Erich Fromm and the Mass Psychology of Fascism

Kieran Durkin

The German socialist philosopher Erich Fromm sought to explain the social psychology of right-wing authoritarianism after the Nazis drove him into exile. His work is full of valuable insights that can inform struggles for political and economic freedom today.

German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The German writer Erich Fromm was one of the most influential social philosophers of the twentieth century. In works like Escape From Freedom and The Sane Society, Fromm drew on the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to develop an innovative form of radical theory. Fromm’s work offers powerful insights into the nature of authoritarian nationalism and the subjective challenges of building an alternative to capitalism.

Kieran Durkin is the author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm. He spoke to Jacobin about Fromm’s life and work, and about his relationship with other leading members of the Frankfurt School such as Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse.

This is a transcript from an episode of Jacobin‘s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

Erich Fromm was a teenager during some of the most tumultuous years in modern German history: the First World War, the fall of the monarchy, the Spartacist uprising, the Kapp Putsch. What impact did those years have on his political and intellectual development?

Kieran Durkin

Living through these events that completely transformed Germany in the early 1900s had a profound effect on Fromm. He spoke some years later, in his sixties, of the Great War as the event that determined his intellectual development more than anything else, and of how struck he was by the nakedness of the hate and irrationality, as manifested in German nationalist feeling toward the British at the time — how the British had suddenly become evil and unscrupulous, intent on destroying the innocent and all-too trusting German heroes, as he put it.

The whole experience of the war, with its mass irrationality and its unheralded level of destructiveness, was an absolutely central influence on Fromm, and ultimately pushed him in the direction of the study of psychology, and of Freud and psychoanalysis. On the issue of politics more specifically, Fromm reported being influenced in his seeing-through of the mass irrationality of German nationalism by reading the arguments of the socialist deputies in the Reichstag who voted against the war budget, who were visible at the time in their attacks on the German government’s position.

Despite this, it’s also true that Fromm was somewhat removed from organized politics during this period. He wasn’t involved in any radical parties, or parties of any stripe, during his life in Germany as a whole, in fact. Later in the US, when he became much more directly involved — a bit later in his time in the US — he maintained nevertheless that his personality wasn’t quite suited to politics and he didn’t have the temperament for it, which may have been a factor in this earlier distance from politics.

But whatever the reason might have been, it’s clear that he was influenced by socialist ideas during and after the war. Many decades later in the 1950s, he offers strong praise of Rosa Luxemburg, who was of course brutally murdered during the reactionary crackdown at the hands of the Freikorps, supported by right-wing elements in the SPD. And the fact is he went on to study Marx at university and moved into the Marxist movement, albeit at some remove, after graduating.

Finally, I think it’s important in this connection to recognize that Fromm was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home. He was very pious as a child and a young adult. In his early years, until about the mid-1920s, he was in fact more influenced by the romantic socialism of his Talmud teacher, a man called Salman Rabinkov, and the Frankfurt rabbi Hermann Cohen.

He inherited this view of socialism that grew out of a concern with the Messianic time spoken of by the Biblical prophets, the time of universal peace and harmony, where the lions lie down with the lambs. His affinity for this notion of socialism, which for Fromm tended to focus at this early stage on a contrast with medieval culture, remains important to him throughout his life, even if it gave way to more orthodox and critical Marxian elements as he matured.

Daniel Finn

Fromm began working with the Frankfurt School at the end of the 1920s. What was the significance of the Frankfurt school in German intellectual life at that time as a body that was independent of the university system on the one hand and the left-wing parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats, on the other?

Kieran Durkin

The Frankfurt School is a name that was given somewhat after the fact to a group of thinkers employed by and associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which was set up in the early 1920s by a man called Felix Weil, the son of a wealthy grain merchant from Argentina. Felix Weil was interested in promoting Marxism and Marxist theory, and managed to persuade his father to finance the building and the equipping of the institute, also providing it with a yearly grant of something like a hundred twenty thousand marks, as well as funding the professional chair which the institute director held at the University of Frankfurt.

The institute was affiliated with the university, but it wasn’t dependent upon its administration. What this meant, in effect, was that while graduate students were able to take part in the institute’s research work, Weil was able to decide both who the director would be and the ideological line that the institute would follow. This situation of having a well-funded, quasi-independent Marxist institute was quite unique at the time — as it would be today.

We hear a lot today about “cultural Marxism,” this ridiculous notion that there is a preponderance or excessive number of Marxist professors at universities in social science and humanities departments. For anyone who’s actually spent any time in a social science or humanities department, it’s quite clear that the contrary is the case — it’s actually quite difficult to be a Marxist and get a job in many subject areas. This would have been very much the case back in the 1920s. To have that kind of freedom that the institute had would have been a real boon for all those involved with it.

The independence that the institute had from left-wing parties was important, too, when you consider the development of what we now call the Frankfurt School. It afforded them a degree of latitude in terms of what subjects they wanted to approach and how they approached them. In its early years — it was set up in 1923 or 1924 to be precise — the institute did work more like a traditional labor studies institute. But in the later years, it moved to a more critical and social philosophical framework after Max Horkheimer became the director. This distance from the left-wing movements of the time gave it a degree of freedom, in terms of the topics of analysis.

But if you think of the Frankfurt School in its history, it’s also true that this remove from the left-wing movements facilitated — or more accurately, I think, encouraged — this divorce from practical struggle that the Frankfurt School is notorious for. If you think about the central members of the Institute — Fromm, Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, who was to join much later — none of them had their origins in the labor movement. This disconnect from actual left-wing politics was there from the very start and encouraged the focus on alienation and the alienating conditions of social life, with some benefits and many drawbacks.

Daniel Finn

How important was Fromm’s relationship with Max Horkheimer, and what were the main questions that they sought to address in their work together?

Kieran Durkin

It was of great importance to both figures in this early period of the institute, when they were its leading theoretical talents. Most histories of the Frankfurt School relegate Fromm’s importance, but in this early stage, it’s absolutely clear that they were the leading talents. Fromm had met Horkheimer, probably through his school friend Leo Löwenthal during his time at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was training to become a psychoanalyst. Unlike its Viennese counterpart, the regional institute where Freud taught, the Berlin institute from its very beginnings was concerned with applying psychoanalysis to social issues.

Fromm was there, part of this group of young dissident socialist analysts — a group which included Wilhelm Reich, who alongside Fromm became the pioneer of authoritarian studies, but who famously went mad living in the United States, thinking that he’d discovered some kind of universal life force called orgone energy. During this period, Fromm had attempted some social applications of psychoanalysis. He’d written an article on the psychoanalysis of the Sabbath and one on the psychoanalysis of the petty bourgeoisie.

In the case of Horkheimer, who actually helped facilitate the setting up of the psychoanalytical institute, he had been interested in psychology, but not psychoanalysis as such until around the time he became acquainted with Fromm. While it’s fair to say there were other sources for Horkheimer’s development, he himself declared that he learned a considerable amount about psychoanalysis from Fromm, which is something you can see in his writings around that time.

In terms of their work together at the institute, this is summed up pretty well in Horkheimer’s inaugural address as director in 1930. Horkheimer speaks of an interdisciplinary mixing of social philosophy and the empirical sciences, and particularly the mixing of Marxism and psychoanalysis, which was of course precisely the kind of work that Fromm was already engaged in. What he had in mind here was the investigation of connections between the economic life of society, the psychological development of its individuals, and changes within specific areas of culture, such as customs, fashion, public opinion, sports, lifestyles, entertainment, etc.

I think it’s important or helpful to remember that all of this takes place in the context of the crisis of Marxism, as Karl Korsch described it, that evolves on the back of the First World War, the miscarriage of Bolshevism, and the failure of socialist revolution to begin to manifest in Germany and other places. With Stalin in power by this time in the USSR and the Nazis on the rise in Germany, there was a real sense that Marxism was in crisis.

From the early to mid-1920s onward, what you see is this attempt to return to the essence of Marx, as represented often and mostly, I think, in terms of his underlying philosophy, and in the development of what we can call nonmechanical readings that were considered to be closer to the real Marx than those put forward by figures such as Karl Kautsky or Eduard Bernstein (interpretations that were considered to be deterministic, economistic, or narrowly objectivist).

The Frankfurt Institute under Horkheimer and Fromm moved in this direction of returning to Marx’s philosophy, but trying to extend it socially, in terms of the analysis of cultural aspects, and I think most importantly, in terms of what they saw as the subjective barriers to socialism. One of the first tasks that Fromm was given by Horkheimer on joining — he joined first as a part-time member, becoming fully tenured later on — was to lead the innovative study of German, mostly blue-collar workers that sought to analyze on a social psychoanalytical basis the connections between character — or personality as they called it — and political commitment.

This study takes place at a time when the Nazi Party was growing in support. They wanted to probe the relationship between outwardly socialist or democratic sympathies — people that voted for socialist or communist parties — and the kind of unconscious authoritarian attitudes that they thought might in some cases underlie them.

It’s a very innovative study. They carried it out by a detailed survey of, I think, 271 questions; things like “Who are your heroes?” Did they like Marx, Einstein, and Pasteur, or did they like Caesar, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great? Did they think that women should wear lipstick and go to work or not? Did they think that children should be strictly disciplined or not?

It captured more classical authoritarian traits as well as ones that we recognize today as being related to this. The analysis of the data from this study was striking. They concluded that roughly 10 percent of the participants were to be considered authoritarian based on their responses and on the interpretation of their responses. Roughly 15 percent they described as being democratic or humanistic, and the remaining 75 percent were somewhere between the two.

Fromm and his team predicted that the authoritarian ones would support the Nazis while the democratic humanists would most likely stand up and oppose them. But the problem was that this democratic and humanistic 15 percent might not be strong enough to defeat the authoritarian 10 percent if the 75 percent in the middle were psychologically unprepared to resist.

Despite some issues with the research — it was in the literal sense pioneering, so it had what are considered today some methodological flaws — it seems pretty clear to me that this study was eerily prescient. It’s important not only for what it tells us about authoritarianism on the Right, but also, I think, authoritarianism and misogyny on the Left.

Daniel Finn

In the history of the Frankfurt School, there was an abrupt interruption to its work, much as there was for the broader German left and German intellectual life, when the Nazis took power in 1933. Fromm played an important role in negotiating the transition of the Frankfurt School from Germany to the United States.

What do you think it meant for his work, and for the work of the Frankfurt School in general, to make that transition from a country where Marxism wasn’t just an intellectual philosophy — it was a political ideology that was explicitly embraced by mass working-class parties, both the Social Democrats and the Communists — and then to make the shift to the United States, where you did have parties of that kind, but they were very much on the margins of political life.

Kieran Durkin

This is a really crucial issue. Obviously, the relocation was a big deal for the institute itself and for those that were a part of it. They were leaving this potentially very beneficial situation that we spoke of already, in terms of the independence from the university administration. They were also moving to another country, and to an English-speaking country at that. There was a degree of reluctance amongst the members, although the political situation in Germany at the time was obviously becoming intolerable. For predominantly Jewish scholars notorious for their Marxism, it clearly made sense to move.

Actually, in terms of the move itself, it was Fromm that Horkheimer gave the responsibility for making investigations of potential options. He’d been recuperating from tuberculosis in Geneva since 1932 and was on a tour of America giving lectures in 1933, where he visited a number of potential institutions. In the end, they decided upon Columbia University in New York, where Fromm himself — and originally only Fromm — had been offered a research position based on the recommendations of a sociologist called Robert Lynd. But after Fromm made it clear that he would only accept if the institute as a whole was accommodated, Columbia relented. The Institute as a whole settled there in 1934.

In terms of the actual move itself, as you rightly say, they were moving to an environment where Marxism was not only not prominent in intellectual and political life, but actually in a sense prohibited. The institute and Horkheimer himself were very paranoid about any mention of Marx in institute publications at the time. This is where the name “critical theory,” which is associated with the Frankfurt School, comes from.

Instead of mentioning Marx, they would mention critical theory, with the implication being for those who knew that they were talking essentially about a form of Marxism. I think this no doubt led to a certain lack of straightforward engagement in Marxist studies, and surely caused Fromm and especially Horkheimer to temporarily downplay their Marxism.

But I think there’s another way of looking at it as well, that’s not inconsistent with this analysis. The institute, which was already to a certain extent removed from the working-class movement in any case, was suddenly in the world’s leading capitalist nation, and they were privy to trends in culture and consumption that were established in the US first, perhaps, or certainly became distinct there and adopted the form that they were to take almost everywhere else. I’m thinking here of what Horkheimer and Adorno were to call in Dialectic of Enlightenment “the culture industry.”

What a chance this was in a sense for the institute to explore these trends, as can be seen with the hypothesis of the dialectic of enlightenment. This was in one way a boon to the institute, although again, it also helps explain the embarrassing lack of discussion of class in their work, and in Fromm’s work in many places. Obviously, while this de-emphasis of class perhaps had some basis to it, in the fact that the US was in its high period of capitalism, with upward social mobility, etc., it also clearly ignored the vibrancy of resistance in certain quarters, with things like the miners’ strike and other strikes that punctuated the 1950s.

Daniel Finn

It was after making that move to the United States, and while the military struggle against Nazi Germany was in progress, that Fromm published what I think is still his best-known and most influential work, Escape From Freedom, also known as The Fear of Freedom. What were the main themes of that work?

Kieran Durkin

I agree with you, I think it is his best-known and in many ways best work. It was published first in the US with the title in English Escape From Freedom. Its publication in Britain and Ireland bore the title The Fear of Freedom, and in many ways, I prefer the British and Irish title. This book appeared in America originally in 1941 and was actually Fromm’s first publication after leaving the Institute.

The central theme was what Fromm saw as the catastrophic flight from the progress toward greater and greater forms of political freedom that had been made in Europe over the preceding centuries — the flight from that into the arms of a series of authoritarian or fascist rulers, such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, etc.

What Fromm was thinking of here was of course the retreat from monarchist rule — a lot of the toppling of monarchies happened after the First World War — but you also have the struggle for the franchise and generally a greater sense of individual rights vis-à-vis the state and religion, etc. He was thinking too, of course, about the growth of the socialist and women’s movements. He was astounded, as anyone would have been on the Left, that all of this had been overturned in just a few short years after the war.

Fromm wanted to understand this process. He wanted to understand and explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, for instance, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler. He did so with the notion of the “authoritarian character,” which is an idea that’s built on psychoanalytical grounds and, in particular, on the notion that there exist certain types of individuals who by birth, schooling, and socialization in the family and in wider society, are predisposed in a sense to authoritarian attitudes.

Think here of the discussion around many Trump supporters, who are characterized — rightly in many cases — as being willing to submit to and actively support authoritarian leaders; people who get pleasure out of aspects of authoritarian rule and who can be relied upon to support forms of authoritarian rule. There are, of course, historical differences that need to be taken into account in making this comparison, but the general thrust holds.

He takes this psychoanalytical theory and applies it to the situation in Germany at the time. Like most Marxist analyses, he focused on the role of the lower middle class in particular and looked at the impact of certain socioeconomic and political changes, particularly the decline of this traditional middle class in the face of the monopoly capitalism of the era, and obviously hyperinflation, which came on the back of the defeat of Germany in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and the loss of the monarchy.

All of this, Fromm argued, had a deep effect on this class in particular, as well as other aspects of society. It removed the traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem for this class: The economy was destroyed, there was no esteem to be drawn from the relative possession of social status, savings had gone up in smoke, and life chances for children of families were ruined. There was no longer, he argued, anyone to look down on nor a Kaiser to look up to. They had to face a situation in which Germany after the war and after Versailles was significantly and embarrassingly weakened.

Fromm identified what he argued were deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in the population, and in the lower middle class in particular, feelings which Hitler was able to capitalize upon with his authoritarian and racialized messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak — especially for those socialists and Jews guilty of the “stab in the back” that, as he argued and so many people believed, had sold Germany out to the Allies. Hitler and the Nazi movement itself was seen by Fromm to give a means of escape from these intolerable psychological burdens that were experienced on a mass basis.

It’s important to note that the book was not just focused on fascism, but on authoritarianism in the USSR, and on aspects of what Fromm argued were authoritarianism in the US and the “free world,” so to speak. This authoritarianism, Fromm said, was less overt in the US and other democratic nations, but it was also more anonymous. It was pushed by public opinion, by radio, by commercials, and by other means of cultural conditioning. Because of this, it was also in a sense more insidious. The book was a criticism in general of this move in world culture toward different forms of authoritarianism. I think it speaks to the world situation at that time in particular, but also has real relevance for today.

Daniel Finn

After the publication of Escape From Freedom, Fromm continued to live and work in the United States for many years afterward. How did his work and his thinking develop coming into the postwar period, which of course was the period of McCarthyism, the Cold War — very much overt, official hostility to any form of Marxism?

Kieran Durkin

Fromm’s works in the US at this time in the 1940s and ’50s are often seen to have become less serious in terms of scholarship and more clearly aimed at a wider audience. I think there is some truth to this, but it is often overblown. First of all, Fromm was writing in an environment which was less conducive and receptive to Marxism than had been the case in Germany. He was keen to reach as many people as possible, in the most effective way possible.

A second factor is the fact that Fromm had left the Frankfurt Institute. He was asked to leave effectively in 1939. He had grown apart from Horkheimer on many issues. He was denied the funds that were available to Horkheimer and Adorno, such as the funding they got from high-profile Jewish charities to carry out the research that eventually led to the authoritarian personality study. Fromm survived in this period primarily as a practicing psychoanalysis, but also as time went on as a kind of bestselling author.

Despite this, it’s important to say that two of Fromm’s most significant works were published at the height of McCarthyism and in the 1950s: The Sane Society, which appeared in 1955, and The Art of Loving, which appeared a year later in 1956. These works represent a return — even if at times a kind of critical return — to Marx and to the issue of radical social change that had been perhaps lacking in the ’40s after Escape From Freedom, when he didn’t publish that much, in fact.

If you look at The Sane Society, for instance, it’s clear that it contained a sustained and blatant criticism of mid-twentieth century capitalism as manifested in the US, which Fromm saw as a form of bureaucratic consumer capitalism. He spoke in The Sane Society of this notion of the marketing character, whereby people experience themselves and others as commodities, as something to be bought and sold on the market. This kind of demand of the market seeps its way into our very way of seeing the world and how we think about ourselves and others. It’s like a psychological extension of the alienation theory or the theory of commodity fetishism.

It’s important to point out that the book also had a focus on different work practices — communitarian work practices, and other forms of radical, noncapitalist, anti-capitalist politics. This clearly signaled a willingness on Fromm’s part to engage with these issues at a time when it was clearly needed. The FBI had a file on Fromm. He was clearly an influential figure who did much to stand up for radical change.

Although in the mid-’50s, he did return to Marx, he was also, at this period in particular, critical of aspects of traditional Marxism. In a passage that I think has great relevance today, as it did in Fromm’s day, he commented that the famous line at the end of the Communist Manifesto, which states that the workers have nothing to lose but their chains, contains a profound psychological error. He said that with their chains, they also have to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions that originated while they were wearing the chains.

Of course, he was alluding here to authoritarian aspects that had plagued socialist regimes at the time, but also to things like sexism, racism, and nationalism. One of the strongest themes in his writings, given his background, was this deeply critical position toward nationalism, which he opposed in The Sane Society in romantic terms as the antithesis of the love of humanity. He called it our form of insanity.

Not only is The Sane Society important, it’s also fair to say that The Art of Loving is important. It’s not necessarily the most obviously socialist or Marxist book. In fact, Herbert Marcuse, a good friend and ex-colleague of Fromm, was fairly critical of what he thought was Fromm’s betrayal of radical thought, becoming what he called a “sermonistic social worker,” moving away from the critical tradition.

But Fromm remained adamant and was involved in a very public debate with Marcuse over this. The principle underlying capitalist society, he said, and the principle of love in the sense that he used the term are incompatible. We have to analyze the fact that the conditions for love and integrity and human realization in this regard are absent in this society and try to strengthen them as part of wider, radical social change.

Daniel Finn

What role did Fromm play in the genesis of the current that became known as Marxist humanism?

Kieran Durkin

Fromm played a central role in the development of this current, or what I like to call tradition. Fromm wasn’t the preeminent member of the tradition. People like Raya Dunayevskaya or C. L. R. James, who were soaked in Marx and in the revolutionary movement, would be foremost.

But Fromm was a household name who published the first full English translation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in his book Marx’s Concept of Man. He did much to publicize and bring Marxist humanism to general consciousness. Maybe Fromm’s focus on Marx’s writings was a little too heavy on the 1844 manuscripts at times, but he never made the mistake that some did — I’m thinking particularly here of some of the Christian Marxist humanists at the time — of praising them above Marx’s later writings such as Capital.

I think the manuscripts are important, and Fromm’s publication of them in 1961 is very important, because it shows that we have this admission on the part of Marx that the end goal of struggle is not communism, so to speak, but something he calls “humanism,” which is a wholesale realization of human needs.

Later in the ’60s, in 1965, Fromm was responsible for bringing out an international collection on socialist humanism, which brought together a series of leading socialist humanists from all over the world, bringing to attention these individuals often in English for the first time — people like the Yugoslav Praxis School, but also Czech Marxist humanists such as Karel Kosík or Ivan Sviták, as well as people like Raya Dunayevskaya and Léopold Senghor. Fromm also wrote many criticisms of the USSR and China at this time, and used his fame to provide many introductions to books by Marxist and radical thinkers.

Daniel Finn

By the time you reach the 1960s, Fromm had been separated from his former colleagues in the Frankfurt School for a long time — in terms of their working lives, but also separated in terms of geography, because Horkheimer and Adorno went back to West Germany after the war, whereas Fromm carried on living in the United States. How did they differ in their approach to events like the rise of the New Left and the Vietnam war?

Kieran Durkin

I think what I see as distinguishing him from Horkheimer and Adorno in particular is the explicit humanism of his writings. What’s meant by the word humanism today isn’t always clear. There are a number of meanings. You have the atheistic humanism of the British or American humanist associations, this kind of hyper-enlightenment rationalism that you find in people like Richard Dawkins. But there are also forms of Christian humanism and crucially forms of Marxist humanism, and this of course is the form closest to Fromm.

For Fromm, this kind of Marxist revolutionary humanism was a philosophy that focused on the agency and dignity of the human being, and the role of actively engaged human beings in transforming their social relations. While others in the institute obviously had some clear bearing to this position, Fromm was the most consistently and incontrovertibly humanist thinker, actually becoming more so in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the shadows of Auschwitz.

During that period, Horkheimer was teaming up with Adorno to write books like Dialectic of Enlightenment; or when they returned to Germany, Adorno was writing books like Negative Dialectics. They were critiquing humanism, at least in the sense of the hope for agency on the part of workers and of having a hopeful future based on that agency. But Fromm was really operationalizing humanism as a radical and penetrating philosophy that linked his concerns with Marx and psychoanalysis to a whole series of other concerns, including elements of religious thought, but also practical political concerns.

A clear example of this is the fact that at the end of the 1950s and the turn of the 1960s, Fromm became involved with the American Socialist Party and tried to influence or propose a rewriting of their party program. He was also vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam war, whereas Horkheimer and Adorno were not. He was a high-profile leader in the anti-nuclear group Sane, which he formed, and which also took its name from his book of the same name. He also supported the Democratic primary campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, writing speeches for it. I think all of this marked him out from his ex-colleagues, particularly Horkheimer and Adorno — this heightened sense of political engagement.

Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno in April 1964 in Heidelberg, Germany. (Jeremy J. Shapiro / Wikimedia Commons)

It was based on the conviction that the moment for the realization of philosophy had not been missed, as Adorno put it, but that this moment — which was of course different from the 1910s and ’20s — was still one where we had to engage as fully as possible if we were to have any hope of realizing it. Books like The Revolution of Hope and To Have or to Be? stuck to this and, in this sense, Fromm was closer to Herbert Marcuse than he was to Horkheimer and Adorno.

He and Marcuse both saw positive aspects in the New Left and the challenge to the Vietnam War, and the vibrancy of the youth movements and the new questions they were posing about the multiple alienations of social life. But Fromm also, perhaps more so than Marcuse, saw some limitations in terms of the hyper-militancy and Blanquist elements that were creeping in, as well as the idealist elements in relation to the hippies and other things of that kind.

Daniel Finn

What would you say is the most important legacy of Fromm’s work for today?

Kieran Durkin

I think that one of his most important legacies for the present moment is his Marxist humanism. Although his elaboration of it left something to be desired at times, he also added much, particularly in making available aspects of Marx to a wider readership, which is something that is as important today as it’s ever been. But his greatest legacy, which is not unconnected from his contributions in the sphere of Marxist humanism, is his social-psychological contribution and his understanding of authoritarianism in particular. Fromm was one of the original thinkers in this area.

At times his writings on this, such as Escape From Freedom, can now be a little bit dated and contain some mistakes from an analytical perspective. But they do still speak strongly to us — this idea of the fear of freedom in particular, the way that individuals set what we can call internal barriers that prevent them from opening up to socialistic and humanist social relations is very important actually. I think it can help explain not only outright authoritarianism, but also sexism, racism, and xenophobia of various kinds.

In large part, of course, this arises as an effect as the workings of capitalism, at least in the particular manifestations that we are witness to. But it can’t just be deduced from capitalism in a mechanical fashion. There’s more complexity here, I think; more human complexity to be reckoned with.

Because of this, I think Fromm’s right to focus on this need for a concept of revolutionary humanism that goes alongside our socialism, alongside our Marxism — that of revolution not only in terms of external barriers but also in terms of internal ones — and to deal with the roots of authoritarian passions like sexism and racism. He wasn’t the only thinker to have argued this, but he draws the threads together in a way that few have done — and in books that most people would stand a chance of comprehending, which can only be a good thing!

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Kieran Durkin is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie global fellow at University of York, and a visiting scholar at University of California Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm and co-editor of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.

Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.

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