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The early 1960s were a time of existential unease across the world. The constant threat of a nuclear bomb—and of mutually assured destruction—led to a palpable sense that nuclear holocaust could occur any day. It was in this Cold War environment that social ...
The early 1960s were a time of existential unease across the world. The constant threat of a nuclear bomb—and of mutually assured destruction—led to a palpable sense that nuclear holocaust could occur any day. It was in this Cold War environment that social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote May Man Prevail?
By analyzing the enemy stereotypes and mutual projections that were prevalent in the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the United States, Fromm pointed to the anxieties on both sides and illustrates how paranoid thinking in the political realm can be extremely dangerous. With his excellent psychological analysis of the mindsets of the major players of the time, Fromm helped us overcome the Cold War’s ideologies and fictions.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erich Fromm including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.
Some general premises
1 Anticipatory versus catastrophic change
Societies have lives of their own; they are based on the existence of certain productive forces, geographical and climatic conditions, techniques of production, ideas and values, and a certain type of human character that develops under these conditions. They are organized in such a way that they tend to continue existing in the particular form to which they have adapted themselves. Usually, men in each society believe that the mode in which they exist is natural and inevitable. They hardly see any other possibilities and, in fact, they tend to believe that a basic change in their own mode of existence would lead to chaos and destruction. They are seriously convinced that their way is right, sanctioned by the gods or by the laws of human nature, and that the only alternative to the continuation of the particular form in which they exist is destruction. This belief is not simply the result of indoctrination; it is rooted in the affective part of man, in his character structure, which is molded by all social and cultural arrangements so that man wants to do what he has to do, so that his energy is channeled in such a way as to serve the particular function he has to fulfill as a useful member of a given society. It is for this very reason, namely that the patterns of thought are rooted in patterns of feeling, that patterns of thought are so very persistent and resistant to change.
Yet societies do change. Many factors, like new productive forces, scientific discoveries, political conquests, expansion of population, and so on, make for change. In addition to these objective factors, man's growing awareness of his needs and of himself and, most of all, of his increasing need for freedom and independence, make for constant change in his historical situation, ranging from the cave dweller's existence to the space-traveling man of the near future.
How do these changes occur?
Most of them have occurred in violent and catastrophic ways. Most societies, leaders and led, have been incapable of adapting themselves voluntarily and peacefully to fundamentally new conditions by anticipating the necessary changes. They have tended to go on and on with what they sometimes poetically called "accomplishing their mission," trying to continue the basic pattern of their social lives with only small changes and modifications. Even when circumstances that were in complete and flagrant contradiction to their whole structure arose such societies went on blindly trying to continue their modes of living until they could not manage any further. They were then conquered and destroyed by other nations, or they slowly died because of their incapacity to master life any longer in their customary way.
Those most opposed to fundamental change have been the élites, which profited most from the existing order and hence were unwilling to give up their privileges voluntarily. But the material interests of the ruling and privileged groups are not the only reason for the incapacity of many cultures to anticipate necessary changes. Another equally important reason lies in a psychological factor. Leaders and led, having hypostatized and deified their way of life, their thought concepts, and their formulation of values, become rigidly committed to them. Even only slightly different concepts become intensely disturbing and are looked upon as hostile, devilish, crazy attacks on one's own 'normal,' 'sound' thinking.
For the Cromwellians, the Papists were of the Devil; for the Jacobeans, the Girondists; for the Americans, the Communists. Man, in each society, seems to absolutize the way of life and the way of thought produced by his culture and to be willing to die rather than to change, since change, to him, is equated with death. Thus the history of man is a graveyard of great cultures that came to catastrophic ends because of their incapacity for planned, rational, voluntary reaction to challenge.
Yet nonviolent anticipatory change has also occurred in history. The liberation of the working class from the status of objects of ruthless exploitation to that of influential economic partners in Western industrialized society is an example of nonviolent change in the class relations within societies. The willingness of the British Labour Government to grant independence to India before it was forced to do so is an example in the area of international relations. But these anticipatory solutions have been the exceptions rather than the rule in history, so far. Religious peace came to Europe only after the Thirty Years' War, to England only after violent and cruel mutual persecution by Papists and anti-Papists alike; in the First and Second World Wars, peace came only after the futile slaughter of millions of men and women on both sides and long after the eventual outcome of the war was already clear. Would not mankind have gained if the enforced decisions had been voluntarily accepted by both sides before they were enforced? Would not an anticipatory compromise have averted hideous losses and wholesale brutalization?
Today we are facing again one of the crucial choices in which the difference between violent versus anticipatory solution may spell the difference between destruction and fertile growth of our civilization. Today's world is divided into two blocs confronting each other with suspicion and hate. Both blocs have the capacity to harm each other to a degree the magnitude of which is equalled only by the inexactitude of its measurement. (The estimates of losses the United States can expect vary from one-third to practically the whole of its population being wiped out in a nuclear war—and similar estimates are applicable to the Soviet Union.) The two blocs are fully armed and prepared for war. They distrust each other, and each suspects the other of wanting to conquer and destroy it. The present equilibrium of suspicion and threat based on a destructive potential may yet last for a little while. But in the long run the only alternatives are nuclear war and all its consequences on the one hand, or the ending of the cold war, which implies disarmament and political peace between the two blocs, on the other.
The question is, must the United States (and her Western allies) and the Soviet Union, and Communist China each pursue its present course to the bitter end, or can both sides anticipate certain changes and arrive at a solution that is historically possible and that, at the same time, offers optimal advantages to each bloc.
The question is essentially the same as that which other societies and cultures have been confronted with; namely, whether we are capable of applying historical understanding to political action.
And here the subsidiary question arises: what is it that makes a society viable, allowing it to respond to change? There is no simple answer, but clearly the society must above all be able to discriminate its primary values from its secondary values and institutions. This is difficult because secondary systems generate values of their own, which come to appear as essential as the human and social needs which brought them into being. As people's lives become intertwined with institutions, organizations, life styles, forms of production and consumption, etc., men become willing to sacrifice themselves and others for the works of their own hands, to transform their own creations into idols and to worship these idols. Furthermore, institutions generally resist change, and thus men who are fully committed to institutions are not free to anticipate change. The problem, then, for a society such as ours today, is whether men can rediscover the basic human and social values of our civilization, and withdraw their allegiance, not to say their worship, from those of their institutional (or ideological) values which have become obstructive.
There is one great difference between the past and the present that makes this an urgent question. The violent, unanticipated solution in our case will not lead to a bad peace as it did for Germany in 1918 or in 1945; it will not lead to some of our people—or some of the Russian people—being led away to captivity, as happened to the nations defeated by the Roman Empire; it will lead, most likely, to the physical destruction of most Americans and most Russians now living and to a barbaric, dehumanized, dictatorial regime for the survivors. This time the choice between violent-irrational, or anticipatory-rational behavior is a choice which will affect the human race and its cultural, if not its physical, survival.
Yet so far the chances that such rational-anticipatory action will occur are bleak. Not because there is no possibility for such an outcome in the realistic circumstances, but because on both sides there is a thought barrier built of clichés, ritualistic ideologies, and even a good deal of common craziness that prevents people—leaders and led—from seeing sanely and realistically what the facts are, from separating the facts from the fictions and, as a consequence, from recognizing alternative solutions to violence. Such rational anticipatory policy requires in the first place a critical examination of our assumptions about, among other things, the nature of communism, the future of the underdeveloped countries, the value of the deterrent for avoiding war. It requires also a serious examination of our own biases, and of certain semi-pathological forms of thinking which govern our behavior.
2 Historical origins of the present crisis and perspectives for the future
After a process of about a thousand years, lasting from the beginning of the feudalization of the Roman Empire to the late Middle Ages, a period in which the European Continent was impregnated, through Christianity, with the ideas of Greek, Hebrew, and Arab thinking, Europe gave birth to a new culture. Western man discovered nature as an object of intellectual speculation and aesthetic enjoyment; he created a new science, which became—within a few centuries—the basis for a technique destined to transform nature and the practical life of man in a hitherto undreamed-of way; he discovered himself as an individual, endowed with almost unlimited energies and powers.
This new period engendered also a new hope for the improvement, or even, the perfection of man. The hope for man's perfection on this earth and for his capacity to build a "good society" is one of the most characteristic and unique features of occidental thought. It is a hope that had been held by the Old Testament prophets as well as by Greek philosophers. It had then been overshadowed—although never lost—by the transhistorical ideals of salvation and by the emphasis on man's substantial corruption in Christian thinking; it found new expression in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century utopias and in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophical and political ideas.
Parallel to the blossoming of hope after the Renaissance and the Reformation went the explosive economic development of the West, the first industrial revolution. The organizational form it took was that of the system of capitalism, characterized by private property in the means of production, the existence of politically free wage earners, and the regulation of all economic activities by the principles of calculation and profit maximation. By 1913, industrial production increased seven times above its 1860 level, with almost all of it in Europe and North America. (Less than 10 per cent of world production took place outside of those two areas.)
Since the end of the First World War, mankind has entered into a new phase. The nature of the capitalistic mode of production has undergone profound changes. New productive forces (such as the use of oil, electricity, and atomic energy) and technical discoveries have increased material productivity many times over what it bad been in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The new technical discoveries brought with them a new form of production. This was characterized by centralization of production in big plants, along with the dominant position of the big corporations; managerial bureaucracies, which head these corporations but do not own them; and a mode of production in which hundreds of thousands of manual and clerical workers co-operate smoothly, supported by strong trade unions, which often share the bureaucratic character of the big corporations. Centralization, bureaucratization, and manipulation are the characteristic features of the new mode of production.
The earlier period of industrial development, with its need to build up a heavy industry at the expense of the satisfaction of the material needs of the workers resulted in extreme poverty for the millions of men, women, and children who worked in factories during the nineteenth century. As a reaction to their misery, but also as an expression of human dignity and faith, the socialist movement spread over all of Europe and threatened to overthrow the old order and to replace it with one that would work for the benefit of the broad masses of the population.
The organization of labor combined with technical progress and the resulting increased productivity permitted the working class an ever-increasing share of the national product. The extreme dissatisfaction with the system that characterized the nineteenth century gave way to a spirit of co-operation within the capitalist system. A new partnership between industry and the workers, represented by trade unions and (with the exception of the United States) strong socialist parties took place. The trend toward violent revolutions ended in Europe after the First World War, except in the economically most backward country among the large powers—Russia.
While the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" has been narrowing considerably within the Western industrial countries (and slowly also in Soviet Russia), the gap between the "have countries" of Europe and North America and the "have-not countries" in Asia (with the exception of Japan), Africa, and Latin America is as wide as it ever was within one country, and is actually still widening. But while at the beginning of the twentieth century the colonial peoples accepted their exploitation and poverty, the middle of the same century is witnessing the full-scale revolution of the poor countries. Precisely as the workers within capitalism in the nineteenth century refused to continue believing that their fate bad been ordained by divine or social law, so now the poor nations refuse to accept their poverty. They demand not only political freedom, but a standard of living approaching that of the Western world and rapid industrialization as a means to that goal. Two thirds of the human race are unwilling to accept a situation in which their standard of living is only from 10 to less than 5 per cent of that of the people of the richest country—the United States—which with 6 per cent of the world's population produces today about 40 per cent of the world's goods.
The colonial revolution was sparked by many factors, among them the weakening of Europe, militarily and economically, after the two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century; the nationalistic and revolutionary ideology transmitted from nineteenth century Europe and America, and the new modes of production and social organization, which raise the possibility of "catching up with the West" beyond a slogan into a realm of reality.
China, borrowing Communist ideology and economic and social methods from Soviet Russia, has become the first colonial country to make spectacular economic gains, beginning to transform herself into one of the great world powers and trying by example, persuasion, and economic help to become the leader of the colonial revolution in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
While after 1923 the Soviet Union had definitely given up the hope for a workers' revolution in the West and, in fact, sought to contain all Western revolutionary movements since then, she had hoped for support from the nationalist revolutions in the East. Now, however, having herself become one of the "have" states, she feels threatened by the growing onslaught of the underdeveloped countries under China's leadership, and seeks an understanding with the United States, without, however, turning this understanding into an alliance against China.
Any description of the basic trends of Western history in the last four hundred years would be lacking in an essential element unless it took account of a profound spiritual change. While the influence of Christian theological thinking was waning from the seventeenth century onward, the same spiritual reality which was expressed earlier in the concepts of this theology found now a new expression in philosophical, historical, and political formulations. The philosophers of the eighteenth century were, as Carl Becker has pointed out, no less men of faith than were the theologians of the thirteenth century. They just expressed their experience in a different conceptual framework. With the explosive growth of wealth and technical capacities in the nineteenth century, there occurred a fundamental change in man's attitude. Not only, as Nietzsche put it, "God was dead," but the humanism that was common to the theologians of the thirteenth, and to the philosophers of the eighteenth centuries, slowly died too; the formulae and ideologies, both of religion and of humanism, continued to be used, but the authentic experience became increasingly thinner, to the point of unreality. It was as if man had become drunk with his own power, and had transformed material production, once a means to the end of a more dignified human life, into an end in itself.
Excerpted from May Man Prevail? by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 1961 Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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