Thursday, February 01, 2007

Erich Fromm

Another posting of an early Socialist Standard ( January 1995 ) article that has yet to be put on the net upon the fathers of psycho-analysis

To Have or to Be

The title of this article is taken from the book of the same name by the psychologist , Erich Fromm. It is probably true to state that many Socialist Party members view psychology with some suspicion because of its tendency to see “abnormal” human behaviour in isolation; but Fromm is in no doubt that it is our sick society that leads to such behaviour , and not the reverse . Thus , his ideas are worthy of study by socialists .

Fromm commences To Have Or To Be by stating that the failure of capitalism , aside from its economic contradictions lies in its two main premises :

“The first is ‘that the aim of life is happiness , defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel ( radical hedonism )”;

The second is ‘that egotism. Selfishness, and greed , as the system needs to generate them in order to function, leads to harmony and peace’”

With regard to the first premise , Fromm distinguishes between subjectively felt needs (desires) whose satisfaction leads to monetary pleasure , and objectively valid needs that are rooted in human nature , and whose realisation is conductive to human growth which produces “well-being”

Fromm notes the contradiction between the concept of unlimited pleasure and the ideal of disciplined work , and between obsessional work ethic and the ideal of complete laziness. “Both contradictory attitudes” , we are told , “correspond to an economic necessity ; twentieth-century capitalism is based on the maximum consumption of the goods and services as well on routinised teamwork”

Fromm sums up the first section by stating that “…[the] pursuit of happiness does not produce well-being”. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people lonely , anxious , depressed , destructive , dependent - people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save!

The second psychological premise of capitalism , that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace , is equally rejected by Fromm .To be an egoist means:

“I want everything to myself, that possessing , not sharing , gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having , I am more the more I have .
I can never be satisfied , because there is no end to my wishes : I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less.”

Fromm is in no doubt that the passion for having must lead to never - ending class war and , in global terms, international war. He states that “Greed and peace preclude each other” . He is also in no doubt that the development of an economic system as an autonomous entity , independent of human needs and human will , is a recent development . The question , therefore , is no longer “What is good for the system?” - and the assumption is that the latter is good for the former.

And this assumption is bolstered by the further assumption:

“That the very qualities that the system required of human nature - egotism, selfishness and greed - were innate in human nature ; hence, not only the system but human nature itself fostered them”

Societies in which egotism , selfishness and greed did not exist , were supposed to be “primitive” and their inhabitants “childlike” . People refused to recognise that their traits were not natural drives that caused industrial society to exist , but that they were the products of social circumstances .

Fromm reinforces his assertion with the little-known , but surprising , fact that the majority of the world’s languages have no word for “to have” . Such languages express possession in the form “it is to me” , whilst others have only developed the construction “I have” at a much later date . “This fact”, argues Fromm, “suggests that the word for “to have” develops in connection with the development of private property , while it is absent in societies with predominantly functional property ; that is , possession for use” And “While private property is supposed to be natural and a universal category , it is in fact an exception rather than the rule if we consider the whole of human history”

Thus , for Fromm , the difference between “being” and “having” is between a society centred around persons and one centred around things such as property , profit and power . The distinction is between “I have knowledge” and “I know” - where “knowing” means to “see reality in all its nakedness”.

Fromm therefore concludes that the character traits engendered by or socio-economic system are pathogenic , and produce sick people and a sick society . Given that fact , we are headed for an economic catastrophe unless we change our social system . The physical survival of the human race depends on it .
Richard Layton

And Fromm Where…

Born in Frankfurt , Germany , in 1900 ,Erich Fromm was one of the first to attempt a synthesis of Marx and Freud ( Reuben Osborn had previously made such an attempt , in his Freud and Marx, in 1937 , from a Stalinist viewpoint ), and to develop a Marxian social psychology . Fromm was trained in psychoanalysis , and worked with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 1930 to 1933 , when he fled from Nazi Germany . He then went to America .
In his early essays , Fromm combined the dialectical and materialist elements in both Marx and Freud ; and applied Marxian social psychology to interpret such phenomena as religion and the sado-masochistic roots of the authoritarian personality .

In 1941 Fromm wrote probably his best known work , Escape From Freedom , published in Britain in 1942 under the title The Fear of Freedom . In it he asks if freedom is a psychological problem ;and discusses in detail authoritarianism , destructiveness and conformity . He also deals with the psychology of Nazism . His conclusion is that “changing social conditions result in changes of the social character ; that is , in new needs and anxieties …social conditions influence ideological phenomena through the medium of character ; character , on the other hand , is not the result of passive adaptation to social conditions , but of a dynamic adaptation on the basis of elements that either are biologically inherent in human nature or have become inherent as a result of human evolution”

Fromm’s old friend , Herbert Marcuse , engaged in polemics with him during the 1950s , beginning with his Eros and Civilisation. Marcuse accused Fromm of being a “Neo-Freudian revisionist” and Fromm retaliated by calling Marcuse a “nihilist” Fromm , however argued , that people must free themselves , whilst Marcuse , particularly in his One-Dimensional Man , looks largely to the “substratum of the outcasts and outsiders , the exploited and the persecuted of other races and other colours , the unemployed and the unemployable “ , when “they get together and go out onto the streets , without arms” to lead the fight against “domination”

In 1955 Fromm wrote The Sane Society in which he deals with the concept of alienation in some depth , as well as so-called education in capitalist society and what he calls the “roads to Sanity” , a sane socialist society . In 1949 he had already written Man For Himself : An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics , and in 1957 hew wrote The Art of Loving - not a sex instruction manual , I might add . In 1965 , Fromm published a collection of essays based on a symposium of various academics such as the Polish writer , Adam Schaff , Maximilien Rubel , T.B Bottomore and others , titled Socialist Humanism .

Erich Fromm actively opposed the Vietnam war , and all other wars in which the United States became involved . He died in 1980 Of all his works , I have found his Fear of Freedom and The Sane Society the most useful , although all are worth reading .
Peter E . Newell

Further reading:

Letters here and here


Darren said...


I seen these somewhere before:
To Have Or To Be
And Fromm Where . . .

Thanks for reminding me about them. I'll repost them on MySpace. ;-)

ajohnstone said...

Damn it mean all that work transcribing wasn't necessary ...grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn