How influential was Erich Fromm

Reread: Erich Fromm «On Disobedience»


"In these essays Erich Fromm formulated what it means to be obedient to one's own human nature and the goal of a humane society, and what it means to be disobedient to all kinds of idols and political ideologies." This is what Fromm's wife Annis wrote in 1984.

In medias res

"Human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will end with an act of obedience." With this sentence, which spans time and space, Erich Fromm alludes to two myths. The first, the Hebrew myth that introduces the Old Testament, is that of Adam and Eve: “When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, they were part of nature; they were in full harmony with her and did not yet transcend her. They were in nature like the embryo in the womb. They were human and at the same time they weren't yet. All of that changed when they disobeyed a commandment. Because man loosened his ties to earth and mother, by cutting the umbilical cord, he emerged from pre-human harmony and was able to take the first step towards independence and freedom. The act of disobedience set Adam and Eve free and opened their eyes. They recognized that they were strangers to each other and that the outside world was also strange, even hostile, to them. Their act of disobedience destroyed the primary bond with nature and made them individuals. "

And Fromm concludes with a conclusion that moves Christian moral theologians to this day: “Original sin by no means corrupted man, but set him free; it was the beginning of the story. Man had to leave the Garden of Eden in order to learn to rely on his own strength and to become fully human. "

«Just as in the Old Testament myth of Adam and Eve, in Greek myth the entire human civilization goes back to an act of disobedience. By stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus laid the foundation for human development. Without the "crime" of Prometheus there would be no human history. Just like Adam and Eve, he is punished for his disobedience. But he does not regret it and does not ask for forgiveness. On the contrary, he said with pride: "I would rather be chained to this rock than the obedient servant of the gods."

The jump into the here and now

The essays combined in the volume “On Disobedience” were written around 1950. Not every detail, but the most important statements are still valid today. At that time, Fromm's main concern was the cancerous spread of capitalism, which gradually began to destroy many human values ​​developed over centuries. A dramatic climax was the fear of war that was widespread around the world, specifically the Cuba crisis, in which the world only narrowly escaped nuclear war. Then as now the quintessence applies: "Disobedience is not only the prerequisite for freedom - freedom is also the prerequisite for disobedience."

In investigating the causes of capitalism, Fromm wrote: «In human history, obedience has mostly been equated with virtue and disobedience with sin. The reason is simple: so far, for most of history, a minority has ruled the majority. This rule was necessary because of the good things in life there was only enough available for the few and only the crumbs remained for the many. If the few wanted to enjoy the good things and if they also wanted the many to serve them and work for them, that was only possible provided that the many learned to obey. ”

In order to use two figures in modern world history to show where obedience can lead in extreme cases, here are remarks on Hitler and Eichmann. One was the influential, megalomaniac, mentally ill Adolf Hitler, who appeared with a simple message of salvation; the other, Adolf Eichmann, who works in the background, correctly and perfectly completing his assigned task with convincing obedience. The role that education in obedience, i.e. preparation, carried out by the state and the church, can play in this, is explained in the following essays by the author.

The other essays

"The Application of Humanistic Psychoanalysis to Marxist Theory" was Fromm's scientific postulate throughout his life, which he pursued with meticulousness and imagination. "Marx used the analysis of capital to critically examine the crippled condition of man in industrial society." Specifically, it was about the "renewal of Marxist humanism", for which he extended the psychological work with individuals to the treatment of society, that is, their psychological state, and thus had moved away from his teacher Sigmund Freud. "In my opinion, Marxism needs such a psychological theory and should combine psychoanalysis with Marxist theory."

The essay «Prophets and Priests» Fromm wrote as a laudatory speech for Bertrand Russel, whom he first met in 1943. But the essence of the text is useful guidance for those people who take on the task of conveying a message by characterizing it as follows: «The prophets live their ideas. The priests administer them for those who identify with these ideas. The ideas lose their liveliness and become formulas. " With this distinction, we can also understand with our own experiences in political work, but not only there, how one or the other who writes or preaches is credible or just seems so.

In the third essay, "On the Problem of a Comprehensive Philosophical Anthropology", the author is committed to a «renaissance of humanism». For this he characterizes the humanistic worldview: “It is characterized first by the belief in the unity of humanity, by the belief that there is nothing human that cannot be found in each of us; second, by emphasizing human dignity; third, by emphasizing the human ability to develop and improve; fourth, by emphasizing reason, objectivity and peace. " Fromm explores this field intellectually within these parameters.

«When the medieval world broke up, Western man believed he was on the way to the ultimate fulfillment of his wildest dreams and visions. He freed himself from the authority of a totalitarian church, from the burden of traditional thinking and from the geographical barriers of our only half-discovered earth. He discovered nature and the individual. He became aware of his own strength and his ability to make himself ruler over nature and tradition. He believed in a synthesis between his newborn sense of power and rationality and the spiritual values ​​of his humanistic-spiritual tradition, between the prophetic idea of ​​a messianic time of peace and justice, as it could reach humanity in the historical process, and the theoretical Greek tradition Thinking. " With these words, Fromm's essay begins «People have priority!».

«Socialism not only wants to remedy the shortcomings of capitalism, but also to realize something that does not yet exist. He has a goal that transcends empirically given social reality, but is based on real possibilities. Socialists say: We want this, we fight for it - not because it is the absolute and ultimate form of life, but because it is a better and more human form of life. We want the realization of the ideals of humanism that inspired the greatest achievements of Western and Eastern cultures. " Derived from this, Fromm explains the principles and goals of a path to socialism.

The discussion about that "Guaranteed income for everyone" is conducted scientifically and practically, politically and economically intensively today and probably for a long time to come in various countries. It may be surprising that Fromm wrote a well-founded and highly differentiated article on this as early as 1966, which, if taken seriously, could also stimulate our current disputes. I am not making a summary here, it would be too nuanced. But this much can be anticipated: The topic should not be approached monothematically, but must be approached multi-thematically, if it is to be successful.

The essay concludes the volume «On The Theory and Strategy of Peace»: «I believe that the chances for peace are very slim. But I believe just as much: If it is about the life of the individual or of society, one has to act and plan as long as there is still a real possibility for it. So I believe that this real possibility still exists, although in the best case we come to a draw and to a period that gives us a respite for such measures that can lead to real peace, because they are based on real changes in the People and based in society. It's hard to live with this paradox of hope, but I think that's the only option for all of us. " - Personally, I forbid myself to assess the current world situation with regard to war and peace and agree with Martin Luther: "And if I knew that tomorrow the world would end, I would plant my apple tree today."

Erich Fromm: About obedience, New York 1981, German publishing house 1982