Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud

Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud

by Erich Fromm


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First published in 1962 Beyond the Chains of Illusion is Fromm's landmark book about Marx and Freud. Here he delivers original readings of these hugely influential thinkers and, in doing so, offers us new ways of understanding the individual and society. Perhaps even more revealing than these readings is the insight we get into Fromm's own thought and the political and social contexts in which he formed his ideas. Including a foreword by Fromm's Literary Executor, Rainer Funk, this is unique introduction to Marx and Freud and also to Fromm's life and thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501334481
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 12/28/2017
Series: Bloomsbury Revelations
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 523,053
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Erich Fromm (1900–1980) is widely regarded as one of the most important psychoanalytical thinkers of the 20th century. Besides his influence on modern psychology, he was also a key member of the Frankfurt School, and became one of the founders of the socialist humanist movement. He is the author of To Have Or To Be? and Marx's Concept of Man, both published in the Bloomsbury Revelations series.

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Beyond the Chains of Illusion

My Encounter with Marx and Freud

By Erich Fromm


Copyright © 2001 The Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0210-2


Some Personal Antecedents

If a man asks himself how he ever became interested in those fields of thought which were destined to occupy the most important place throughout his life, he will not find it easy to give a simple answer. Perhaps he was born with an inclination for certain questions, or perhaps it was the influence of certain teachers, or of current ideas, or of personal experiences which led him along the path of his later interests—who knows which of these factors have determined the course of his life? Indeed, if one wanted to know precisely the relative weight of all these factors, nothing short of a detailed historical autobiography could even attempt to give the answers.

Since the purpose of this book is by no means that of a historical, but rather that of an intellectual autobiography, I shall try to pick out a few experiences during my adolescence which led to my later interest in the theories of Freud and of Marx, and the relation between the two.

If I want to understand how the problem of why people act the way they do became of such paramount interest to me, it might be sufficient to assume that having been an only child, with an anxious and moody father and a depression-prone mother was enough to arouse my interest in the strange and mysterious reasons for human reactions. Yet, I vividly remember one incident—I must have been around twelve years old—which stimulated my thoughts far beyond those I had had before and which prepared an interest in Freud which was to become manifest only ten years later.

This was the incident: I had known a young woman, a friend of the family. Maybe she was twenty-five years of age; she was beautiful, attractive and in addition a painter, the first painter I ever knew. I remember having heard that she had been engaged but after some time had broken the engagement; I remember that she was almost invariably in the company of her widowed father. As I remember him, he was an old, uninteresting, and rather unattractive-looking man, or so I thought (maybe my judgment was somewhat biased by jealousy). Then one day I heard the shocking news: her father had died, and immediately afterwards she had killed herself and left a will which stipulated that she wanted to be buried together with her father.

I had never heard of an Oedipus complex or of incestuous fixations between daughter and father. But I was deeply touched. I had been quite attracted to the young woman; I had loathed the unattractive father; never before had I known anyone to commit suicide. I was hit by the thought "How is it possible?" How is it possible that a beautiful young woman should be so in love with her father that she prefers to be buried with him to being alive to the pleasures of life and of painting?

Certainly I knew no answer, but the "how is it possible" stuck. And when I became acquainted with Freud's theories, they seemed to be the answer to a puzzling and frightening experience at a time when I was beginning to develop into an adolescent.

My interest in Marx's ideas has quite a different background. I was brought up in a religious Jewish family, and the writings of the Old Testament touched me and exhilarated me more than anything else I was exposed to. Not all of them to the same degree; I was bored by or even disliked the history of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews; I had no use for the stories of Mordecai or Esther; nor did I—at that time—appreciate the Song of Songs. But the story of Adam and Eve's disobedience, of Abraham's pleading with God for the salvation of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Jonah's mission to Nineveh, and many other parts of the Bible impressed me deeply. But more than anything else, I was moved by the prophetic writings, by Isaiah, Amos, Hosea; not so much by their warnings and their announcement of disaster, but lay their promise of the "end of days," when nations "shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;" when all nations will be friends, and when "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." The vision of universal peace and harmony between all nations touched me deeply when I was twelve and thirteen years old. Probably the immediate reason for this absorption by the idea of peace and internationalism is to be found in the situation in which I found myself: a Jewish boy in a Christian environment, experiencing small episodes of anti-Semitism but, more importantly, a feeling of strangeness and of clannishness on both sides. I disliked clannishness, maybe all the more so because I had an overwhelming wish to transcend the emotional isolation of a lonely, pampered boy; what could be more exciting and beautiful to me than the prophetic vision of universal brotherhood and peace?

Perhaps all these personal experiences would not have affected me so deeply and lastingly had it not been for the event that determined more than anything else my development: the First World War. When the war started during the summer of 1914, I was a fourteen-year-old boy for whom the excitement of war, the celebration of victories, the tragedy of the death of individual soldiers I knew, were uppermost in my experience. I was not concerned with the problem of war as such; I was not struck by its senseless inhumanity. But soon all this changed. Some experiences with my teachers helped. My Latin teacher, who in his lessons during the two years before the war had proclaimed as his favorite maxim the sentence, "Si vis pacem para bellum" (if you want peace prepare for war), showed his delight when the war broke out. I recognized that his alleged concern for peace could not have been true. How was it possible that a man who always seemed to have been so concerned with the preservation of peace should now be so jubilant about the war? From then on, I found it difficult to believe in the principle that armament preserves peace, even when advocated by people possessing more goodwill and honesty than my Latin teacher had.

I was equally struck by the hysteria of hate against the British, which swept throughout Germany in those years. Suddenly they had become cheap mercenaries, evil and unscrupulous, trying to destroy our innocent and all-too-trusting German heroes. In the midst of this national hysteria, one decisive event stands out in my mind. In our English class we had been given the assignment of learning by heart the British national anthem. This assignment was given us before the summer vacation, while there was still peace. When classes were resumed we boys, partly out of mischief and partly because we were infected by the "hate England" mood, told the teacher that we refused to learn the national anthem of what was now our worst enemy. I still see him standing in front of the class, answering our protests with an ironical smile, and saying calmly: "Don't kid yourselves; so far England has never lost a war!" Here was the voice of sanity and realism in the midst of insane hatred—and it was the voice of a respected and admired teacher! This one sentence and the calm, rational way in which it was said, was an enlightenment. It broke through the crazy pattern of hate and national self-glorification and made me wonder and think, "How is it possible?"

I grew older and my doubts increased. A number of my uncles and cousins and older schoolmates were killed in the war; the victory forecasts of the generals proved to be wrong-and soon I learned to understand the double talk of "strategic retreats" and "victorious defense." And something else happened. The German press had from the very beginning described the war as one forced upon the German people by envious neighbors who wanted to strangle Germany in order to get rid of a successful rival. The war was described as a fight for freedom; was Germany not fighting against the very embodiment of slavery and oppression—the Russian Czar?

While all this sounded convincing for a while, especially since there was no voice of dissent to be heard, my belief in these assertions began to be assailed by doubts. First of all, there was the fact that an increasing number of socialist deputies voted against the war budget in the Reichstag and spoke critically against the German government's official position. A pamphlet was circulated privately entitled "J'accuse" (I accuse), which discussed the question of the war guilt essentially—as far as I remember—from the standpoint of the Western allies. It showed that the Imperial government was by no means the innocent victim of an attack but, together with the Austrian-Hungarian government, it was largely responsible for the war.

The war went on. The trenches extended from the Swiss border north to the sea. One spoke with soldiers and learned about the life they were leading boxed up in the trenches and dugouts, exposed to concentrated artillery fire which initiated an enemy attack, then trying again and again to break through, and never succeeding. Year after year the healthy men of each nation, living like animals in caves, killed each other with rifles, hand grenades, machine guns, bayonets; the slaughter continued, accompanied by false promises of a speedy victory, false protestations of one's own innocence, false accusations against the devilish enemy, false offers of peace, and insincere annunciations of conditions for peace.

The longer this lasted, the more I changed from a child to a man, the more urgent became the question "How is it possible?" How is it possible that millions of men continue to stay in the trenches, to kill innocent men of other nations, and to be killed and thus to cause the deepest pain to parents, wives, friends? What are they fighting for? How is it possible that both sides believe they are fighting for peace and freedom? How was it possible for a war to break out when everybody claimed that they did not want it? How is it possible that the war continues when both sides claim they do not want any conquests, but only the preservation of their respective national possessions and integrity? If, as the following events showed, both sides wanted conquests and fame for their political and military leaders, how was it possible that millions allowed themselves to be slaughtered on both sides for the sake of some territory and the vanity of some leaders? Is the war a result of a senseless accident, or is it a result of certain social and political developments which follow their own laws and which can be understood—or even predicted—provided one knows the nature of these laws?

When the war ended in 1918, I was a deeply troubled young man who was obsessed by the question of how war was possible, by the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior, by a passionate desire for peace and international understanding. More, I had become deeply suspicious of all official ideologies and declarations, and filled with the conviction "of all one must doubt."

I have tried to show which experiences during my adolescence created the conditions for my passionate interest in the teachings of Freud and of Marx. I was deeply troubled by questions with regard to individual and social phenomena, and I was eager for an answer. I found answers both in Freud's and in Marx's systems. But I was also stimulated by the contrasts between the two systems and by the wish to solve these contradictions. Eventually, the older I grew and the more I studied, the more I doubted certain assumptions within the two systems. My main interest was clearly mapped out. I wanted to understand the laws that govern the life of the individual man, and the laws of society—that is, of men in their social existence. I tried to see the lasting truth in Freud's concepts as against those assumptions, which were in need of revision. I tried to do the same with Marx's theory, and finally I tried to arrive at a synthesis, which followed, from the understanding and the criticism of both thinkers. This endeavor did not take place solely by means of theoretical speculation. Not that I think little of pure speculation (it all depends on who speculates); but believing in the superior value of blending empirical observation with speculation (much of the trouble with modern social science is that it often contains empirical observations without speculation), I have always tried to let my thinking be guided by the observation of facts and have striven to revise my theories when the observation seemed to warrant it.

As far as my psychological theories are concerned, I have had an excellent observation point. For over thirty-five years I have been a practicing psychoanalyst. I have examined minutely the behavior, the free associations, and the dreams of the people whom I have psychoanalyzed. There is not a single theoretical conclusion about man's psyche, either in this or in my other writings, which is not based on a critical observation of human behavior carried out in the course of this psychoanalytic work. As far as my study of social behavior is concerned, I have been less of an active participant than I was in my psychoanalytic practice. While I have been passionately interested in politics since the age of eleven or twelve (when I talked politics with a socialist who worked in my father's business) to this day, I have also known that I was temperamentally not suited for political activity. Thus I did not participate in any until recently, when I joined the American Socialist Party and became active in the peace movement. I did this not because I had changed my opinion with regard to my abilities, but because I felt it to be my duty not to remain passive in a world which seems to be moving toward a self-chosen catastrophe. I hasten to add that there was more to it than a sense of obligation. The more insane and dehumanized this world of ours seems to become, the more may an individual feel the need of being together and of working together with men and women who share one's human concerns. I certainly felt that need and have been grateful for the stimulating and encouraging companionship of those with whom I have had the good fortune of working. But even though I was not an active participant in politics, neither has my sociological thought been based entirely on books.

Indeed, without Marx and, to a lesser extent, other pathfinders in sociology, my thinking would have been deprived of its most important stimuli. But the historical period through which I lived became a social laboratory which never failed. The First World War, the German and Russian revolutions, the victory of Fascism in Italy, and the slowly approaching victory of Nazism in Germany, the decay and perversion of the Russian revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the armament race—all this offered a field of empirical observation which permitted the formation of hypotheses and their verification or rejection. Being passionately interested in the understanding of political events, and always realizing that by temperament I was not made to be active in them, I had a certain degree of objectivity even though never the dispassionateness which some political scientists believe to be a requisite of objectivity.

Thus far I have tried to enable the reader to share with me some of the experiences and thoughts which made me eagerly receptive when I came in touch with Freud's and Marx's ideas in my twenties. In the following pages I want to leave aside the reference to my personal development and speak about ideas and theoretical concepts: those of Freud and those of Marx, the contradictions between them, and my own ideas of a synthesis which springs from the attempt to understand and solve these contradictions. There is, however, a need for one more remark before I start discussing the systems of Marx and Freud. Together with Einstein, Marx and Freud were the architects of the modern age. All three were imbued with the conviction of the fundamental orderliness of reality, the basic attitude which sees in the workings of nature—of which man is a part—not merely secrets to be discovered but pattern and design to be explored. Therefore their work, each in its own unique way, partakes of the elements of the highest art, as well as science, the highest expression of man's craving to understand, his need to know. My concern in this book, however, is only with Marx and Freud. By putting their names together the impression might easily arise that I consider them as two men of equal stature and equal historical significance. I want to make it clear at the outset that this is not so. That Marx is a figure of world historical significance with whom Freud cannot even be compared in this respect hardly needs to be said. Even if one, as I do, deeply regrets the fact that a distorted and degraded "Marxism" is preached in almost one-third of the world, this fact does not diminish the unique historical significance of Marx. But quite aside from this historical fact, I consider Marx, the thinker, as being of much greater depth and scope than Freud. Marx was capable of connecting a spiritual heritage of the enlightenment humanism and German idealism with the reality of economic and social facts, and thus to lay the foundations for a new science of man and society which is empirical and at the same time filled with the spirit of the Western humanist tradition. In spite of the fact that this spirit of humanism is negated and distorted by most of the systems which claim to speak in the name of Marx, I believe, as I shall try to show in this book, that a renaissance of Western humanism will restore to Marx his outstanding place in the history of human thought. But even when all this is said, it would be naive to ignore Freud's importance because he did not reach the heights of Marx. He is the founder of a truly scientific psychology, and his discovery of unconscious processes and of the dynamic nature of character traits is a unique contribution to the science of man, which has altered the picture of man for all time to come.


Excerpted from Beyond the Chains of Illusion by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 2001 The Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Rainer Funk

I. Some Personal Antecedents
II. The Common Ground
III. The Concept of Man and His Nature
IV. Human Evolution
V. Human Motivation
VI. The Sick Individual and the Sick Society
VII. The Concept of Mental Health
VIII. Individual and Social Character
IX. The Social Unconscious
X. The Fate of Both Theories
XL. Some Related Ideas
XII. Credo

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