Erich Fromm, a social psychologist of some renown, researched and wrote his book, Escape from Freedom, in the years between WWI and WWII. He was watching the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and he was shocked and puzzled by what he was seeing. He was seeing people who had just fought a consuming and destructive war being swept up in a fury of national fervor and ready to go to war again. The first war lasted four years and was seemingly triggered by the assassination of an Archduke, but was most likely caused by simmering resentments about national borders and national slights among powerful European nations. World War I changed the configuration of European and Middle Eastern states forever. People had difficulty adjusting loyalties to nations that held no history in their hearts. Many people were liberated from Empires that had governed their lives for decades or even centuries but they were not prepared for the political changes that resulted from the war.
In his book, Fromm explores the conundrum that, although people long for freedom in the abstract, they often feel more secure under authoritarian rule by one person or one ruling party. When the leader is benign people tolerate authoritarianism well, but we know that power corrupts. Leaders find it difficult to remain benign. They get greedy and their people become more critical and must be squelched to justify the power of the leader. When people cannot speak freely, freedom is gone and rebellion grumbles in the villages, towns, and cities.
By the time Erich Fromm wrote his book, which was published in 1941, the same people who had lost so much in World War I were tuning in to the voice of a new, arousing, madman who offered the German people a restoration of national pride and the boundaries of the old Germanic Empire, shrunken by the Versailles Treaty and the end of World War I. (National boundaries and national pride cause most wars, both large and small.) Hitler was also tapping into the jealousy and hatred people felt towards “others”, non-Arians, and he was beginning his campaign that would eventually lead to the murder of 6 million Jewish people and the eviction of many more.
In the second Forward to his newest edition of Escape from Freedom, Fromm writes:
“After centuries of struggles, man succeeded in building an undreamed-of wealth of material goods; he built democratic societies in parts of the world, and recently was victorious in defending himself against new totalitarian schemes; yet as the analysis in Escape from Freedomattempts to show, modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”
He cites three trends that may contribute to our fear of freedom. First he mentions the development of atomic energy and nuclear weapons. He says, “Yet only a relatively short time ago, during the Cuban crisis, hundreds of millions of human beings in America and in Europe for a few days did not know whether they and their children were ever to see another day…” This anxiety is still with us.
“Aside from the nuclear revolution, the cybernetic revolution has developed more rapidly than many could have foreseen twenty-five years ago. We are entering the second industrial revolution in which not only human physical energy – man’s hands and arms as it were – but also his brain and his nervous reactions are being replaced by machines.”
And third, he says, “Another danger has increased, rather than diminished: the population explosion.”
“The giant forces in society and the danger for man’s survival have increased in these twenty-five years, and hence man’s tendency to escape from freedom.”
He says, “[T]he drive for freedom inherent in human nature, while it can be corrupted and suppressed, tends to assert itself again and again.”
“[T]he development of man’s intellectual capacities has far out-stripped the development of his emotions. Man’s brain lives in the twentieth century; the heart of most men lives still in the Stone Age. The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself.”
So here we are, 73 years after World War II and after the man who almost succeeded in turning Europe into an empire ruled by the most dangerous dictator the modern world has seen so far. Yet we are once again seeing people vote for dictators to head their nation and then reelecting them again, even after they have proven to be suppressive. We see a Chinese dictator getting his people to make him President for life. We see Duterte more popular than when he became the leader in the Philippines. We see Erdogan reelected by a pretty big margin because he promises to keep Muslims from a Middle East in disarray out of Turkey. We see a significant group of Americans treating our President like the authoritarian leader of a cult of loyalty and backing his most undemocratic policies with a mysterious fervor.
(Perhaps there is a democratic – authoritarian cycle just like there is an economic boom – bust cycle. Maybe the universe of human governance is simply ruled by physics and perhaps sine waves rule. In America we produced a straight-line of democratic rule for almost 250 years. I was hoping that we could defy the physics of governance (if there is such a thing) and extend that out for at least another 250 years. We could bust the hegemony of the sine wave or make those sine waves intervals so long that the line became, for all practical purposes, essentially straight.)
So a book that seemed passé might offer insight into current events. What social psychological research backs up Fromm’s claims? His premises strike a chord with us, and this very inexpensive book may provide us with some answers that will have relevance here at our current moment when we are experiencing our own “fear of freedom”, here at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Is what we are experiencing a case of the fear of freedom that prompts humans to give up freedom whenever they win it, or can we save our democracy/republic and harness intellect and rational thought to keep hard-won freedoms and make them so attractive that other nations want to join in. Can we stop America’s descent into authoritarianism or even nouveau serfdom and take the planet into a positive new world order that is humane and believes in the future rather than the apocalypse?
I realize it is boring to say these things over and over, I realize it is repetitive, but until #hope and #freedom and #equality are, once again, subjects that are understood and embraced, rather than contested ground, we, who think humans can be free, will keep bombarding the universe with this message. #Make it So.
On May 6, 2010, I wrote “Let Freedom Ring”, also about this book, Escape from Freedom. https://www.thearmchairobserver.com/let-freedom-ring/