‘Positive freedom’ and ‘love of life’

IssueApril - May 2024
Erich Fromm, 1974. PHOTO: Müller-May / Rainer Funk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
Feature by Marc Morgan

The psychoanalyst, sociologist, social commentator and activist Erich Fromm attained fame and something of a cult status in the ’60s and ’70s for his books and campaigns criticising both capitalist and communist societies, and calling for radical social transformation based on rationality, humanism, genuine freedom, and love of life.

An admirer of Marx, a humanist and a member of the Socialist Party of America, Fromm campaigned vigorously against US nuclear policy and made a point of reaching out to thinkers in the Soviet bloc. Before surveying Fromm’s contribution to the peace movement of his time, a brief overview of key strands in his thinking is in order.

Initially a disciple of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Fromm broke away and developed a theory of what he called the ‘social character’.

Freud had seen the main drivers of human behaviour as the sexual instinct (the id or libido) together with its repression by civilisation, by the reality principle (the ego), and by a moral principle (the superego).

Freud’s thought was sophisticated, of course, but he presented these forces as though they applied to humankind irrespective of social and cultural differences. While identifying them may be liberating, they provide keys to human behaviour divorced from any human context, and leave the individual isolated in the struggle against repression and anxiety.

“Love of life is primary, it is the true nature of human beings; love of death is thwarted life”

Fromm insisted instead that the individual is moulded by her* society, and that groups of people, whole tribes in primitive societies, or whole social classes in more “‘developed”’ societies, display common character traits, reflecting prevailing political, social, and economic forces.

Fromm took his inspiration for this from Karl Marx, whom he greatly admired; in particular, he researched and revitalised Marx’s early thinking, prior to the writing of Capital.

On this basis, Fromm rejected any restrictive, reductionist reading of Marx’s ‘materialism’ according to which the cultural ‘superstructure’ of social relations is entirely determined by the economic ‘infrastructure’ of the means of production and their ownership. For Fromm, what happens in society and culture cannot be reduced to a straightforward side-effect of what is going on in the economy.

Who’s afraid of freedom?

Fromm, along with what he presented as the true Marx, believed in the interplay of cultural and economic forces, and insisted that while the individual would typically conform to a social character which reflected their economic circumstances and social status, they have a measure of freedom to influence culture, society and politics.

The extent of that freedom will vary according to the freedom of the individual from want, and also according to the social character of their class. The social character of some societies or social groups is authoritarian and repressive, that of other groups is liberal, encouraging individual or collective self-expression.

Fromm devoted many books to the issue of freedom, the most significant of which, The Escape from Freedom (1941; it was published in the UK as The Fear of Freedom), greatly contributed to his notoriety as a public intellectual and scholar.

Fromm made the key distinction between ‘negative freedom’ and ‘positive freedom’ (later described by philosopher Isaiah Berlin as ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’). ‘Negative freedom’ is freedom from external constraints – the material constraints we live under simply by having to survive physically; and political restrictions on our freedom, suppression of the right to express one’s views, to practice one’s religion and so on….

“If humankind commits suicide, it will be because people will obey those who command them to push the deadly buttons”

Superficially, though not in a wholly trivial way, democratic societies offer more ‘freedom from’ than totalitarian ones; freedom of thought and expression exist.

In practice, however, ‘negative freedom’ is fruitless and unrewarding if it is not accompanied by ‘positive freedom’. 

‘Positive freedom’ is the freedom of the genuinely free individual, the person who thinks for herself, who dares to question the premises of the society in which she lives, and makes her own choices rather than accepting those which the productive needs and social character of her society seek to impose on her.

The ‘fear’ of freedom comes from the alienation and isolation of the individual, and their corresponding need to conform and to find comfort in accepting the dominant prejudices and expectations of their society.

Here is Fromm’s own description of the main argument of Escape from Freedom: ‘freedom has a twofold meaning for modern man: … he has been freed from traditional authorities and has become an ‘individual’, but… at the same time he has become isolated, powerless, and an instrument of purposes outside himself, alienated from himself and others; furthermore... this state undermines his self, weakens and frightens him, and makes him ready for submission to new kinds of bondage. Positive freedom on the other hand is identical with the full realization of the individual’s potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously.’

Fromm’s idea of ‘social character’ goes hand in hand with his concept of ‘rootedness’: freedom and the exercise of free will do not take place in a vacuum, but consist of opportunities offered to the individual by the society and culture to which she belongs, and by her own freely-determined decision to actually use her freedom.

Freedom is like a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to develop.

It is by experimenting with our freedom that we discover and expand it – and it is by the habit of conforming that we become conformists and lose our freedom. By recognising rootedness, while making himself the champion of human freedom and the exercise of the will, Fromm reconciles those who believe in human nature, in a human ‘essence’, with existentialists who insist that humans create themselves.

Against the death-wish

What is the essence of human life? For Fromm, it is love of life.

This, expressing itself in the ‘positive freedom’ of the genuinely free and unalienated individual, is the heart of human nature. Fromm’s belief here is grounded firstly in his ongoing lifelong practice as a psychoanalyst; and also from his keen historical study, relayed in many of his works, of destructive individuals (Hitler, Stalin…) and destructive, authoritarian societies.

Fromm strongly resists theories such as that of Konrad Lorenz, which see an innate and ineradicable aggression in human nature, needing to find expression just as rising waters need to burst a dam.

In his analysis of human destructiveness, Fromm parts, on this issue also, with Freud. Freud had refined his theory of the libido and its repression to include the concept of the death-wish.

In his later writings, Freud identified the life-wish with the libido or ‘Eros’, and the death-wish or ‘Thanatos’ with what he called the ‘repetition compulsion’ – a compulsion to go back to an inanimate or traumatic state. Freud saw these forces as opposed but unrelated, except inasmuch as both determine human behaviour.

“Fear of freedom comes from the alienation and isolation of the individual, and their corresponding need to conform”

Fromm insisted that love of life and love of death are not equal forces struggling on the battlefield of human nature. Instead, love of life is primary, it is the true nature of human beings; love of death is thwarted life, it is a perversion born of alienation, frustration, and the absence or non-exercise of ‘positive freedom’.

Create the conditions in which humans can lead productive, happy lives, in touch with their humanity and with that of others, and the love of death will wilt away, yielding to love of life, and yielding also to peace in inter-personal and international relations.

As Fromm put it: ‘The more the drive towards life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive towards destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.’

Fromm was first and foremost a social thinker and commentator, and by his own admission was not naturally inclined to political activism. However, the strength of his beliefs and his prominence in public life did lead him to take on various practical commitments. How did he make the bridge between his theories and active engagement, and what lessons can we still derive from his teaching, even as the world has changed?

Firstly, in line with Fromm’s belief in the social character, neither individual therapies or commitments, nor focused and narrowly targeted campaigns, however necessary, will be enough.

If we are in large part the product of the social, economic, cultural, and political structures in which we live, then an in-depth analysis of and radical changes to these structures will be required.

Fromm denounced both the Soviet command economic system and Western capitalism of his time as stifling initiative, responsibility, and true human creativity, and generating isolation and alienation in the individual.

Instead, Fromm promoted a democratic socialism, outlined notably in a pamphlet written for the Socialist Party of America in 1960, Let Man Prevail: A Socialist Manifesto.

In this manifesto, Fromm called for decentralisation, gender and racial equality, support for the arts, and public provision of essential services: ‘All production must be directed by the principle of its social usefulness, and not by that of its material profit for some individuals or corporations’.

Our ‘social character’ has almost certainly changed since Fromm’s time, and he would no doubt have had a lot to say about increasing inequality, and the new forms of isolation and alienation – as well as some opportunities – which the Internet and ‘social media’ have brought; but his denunciation of the consumerism and conformity which postwar capitalism encouraged are still very relevant.

Fromm campaigned actively in national US politics, addressing campaign meetings, and giving moral and financial support to many radical initiatives. Despite the radicalism of his social theories, he was prepared to work ‘within the system’, and acted as informal adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, as well as corresponding with other leading politicians from senator J William Fulbright to John F Kennedy.

The unity of humankind

It was in international affairs, and in the years from the 1950s to 1968, that Fromm was most politically active. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the War in Vietnam, Fromm appealed to universal principles to resist aggressiveness and the drift to war.

Fromm worked closely with other committed humanists and pacifists, from AJ Muste (see PN 2666) to Bertrand Russell. Fromm also used his prestige and his academic contacts to forge links with scholars and independently-minded thinkers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He was the instigator and leading light behind the publication in 1965 of a book called Socialist Humanism: an International Symposium.

Fromm intended this to be ‘a volume of an international nature… published in several languages, to indicate that the increasing renaissance of Marxist humanism is a worldwide phenomenon’.

The volume brought together contributions from 35 different writers across the East-West divide, and was the most tangible output of Fromm’s determined attempts to overcome that divide both in practice and as a construct in his contemporaries’ mind. It is an example of breaking down barriers from which we would do well to draw lessons, whether those barriers are those which separate us from Russians, Chinese, or ‘Islamists’.

Fromm’s abhorrence of war went back to the outbreak of the First World War, when he witnessed as an adolescent the rise of irrational, anti-foreigner hatred in his native Germany.

The First World War left Fromm ‘obsessed by the question of knowing how war is possible, by the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior, by a passionate desire for peace and international cooperation’.

Fromm experienced human destructiveness and hatred at first hand in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism. As a Jew, he was forced to flee in 1934. He settled first in the United States, before spending many years in Mexico.

True to his belief in rootedness, although not a practising Jew, Fromm never renounced his Jewish heritage. Fromm was very clear that to be human was to be both a member of all humankind, and an individual with a specific and unique cultural heritage and personal destiny. He often paid tribute to the rabbinical teachings in which much of his own thinking was grounded, reinterpreted and built on to show the global appeal and applicability of their wisdom.

In his most spiritual work, You shall be as Gods, Fromm appealed to Jews to be true to the universalism of their religion, and not to yield to any reductionist or exclusivist interpretation of Judaism.

Fromm was an early critic of violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine, arguing that such violence contradicted ‘the basic principles of civilization to which Jews have contributed: devotion to the rule of justice and moral law, respect for the individual, affirmation of life’. As early as 1948, he was one of several leading Jewish voices critical of Israel.

“Freedom is like a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to develop”

It is on the dangers of nuclear war that Fromm was most vocal, both in his written works, and in the many speeches and interviews he gave in the years of his political activism. In 1957, he co-founded the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), renamed ‘Peace Action’ in 1993. SANE was the leading US protest movement against nuclear weapons (its early name was inspired by Fromm’s own book The Sane Society).

In his writings, Fromm frequently referred to the practical aspects of the preparations for nuclear war: the colossal sums, warhead numbers, and logistics involved. He also analysed their political dimension, the way in which leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain prepared their people for war, and spoke of it as an almost inevitable necessity.

Above all, Fromm analysed humankind’s readiness for nuclear war from a psychological and sociological point of view, identifying it as the love of death in its purest and most sinister form.

The acceptance of the possibility of annihilation was seen not just as a mistake or an aberration on the part of human societies, but as an expression of the way in which their soul-destroying, alienating structures had stifled the love of life.

In Fromm’s words: ‘while we are living technically in the atomic age, the majority of men live emotionally still in the stone age. If mankind commits suicide, it will be because people will obey those who command them to push the deadly buttons, because they will obey the archaic passions of fear, hate and greed.’

Social character, the importance of freedom and the fear of freedom, alienation, and the love of life: these key themes in Fromm’s thought are as relevant today as they were in Fromm’s time, even as the world has become more complex, more polarised, and more dangerous.

There is not one Iron Curtain to build bridges across, but a multitude of physical and mental borders. Fromm’s celebration of universalism in diversity still resonates, as does his call for responsibility, and for free men and women to throw off the alienating social and economic structures, and the conformist mental attitudes which limit us and lead to war.

We may conclude with Fromm’s own conclusion: the final words of the epilogue of one of his last works, and one of his most scholarly, the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness: ‘The situation of [hu]mankind today is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues – least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction – or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality [hu]man[ity] is endowed with – the love of life.’