36 pages 1 hour read

Erich Fromm

Escape From Freedom

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide


Escape From Freedom is a book of social psychology written by Erich Fromm in 1941. A German-Jewish psychoanalyst, Fromm had been a member of Frankfurt’s influential Institute for Social Research before fleeing the Nazis and relocating to the United States. In Escape From Freedom, Fromm uses ideas from both psychology and sociology to explain humanity’s ambivalent relation to freedom, with a particular attention paid to the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

The first two chapters of Escape from Freedom outline some of the core concepts and questions Fromm will explore throughout his book. Fromm notes that while modern society is defined by freedom from external authorities, individuals seem increasingly willing to relinquish their freedoms and submit to authoritarian rule, as evinced by the growth of Fascist movements throughout Europe. According to Fromm, such a response to freedom can be explained by the psychological concept of individuation. Individuation describes the process by which a child develops into an adult, during which they throw off their “primary ties” to their parents and become independent individuals. While independence leads to a strengthening of the individual’s personality, it can also leave the child feeling deeply isolated and alone. Fromm argues that a similar process of individuation has occurred in human societies. While the development of capitalism has granted humanity a host of freedoms, it has also left individuals with a deep sense of insignificance and doubt.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Fromm traces the historical development of the concept of the individual in Europe. Fromm begins his history with Medieval Europe, describing how feudal society both harshly limited its members’ freedom while also providing them a sense of security and purpose. The rise of market capitalism leads to the slow breakdown of the strict feudal order, leaving individuals with increased freedoms yet plagued by intense uncertainty. The religions of the Protestant Reformation—namely, Calvinism and Lutheranism—arise to help individuals deal with their feelings of insignificance. However, both religions do so by preaching that their followers should abase themselves to God, and totally submit themselves to God’s authority. In Chapter 4, Fromm traces how the teachings of the Protestant Reformation have impacted the role of the individual in modern capitalistic society. Fromm believes capitalism treats individuals as mere “cogs” in a larger system, leaving mankind feeling deeply isolated and insignificant.

Chapter 5 describes the various “escape mechanisms” that individuals employ to avoid feelings of isolation. One of these is the sado-masochistic person, who seeks to fuse their own self with another person’s. The sado-masochistic achieves this either through submitting to another person’s authority (masochism) or totally dominating over a weaker person (sadism). Fromm argues that sado-masochistic tendencies form the basis of the authoritarian personality. Fromm also describes a second type of escape mechanism, which he calls “automaton conformity.” Such a person cannot cope with the burden of freedom, and instead conforms to society’s expectations for thinking, acting, and wanting.

The final chapters of Escape from Freedom analyze how these escape mechanisms manifest in today’s modern societies: sado-masochism in Nazi Germany, and automaton conformity in modern democracy. In Chapter 6, Fromm argues that the German masses’ sado-masochistic tendencies made them particularly susceptible to being manipulated by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi ideology. Fromm quotes extensively from Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, to explore how sado-masochistic tendencies manifest themselves in Nazi Germany. Fromm explores how Hitler displays both a desire to dominate over weak masses as well as a desire to sacrifice himself for the good of a higher power (alternatively figured as God, Nature, or Fate).

Chapter 7 focuses on how individuals in modern democratic societies, such as America, frequently practice conformist thinking. While such societies are ostensibly free, they have yet to allow for individual’s full realization of an authentic self. Instead of thinking for oneself, individuals frequently allow society to dictate how they should behave or what they should aspire to in life. Fromm closes Chapter 7 by discussing what a truly free society might look like. Fromm believes that such a society must foster individuals’ ability to think independently, focusing on encouraging individuals to behave spontaneously. In the Appendix, Fromm focuses on expanding on some of the theoretical concepts employed throughout Escape from Freedom, such as the notion of a “social character structure.”