Book Reviewed Escape from Freedom. By Erich Fromm. Farrar & Rinehart, United States 1941.
Review by Alexander Husenbeth
Published in 1941, Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom sought to answer the burning question: another World War? Why? Haven’t we learned from the previous devastating World War? What is it in modern humans that makes them sacrifice their freedom for mass ideologies, and why do they submit to figures like Hitler, Pétain or Mussolini? Are these movements even primarily ideological, or are there more primal psychological processes at play? The issue of fascism is becoming frighteningly present and pressing once again. To approach it, the idea that history contains more continuity and ambiguity than we allow our common narrations of the past to convey is a useful starting point. This notion goes hand in hand with a psychological perspective, which places at the center of investigation the psyche and its potentialities, common patterns, and collective expressions, many of which repeat and recur over time.
Escape From Freedom is structured by moving from an introduction to a historical part, and only later does Fromm analyse the psychology of fascism. The book explains the rise of destructive authoritarian regimes in Europe by firstly investigating the historical preconditions of the traits he identifies as underlying fascism. Fromm’s argument is based on a two-sided view of freedom, a distinction between negative freedom (freedom from) and positive freedom (freedom of). He argues that increasing negative freedom (e.g. freedom from serfdom, freedom from religious persecution, etc.) comes not only with benefits, but also dangers and responsibilities, because the shackles and restrictions that existed previously also provided, to people in a rigid class system, certainty and a cultural role to identify with. They were also, in themselves, morally ambiguous. Not only did e.g. serfdom or religious totalitarianism bring oppression, exploitation, and paternalisation, but they also provided the individual with a sense of security, purpose, and identity; an unshakeable natural order and a clear sense of one’s place within it. One was suffering in many ways, but there was a clear structure set up to make sense of this suffering, made up of prayer, confession, and rituals that provided psychological relief and orientation. A serf was poor and vulnerable – but s/he knew who and where s/he belonged, what to do, and what his/her role was. This was soon to change.
When the dominant order of Feudalism and the Church were shaken by Renaissance, Reformation, and the onset of Capitalism, it was not an opening of the floodgates which finally released the serfs to freedom and autonomy. As Fromm reminds us, reality was more ambiguous, and the onset of modernity was not cheered on universally, as the modern narration of progress sometimes implies. Readaptation to a new economic order and structural transformation of society does not come without backlash, and not without leaving traces. (For instance, as we will see later, the clear distribution of roles and the simplicity of premade identity structures is mirrored in fascism.) There was a fear of losing one’s place in the “natural” and “eternal” order, a disorientation. For some, e.g. the emerging bourgeoisie, it was an opening of the floodgates, an entire world theirs to discover and exploit, and masses of former serfs or their children to employ as wage labourers. Others lost everything they had, their roles in the medieval class system stripped away from them and rented back to them by a new authority: the employer, the capital owner. The material conditions of the masses did not, for a long time, improve, and a system of oppression was replaced with another, which also presented itself as a natural order, based on notions of individual choice and agency. Their negative freedom had increased, their positive freedom had not. For many, it is still like that today: being able to choose, to some extent, where to find employment, but not whether to be a wage labourer or not.
Two leader figures that Fromm focuses on, Luther and Calvin, emerged in reaction to the beginning of modernity and capitalism. Here, Fromm demonstrates his thesis of the possible dangers of increased negative freedom for previously shackled people: new ordering systems of belief and self-conception were created, this time under the name of Lutheranism and Calvinism(1).
As a reader, I felt greatly enriched by learning about the historical and spiritual roots of capitalism, in which the perception of moral worth of an individual is tied to their economic position. Many contemporary phenomena, such as the shaming of jobless people or the veneration of rich people and celebrities, harken back to such teachings. The interpretation of theology and history put forth by Fromm is critical and detailed, although relying on some simplifications to make the book accessible and compact. However, the author always makes sure to lay out his methodological standpoint and acknowledges the limitations of his interpretation of such far-reaching processes. Because important influences on Escape From Freedom are Marx and Freud, who are so influential that many of the terms they coined found their way into everyday language, Escape From Freedom is easy to understand. Whenever a difficult concept is necessary, the author defines it in clear terms. Fromm explains his theoretical roots, especially Freud’s influence and his divergence from Freud, without overcomplicating it. This makes the book very educational. However, I would not call it ‘academic literature’, because it is written with the expressed intention to reach a wider public. That being said, a basic understanding of critical theory and psychoanalysis certainly helps the reader gain more from this book.
Implications For Now
When the question of why fascism happened is brought up today, common explanations and practices tend to do one of the following: a) reduce the mass phenomenon of fascism to the deeds of a few enigmatic figures, thereby obscuring the agency of the complicit and even devoted masses that followed them; b) reduce fascism to Nazi Germany, which goes hand in hand with c): to reduce fascism to its historical circumstance, a horrible, but past phenomenon; and d), in conjunction with the preceding reductionisms, to mistake the aesthetic of fascism for the essence of fascism, its symptoms with the underlying sickness. An example for d) is someone who believes that fascism can only be expressed through swastikas, Nazi language, etc., because it is by definition a past phenomenon associated with a certain set of names, symbols, and methods. In this way, the psychological dynamics underlying fascism can remain unexamined, outside of the conscious self, belonging to a dark Other. A practice that follows d) is e): to view World War II through a primarily militaristic lense and fetishize it as a sort of game, a remote world different from ours that we can understand by enacting scenarios, watching war movies, etc. As we focus our fascinated gaze onto the superficial faces, names, memorials, popular culture products, and events, we fail to see how fascism depends not only on psychological processes that can be observed in other contexts as well, but we also gaze past the understanding that the structural and cultural conditions for the emergence of fascism exist today as well(2). The inflation of figures such as Hitler as being all-powerful, wise leaders is replaced by an inflation of such dictators as the ultimate, but individual incarnations of evil; rather than, indeed, playing a role in a larger social process that could not have had much consequence, were it not for the active contribution and enabling conformity of millions of people. Neither a), b), c), d), nor e) can explain why, after centuries of gaining more and more freedom from the shackles and restrictions of medieval class society, after centuries of modernization and so-called progress, mass acts of barbarism and destruction swept over Europe.
Thinkers such as Adorno and Fromm had to flee to the US to be able to do their important work of analysing fascism. The extreme intolerance to deal with critical voices is a key feature of fascism: Adorno mentions the “fear of letting the unconscious become conscious” in a 1967 lecture. This explains the act of projection on the part of fascists, who claim loudly that outgroups, such as Jews or communists, are to blame for every ill of society at times of capitalist crisis. Unwilling or unable to view the system they live in, comprised of their own nation and their own role in the social order, as defunct and lacking in deeper meaning or as having contributed to crisis, fascists turn this threat to their own ego into a threat facing the scapegoats that come to mind first. These ‘obvious’ scapegoats either receive this treatment due to there being a long history of blame and hate directed at them (Jews) or due to the fact that they constitute or advocate for a change in the social order (communists, anarchists, sexual minorities etc.). To serve as scapegoats, the outgroups do not have to have anything in common – they can even be opposed to one another. Their only commonality is that they are either incompatible with, outside of, or opposed to the power hierarchy favoured by fascists.(3)
But why do people relinquish power so willingly? Erich Fromm suggests that under certain circumstances(4), human beings can give up their own striving for autonomy, control, purpose, and certainty, as they become too unfulfilling to hold on to. This personal striving can be compensated by a striving for a collective goal, and by exerting power and control over outgroups that are deemed even lower: “I may be a cog in an undemocratic machine, but finally those Frenchies/Jews/etc. know their place!”. As Fromm describes in Escape From Freedom, humans are capable of enjoying power vicariously while being subdued by a powerful authority. This is called masochism; deriving pleasure from performing a subservient role. Apologism for hierarchy at all costs may be a defence against the fear of change, but propping up a leader figure to possess full dictatorial power cannot be reduced to mere reactionary tendencies. The question that I will approach in my next article – albeit through a Jungian lens – is: can fascism be understood as a sudden breaking-out of what has previously been pushed into the unconscious?
Fromm’s Escape From Freedom is a very accessible text that introduced me to an approach of systematic application of ideas from psychoanalysis to historical events and sociocultural phenomena. The way Fromm synthesizes critical theory with psychoanalysis is illuminating, albeit limited. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the psychology of fascism to read it. However, I believe that a deeper understanding of fascism from a psychological perspective benefits greatly from a Jungian perspective that brings the collective dimensions to light by considering myth and the role of religion. While a thorough look into the modern condition at large would be beyond the scope of Escape From Freedom, I believe that to understand the emergence of fascism, it is not helpful to view myth and religion as mere “backdrops” to the present that Fromm wrote in (which is now the past), rather than urgent concerns in modernity at large. In my next article, I will attempt to view fascism in this context, by approaching it in the form of an essay with a Jungian lens.
1. I will not go into detail on Fromm’s analysis here – for that, I recommend reading Escape From Freedom.
2. Capitalist crisis and new mass communication technologies, to name a few.
3. This is illustrated by the phenomenon that fascists often conflate or confuse the groups they deem evil: capitalists = communists, communists = Jews, Jews = gays, gays = socialists… you name it. These are merely the most common iterations of this key characteristic of fascism, which prove it to be irrational. Nowadays, similar confusions and conflations such as “postmodern Neo-Marxists” perform a similar role of reactionary defence against critique of social hierarchies, in which buzzwords with negative connotations are thrown together to create an appearance of superiority over an external enemy set to destroy the fabric of our society.
4. Such as the defeat in a war in which victory was promised until the very end, as had happened in Germany during WWI; or capitalist crisis following a few years of economic boom.
5. German national identity, for instance, had been far from secure during the 1920s. There was political uncertainty, economic instability, the insecurity from having lost a war that had mass support among the population, and a number of different movements questioning the social order. Some people, raised in an authoritarian way in the Kaiserreich, ached for a clear set of rules and markers by which to orient and identify themselves and their role in a greater whole.
Photograph: Mitin de José María Gil Robles, lider de la CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas), en las instalaciones de un frontón. San Sebastián (Guipúzcoa) 1935. By Pascual Marín. This image belongs to the Marín Collection and was provided to GureGipuzkoa by Hauxe. CC-BY-SA 3.0.
About the Author
Alexander Husenbeth grew up in Germany. Since 2017, he has lived and studied in Denmark. His Bachelor’s subjects are Social Psychology and International Studies, which together offer an interesting micro, meso, and macro perspective on the human subject in a fast-changing world. He is interested in critical psychology, cultures around the globe (particularly music, food, and philosophy), environmental humanities, climate activism, and literature.