Paul Mattick 1956

Fromm’s sane society

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, July-August, 1956;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

THE SANE SOCIETY. By Erich Fromm. Rinehart & Company, New York, 1955, pp. 370, $5.00


According to Fromm, and in distinction to orthodox Freudianism, man’s “basic passions are not rooted in his instinctive needs, but in the specific conditions of human existence.” These are now the conditions of capitalism. In the light of the requirements of mental health, as seen by Fromm, the prevailing society may be regarded as “insane.” Although some people are more affected than others, all behave irrationally in this irrational world. In order to change this situation, Fromm suggests the transformation of capitalism into some sort of “socialism,” into a “sane society,” — the precondition for the individual’s mental health and happiness. He calls his approach to the problem of mental health and society “humanistic psychoanalysis” which appears largely as an elaboration of Marx’s concept of commodity-fetishism. It is here generalized as the phenomenon of “alienation” and, in Fromm’s view, is as old a problem as the “idolatry” against which the prophets of the Old Testament raised their voices.

In Marx’s system alienation refers to social class relations based on the divorce of the workers from the means of production in a market economy of capital accumulation. The goal of production is profit. As capital, the products of man’s past and present labor take on an “independent” character, determining both the volume and direction of social production, depression and prosperity, peace and war, therewith the condition of human existence. And thus, even though man makes history, he is not master of his destiny. He lives under the compulsion of socio-economic circumstances which circumscribe his attitudes and actions. Neither the capitalists, nor the workers, nor any other group, determine their existence but allow themselves to be determined by the dynamics of capital accumulation; in other words, by things of their own making, as if they had a separate power over them. Those, however, who own or control capital, constitute a privileged ruling class just because of this sad state of affairs. And in the interest of their exploitative class position they try to perpetuate this attitude by means of force, fraud, and ideological manipulations.

The fetishistic relationship between men and their production embraces social consciousness and dominates general behavior. With labor-power a commodity like any other, men are dealt with as if they were things, and are compared to things; the materials of production include the “human material.” With exploitation based on the possession of things, i.e. capital, survival in capitalist competition implies the increasing appropriation of capital. Social relations are thus not relations between men but relations between things; commodity-relations, at once hiding and enabling the exploitation of men by men.


Fromm’s “revision” of Freud with the help of Marx retains the terminology of Freudian psychology, which pretends to concern itself with biological man and his frustration in society per se. Though the concept of commodity fetishism is applied to the culture as a whole, the emphasis rests on its ideological and psychological aspects. This enables Fromm to speak of society as “we.” However, although the ruling ideology and characterology are those of the ruling classes and their retainers, responsibility for the capitalist barbarism cannot be that widely distributed. After all, there are controllers and controlled, manipulators and manipulated, which forbids the “we” when speaking of society. Precisely by being a severe criticism of “society,” of “us,” Fromm’s book turns out a rather lame criticism of capitalism.

Although a bad habit, this not too serious an error, for despite all the “we” in literature, people generally refer to “society” as “they,” to opposing interests and different modes of existence, which give society its class character. But with Fromm’s society as “we” goes the individual as “man”; not as capitalist, worker, or something else, but as “man,” whose “nature” and “history” comprises both “creation and destruction; love and hate.” And although the class-determined man remains man even if approached as a commodity, or if not approached at all as untouchable, the “common humanity” of all men tells us little as regards their attitudes and behavior under varying social and historical circumstances in a class-divided society.


According to Fromm, only “faith in man” allows for a sane society. He explains Lenin’s “failure,” for example, by the latter’s lacking faith in man. Lenin, however, had very much faith in some men, himself included; in people dedicated to the seizure of power for his party. He had no faith, it is true, in the Czarist ruling class, nor in the middle-class hoping for liberal capitalism, nor in the peasants striving for land and private property, nor in the mass of workers destined to work harder without living better, so as to accumulate the necessary capital for Russia’s industrialization and national existence. Though Lenin had no faith in man, he excelled in faith in minority rule, which constitutes the “faith in man” in class societies. To speak of Lenin’s “failure” is to speak of his “success,” when more than individual attentions or pretensions are considered; in this case, the existence of a Russian proletariat as yet unable to abolish with its own class position all social class relations.

Moreover, to refer to the individual leader, whose “failure” or “success” determines the direction of social development, is to speak from the position of minority-rule, of class relations, modified by a desire for leadership and control in the “interest” of the led and controlled. “Faith in man” includes faith in the leader. Self-determination, however, implies the absence of a leadership in the Leninist or capitalist sense, and would make Fromm’s “faith in man” superfluous. With Fromm’s “faith in man,” Lenin would not have been Lenin, and with this “faith in man” workers will never be able to escape the consequences of their leaders lacking “faith.” The abolition of exploitation can be actualized only by the exploited; the emphasis must be on class, not on man. It is not even “faith in the working class,” but just the working class itself, which may be able through its own emancipation to change class-society into society.

To be sure, Fromm distinguishes between rational and inhibiting, or irrational, leadership. He is for the first and rejects the second form of authority, that is, prefers the authoritative relationship between “teacher and pupil” to that between “slave-owner” and “slave,” even though both are based on the superiority of the one over the other. In Fromm’s view, the teacher’s authority is altruistic and serves the student who welcomes it, as against the antagonistic irrational authority over the slave. Rational authoritative relationships, furthermore, tend to dissolve themselves with the pupils becoming as smart as the teachers. Each of these authority situations creates a different psychological situation; one assuring sanity, the other tending towards insanity. However, neither of these situations has anything to do with the authority problem in capitalism of either the liberal, the mixed, or the bolshevik brand. Fromm’s idealized teacher-pupil relationship does not exist; what does exist is an educational market coupled to force, where the relationships between teacher and student — though possibly in subtler fashion — are as antagonistic as the social relations in general. Moreover, capitalism employs all forms of authoritative relationships, the “irrational” and the “rational,” which are intertwined in such a way that none of them can be fostered, or eliminated short of the abolition of capitalism itself.


However, in Fromm’s view, capitalism abolishes itself and in so doing creates the conditions wherein it becomes possible to choose between one or another form of authoritative relationships on ethical grounds. In order to escape destruction and achieve happiness, people must be made aware of what makes for sanity and what makes for insanity. Fromm’s consistent use of the “we” with respect to society is also based on the illusion that the class-society underlying Marx’s theories has largely ceased to exist. His description of Western capitalism, for instance, repeats all the current clichés of the most ardent apologists of the “American way of life”; from the “miracle of production” to the “miracle of consumption.” Fromm asserts that the workers’ “social and economic power” has increased to a fantastic degree, “not only with regard to salary and social benefits, but also to his human and social role in the factory.”

This is sheer nonsense, of course, and does not even apply to that small minority of privileged workers whose exceptional position pre-supposes the most ruthless exploitation of the vast majority. The “American way of life,” which is not that of Western capitalism but the result of America’s domination of Western capitalism, finds its counterpart in the growing misery of the bulk of the world’s population, suffering under both the imperialist-capitalist controls and their own attempts to escape these controls. This situation, which transforms civil strife into international war, and international competition into civil war, may indicate the decline of capitalism but not its self-transformation through the disappearance of class frictions and class differentiations in the wake of an achieved general abundance. To be sure, Fromm recognizes the existence of under-privileged areas and under-developed countries and advocates reforms and foreign aid to alleviate this misery, as if this misery and the co-existing well-being of other areas and social layers were not the two sides of the same coin. The state of relative abundance does not make for general well-being and “sanity” but leads production into destructive channels, so as to maintain the social class structure and control over the means of production.


In Fromm’s society of abundance, the workers’ problems are no longer related to the control of capital but merely to its co-determination. He sees them hunger for a voice in the production process. Not, however, to improve their social and economic position still further but to secure their “sanity.” Fromm assumes that the workers (of all descriptions) are unhappy not so much because they are exploited and in want, but because they cannot “relate themselves to the concrete product as a whole.” They suffer on account of the specialization and abstraction of their functions. It is true that Marx, among other things, also mentioned the dehumanization of labor in capitalist production through its specialization, as against former modes of production with a less-developed division of labor. Yet, socialization of production implies the division of labor, which, by itself, need not be a dehumanizing factor. It is such under the exploitative capital-labor relationship. In a socialist society it becomes possible to choose between a further extension of the social division of labor, or its reduction by means such as interchangeability of functions. And it may turn out that interchangeability is more productive than specialization; but, then, the principle of productivity may itself give way to some manner of organizing social production which might make it more attractive.

Fromm’s emphasis on this rather minor aspect of alienation at the expense of the real problem, i.e. the class-control of the means of production, turns his “social criticism” into a media of capitalist manipulation. For what he suggests in the line of social security and co-determination is now in process of being actualized by capitalist reforms, supposed to stabilize the system. His proposed “roads to sanity” are already travelled, and even some of the by-roads he likes to see populated such as various small communal enterprises producing for (and being at the mercy of) the capitalist market, do not endanger the capitalist system but merely support the illusion of its growing humanization. If Fromm is against “bigness” and for “decentralization,” so are all those capitalists who face still bigger and more centralized competitors. And if Fromm likes to see the “instinct of workmanship” more fully satisfied, so do the capitalists now engaged in eliminating simple labor processes by way of automatization.

Fromm’s “roads to sanity” in the sphere of production are not supported in the sphere of consumption, where the growing abundance leads to cultural decay. For “man,” Fromm says, is “fascinated by the possibility of buying more, better, and especially, new things. He is consumption hungry. The act of buying and consuming has become a compulsive, irrational aim, because it is an end itself, with little relation to the use of, or pleasure in the things bought and consumed.” And it is this alienated attitude toward consumption which determines the employment of leisure time and the character of the industries devoted to it. A large part of Fromm’s book describes the emptiness and shallowness of popular culture at the expense of real art and human sensitivity — a popular culture which finds its reflection in the desire for conformity and the denial of real human relationships.


Here Fromm is in his element, bewailing the “lonely crowd” of the sociology of consumption, for which leisure, not work, is the great problem. With the ending of the problem of production ends that of exploitation, of course; yet, there is still, says Fromm, so much to do for the sociologists, and religious leaders to make life meaningful despite the absence of compelling social problems. Fromm’s particular suggestion is to consume less and to work more, if only for therapeutic reasons. Idle hands and idle minds are dangerous and even to do nothing must become a kind of work, of meditation, and recreation. The mentally healthy person, in his view, “is the productive and unalienated person . . . who relates to the world lovingly, and who uses his reason to grasp reality objectively; who expresses himself as a unique individual entity, and at the same time feels one with his fellow man” — etc., etc. — as one can hear from any pulpit Sunday mornings. As the striving for mental health is “inherent in every human being . . . Not born a moral idiot,” society must be such as to offer him a chance to assert his moral nature. The chance, as seen before, is offered by “socialism,” i.e. the mixed, co-determined and politically democratic welfare economy; provided, of course, it sheds itself of such qualities as “greed, competitiveness, possessiveness, narcissism,” and lets conscience rule. As “no change must be brought about by force,” and as it must be “simultaneous change in the economic, political and cultural spheres,” it must be brought about by moral education of the inherent morality, and is thus clearly the function of “humanistic psychoanalysis,” which, then, takes its place besides the great ethical and religious systems, asserting the supremacy of the spiritual over material values, and devoted to the dignity of men, so that we may — some day — sing, walk, and dance together.