Fear of Freedom

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Fear of Freedom, as it is known in Britain and elsewhere in the English-speaking world – published in North America as Escape from Freedom – is perhaps the best-known work of the Frankfurt-born psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm.[1] The short book explores humanity's shifting relationship with freedom, with particular regard to the personal consequences of its absence.

Central concepts

Fromm's concept of freedom

Fromm distinguishes between ‘freedom from’ (negative freedom) and ‘freedom to’ (positive freedom). The former refers to the process of becoming emancipated from the restrictions placed on humanity by other people or institutions. This has often been fought for historically but is not of much inherent value unless accompanied by a creative element, ‘freedom to’; the use of freedom to behave in ways which are constructive and respond to the genuine needs and wants of the free individual/society by creating a new system of social order. In the process of becoming emancipated from an overbearing authority/set of values, Fromm argues, we are often left with feelings of emptiness and anxiety (he likens this process to the individuation of infants in the normal course of child development) that will not abate until we use our ‘freedom to’ and develop some form of replacement of the old order. He characterises this as a dialectic historical process whereby the original situation is the thesis and the emancipation from it the antithesis. The synthesis is only reached when something has replaced the original order and provided humans with a new security. Fromm does not indicate that the new system will necessarily be an improvement.

Freedom in history

Freedom, argues Fromm, became an important issue in the 20th century, being seen as something to be fought for and defended. However, it has not always occupied such a prominent place in people's thinking and, as an experience, is not necessarily something that is unambiguously enjoyable. In contrast, Huntington suggests that the sense of "individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties unique among civilized society" began in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was well developed in England in the seventeenth, and is a distinguishing characteistic of Western societies. [2]

A major chapter in the book deals with the development of Protestant theology, with a discussion of the work of Calvin and Luther. The collapse of an old social order and the rise of capital led to a more developed awareness that people could be separate autonomous beings and direct their own future rather than simply fulfilling a socioeconomic role. This in turn fed into a new conception of God that had to account for the new freedom while still providing some moral authority. Luther painted a picture of man's relationship with God that was personal and individuated and free from the influence of the church, while Calvin's doctrine of predestination suggested that people could not work for salvation but has been chosen arbitrarily before they could make any difference. Both of these, argues Fromm, are responses to a freer economic situation. The first gives individuals more freedom to find holiness in the world around them without a complex church structure. The second, although superficially giving the appearance of a kind of determinism actually provided a way for people to work towards salvation. While people couldn’t change their destinies, they could discover the extent of their holiness by committing themselves to hard work and frugality, both traits that were considered virtuous. In reality this made people work harder to ‘prove’ to themselves that they were destined for God's kingdom.

Escaping freedom

As ‘freedom from’ is not an experience we enjoy in itself, Fromm suggests that many people, rather than utilising it successfully, attempt to minimise its negative effects by developing thoughts and behaviours that provide some form of security. These are as follows:

  1. Authoritarianism: Fromm characterises the authoritarian personality as containing a sadist element and a masochist element. The authoritarian wishes to gain control over other people in a bid to impose some kind of order on the world, they also wish to submit to the control of some superior force which may come in the guise of a person or an abstract idea.
  2. Destructiveness: Although this bears a similarity to sadism, Fromm argues that the sadist wishes to gain control over something. A destructive personality wishes to destroy something it cannot bring under its control.
  3. Conformity: This process is seen when people unconsciously incorporate the normative beliefs and thought processes of their society and experience them as their own. This allows them to avoid genuine free thinking, which is likely to be anxiety provoking.

In an independent Marxist journal, Harry Brown describes Fromm's argument as Marxist psychology, posing the question "So, if democracy is the supreme problem solver and for people all over the planet it is the greatest aspiration, why was there mass support to give up freedom and democracy?" [3]

Freedom in the 20th century

Fromm analyses the character of Nazi ideology and suggests that the psychological conditions of Germany after the first world war fed into a desire for some form of new order to restore the nation's pride. This came in the form of National Socialism and Fromm's interpretation of Mein Kampf suggests that Hitler had an authoritarian personality structure that not only made him want to rule over Germany in the name of a higher authority (the idea of a natural master race) but also made him an appealing prospect for an insecure working class that needed some sense of pride and certainty. Fromm suggests there is a propensity to submit to authoritarian regimes when nations experience negative freedom but he sounds a positive note when he claims that the work of cultural evolution hitherto cannot be undone and Nazism doesn’t provide a genuine union with the world.

Finally, Fromm examines democracy and freedom. Modern democracy and the industrialised nation are models he praises but it is stressed that the kind of external freedom provided by this kind of society can never be utilised to the full without an equivalent "inner freedom". Fromm suggests that though we are free from obvious authoritarian influence, we are still dominated in our thinking and behaviour by ideas of ‘common sense’, the advice of experts and the influence of advertising. The way to become truly free in an individual sense is to become spontaneous in our self-expression and behaviour and respond truthfully to our genuine feelings. This is crystallised in his existential statement "there is only one meaning of life: the act of living it". Fromm counters suggestions that this might lead to social chaos by claiming that being truly in touch with our humanity is to be truly in touch with the needs of those with whom we share the world. This is the meaning of a truly social democracy and the realisation of the positive ‘freedom to’ that arises when people escape the malign influence of totalising political orders.


  1. Erich Fromm (1941), The Fear of Freedom, London
  2. Samuel P. Huntington (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster. ,p. 71
  3. Harry Brown, "Erich Fromm and "The Fear of Freedom"", Frontline Online