Wisdom Books: The Fear of Freedom by Erich Fromm


Erich Fromm sees right to the heart of our contradictory needs for community and for freedom like no other writer before or since. In Fear of Freedom (Escape from Freedom), Fromm warns that the price of community is indeed high, and it is the individual who pays. Fascism and authoritarianism may seem like receding shadows for some, but are cruel realities for many. Erich Fromm leaves a valuable and original legacy to his readers – a vastly increased understanding of the human character in relation to society. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is more important than ever to be aware of his powerful message. Listen, and take heed.

The following passages are excerpts from Chapter 5.1 ‘Authoritarianism’:

The first mechanism of escape from freedom I am going to deal with is the tendency to give up the independence of one’s own individual self and to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside oneself, in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking. Or, to put it in different words, to seek for new, “secondary bonds”, as a substitute for the primary bonds which have been lost. The more distinct forms of this mechanism are to be found in the striving for submission and domination, or, as we would rather put it, in the masochistic and sadistic strivings, as they exist in varying degrees in normal and neurotic persons respectively. We shall first describe these tendencies and then try to show that both of them are an escape from an unbearable aloneness.

The most frequent forms in which masochistic strivings appear are feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, individual insignificance. The analysis of persons who are obsessed by these feelings shows that, while they consciously complain about these feelings and want to get rid of them, unconsciously some power within them drives them to feel inferior or insignificant. Their feelings are more than realizations of actual shortcomings and weaknesses (although they are usually rationalized as though they were); these persons show a tendency to belittle themselves, to make themselves weak, and not to master things. Quite regularly, these people show a marked dependence on
powers outside themselves, on other people, or institutions, or nature. They tend not to assert themselves, not to do what they want, but to submit to the factual or alleged orders of these outside forces. Often they are quite incapable of experiencing neurosis, while the mechanisms of escape are driving forces in normal man.

This tendency can assume various forms. We find that there are people who indulge in self-accusation and self-criticism, which even their worst enemies would scarcely bring against them. There are others, such as certain compulsive neurotics, who tend to torture themselves with compulsory rites and thoughts. In a certain type of neurotic personality, we find a tendency lo become physically ill and to wait, consciously or unconsciously, for an illness, as if it were a gift of the gods. Often they incur accidents, which would not have happened, had there not been at work an unconscious tendency to incur them. These tendencies, directed against themselves, are often revealed in still less overt or dramatic forms. For instance, there are persons who are incapable of answering questions in an examination, when the answers are very well known to them at the time of the examination and even afterwards. There are others who say things which antagonize those whom they love or on whom they are dependent, although actually they feel friendly towards them and did not intend to say those things. With such people, it almost seems as if they were following advice given them by an enemy to behave in such a way, as to be most detrimental to themselves.


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