Erich Fromm’s ‘Fear of Freedom’- A Summary

Last Updated on December 27, 2017 by

A summary of Erich Fromm‘s ‘Fear of Freedom’, first published in the UK in 1942

This book is an analysis of the ‘character structure of modern man’, a work in progress published because of the urgent needs of the times.

fear-of-freedomThe thesis of the book is that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realisation of his individual self.

Freedom, though it has brought him his independence and rationality, has isolated him, and made him anxious and powerless.

This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of this freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realisation of positive freedom which is based on the uniqueness and individuality of man.

Chapter One – Freedom: A Psychological Problem?

Modern European history seemed to be a process of men fighting oppression in the name of greater freedom for the individual – having conquered nature and religious authority and then established democracy, WW2 seemed to be the ultimate battle for freedom.

However, Fascism was established because so many people were willing to give up their freedom, and so many more indifferent, and both of these traits are widespread within the character structure of men within our own societies as well as Germany and Italy in the 1930s. So what is it about this character structure that predisposes so many to give up freedoms so easily?

Fascism took everyone by surprise because we thought man’s rational side (calculated self-interest) had won out – but Fascism relied on an appeal to the irrational (fear of the other/ the desire to oppress the weak) – forces we thought had died out.

Only a few pre-empted the passionate side of man’s nature bubbling below the surface – Nietzsche and Marx, but also Freud. Freud understood this at a more psychological level – and it is Freud who Fromm is going to draw on – Freud also showed us that the irrational elements of the unconscious could be understood rationally.

Fromm now gives us a background of Freud’s basic concept of man – that the individual has ‘dark passions’ and these need to be suppressed by society. This need for suppression creates culture – the more we suppress passions (wants), the more culture, but the higher the risk of neurosis, because the individual only has a certain propensity to cope with the suppression of his desires. The more freedom we allow man to do as he pleases, the less culture.

Fromm now points out that society (culture) also affects the passions – desires change with each generation – The desire for fame never existed in the Medieval period for example.

However, man also creates culture…. the urge for fame leads to Capitalism.

Fromm’s theory is against the view that unchecked passions make history, it is also against those which reject the role of the individual human.

He recognises that there is a human nature that is discoverable by psychology – it is not ultimately malleable, although it can adapt significantly to social change.

He now talks about static and dynamic adaptations – the former don’t shape our character, such as moving to a foreign country and eating with a knife and fork, the later do – such as a child’s emotional responses to abuse.

Next he deals with the question of human needs – numerous things are listed – basic human needs such as food etc., but also for sensuality, emotional security, and he includes a large section on the need for co-operation and to not be alone.

We need to work – however, we cannot choose the conditions under which we work – and these can shape our character – Whether as slaves or freemen, and also our position in the class structure influences greatly our experience of work.

We have a need to not be alone – even a hermit is connected by ideas. There are two reasons – firstly, in childhood we are dependent, and secondly if we didn’t belong we would be overwhelmed by our own insignificance.

The thesis of the book will be thus – Man has no choice but to unite himself with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work or else to seek a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroys his freedom and the integrity of his individual self.

Chapter Two – The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom

The meaning of freedom changes as man’s awareness of himself as an independent being changes.

For most of human history, man saw himself as part of nature, one with it, but since the reformation a process of individuation has taken place.

Similarly when an individual is born they have no concept of themselves as a separate entity, but this gradually emerges as the child ages.

There are ties which happen before individuation, which (Fromm calls) primary ties, they restrict freedom but give security. These ties root an individual with clan and nature and with mother and give security, but once individuation has taken place man has a new task – to find security in new ways.

The emerging individualism (from child to adult) is a dialectical process:

On the one hand it involves increasing ”self strength’ – a sense of uniqueness, but societies have limits to how far this can be expressed.

Secondly, it involves increasing aloneness – the sense of individual self separate from society is experienced as anxiety. In this sense, the world is experienced as threatening and overwhelming. (In the pre-individualistic era when people did not reflect on their connections, this was not an issue.)

One response to this is submission, but this threatens one’s sense of integrity and leads to rebellion.

The other is to engage in spontaneous relations with fellow men and nature on the basis of love and productive work without eliminating the integration and strength of the total personality. This would allow for the further development of the self.

The basic problem is that society doe not allow for the individuated self to establish these free relations which are conducive to the harmonious development of the self and this leads to escape mechanisms.

Fromm now describes the dialectical process of man’s evolution to greater freedom through history – again stressing that now man has a greater sense of freedom, he cannot go back (now he is beyond religion) – It must be the case that man forges new productive relations in love otherwise submission and escapism and misery are the future.

Freedom from has not been balanced by freedom to realise positive stuff!

Chapter Three – Freedom in the age of the Reformation


In the Medieval period and the Renaissance the individual did not exist as such – man was bonded via the feudal structure and the church to his place in society, at least where the masses were concerned.

He describes the Renaissance in Italy as consisting of a small clique of wealthy individuals involved in a competitive struggle for power and wealth – these had individual freedom, but they used it to squeeze wealth from whoever they could. He describes renaissance men not as secure but as anxious and uncertain. Pursuing Fame he says is one way of ridding yourself of the insecurities of too much freedom.

P46 – He now turns to an analysis of the emergence of Protestantism and Calvinism in the Reformation – which he basically sees as a response to the burdens of too much freedom which came with the new middle classes in Northern Europe.

Fromm draws heavily on Tawney to describe the Medieval world view of the individual in relation to the economy. Up until the 14th century when most production was carried out through guilds, in essence production and retail were combined and carried out by small business men working in mutual co-operation with a high degree of localism. He argues that religious morality cam first – and there was a general consensus that the well-being of all, even the poor, as a unifying value. Wealth creation and trade were seen as ends to doing greater things, not ends in themselves – and private property was seen as a concession to human frailty, communism as ideal. In short there was suspicion of selfish motives to accumulate.

He now describes how some guilds became larger and some master craftsmen came to employ more and more journeymen and monopoly capitalism started to develop in the 15 and 16th centuries, with smaller guilds and craftsmen being squeezed, as were the peasantry as the dues on their land were gradually increased over the period. According to Fromm, time is seen as increasingly precious as a result, and efficiency starts to be seen as a central moral virtue. At the same time, the desire for wealth and material success became the all-absorbing passion.

This emergence of capitalism destroyed the old securities of the medieval social system – the individual was left alone, everything depended on his own effort, not on the security of his traditional system.

Each class, however, was affected in a different way… For the poor it meant increasing exploitation, the nobility, downward social mobility, most of the urban middle class the same, but a few rose up.

However, everyone experienced increasing insecurity and anxiety. Capital had now become a supra-personal force determining people’s economic activity and thereby their personal fate. It was now a partner which dictated economic organisation in accordance with its own needs.

He now describes the two other elements of capitalism (besides capital) which emerge at this time – mass markets, rather than local markets, where the producer has less of an idea of what is needed, and competition, rather than co-operation.

Captitalism also freed the individual to try his luck, to take risks, so it wasn’t all bad.

In summary – Capitalism created a world which was at the same time limitless and threatening. – It gave rise to a new feeling of freedom and independence but also to powerlessness and anxiety.

Lutheranism and Calvinism now stepped in to offer solutions to this unbearable insecurity.

He now argues that such ideas only became powerful because they fulfilled a deep psychological need of the time. (NB – Whether the ideas are true or not doesn’t matter here!).

Fromm now spends dozens of pages (which I haven’t read) discussing how Lutheranism moved away from established religious ideas.

One general point of analysis he makes is that we need to look at how anything someone says fits into their whole world-view to make sense of it – and that logical inconsistencies may be the result of the psychological traits within the individual. You need to understand their unconscious desires to understand their ideas – as was the case with Luther.

To cut a long story thought – Protestantism fitted in with the newly freed individuals – it was a doctrine which said you should feel anxious etc. because it was the result of original sin, and it also offers a solution – it’s down to you to prove that you’re one of God’s elect – and you do this through hard work – The values of Calvinism thus provide the character structure which led to the further development of capitalism. (He must’ve read Weber!)

Just for emphasis… this a dialectical analysis….!

Erich Fromm

Further chapters to follow

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