Joe Conroy appraises Erich Fromm’s 1955 work. This article first appeared in Red Banner Issue 39

The United States in 1955 would hardly seem a propitious time or place for condemning capitalist society outright and advocating an entirely different way of living. With millions buying into the consumer society and no end in sight to the system’s longest economic boom, to all appearances the established set-up was permanent and generally accepted. But Erich Fromm perceived a fundamental discontent at the heart of that society and of similar societies elsewhere, a basic failure to fulfil the real needs of human beings. In The Sane Society he described this malaise and outlined how it could be cured.

Fromm was born in Germany in 1900 where he went on to work as a psychoanalyst. Along with others, he developed a synthesis of psychoanalysis with Marxist thought, and was forced to flee Germany for the US as Hitler rose to power. But he began to reject some of Freud’s core concepts, and moved further away from the so-called Frankfurt school. While his 1941 work Escape from Freedom sought to analyse social and psychological factors leading to the acceptance of authoritarian rule, The Sane Society went further in putting forward an alternative.

An understanding of the problem

While conventional psychology aimed at getting people to accept their allotted role in the given social structure, Fromm insisted “that mental health cannot be defined in terms of the ‘adjustment’ of the individual to his society, but, on the contrary, that it must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man” (p 72). Treating individual mental illness requires an understanding of the problem and a change in the behaviour that led to it, and “The cure of social pathology must follow the same principle, since it is the pathology of so many human beings, and not of an entity beyond or apart from individuals” (p 273). Contemporary society involved repeated mass human destruction in wars, recurring economic crises staved off by massive spending on arms, and a generalised feeling of boredom with life: “Certainly, if an individual acted in this fashion, some doubts would be raised as to his sanity” (p 6).

In this society “Work is a means of getting money, not in itself a meaningful activity” (p 180). The worker spends eight hours a day as a passive cog in the machine with no active, conscious role in human production: “He is part of the equipment hired by capital, and his role and function are determined by this quality of being a piece of equipment” (p 181). Without a doubt, capitalists can no longer work their employees to death in dark, satanic mills as Victorian capitalism did, but the bottom-line relationship remains the same (p 93):

the social and political form of this exploitation has changed; what has not changed is that the owner of capital uses other men for the purpose of his own profit. The basic concept of use has nothing to do with cruel, or not cruel, ways of human treatment, but with the fundamental fact that one man serves another for purposes which are not his own but those of the employer. …a man, a living human being, ceases to be an end in himself, and becomes the means for the economic interests of another man, or himself, or of an impersonal giant, the economic machine.

The problem is not that the fruits of this process are shared out unequally, but that the process takes place at all. Human beings work to create things which then proceed to dictate the worker’s life: “The more powerful and gigantic the forces which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels as a human being” (p 125). Machines control the activity of people instead of the other way round, and the objects produced become ends in themselves (p 133-4):

the act of consumption should be a meaningful, human, productive experience. In our culture, there is little of that. Consuming is essentially the satisfaction of artificially stimulated phantasies, a phantasy performance alienated from our concrete, real selves.

Things are often bought not for their use but for their market worth, as status symbols to be displayed rather than as means to satisfy a genuine need or desire. Human beings themselves become commodities to be bought and sold, striving to adopt personalities which may make them more employable. Products, abilities, qualities are separated from human activity, with a price indelibly stamped on them: “this process of quantification and abstractification has transcended the realm of economic production, and spread to the attitude of man to things, to people, and to himself” (p 113).

‘Things’ are higher than man. The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two basic principles of value: that between the world of things and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity [p 95].

This system is not presided over by a repressive dictator, but by a power more insidious and even more effective (p 152-3):

Authority in the middle of the twentieth century has changed its character; it is not overt authority, but anonymous, immovable, alienated authority. …we all conform as much or more than people in an intensely authoritarian society would. Indeed, nobody is an authority except ‘It.’ What is It? Profit, economic necessities, the market, common sense, public opinion, what ‘one’ does, thinks, feels. The laws of anonymous authority are as invisible as the laws of the market—and just as unassailable. Who can attack the invisible? Who can rebel against Nobody?

If capitalism can get us to just accept its ground rules as an unwritten, unspoken law—a natural necessity like the weather, a system that cannot be bucked—its future is safe. The electoral system allows us to occasionally choose from a limited selection of commodities on the political market, but without any control over the workings of the system: “the voter cannot do much more than register agreement or disagreement with powerful political machines, to one of which he surrenders his political will” (p 341).

But human beings always react against oppression, and “their reaction may create such independence and longing for freedom that a better society is built upon their creative impulses” (p 19). And Fromm is clear as to what this better society must be (p 277): “The only constructive solution is that of Socialism, which aims at a fundamental reorganization of our economic and social system in the direction of freeing man from being used as a means for purposes outside of himself, of creating a social order in which human solidarity, reason and productiveness are furthered rather than hobbled.”

An immediate problem

This solution itself presents an immediate problem, however, because whenever socialism had been apparently tried, the results were anything but encouraging. In Russia and its satellite states, for instance—but in truth, these societies had nothing in common with socialism (p 248):

Stalin misappropriated the concept of Socialism and of Marxism for the purpose of his propaganda. His claim is false in the essential points. He separated the purely economic aspect of Socialism, that of the socialization of the means of production, from the whole concept of Socialism, and perverted its human and social aims into their opposite. The Stalinist system today, in spite of its state ownership of the means of production, is perhaps closer to the early and purely exploitative forms of Western Capitalism than to any conceivable idea of a socialist society

The post-war Labour government in Britain, while its welfare reforms had undoubtedly made working-class life less precarious, “did not accomplish any of the basic expectations of Socialism”. Workers in the industries it nationalised found themselves no less alienated than before, and the growing state bureaucracy “did not endear it to anyone concerned with increase in human freedom and independence” (p 279). The left in general was good at talking about applying socialist principles to society, but not so good at applying those principles in its own practice (p 327):

Socialism begins at home, that is to say, with the socialization of the socialist parties. Socialism is meant here, of course, not in terms of property rights, but in terms of responsible participation of each member. As long as the socialist parties do not realize the principle of Socialism within their own ranks, they cannot expect to convince others; their representatives would, if they had political power, execute their ideas in the spirit of Capitalism, regardless of the socialist labels they used.

The prime weakness of all these supposed types of socialism was that they focussed almost exclusively on how little workers had to show for their work, and aimed above all at social arrangements that would give them more to consume. The overall emancipation of human beings should rather be the focus, a “Humanistic Communitarian Socialism” (p 363) where people were free to develop individually and collectively (p 269, 326):

Democratic Socialism must return to, and concentrate upon the human aspects of the social problem; must criticize Capitalism from the standpoint of what it does to the human qualities of man, to his soul and his spirit, and must consider any vision of Socialism in human terms, asking in what way a socialist society will contribute toward ending the alienation of man, the idolatry of economy and of the state. …the fault was not with the basic aim of Socialism, an unalienated society in which every working person participates actively and responsibly in industry and in politics, but with the wrong emphasis on private versus communal property and the neglect of the human and properly social factors.

Fromm’s criticism here is an essential corrective to those socialists who saw their revolution—as many still do—in terms of giving workers more food on the table rather than an all-round liberation of humanity. Relatively well-paid workers in 1950s America with their fast cars, sharp suits and big refrigerators were indeed suffering more of a spiritual impoverishment than a material one. This situation characterises the lot of many workers in our day, and socialists do have to address that accordingly. Capitalism can often satisfy workers’ demands for more commodities, fairer terms of exploitation—but what it can never do is satisfy the human striving for a truly fulfilling human existence freed from all exploitation, and that striving is one we need to build upon.

Critique of alienation

However, Fromm virtually advocates abandoning the critique of poverty for the critique of alienation. Plenty of the working class, then and now, still confront straightforward material insecurity and the same old struggle to make ends meet. Outside of the most highly developed economies, bare poverty is palpably evident for most working people. Capitalism can no more abolish material misery than it can abolish personal misery. Rather than directing our fire at one or the other, we need to attack both simultaneously—or rather, understand that the two form aspects of one whole picture of capitalist exploitation. Our lives can only become truly human when everyone is assured of material abundance, and that requires taking real collective ownership of the means of producing our lives.

Fromm pays tribute to the force of Marx’s critique of alienation, but finds anarchist and utopian socialism more relevant in helping to supplant it. Marx overemphasised political change, he writes, believing that the working class forcibly taking state power and the means of production would be sufficient to win freedom. He was guilty of a “romantic idealization of the working class”, and “underestimated the complexity of human passions”, failing to realise that “a better society could not be brought into life by people who had not undergone a moral change within themselves” (p 262-4).

Much of this is down to a partial reading of Marx, or reading him through the distorting prism of his interpreters, even sympathetic ones. Marx’s writings reveal quite broad insights into human psychology. Far from romanticising workers, he often had cause to curse their apathy, and recognised acutely their need to cast off the chains of mental submission to their rulers. He looked to the working class, not as it happened to be at a particular point, but as it could be if it realised the potential it had due to its unique position in capitalist society. Marx constantly emphasised that revolutionary action would not just change external circumstances but also people themselves, fitting them for the job of building a new world. And he always stressed that the revolution that won them political and economic power would be only the first step on the road to that new world.

In reality, the weaknesses that Fromm detects in Marx invariably point to weaknesses in his own thought. Marxism does of course address the working class first and foremost, but Fromm appeals throughout to “man”, an undifferentiated “man” that belongs to any class or none. In later writings he even claimed that the middle classes were more alienated than the working class. Of course everyone would be ultimately better off in a socialist society, even capitalists freed of their present parasitic existence. But not everyone is equally oppressed by the system, equally in need of abolishing it, or equally capable of doing so. Having put his finger on the heart of alienation in the submission of worker to capitalist, he fails to see that this pivotal point of capitalist relations has to be the fulcrum for overthrowing them, that this struggle has to be the starting point.

It is no surprise that such a classless, indiscriminate socialism finds it difficult to elaborate a way through the injustices it so brilliantly characterises. “No changes must be brought about by force”, writes Fromm (p 361). But as long as the capitalist class acts like a capitalist class, and spares nothing in tenaciously hanging on to its power and privilege, this limits us to change that they won’t react violently to. So when Fromm claims that “the Western world carries within itself the possibility for peaceful progressive transformation” (p 358), we are looking more at reforming capitalism than transforming it.

Self-limiting revolution

And here indeed is the weakest aspect of his argument. A weed has to be pulled up decisively and forcibly: trying to loosen it softly bit by bit will leave the root in place to spread. While the material situation of workers within capitalism can be and has been improved peacefully and progressively, putting an end to such a rotten system will unfortunately not be so easy. Fromm’s self-limiting revolution refuses to go beyond an amelioration of capitalism. He advocates “real freedom of contract between employers and employees” through “a restriction of property rights, but by no means any revolutionary change in such rights”, with employers “entitled to a reasonable rate of interest on their capital investment” (p 324, 337). This would reduce class inequality rather than ending it, “preventing the economic differences from creating a fundamentally different experience of life for various social classes” (p 361).

The only conceivable excuse is that Fromm felt the need to soften the blow, to present a more palatable alternative, not too far removed from the way of life his readers were familiar with. In fact his reluctance to take his argument to its logical conclusion undermines his presentation of a chronically sick society that needs major surgery rather than sticking plasters. Socialists will have to avoid Fromm’s mistake, but in envisaging and working towards the radical transformation that humanity requires, it will be hard to improve upon his vision (p 276):

what would be the structure of a sane society? First of all, a society in which no man is a means towards another’s ends, but always and without exception an end in himself; hence, where nobody is used, nor uses himself, for purposes which are not those of the unfolding of his own human powers; where man is the center, and where all political and economic activities are subordinated to the aim of his growth. A sane society is one in which qualities like greed, exploitativeness, possessiveness, narcissism, have no chance to be used for greater material gain or for the enhancement of one’s own personal prestige.… It is one which furthers human solidarity and not only permits, but stimulates, its members to relate themselves to each other lovingly; a sane society furthers the productive activity of everybody in his work, stimulating the unfolding of reason…