Erich Fromm’s classic work, Escape from Freedom, about the group psychology and personality traits that made Nazism possible, was almost certainly on my undergraduate bookshelf. I cannot recall actually reading the book, but that strand of Marx-cum-Freud represented by Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and others appealed to my impressionable young leftist mind. Opposing the repression of the workers by capitalism and the repression of our libidos by pleasure-hating authoritarians was neatly melded together into a single, simple song of liberation.
Forty years on I am far less impressed. Escape from Freedom is a useful reminder that, notwithstanding the contemporary failings of Western academia, many things in our intellectual life have vastly improved. For Escape from Freedom is in many ways a poor book. Repetitive and clunkily written, it is full of mechanistic quasi-Marxist “dialectical” thinking about social processes and group behavior but provides almost zero evidence and very few references to other academic work to back up its sweeping claims. If one regards it as a work of social science or social psychology it compares very badly to recent works like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which at least make some effort to provide evidence for their claims about social trends and evolving values.
But if one takes a more charitable view and regards Escape from Freedom instead as a work of Frankfurt School social philosophy, it is not without interest. And it was, after all, written in 1941 in the German-born Fromm’s second language, English.
It may also be the case that its ideas, above all the focus on the anomic individual in a mass society, have been so influential that what now seems almost banal were highly original at the time. Another example might be Eric Voegelin’s argument that totalitarian ideologies resemble religious movements in non-trivial ways, which was shockingly novel when he introduced it in 1938; now the challenge is to remind some people that there are non-trivial differences between them.
Fromm believed that the striving for freedom was a natural human impulse but that many people fear the freedoms of modernity to the point that they long to return to the certainties and order of the premodern world. “What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom. . . . But although a person was not free in the modern sense neither was he alone and isolated.”
Indeed, Fromm seems rather fond of the womb-like medieval world. And, in his favor, he generally sticks up for maternal love and family ties unlike his two masters, Marx and Freud, and most of his fellow Frankfurt schoolers, who tended to see the family as a crucible of repression.
Lutheranism and Calvinism both, Fromm believed, were systems of thought that celebrated the emergence of the autonomous individual from the mass conformity of medieval life and the Catholic Church only to demand a new, and extreme, form of direct submission to God himself. This submission came to be expressed within a generation or two of its theological origin in a ferocious work ethic. Weber famously explained the process whereby “salvation anxiety” shape-shifted into a set of attitudes that aligned with the impulses of early capitalism. Fromm makes a similar argument but is more concerned with feelings of loss and disorientation: “Protestantism was the answer to the human needs of the frightened, uprooted, and isolated individual who had to orient and to relate himself to a new world.”
The most striking part of the book is Fromm’s discussion of the Adam and Eve story. Fromm’s parents were Orthodox Jews, one of his grandfathers was a rabbi, and he took Jewish theology seriously, studying under a Hasidic scholar while completing his doctorate in sociology at the University of Heidelberg. But unlike the conventional view of that story, Fromm regarded the breaking of God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as an act of liberation. “Acting against God’s orders means man freeing himself from coercion, emerging from the unconscious existence of pre-human life to the level of man. Acting against the command of authority, committing a sin, is in its positive human aspect the first act of freedom, that is, the first human act.”
Fromm’s interpretation certainly stood athwart of the Christian “original sin” view of the story, and that is what gave his interpretation its shock value. But it actually was not far from some rabbinic views that saw the foundational stories in Genesis as “set-up” narratives—in the case of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to problematize the reality of human disobedience to authority. That is, after all, in large part what the rest of the Bible is about.
The latter part of the book, certainly the most cited and best remembered, is dedicated to a discussion of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s neurotic authoritarian character, and how Germans, especially of the lower-middle class, longed for submission in a movement appealing to their collective spirit of sado-masochism. Written before the United States entered the war, aspects of the analysis seemed remarkably prescient to many at the time. Together with Franz Neumann’s Behemoth, also completed in 1941, Fromm’s Escape from Freedom constituted half of the interpretive couplet that English-speakers relied on during the war to try to make sense of Nazism and Nazi Germany.
Fromm’s analysis here seems plausible, if not exactly true or provable. And yet it is so general as to be of little use in understanding the world—a bit like saying that most of us in different ways are trying to find a balance between freedom and security in our lives.
Moreover, almost by definition people are drawn to extremist political movements by fear of one sort or another. But why focus on fear of freedom rather than fear of economic loss or fear of the “other” or fear of the loss of dignity, as a modern-day Fromm might stress?
Fromm would probably argue that the fear of freedom was the master fear of which the other forms were mere subsidiaries, but the case is never made, merely asserted. And why does fear of freedom become a group phenomenon and not just a feature of individual psychology that is always there among a certain proportion of the population? When he describes his ideal of the healthy person, who is able to embrace freedom through emotional spontaneity, he talks just about individuals, not groups. (His ideal of emotional health comes close to the destructive bohemian notion of freedom as lack of constraint.)
The lower-middle class are selected as the main freedom-fearing group because of Marxist assumptions slipped into the argument: They are stuck in the middle between resentment of those above them and fear of those below, while their hard-won respectability and savings are constantly threatened by the vagaries of monopoly capitalism. Today there would at least be some attempt to provide survey evidence suggesting that people from certain social strata are more attracted to particular values and attitudes. Fromm provides none; in fact, I don’t think there is a single number in the whole book.
The success of Nazism and other extremist movements required, by definition, a critical mass of individuals with personalities attracted to, or at least ready to tolerate, the movements. But this is merely a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for success—otherwise how do we explain the fact that Nazism did not happen in all modern societies?—and it means that personality as such lacks any real explanatory value at the political level.
So anybody looking to Fromm’s 1941 analysis of the last great crisis of liberalism for clues as to how to respond to today’s political anxieties about populism are going to be disappointed. Even if fear of freedom and the authoritarian personalities it allegedly produces were still stalking Europe, it is such a different place from the Europe of the 1930s that it is impossible to imagine a repeat of that disaster.
Europe today is very much richer than in the 1930s with few people suffering the real, material hardship that was common in the prewar decades, with much lower standards of living, much more threadbare welfare states, mass unemployment, and, in Germany, the great savings-destroying monster of inflation. The rich liberal democracies also have liberal political norms far more deeply embedded than in the still-young democracies of the 1930s, when deferential, authoritarian, and bigoted attitudes were still widespread in all social classes.
Above all, today’s Europeans are on average very much older than in the 1930s. Extremism is a young man’s game. Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was full of purposeless, angry young men, many of them brutalized by service in the Great War, who were happily recruited into the violent Freikorps street gangs. Were these people escaping freedom? Or were they feeling angry and discarded and therefore vulnerable to the appeal of demagogues of extreme Left and Right?
Compare those street gangs with what has been happening in Greece in recent years: Despite a fall in living standards of more than 25 percent, comparable to the Great Depression, and an easily stoked sense of grievance against Brussels and Berlin, people have by and large stayed at home and grumbled.
This does not mean that Fromm was wrong to seek an explanation for political events in forces outside economics, in human psychology and group dynamics. The most plausible explanations for today’s pushback against mainstream liberalism represented by Brexit, Trump, and European populism are to be found in culture and identity, as politics has tilted from socio-economic to socio-cultural themes in the face of rapid social change and much more fluid and open societies.
But this is less about the extreme pathologies of authoritarianism that Fromm identified and more about the humdrum yearning for esteem, meaning, and respect: the quest to heal the wounds of a democratic-egalitarian age in which the promise of political equality clashes with the reality of economic and status inequality. Nietzsche’s “ressentiments” are more relevant today than the suppressed fury of Fromm’s deferential lower-middle class.
Just as the move from an agrarian to an industrial society produced various traumas and social pathologies, so the move from an industrial to a post-industrial one is producing different traumas today—less challenging materially, perhaps, but at least as challenging psychologically.
For it is worth recalling that industrial society did not destroy traditional religious belief; indeed, the new urban centers created new forms of mass Christianity such as Methodism. Nor did it destroy the family; levels of illegitimacy in England fell during the course of the 19th century. Moreover, it also created new collective class identities and forms of recognition associated with the dignity of labor.
Indeed, it may be that industrial society, for all its misanthropies, was better at distributing status than our emerging post-industrial society. The latter, with its characteristic individualism and secularism—at least in the West—appears to be in the process of diminishing many traditional roles, group attachments, sources of unconditional recognition (via family, religion, nation) and geographic and ethnic rootedness. Add to that the relentless stress on meritocracy and the failure to protect the status (and incomes) of the less able, and it is hardly surprising that a political counter-reaction has emerged.
But people today do not so much fear freedom as the humiliations of relative failure and neglect in more open societies, humiliations made ever more transparent by modern media. With the quite recent emergence of education and cognitive ability as the gold standard of human esteem, how is the half of humanity that is always going to be in the bottom half of the cognitive ability spectrum supposed to feel respect and purpose?
Now, this a question that is a proper subject for social psychology—a discipline that Fromm enthusiastically identified with and assumed, in the introduction to Escape from Freedom, would become the master discipline of the social sciences. Yet after 1945 it was economics, with its individualistic and rational-actor paradigm, that became the dominant discipline in social science while social psychology struggled to establish itself in public consciousness.
There are, no doubt, many departments of social psychology and probably hundreds if not thousands of professors of social psychology in the English-speaking world alone. Yet I can name just one of them in Britain—Miles Hewstone, who works in the tradition of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis about racial prejudice—and just Jonathan Haidt in the United States.
Social psychology with its inherent interdisciplinarity and ambitious scope is perhaps not best suited to a world of intense academic specialization. And it may be that after emerging from the Fromm-like Marxist-Freudian fog it swung too far the other way, becoming a branch of marketing, advising companies about how best to sell things to people via their emotions. (The Left was also suspicious of its interest in groups and group attachment, at least for ethnic majorities.)
Sound social psychology did not disappear altogether, of course. There was the work in the 1960s of Robert Nisbet about the weakening of “intermediate” institutions such as the family that left people vulnerable to powerful group attachments, that might be said to act as a kind of link between Fromm and Robert Putnam in the 1990s with his bridging and bonding social capital. Many other bridges can be identified by experts and initiates in the field, no doubt; BUT the policy reach and impact of social psychology never extended as far as Fromm and others anticipated.
There does now, at last, seem to be an appetite for more relevant mainstream social psychology. I wrote a book last year called The Road to Somewhere about the value divides in modern liberal democracies that have contributed to the new instability in our politics. It was a work of amateur social psychology based on what the British Social Attitudes surveys tell us about how attitudes have shifted and polarized over the past couple of generations. The book did better than expected, suggesting that there is a powerful interest in this kind of thinking. The popularity of behavioral economics might also be a function of social psychology’s low profile.
Fromm, like all of us, was a man of his time, not least in his very traditional view of gender relations. But strip out the mechanistic Marxism and here was a thinker at least looking in the right places about how the private realm of the individual’s emotions connects with the public realm of politics. And here was a thinker with the hope that human freedom would prove the strongest force of all:
But man is not only made by history—history is made by man. The solution of this seeming contradiction constitutes the field of social psychology. Its task is to show not only how passions, desires, anxieties change and develop as a result of the social process, but also how man’s energies thus shaped into specific forms in their turn become productive forces, molding the social process.
It is a typical dialectical mouthful, but nevertheless breaks decisively with the deterministic and nihilist tradition in German thought and identifies a humane and ambitious intellectual framework for our new age of anxiety.