What is freedom? Does freedom mean the same thing for everybody? Is freedom necessarily a good thing? Is freedom an end by itself or just a means to a bigger goal? These are some questions that find answers and explanations in Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, or The Fear of Freedom as it is known outside North America. First published by the Berlin born psychoanalyst in the United States in 1941, it was written at the height of the Second World War, when the ideas of freedom and democracy were in imminent danger at the swift rise of the doctrines of Fascism and Nazism in Europe. The book is an attempt at explaining the psychological causes that, along with socio-economic and political causes, led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. However the thesis laid out in the book is a study in human psychology that transcends any specific time frame or regional boundary and remains as true in the 21st century as it was then, maybe even more so. As a complete beginner in human psychology as an academic discipline, I have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual capability to ‘review’ such a scholarly book. However, I shall talk about the various things that I learnt from this book, and the many thoughts that came to me while reading it.
Fromm begins his treatise with the very question that I started this essay with – what is freedom? Generally, one thinks of freedom as a situation of independence from an external, coercive force. However, Fromm does not stop at this explanation; according to him there are in fact two parts to the concept of freedom – ‘freedom from’ or negative freedom and ‘freedom to’ or positive freedom. Fromm maintains that ‘freedom from’ by itself cannot be an end, as gaining negative freedom from oppression without actively striving towards positive freedom that would involve active utilisation of the emancipated state from the earlier oppression leads to unfortunate results for the human psyche. Comparing this state with the natural progression of a child into an adult human being, he says that just as the natural bonds that a child has in its infancy and childhood with its parents are eventually shed as the child develops into maturity, leading to an intense sense of loss and vulnerability from the sudden absence of the sense of security that these bonds offer, so is the effect that ‘freedom from’ by itself has on human beings. The structure and consistency offered by oppressive authority in human lives – an authority that the people have become used to over generations as usually is the case with all social institutions – is lost once the people are emancipated from this external authority, leading to fear and hopelessness and lack of direction, rather than the joy and celebration that seem to be the more logical reaction to emancipation.
Fromm begins his study of the idea of freedom from the period of the Reformation in Europe. It was a period when the traditional feudal system collapsed and the wave of industrialization washed over the country at a rapid pace. The social structure of lord and vassal collapsed. It was a period when people lost the certainty of social position that the feudal hierarchy had offered. It was also a period of religious changes, as the theology of Protestantism became a powerful and widespread reaction against the oppression of the Catholic Church. Fromm explains the theology of Luther and Calvin as the religious extension of the Industrial Revolution, as it gave structure to the masses and prepared them for the requirements of the industrial world. Fromm feels that these theologies rose as an answer to the social needs of the time, addressing the newfound state of man as an individual entity separate from the social hierarchical model, yet maintaining a certain moral hierarchy with God as the ultimate controlling power as represented by the relationship between man and God in Protestant theology. The preaching of Luther and Calvin emphasized on work as the goal of life, as an end in itself, as work led to salvation and the grace of God. This was in fact a preparatory factor for the masses that were to become slaves of the industrial machinery, a social structure where work and frugality were most valuable. Fromm also points out that it was the middle class that underwent most social change in terms of religion, and shows how it was this class that faced most difficulties and upheavals that led to resentment disguised as moral outrage against the higher and lower classes.
Fromm moves on to modern man’s relationship with freedom. In this age of capitalism that had found its inception during the Industrial Revolution, Fromm feels that the principal of individualistic activity is of the utmost importance. It is this very concept that is found essential in the socio-economic aspects of capitalism that is reflected in the religious theology of Luther and Calvin. The emphasis on work as a major goal in life increases, as can be expected for the serving of the capitalistic institutions. There is an alienation in the relationships of man with man, as all contact continues to become impersonal where the individual becomes of little consequence, nothing more than a cog in the giant machinery of capitalistic institutions. It is from a situation like this that the seeds of authoritarian ideologies like Nazism grow, in order to fulfill the intense social emptiness and lack of structure and belonging. However, before continuing with the psychological sources of Nazism, Fromm talks about the various machinery of escape that human beings tend to take up in order to escape the unbearable loneliness caused by negative freedom. He talks of the authoritarian character type that is both sadistic in his tendency towards absolute physical and spiritual control of his subject, as well as masochistic in wanting desperately to submit completely to a higher power. Surprisingly, Fromm shows these seemingly contradictory character types to be actually of the same origin and striving towards the same goal – removing one’s emptiness and loneliness through complete association with one’s subject. Then there is the destructive character type, an extreme form of sadism where the person tries to destroy the outer world that seems bigger and therefore ominous and beyond his control. He removes the source of fear in order to overcome it. And then there is the type that falls for automaton conformity – a situation where the person fully negates his individuality and becomes an unthinking automaton in service to a higher power. His method of overcoming the loneliness of freedom is by doing away with the ‘self’.
Fromm talks about the lower middle class in Germany – the biggest supporters of Hitler – as essentially members of the authoritarian character type. They looked up to Hitler with their masochistic urges towards submission, while their sadistic tendencies were fulfilled by the oppression of the very many victims of Nazism, most significantly the Jews. Hitler himself was a supreme example of the authoritarian character type. Fromm makes many references to Hitler’s own writings in Mein Kampf to testify to this. Hitler was obsessed with mastery over humankind, and yet accepted absolute slavery to Nature, God or Fate. Another section of the German populace that never supported Nazism but came to accept the regime without much opposition Fromm dismisses as the section that was psychologically tired and resigned and without much moral resistance. This chapter is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in the book. As a student of history I have read quite a bit about the economic and the political causes of the rise of Nazism. But I have often wondered about why the doctrine came to be as popular with such a large number of people, and also why in Germany specifically. This chapter greatly answers my questions. However, just in case somebody misinterprets Nazism as merely a psychological phenomenon, he clarifies repeatedly right at the beginning that a true explanation for the rise of Nazism can only be found by the study of the social, economic, political and psychological conditions in their entirety prevailing in Germany at the time.
Fromm concludes his book with a study of the meaning and value of freedom in democratic countries. He feels that the populace in democratic societies live under the impression of freedom, but in fact this idea of individuality is nothing more than an illusion. He maintains that the modern democratic man is not truly free; though he does not suffer the manifold external oppression that his forefathers faced, there is a great degree of internal oppression that keeps him from being truly free. He feels that the modern man is incapable of having truly individual thoughts because he is overwhelmingly brainwashed and conditioned by society. One cannot even adequately differentiate between original thoughts and ideas imbibed from the external world because these ideas have become so ingrained as to be a part of one’s own mind. What Fromm is talking about here is nothing other than ‘herd mentality’, often suger-coated as ‘social character’, a silent killer of all truly individualistic urges and activity. I quote here – “(Modern man) desperately clings to the notion of individuality; he wants to be “different”, and he has no greater recommendation of anything than that “It is different””. Does this not sound familiar to my generation? Is this not what we say we strive towards becoming? In this attempt at becoming ‘different’ together, we have only managed to become hordes of maddeningly homogeneous masses, all chanting the mantra of individuality while taking conformity to the highest level possible – conformity of thought and emotion!
According to Fromm, real freedom, or positive freedom is only achieved through “the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self”. The spontaneous self-expression without conformity to invisible social norms, without the constant urge to mix in and be one of the herd, is what the ultimate expression of freedom should be. According to Fromm, it is only when a person reaches this level of psychological maturity that freedom becomes truly meaningful – and even safe – in his hands. At this point he no longer feels the need to come under the forceful authority of external powers; it is only then that he is truly safe from submission to regimes and ideologies like Nazism.
Fear of Freedom is undoubtedly one of the most enlightening books I have ever read. No amount of rote textbook learning could have given me this sense of a certain level of understanding of my fellow man and his actions. In fact, Fromm himself talks about the ills of unthinking memorization of facts in this book as a deterrent to the growth of true individuality. How I wish we had more books like this prescribed as textbooks in high school. It might have led to a somewhat saner generation of human beings. Thank you baba, for recommending this book, as always.