“Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?”
Erich Fromm / Escape from Freedom
The pursuit of freedom has indelibly marked Western culture since Renaissance humanism and Protestantism began the fight for individualism and self-determination. This freedom, however, can make people feel unmoored, and is often accompanied by feelings of isolation, fear, and the loss of self, all leading to a desire for authoritarianism, conformity, or destructiveness.
In effect, it is wrong to assume everyone always wants freedom. This overlooks the rise of the totalitarian movements during the first part of the 20th century and the desire of millions in the world to “escape from freedom.” This is the premise of the classic book Escape from Freedom by German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm which explores humanity’s shifting relationship with freedom and the personal consequences of its absence. His special emphasis is the psychosocial conditions that facilitated the rise of Nazism. Although Fromm was a Marxist and member of the Frankfurt School, there is much to be learned in the book about our world today.
Fromm’s critique of the modern political order and the capitalist led him to seek insights into the modern condition from medieval feudalism. In Escape from Freedom, he found value in the lack of individual freedom, rigid structure, and obligations required on the members of medieval society. As Fromm notes:
“What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom … But altogether a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt …There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy.”
Here, Fromm states one of his main themes: the isolation and loneliness brought about by the freedom and democracy of the 20th century and the community and place in the world felt in the non-free time of medieval feudalism when no one was free. The Fromm formula simplified is that modern freedom has brought loneliness and isolation as well as fear of the future. In this way, it eliminates a great anxiety in civilization about the source of future sustenance and life. A fear of the future?
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There’s much to be gained from speculation about these two contrasting ideas Fromm finds in conflict. They are deep psychological ideas with the most important symbolism. Some might see the above quote about medieval society as a statement of support for Marxists community of equality. Certainly, it is. But Fromm is not interested in the ideology of Marxism as much as he is interested in the psychology of it. The ideology was for other members of his Frankfurt School, scattered around America, to her best institutions by progressive American educator John Dewey. While other Marxists focused on defining Marxism form the outside and trying to turn it into a grand propaganda vehicle, Fromm always defined it from the inside. His was founded in the internal perspective of psychology rather than the outward allegiance to an ideology.
One of the greatest mistakes of those who want freedom in the world is to assume that everyone else also wants freedom. Might it be valuable to understand the psychology that persuades millions to join certain movements? Fromm argues that it arises from a need within individuals rather than a force imposed on them by governments.
This was the psychology that Fromm wanted to study. He certainly was not interested in promoting the Nazi ideology. Rather in understanding the psychology of the Nazis. His biggest question was this: why did so many join so willingly during the 30s and 40s? His answer is that many were attempting to escape from the loneliness and isolation they felt after defeat in WWI. Many were ready for a newly visioned form of feudal culture in Germany. A desire to escape loneliness and isolation was already within the mass psychology of Germany at the time. The Nazi philosophy and ideology was collectivist, but this fit the desire in the collective psychology of Germany at the time. It also fit the needs of millions of others outside Germany where collectivist, totalitarian actions were taking place in the 1930s and 40s.
The battle between the symbols of freedom and non-freedom represent key dynamics Fromm looks at in terms of the modern world and feudal world. A community of people of the past (feudal culture the prime example) versus the sole, isolated individual of the present. This is the context Fromm envisions the grand change in the world from medieval times to modern times. The non-freedom of community versus the freedom of aloneness.
First published in the United States in 1941 with the title Escape from Freedom, a year later it was published in the UK in 1942 as The Fear of Freedom. In 1952, it was translated into German as Fear of Freedom. Interestingly, the word “fear” is associated with the word “freedom” in the two titles. In other words, great masses of people during this time wanted to escape from fear.
In the Forward to the book, Fromm observes, “Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of this freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.”
As Fromm notes, the First World War was regarded by many as the final struggle and its conclusion the ultimate victory for freedom. The immediate result was that existing democracies appeared strengthened, and new ones replaced old monarchies. Yet only a few years elapsed before new systems emerged which denied everything that men believed they had won in centuries of struggle. For the essence of these new systems, which effectively took command of man’s entire social and personal life, was the submission of all but a handful of men to an authority over which they had no control.
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At first, writes Fromm, many found comfort in the thought that the victory of the authoritarian system was due to the madness of a few individuals and that their madness would lead to their downfall in due time. Others smugly believed that the Italian people, or the Germans, were lacking in a sufficiently long period of training in democracy, and that therefore one could wait complacently until they had reached the political maturity of the Western democracies. Another common illusion, perhaps the most dangerous of all, was that men like Hitler had gained power over the vast apparatus of the state through nothing but cunning and trickery, that they and their satellites ruled merely by sheer force; that the whole population was only the will-less object of betrayal and terror.
While there certainly was much cunning, tricker and sheer force associated with the rise of Hitler and Nazism, Fromm argues the fallacy of these arguments had become apparent by the early 1940s when his book was written. As he notes, “We have been compelled to recognize that millions in Germany were as eager to surrender their freedom as their fathers were to fight for it; that instead of wanting freedom, they sought for ways of escape from it; that other millions were indifferent and did not believe the defense of freedom to be worth fighting and dying for.”
Germany and Italy were ground zero for those who wanted to escape from freedom. But the new freedom and individualism arising in the 20th century created a challenge for mankind in general. Many scholars from various disciplines have recognized the challenges of freedom and democracy in modern history. It certainly was not something recognized solely by Erich Fromm.
In effect, the threat to democracy was not an external one from foreign totalitarian states but also a psychological one. It was associated with a new internal state for modern man. For example, Fromm quotes educator John Dewey on this point. “The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states,” says Dewey. “It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity, and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is accordingly within ourselves and our institutions.”
Fromm asks whether the desire for freedom something inherent in human nature and an identical experience regardless of what kind of culture a person lives in? Or, is it something different according to the degree of individualism reached in a particular society? Is freedom only the absence of external pressure or is it also the presence of something, and if so, of what? What are the social and economic factors in society that make for the striving for freedom? Fromm asks, “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat? Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?”
Fromm was a Marxist. For many today, this is one of those defining words that closes down any more interest. Like calling someone a conspiracy theorist. Or, a Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal. Once the word is said, there is the assumption that there is nothing more to be said. Nothing of value to be gained from associating oneself with the word and all those who are defined by it.
Closing off the ideas of Fromm because he was a Marxist would be a mistake. Although Fromm was a Marxist, he wanted all to understand the psychology behind totalitarianism. What is the psychological reason people give up freedom for non-freedom? There are few more important questions.
Today, totalitarianism is powerfully present in the modern form of it called globalism. The lockdowns and mandates of the pandemic have fought freedom all over the world. Many see the villain to freedom today as governments and their pandemic mandates. But might it also be in a growing mass psychology that swings away from freedom at this time? Such an important question yet one that hardly anyone is interested in investigating today.
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The battle of ideas Fromm laid out in his prophetic Escape from Freedom is another version of historic battle between the symbols of freedom and equality, individualism, and collectivism. The two words represent the symbols behind the Republican Party of Freedom and the Democratic Party of Equality. They also represent the two founding symbols of America. Freedom and Equality.
Much more needs to be researched and discussed regarding the internal psychology needs that make millions pursue our new global totalitarianism. It is not surprising we discount internal needs and place blame on actions of others in forcing the new global totalitarianism on us. In psychology this process is called projection, the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal or object. The term is most used to describe a defensive mechanism – attributing one’s own unacceptable urges to another. Psychological projection is the process of misinterpreting what is “inside” as coming from “outside.”
In effect, the ego defends itself against disowned and highly negative parts of the self by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others. Carl Jung spoke about projection in his concept of the Shadow Archetype where unacceptable parts of the personality were particularly likely to give rise to projection on both a small-scale or national/international basis.
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We need to look inside ourselves and wonder, again, as Fromm did 80 years ago, whether many in the world today want to escape from the fear of freedom. There are several important questions related to this. For example, one question relates to the rise of stress and anxiety in our contemporary world. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. In many ways a fear of the future.
Fromm notes that feudal society was able to reduce the fear of uncertainty in life by creating a “distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt.” Do totalitarian regimes function as modern anxiety reduction mechanisms using medieval methods? Might this be one of the great psychological benefits behind mass movements of global collective psychology?
There is much to learn from Fromm’s Escape from Freedom yet many might defining and dismissing it as another piece of Marxist propaganda. Dismissing it might in fact be another example of projection at work. It is a time of great anxiety and projection when the internal psychology of cultures are given little importance in the affairs of the world. In all of this one can be hopeful but not optimistic that today’s cultures will mine the riches from Fromm’s brilliant insights.