Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm

doruga's review against another edition

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(3.5) I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. I usually don't vibe with psychology theory. I find it to be a lot of academic nonsensical babble thats super western, individualistic, and with weird projections about human behavior that seem far more based on preconceived theories and hypothetical insane situations than on any real observation. Also psychology theory and books like this always strike me as kind of tending towards social darwinism no matter how much the author tries to disuade me that psychology isn't social darwinism. And, dont get me wrong, this book has plenty of all of these things I just mentioned. Like, it used as an example this insane hypothetical story about this guy that went to a party and then later had a dream about being an undercover agent in the nazi army thats then supposed to mean that he was angry at one of the german guests of the party which of course means that his frustrations with his work boss resulted in him faking happiness at the party therefore our opinions are not our own but are mostly external from us. Like THAT level of academic rhetorical bullshit hahahaha. But it had enough nuggets of great observation and interesting ideas that were enough to make me want to keep reading. I think its strange that this book claims to want to discuss "modern man" (whatever the fuck that means) and his various behaviors regarding freedom but starts that discussion with the protestant faith?? So modern man is the european christian man lol I dont know shit like that bothered me but again I did come out of this book with an overall sense of feeling grateful that I read it. Definitely learned things while reading that, for me, justified the pain of reading through the academic flowery nonsense that is such a deal breaker for me most of the time.

mattshervheim's review against another edition

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challenging informative medium-paced


julissadantes's review against another edition

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informative slow-paced


What was supposed to be an interesting topic breakdown, turned down to be a very boring, unnecessary dense, and incredibly repetitive book for such a short book. This was like reading someone's journal with all the details that are not really relevant to understand the point. He could have just explained himself and left the bigger story as an appendix, but it just made the book lose its track for a while and then come back and keep talking about the main idea, but the way it is written is very dull.

ameliaholcomb's review against another edition

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Focusing on human psychology, Erich Fromm discusses the nature of freedom and how individual freedom has come about. He then chronicles the evolution of human psychology from the medieval period, through the protestant reformation and European renaissance, into the modern day (which was the 1930s for him). First of all this thesis that human psychology is influenced socially rather than biologically is on point and totally what needed to be said in 1941. He deconstructs freedom and human social psychology in a very palatable way.

Then he moves on to "Mechanisms of Escape," focusing on authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automaton conformity. He deftly picks apart so many psychological aspects of the individual while keeping his focus on the social influences thereof. Of course, he then applied this to Nazism.

Finally, he returns to philosophies on freedom and the individual. He highlights the "illusion of individuality," pointing out again that we are social creatures and our psychology is developed mostly socially, rather than biologically just being our nature. He then focuses on spontaneity and it being a primary component of feeling free. He ends the book with an awesome call for democracy and cooperation.

Closing paragraph: "Only if man masters society and subordinates the economic machine to the purposes of human happiness and only if he actively participates in the social process, can he overcome what now drives him into despair--his aloneness and his feeling of powerlessness. Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become completely empty and lost its meaning. The victory over all kinds of authoritarian systems will be possible only if democracy does not retreat but takes the offensive and proceeds to realize what has been its aim the minds of those who fought for freedom throughout the last centuries. It will triumph over the forces of nihilism only if it can imbue people with a faith that is the strongest the human mind is capable of, the faith in life and in truth, and in freedom as the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self."

morgan_blackledge's review against another edition

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Brilliant start to finish.

Fromm was a genius.

Sadly though...

If you swap concerns regarding the cold war for catastrophic global climate change, then.....

This book could have been written yesterday.

Winston Churchill famously said “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

I would add (if I may) “and sometimes, so are those who do”.

My point being:

Just because you know history and have learned from it, doesn’t mean your neighbor has.

Just because you know history and you have learned from it, doesn’t mean your neighbor has learned the same lessons from the same teachers, or wants the same outcomes.

Finally, just because you know history, doesn’t automatically free you from the conditions that caused previous tragedy.

Marx assumed that by knowing and deconstructing history, we could end the cycle of history.

This ultimately remains to be seen.

But so far, not so much.

In fact:

Sometimes knowing and deconstructing history equates to the experience of watching it’s tragic recapitulations unfold right before your eyes, like a reoccurring anxiety dream, where you’re essentially helpless to do anything except feel the horror.

Regarding the original quote.

Churchill didn’t say it first.

The quote was actually authored by writer and philosopher George Santayana, and originally read, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."


The implication is, that by knowing the past, we are somehow freed from the psychotic merry-go-round of endless repetition.

This was one of the spurious ideas that primitive psychoanalysis promoted.

If we deconstruct our present through the lens of our personal history, we will be free to ‘love and work’ without ‘neurosis’.

This is summarized in the phrase ‘name it to tame it’.


Naming it doesn’t always tame it.

Sometimes we can name it, and the neurosis carries on business as usual.

In such cases, we actually need to do more than just ‘know’ and ‘name’.

We need to get off our asses and create second order change.

First Order Change:

Refers to superficial changes that do not disrupt the deeper causes e.g. ‘I’m going to try harder not to fall in that hole the next time I walk down that street.’

Second Order Change:

Refers to structural changes that do disrupt the deeper causes. i.e. ‘I’m going to take an altogether different route.’

Fromm asserts that Freud was right about the psychosexual causes of the human character, but was blind to the ways that the deeper structures of society effect our psychology.

Fromm asserts that Marx was right about the socioeconomic causes of human suffering and alienation in industrialized capitalism, but was blind to the psychological experiences of the individual.

Escape From Freedom is Erich Fromm’s attempt at a synthesis of the two.

The book explores themes of freedom and alienation, with a particular focus on deconstruction of the psychosocial conditions that facilitated the rise of Nazism.

Suppression and Sublimation:

In Freudian terms, suppression refers to the unhealthy denial of natural emotions and instinctive drives like anger and sexuality.

Suppression is summarized in the ol’ AA witticism: ‘if you push your feelings down into the basement, they will get together, lift weights, and come back upstairs and kick your ass.’

Suppression functions internally, in the same way repression works at the level of society.

You do it enough, and you get neurosis, violent upheaval and mass revolt.

Sublimation refers to the effective channeling of emotions and instincts into some other, less harmful pursuit.

Freud asserted that culture and society affords individuals the opportunity to channel unproductive, harmful or anti-social drives into productive, healthy, life affirming, pro-social goals e.g. channeling one’s anger and frustration into a good workout, or writing a novel, or volunteering for a greater cause.

Fromm posits that if suppression within an individual or in a society is greater than the capacity for sublimation, than individuals and groups become neurotic.

Dynamic adaptation refers to the way an individual psychology adapts to a system.

Fromm asserts that individuals dynamically adapt to a capitalist system by consuming and working, not as a means to achieve happiness, but as an end in its self.

Fromm posits that over satisfaction of the drives to consume and work results in the loss of culture, and the increase of neurosis i.e. feelings of emptiness, alienation, loneliness, lack of meaning, nihilism, lack of personal responsibility, contingent self-esteem, powerlessness, etc.

If you need evidence of this assertion, spend 10 minutes watching Fox News, or surfing FaceBook, or reading YouTube comments, and then check in with how you feel afterwards.

Fromm’s basic critique of Freud is that human psychology may be very different in a collectivist vs. capitalist system, and proposes psychologically informed societal level systemic change as an important area of intervention.

Fromm integrates Freud and Marx in what he calls Social Psychology, but what may more accurately be thought of as Socialist Psychoanalysis.

Freedoms Aren’t Free:

Fromm identifies two kinds of freedom.

1. Freedom From (negative freedom) refers to the emancipation from stultifying social conventions.

2. Freedom To (positive freedom) refers to the enlightened pursuit of what matters, and posits that connection, creativity and being of service are the things that matter.

Fromm argues that Freedom From is relatively easily accomplished. But Freedom To takes inner work and communal support.

He goes on to argue that Freedom From stultifying social conventions, without Freedom To connect, create and be of service to something larger than ones self, leaves us feeling hopeless and alone, and vulnerable to authoritarian ideologies and charismatic leaders that function psychologically to pacify our anxious uncertainties.

Protestantism and Fascism:

Fromm asserts that leaders (particularly charismatic leaders) mirror the latent psychology (Freud) and means of production (Marx) of the followers they attract.

Fromm begins his historical psychosocial critique of fascism, with a critique of the protestant reformations of Luther and Calvin.

Fromm asserts that these movements were particularly appealing to the conservative middle and working class of the day, who resented the florid excesses of the Catholic church and aristocratic classes, but also sought protection from the poor.

Fromm paints Luther as both masochistic and authoritarian and consequently highly ambivalent regarding authority.

He proposes that Luther was simultaneously resentful of injustice, and punitive regarding decadence of all sorts, while concurrently being highly submissive to the paternalistic ‘authority’ of god.

Fromm posits that Calvinism shared many of the same features and taught that submission and humiliation were the fast track to purification and salvation.

Fromm posits that the protestant movements attracted individuals with similar psychological proclivities and who were also from a social class that stood to benefit from a reformation.

Fromm claims that protestant ideologies set the stage for the third reich.


After the great depression and the Great War, Hitler was able to capitalize on the hateful resentment and xenophobia of the middle, and working classes who were loosing status due to the economic and social conditions of the day, while concurrently offering wealthy industrialists unprecedented opportunities to bolster their wealth, and protection against populist bolshevik uprisings.

Fromm asserts that Nazism was as much about radical opportunism as it was about racism and shrill ideology.

In other words, poor and middle class people were hypnotized by their own racist, resentful denial, religious people were hypnotized by their conditioning and ideology, and rich people held their nose and went along for the ride for personal gain.

One can’t help but draw a comparison to America 2016-2020.

Advanced Capitalism:

In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Fromm claimed that America was the greatest civilization ever, and that it was doomed if it continued on the path it was on.

Fromm asserted that the American injunction to keep working, consuming and reproducing was a formula for spiritual disaster.

Fromm quipped that Soviet Russia controlled its citizens by force. And America did it by persuasion.

Lastly, Fromm warns that if we don’t change our focus towards a more connected, nurturing and creative way of being, we will work, consume and reproduce our selves into a fiery pit of doom.

Here and Now in America - 2020:

We have swapped Fascist ideologies with Fox News and fourchan paranoia.

We swapped Hitler for Twitler.

And we swapped the Cold War for Global Warming.

But despite ‘knowing’ our history.

We’re still on the psychotic merry-go-round.

The diagnosis was correct.

But the prescription was left unfinished.

Let’s hope we can learn and change, and collectively find our way to a different way.

thenthomwaslike's review against another edition

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This book is full of insights from expanding and redefining the definition of freedom to laying out all the social conditions that portended Hitler's rise to power. If you have an interest in the "why" behind history, you should give this a shot.

ashcomb's review against another edition

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Erich Fromm is a great thinker and writer. When I read his The Sane Society, my view about human life, the world, and society was transformed. I expected the same from Escape from Freedom, and it didn't disappoint. How could it? The book has been in print and read over and again since 1941 when it first came out. Escape from Freedom is an amazing book meant to make us think over what we consider as freedom and ask if we are as free as we think? And if we are, then why are we so unhappy with our lives?

This is not a self-help book, but comparative research into history backed up with sociology, social psychology, and psychology. This said, there were places where the argumentation felt iffy and took huge leaps when stating correlations and truths how the world is. But the historical comparison convinced me. It was the core of the book, showing how concepts like individuality, freedom, duty, and self have changed. And while we think peasants under a feudal rule were less free than us, the truth is more surprising. Erich Fromm argues that the change from the feudal society into capitalism (during Renaissance) has alienated men from each other and from their families, making us, yes, more individualistic, but also more alone and responsible of things we cannot control like chance and bad luck. He argues that the freedoms we think we have gained aren't as free as we like to think. That we are being shaped by commercials, influential people and their opinions, and social pressure (norms). So what we think, what we want, and who we are depend on this faceless others through things like newspapers. He also argues that capitalism has shifted our focus solely on gaining money, making us obsessed, unhappy and alienated. 

I could go on and on about the book and argue against it or for it. It is informative, eye-opening, and thought-provoking. The contrast between feudal and modern society makes me think what else I hold true or basic, but haven't really understood where it comes from, what it means, and that it hasn't always been so. I recommend this book despite the reasoning leaps I mentioned. The message of this book will make you think. And it made me appreciate more about the study of history. We need to understand where we come from and where our ideas come from to see the whole picture.

"In capitalism economic activity, success, material gains become ends in themselves. It becomes man's fate to contribute to the growth of the economic system, to amass capital, not for purposes of his own happiness or salvation, but as an end in itself. Man became a cog in the vast economic machine — an important one if he had much capital, and insignificant one if had none—but always a cog to serve a purpose outside of himself."

stephen_coulon's review against another edition

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informative reflective slow-paced


Fromm’s central purpose here explores a dangerous irony in modern political ideology. The sacred tenet of promoting the rights of individual liberty has a dark side because total personal freedom can also beget a deep existential hopelessness. Having a master to serve, a parent to please, rules to follow, dogma to obey, these have always provided profound meaning in life for individuals throughout human history. Fromm even makes a strong case that until the Enlightenment period people didn’t even understand themselves as individuals, but rather as parts of groups with prescribed roles to play, and while the bondage and limitations inherent in this way of life were certainly oppressive, at least a person could live in the satisfying security of having a true purpose in life. But when political movements evolved toward seeking liberty people suddenly found themselves losing their entire sense of self. Gaining freedom from traditional authority also brought freedom from having a provided purpose in life, an unbearably terrifying prospect for many. And thus people seek an escape from this existential dread by turning toward leaders and movements that offer the comforting security of obedience-bound purpose, a ripe opportunity for fascists and other authoritarians. Fromm’s detailed and careful approach at analyzing global politics through the lens of individual psychology is fascinatingly convincing, and when he recounts the sociological trends in 1930s Europe leading to the rize of the Nazi party it is truly frightening; swap a few proper nouns and the description is a near perfect account of the USA in the 2010s.  

holybnn's review against another edition

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informative inspiring reflective sad


batoolm's review

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challenging dark informative reflective tense medium-paced