• Rowan Fortune

Erich Fromm and Atomisation Anxiety

Updated: Feb 14

Review ~ Beyond the Chains of Illusion by Erich Fromm

Consciousness represents social man, the accidental limitations set by the historical situation into which an individual is thrown. Unconsciousness represents universal man, the whole man, rooted in the cosmos; it presents the plant in him, the animal in him, the spirit in him. It represents his past, down to the dawn of human existence, and it represents his future up to the day when man will have become fully human, and when nature will be humanized as man will be “naturalized.”

Marx and Freud shared the desire to ‘free man from the chains of his illusions in order enable him to wake up and to act as a free man.’ This mission statement is also at the core of Erich Fromm’s Beyond the Chains of Illusion, which begins with a look back at the author in his youth, and his attempts to understand the seemingly irrational suicide of a young woman at the event of her father’s death from old age, and the seemingly irrational national fervour that took hold of Germany in warring with Britain in WWI. Fromm finds in his two key influences views that explained such individual and social irrationalities:

I tried to see the lasting truth in Freud’s concepts as against those assumptions, which were in need of revision. I tried to do the same with Marx’s theory, and finally I tried to arrive at a synthesis

He is clear he considers Marx the greater thinker, ‘capable of connecting a spiritual heritage of the enlightenment humanism and German idealism with the reality of economic and social facts,’ but nonetheless sees a complementary aspect about the two that justifies a juxtaposition. They were great sceptics of common illusions, guided by humanism and a belief in the value of truth.


Rejecting an anti-humanism that treats man as an undefined blank, a relativist error, Fromm seeks to recover a core idea of these two thinkers: ’Marx and Freud assumed that man’s behavior is comprehensible precisely because it is the behavior of man, of a species that can be defined in terms of its psychic and mental character.’ (But following Marx in particular, Fromm is also keen to reject another mistake, ‘the unhistorical one that the nature of man is a substance present from the very beginning of history’. Fromm, however, believes that Marx’s project to outline his theory of man was incomplete.


It is Freud who fills the gap; his core idea is that of a pleasure principle seeking libidinal release and a reality principle seeking survival require a balance to avoid ‘neurotic or psychotic manifestations’. Freud develops Marx’s picture of man, giving it content. Moreover, Freud did not hold to a static view of man or human history, but saw a development of sublimation in both (the forgoing of satiation to instinct, which allows for civilisation while frustrating libidinous impulses).

While Marx sees the transition from primitive communism to agrarianism as propelled by contradictions of scarcity overcome through new social relations and technology, Freud locates it in the Oedipus complex. Here, the murder of the hoarding father establishes the need for a social covenant to settle otherwise violent rivalries. This is the establishment of the incest taboo and superego. Freud’s view is more cynical, whereas Marx saw in history the potential of human self-realisation and freedom.


Where Marx and Freud seem most to differ is in man’s most essential motivation: for the former it is, on the surface, seemingly a ‘greed for material things’ while the latter posits ‘man’s sexual appetite’. But this ignores the contradictions that Freud perceived in man, and how it is not profit and private property that Marx saw as central, but the aspiration to be ‘the fully developed, truly human man.’ For Freud man gone awry expresses itself individually in terms of neurosis (a compromise between infantile id and mature super-ego needs) and psychosis (where the id rules the super-ego).


Fromm’s synthesis emerges in an idea of Marx, for whom the individual social symptom of class society was alienation. In this theory, man ‘experiences himself only in the things he has created, as the object of the externalised manifestations of his powers.’ Alienation is a dehumanising form of relating to the world, debasing us to either consuming or possessing it. For Fromm, the neurotic or the psychotic has developed in such a way out of the weakened state of their alienation, and finds in the weakness attendant to such a state the intensity of the psychoanalytic phenomena of a patient’s attachment to the analyst:

Thus the content of transference is usually related to infantile patterns while its intensity is the result of the patient’s alienation.

Alienation, however, is not as simple as being wholly bad, but rather it is a needful historical stage for man’s self-development. Fromm sees parallels in a Messianic conception of time:

In Paradise man still is one with nature, but not yet aware of himself as separate from nature and his fellowman. By his act of disobedience man acquires self-awareness, the world becomes estranged from him[…] Socialism, in Marx’s sense, can only come, once man has cut off all primary bonds, when he has become completely alienated and thus is able to reunite himself with men and nature without sacrificing his integrity and individuality.

The difference between Freud and Marx, then, and the reason Marx offers a greater liberatory path forwards, is that Marx sees humanity as shaped by society and history while Freud sees humanity as shaped by childhood and family. Marx opens up the possibility of historicising the family as such, and not in the sense that Freud believes in some primal stage whereby civilisation is facilitated, but in the sense of understanding why different stages progress. But both believe that different stages (whether of the person or the society) to be ‘sick and yet not sick, because their stage of development is a necessary one.’ Capitalist society is such a stage, as is the infant’s attachment to the mother.


Because Marx’s view is the more complete, Fromm finds in Marx a better conception of mental health. Both thinkers value independence, but whereas the development of a super-ego that absorbs the social rules is at the heart of Freud’s notion, for Marx a vision of human self-creation and self-mastery goes beyond merely the acceptance of social prescriptions free of a tyrannical parent’s guidance. Marx seeks not just economic or political liberal freedoms, but ‘the positive realisation of individuality.’ This implies another difference; Freud’s independent person is not a social being any more, but self-sufficient, whereas Marx’s remains enmeshed in society to be complete.


Given Marx’s views are so much more complete, why turn to Freud at all? Fromm’s answer here has to do with Marx’s posited relationship between the material base of society and the ideological world of human ideas. Fromm posits that ‘the mechanism through which the economic base structure and the superstructure are connected’, which Marx and Engel’s never fully elucidates, can be best explained by psychoanalysis. That is, in particular, man’s character (motive forces). What is being posited here is a dialectical relationship between two poles of influence on humanity’s particular historical formation. As Fromm puts it:

In speaking of the socio-economic structure of society as modelling one’s character, we speak only of one pole in the inter-connection between social organisation and man. The other pole to be considered is man’s nature, modelling in turn the social conditions in which he lives. The social process can be understood only if we start out with the knowledge of the reality of man, his psychic properties as well as his physiological ones, and if we examine the interaction between the nature of man and the nature of the external conditions under which he lives, and which he has to master if he is to survive.

As in any dialectic, the lines of influence here go in all directions, ‘ideas, once created, also influence the social character and, indirectly, the social economic structure. What I emphasize here is that the social character is the intermediary between the socio-economic structure and the ideas and ideals prevalent in a society.’ The key concept of Freud’s here is that of repression (where libidinal impulses incompatible with prevalent norms are hidden to our own consciousness), so that our desires and attendant behaviour (our character) might not be known to us. Dreams and free associative speech, however, can uncover the repressed. Still, to alter behaviour a distinction of Spinoza’s is needed: ‘intellectual knowledge is conducive to change only inasmuch as it is also affective knowledge.’ Knowing must be felt, holistically.


Fromm turns soon to the question of what kind of fear motivates repression, and prefers to look to man’s social nature over the more fatalistic Freudian explanation of castration anxiety (that is, ostracism anxiety, or to put it in new words, atomisation anxiety), ‘Man has to be related, he has to find union with others, in order to be sane.’ And this need drives conformity, but also points to the possibility of social conditions wherein repression is no longer socially mandated.

Towards the conclusion of the book, Fromm critiques what has become of the radical traditions of Freud and Marx. He complains that psychoanalysts, bucking social criticism, uphold middle class mores and ‘tended to consider as neurotic anyone who deviated from this attitude, either to the left or to the right.’ This form of therapy ignores the ‘real problem, that of man’s loneliness and alienation, of his lack of a productive interest in life,’ because these are beyond its scope. And some of these issues trace back to Freud’s own involvement in his legacy, his own bureaucratisation of the field.


Marxism, on the other hand, suffered a fate both similar and different. The origins of its malaise lie in the success of capitalism, which ‘made it possible for the workers to benefit from its advances. (Even if at the expense of the colonial world.) Slowly, the welfare state eclipsed Marx’s humanist vision of socialism, but the ‘principles of this type of “socialism” were essentially the same as those of capitalism’. I.e. efficiency, bureaucracy, the individuals subordination. Fromm levels a modified version of this charge at both Western social democracy (welfarism) and Eastern communism, or state-capitalism as Fromm claims.


Despite these setbacks (against a backdrop of a world driven to fascism and nuclear holocaust), both Freud’s and Marx’s radical legacy is said to be recoverable, sustained by a small few. Fromm situates his project in that spirit. Today, when the Internet and the transfer of production to the global south has arguably exasperated the problem of ostracism (atomisation), the alienation of every person from every other, Fromm shines a torch on an avenue of intellectual work that is vital. The problem today is perhaps not just the conformity produced by ostracism anxiety, but the realisation of that threat in our alienation from meaningful social relations. This has been disastrous to socialist organisation in particular.

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