display | more...

Around the middle of the twentieth century, a school of sociology known as the Frankfurt School came into being. It was heavily influenced by the ideas of Marx. Intellectuals and scholars such as Theodor Adorno belonged to the school; their views shaped much of modern political theory.

One of these scholars was Erich Fromm; he was a psychologist and a Freudian-Marxist. His chief work, Escape From Freedom, deals with the psychological aspects of totalitarianism, and the various types of personalities that are likely to find it appealing. It presents an extremely compelling examination of the psychology behind conformity, and the ways in which modern industrial society encourages it and discourages individual thinking.

Fromm begins with a discussion of human development and its impact on the human perception of freedom. According to Fromm, as the human being becomes freer externally, he becomes more restricted internally; in other words, as humanity has had its physical bonds removed, its social and emotional bonds (in the 'chain' sense) have strengthened.

Then, Fromm examines the psychological background behind the Reformation. He essentially psychoanalyzes John Calvin and Martin Luther, and shows how the authoritarian character of their personalities influenced the social and political movements of the time. The Reformation, he says, first created the idea of money and wealth as an end in itself. The determinism behind Protestant philosophy meant that essentially, wealth and hard work were a sign of sure salvation. Thus, money became representative of faith--because of Protestantism's rejection of works as a method of salvation, money did not really serve a function. In this way, according to Fromm, was the basis for modern capitalism formed.

As this capitalism developed, the human being began to be more and more alienated (Marx would add 'from the means of production'; Fromm means something broader). Small craftsmen or salesmen became replaced with white-collar drones tending enormous capitalistic machines. It became necessary for humans to somehow deal with being minor cogs. This meant to employ one of the mechanisms of escape.

Fromm identifies three escape mechanisms:

The first consists of a combination of sadistic and masochistic drives that control behavior (and thus allow emotions to be redirected at one weaker or stronger). The second consists of wanton desire to destroy, as the name implies. The third involves totally dissolving into the group, and losing personal identity and responsibility in the process. According to Fromm, the first of these is the foundation behind Nazism and other totalitarian philosophies.

Nazism was created to fill the void left in the German middle class consciousness by the (perceived) demise of several things: German military glory, the Empire and monarchy, and traditional family values. Its promises aligned exactly with that class' needs; this is why it was successful. The middle class (bourgeoisie), Fromm claims, both requires something to look down upon and something to worship; this sadomasochistic tendency was exploited by Nazism to great effect.

Fromm ends with a warning. He describes the false consciousness that is subtly forced upon the individual by society. Like hypnosis, it has the ability to convince people that someone else's thoughts are their own. He defends modern democracy and representative government, but urges readers not to forget societal influences, demagoguery, and 'peer pressure' when considering freedom.

I disagree with the author's pro-Marxist, planned-economy viewpoint; it seems like he thinks that humans are less alienated by being cogs in a state-controlled machine than in a provate controlled one, which I suppose is consistent with his Marxist viewpoint. The ideas and issues raised in this book, however, are valuable and novel, and must be considered. It is a remarkably prescient book, especially considering that it was originally published in 1941.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.