatively.

The doubt that resulted from aloneness and the thwarting of life disappears when life can be lived spontaneously rather than compulsively or automatically. Life has a meaning: the act of living itself. Only socialism can provide this kind of freedom. Today only a few people can exercise individual initiative. With planning and decentralisation that collective initiative which capitalist democracy strangles can be used in the running of a society in which the individual can genuinely thrive.

1. Erich Fromm, Routledge