Friday, February 05, 2016

Eric Hoffer and Erich Fromm

 The president then opined that free societies do not necessarily perpetuate freedom; many citizens would be far more comfortable under a structure that provides rigid order and certainty about all aspects of life. "The mental stress and burden which this form of gov-ernment imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions?' Eisenhower wrote. "It is 'The True Believer,' by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contri-bution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems—freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions?' Eisenhower's tone was one of humility and responsibility. He blamed himself for "purely an error of an expression" if his purposes were misunderstood. And he pointed out that fears of national secu-rity during the Cold War were distorted and exploited for political ad-vantage. "It is difficult indeed to maintain a reasoned and accurately informed understanding of our defense situation on the part of our citizenry when many prominent officials, possessing no standing or expertness except as they themselves claim it, attempt to further their own ideas or interests by resorting to statements more distin-guished by stridency than by accuracy." Eisenhower closed his letter praising the dying man for his "fortitude in pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity?' He made no reference to God. Hoffer seemed the most unlikely of figures to influence the presi-dent. A self-educated itinerant worker, Hoffer toiled on San Francisco's Embarcadero, earning the nickname "the stevedore-philosopher" for the voracious reading and writing he did away from the job. On the docks, Hoffer encountered droves of tramps drifting in search of work.

When the Great Depression set in, some of the most bedraggled misfits he knew morphed suddenly into loyal foot soldiers for strikes led by militant longshoreman union leader Harry Bridges and his allies in the Communist Party. At the same time, when Hoffer looked across the ocean to Germany, he saw a revolution led by failed artists and frus-trated intellectuals stirring the rabble with dreams of a transcendent dictatorial order. Hoffer's experiences at this historical fulcrum provided the basis for his seminal work The True Believer, published in 1951. "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises?' he wrote, "but by the refuge it offers from the anxi-eties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." The true believer was at his core an ineffectual man with no capacity for self-fulfillment. Only the drama provided by a mass movement gave him purpose. "Faith in a holy cause," Hoffer wrote, "is to a con-siderable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves:' Hoffer's analysis of the political fanatic earned him national cult status, gaining the approval not only of Eisenhower but also of seri-ous intellectuals such as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Hoffer's analysis, however, was limited for the same reason it res-onated so widely. By positioning himself as a nonideological voice of the American everyman, the ultimate individual standing alone against a rising tide of extremism, Hoffer conflated the underlying motives of all mass movements together. According to Hoffer, fas-cists, Communists, black nationalists, fanatical "Mohammadens," and southern racists equally shared an extreme sensibility, and there-fore he insisted, "All mass movements are interchangeable?' But were they really? Ten years before Hoffer published his book, a social psychologist and psychoanalyst named Erich Fromm identified and analyzed the character structure of people "eager to surrender their freedom?' who sought personal transcendence through authoritarian causes and fig-ureheads. Unlike Hoffer, whose theories were inspired exclusively by his rollicking American adventures and didactic but distant perspec-tive on world affairs, Fromm was able to draw on the psychological atmosphere of Nazi Germany, where millions of ordinary Germans "instead of wanting freedom . . . sought for ways of escape from it." Although Fromm reached many of the same conclusions as Hoffer about the nature of fanaticism, he limited his analysis to the behavior of those who adhered to right-wing authoritarian movements, which he pinpointed as hothouses of individual dysfunction. Born in 1900 in Germany, Fromm descended from a long line of rabbis. After studying to be a rabbi himself, he switched to the law, sociology, and the new field of psychoanalysis. He joined the famed Frankfurt School for Social Research but fled the country after Hit-ler's assumption of power, eventually making his way to New York In 1941, Fromm published Escape from Freedom, a book illuminating the danger of rising authoritarian movements with penetrating psy-choanalytical insight. Writing after the Nazis had overrun Europe but before the en-trance of the United States into World War II, Fromm warned, "there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and power-lessness of the individual." Those who could not endure the vertigi-nous new social, political, and personal freedoms of the modern age, those who craved "security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere" might be susceptible to the siren song of fascism. For the fascist, the struggle for a utopian future was more than poli-tics and even war—it was an effort to attain salvation through self-medication. When radical extremists sought to cleanse society of sin and evil, what they really desired was the cleansing of their souls. Fromm's understanding of the psychological character of authori-tarianism was not only penetrating but also prophetic. He described how submission to the authority of a higher power to escape the complexities of personal freedom would lead not to order and har-mony but ultimately to destructiveness. Movements that evangelized among the crisis-stricken and desperate, promising redemption through a holy crusade, ultimately assumed the dysfunctional char-acteristics of their followers. After sowing destruction all around it, Fromm predicted that such a movement would turn on itself. Dra-matic self-immolation was the inevitable fate of movements com-posed of conflicted individuals who sought above all the destruction of their blemished selves. "The function of an authoritarian ideology and practice can be compared to the function of neurotic symptoms," Fromm wrote. "Such symptoms result from unbearable psychological conditions and at the same time offer a solution that makes life possible. Yet they are not a solution that leads to happiness or growth of personality. They leave unchanged the conditions that necessitate the neurotic solution."
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Fromm's analysis in Escape from Freedom provides an eerie but pre-scient description of the authoritarian mindset driving the move-ment that has substantially taken over the modern Republican Party: the Christian Right.

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