A review by morgan_blackledge
Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm



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.