A Moment in Russian Self-Perception

At the Prague Press Forum, May 12-14 2013, Russian journalist Maria Eismont took questions about the situation of the Russian media, whose independence many in the West consider compromised by the Putin regime. She wasn’t willing to give a structured talk, but thought she might be sparked off by audience curiosity. We did out best, but in fact Eismont disagreed with every proposition put to her. She thought all but the main tv station, and all the newspapers, were ‘free’, and while she accepted that the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had spoken out against tax fraud on the part of government authorities, had died a horrible death by neglect in prison, and that the unsolved murder of an honest reporter like Anna Politkovskaya was regrettable, she cautioned Western journalists against interfering in Russian internal affairs — the old Soviet slogan almost word for word — and suggested outsider energies would be better employed chasing up Russian real estate purchases in Western cities, the better to illuminate the trails by which money passed out of Russia and funded grand lifestyles abroad.  It seemed as if she had forgotten that Russia now embraces freedom of movement, and that being a typically Russian show-off nouveau-riche type isn’t in itself a crime. What agitated us, to see the Russian state running a sham democracy and either sponsoring or turning a blind eye to politically inspired murder touched her less. All this was very frustrating, and so I was glad of a chance remark she made informally, to the effect that what today’s Russia needed was a good dose of the philosophy of Erich Fromm.


Fromm, born in 1900, was one of the top German Jewish intellectuals who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933. He made a new life in America and later moved to Mexico, where he died in 1980. Already much published in Germany, Fromm saw his classic Fear of Freedom (1941) immediately translated and published in America. He went on to write in English and with his unique blend of Marx and Freud and a residual German Protestantism came to represent what I would call the psychological -theological rebellion against the condition of German society that allowed the Hitler catastrophe to happen. In 1987 the US philosopher and critic Allan Bloom dismissed Fromm in a sentence. ‘Get rid of capitalist alienation and Puritan repression and all will be well as each man chooses for himself.’ He made out that the greatest product of Fromm’s thought was the neurotic filmmaker Woody Allen. But Bloom shouldn’t be given the last word on Fromm, because he loathed the impact of the entire range of German emigres on American cultural life, not to mention their French followers in the next philosophical generation. He didn’t get it that central European fear of totalitarianism was more than ‘middle-european cultural whipped cream’. (Too bad for American conservatism, once again, I think. Poor stuff.)

Fear of Freedom

One of Fromm’s questions, like that of  fellow Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno, was where the authoritarian personality, or the personality that needs to enslave itself to absolute authority, comes from: how was it made in one historical situation, and with what atrophied capacity for love and freedom does it reinvent itself from one generation to the next. Fromm’s two most characteristic, and also best-known and most successful works were Fear of Freedom (which in the US became, oddly, Escape from Freedom)  and The Art of Loving (1956).  I’ve had them on my shelves for decades and I reject any aspersions that they might be ‘pseudo-scientific’. They belong to an age when the self-help manual was still tied to theology.

Marx played a role in Fromm’s thinking insofar as Fromm believed a capitalist society discouraged the fullness of personal development that love and freedom required to flourish. Freud helped him spot quirks of character leading to moral evasiveness and repression from within. ‘God’ gave him licence to treat ‘the inner man’ as the ultimate source of human hope for an open-hearted and benevolent society.

Fromm was an influential figure in the intellectual America of the 1950s and 1960s, when a moral-based individualism was still on the agenda and the compliance of the intellectuals with the market of the 1980s and after was not yet common. Paul Roazen, who studied post-Freudianism as it entered the political sphere, held him in particular high esteem, citing his courage in insisting that intellectuals should resist power of any kind, including all fashions of the day. Roazen wrote in 1998, in Political Theory and the Psychology of the Unconscious, that ‘Escape from Freedom remains a momentous contribution in twentieth century intellectual life…Fromm thought that “the right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own…” …Fromm was worried about the way our culture may foster tendencies to conform, and suppress spontaneous feelings, thereby crippling the development of genuine individuality…at the same time, [like Dostoevsky] Fromm too doubted whether mankind in fact desires anything like the choices which liberal theory assumes and takes for granted.’ Admittedly Roazen ignored the theological dimension to Fromm’s writing, but in other respects he showed how Fromm’s psychology called the bluff of too facilely formed liberal optimism.

Fromm’s influence, already under attack from orthodox Freudians and Marxists in their respective camps during the 1960s, was abruptly curtailed in the massive social upheaval of 1968. Unlike his fellow emigre Herbert Marcuse, Fromm was not in fact a revolutionary radical. He was much more in the alternative conservative revolutionary tradition that since the late eighteenth century had turned in German thought to personal morality for a way out of the dilemmas of politics, fearing public violence above all. Fromm had more of an affinity with a theologian like Paul Tillich than with any Marxist activist. Yet in US public opinion after 1968 he was branded by the moment, and has not been much talked about since. The same of course goes for his reputation in England. We always follow the Americans in such things.

Now they have discovered him in Russia, which is doubly interesting, because the phenomenon is quite recent. Although the full panoply of Fromm’s work has been published in translation since 1990, Begstvo ot svobody (Flight from Freedom) only appeared in 2011. Since this is a blog and not a scholarly study, I can’t claim to have looked deeply into the question of Fromm’s influence on contemporary Russian minds. But one long and thoughtful exposition of the Freedom book was posted by ‘Alyona Alekseeva’ on the website redfaq.ru in July 2012. I think her initial assumption is wrong, that in his books Fromm was writing about Western society in the 1960s-1980s. Most of his views were formed in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, probably the most radical time for Western art and philosophy in the twentieth century. But that slip wouldn’t alter Fromm’s relevance in today’s Russia, for which ‘Alekseeva’ makes the case. It is for her one against the peverting influence on human personality of capitalism, and using Fromm’s words in paraphrase she makes it strongly. She writes: ‘Taking into account that since 1991 our country has also embarked on the capitalist path of development and thanks to liberal, anti-patriotically inclined forces, has embarked in essence on on the de-sovereignization of the country and its transformation into a colony of the West, we have all those diseases and sins that Fromm described for the western world which was contemporary for him.’ Paraphrasing the same words of Fromm’s for Russia in 2012 as Roazen did for an America that was no longer listening fifteen years earlier, she concluded that ‘ We are proud that no external power oppresses us, that we are free to express our feelings and thoughts, and we are sure that this freedom almost automatically guarantees that our individuality will manifest itself. But the right to express our thoughts makes sense only when we have the capacity to have thoughts of our own. These days human beings live in a world from which they have lost all fundamental ties, and in which everything and every tie has been instrumentalized; and they themselves have become parts of a machine, created by their own hands. We have turned into robots and live under the influence of the illusion that we are autonomous individuals.’

Of the eight more or less considered responses to this essay on the redfaq.ru website, one comments that today’s Russian ‘hipsters’ wouldn’t notice that they were conformists and wouldn’t care one way or the other. Another insists that it’s no good planning (as Alekseeva implicitly does) to reform society to save human personality from distintegrating into slavishness, because all change has to start from within individuals themselves. All power to that view of course.

But probably the final comment on Alekseeva’s Fromm essay is the most interesting. It reasons that Russia shouldn’t be considered capitalist. That’s not the word for the condition it is in.  Rather ‘[Russia] has embarked on a thieving and criminal path of development.’ Should this society try to reform itself wholesale, or should individuals just do what they can to reform themselves, asks the writer of the comment. In fact it’s a chicken and egg question. Better to band together in little groups of like-minded friends, and if someone wants to join in later, then let them. On the other hand ‘the fact that such a society won’t be capitalist I don’t think I have to remind anyone.’

I’ve been reading Russian thought on and off for forty years and I know this mood, which basically imagines a moral realm that no one has yet succeeded in giving a name to, let alone realising on earth. I know the kind of philosophical tradition that informs it (basically German, basically Hegel and after) and I always admire its high moral tone, compared with the utilitarianism almost ubiquitous in the anglophone world. Of course there’s a problem. This response to the market-led conformism of the new cowboy Russia is about as empowered, politically, as the early Christians were hiding in their caves. It could, and was, expressed, by Russian idealists a hundred and now almost two hundred years ago, each time Western models were held out as ways in which a reformed, more modern Russia might progress. Where would our particular way with goodness end up, was always the fear. Not a fear, ever, please note, about self-enslavement to political authority, but a fear of betraying some religious capacity given to the nation to transcend its never to be removed chains.

Idealistic Russia’s answer to the West was always, to reverse Nietzsche, a yes and a no, and never a straight line. It was always politically impotent, as the philosopher Berdyaev acknowledged in his 1909 essay for Landmarks, the intellectuals’ response to the 1905 revolution and the rise of the Leninist outlook (another form of mass conformism, in a society about to be totally instrumentalized not by the ideology of money-making, but that of the Party and the Motherland). Still what pleases me is that these strands of thought persist in Russia; and since they persist in allegiance with a desire to bring back a form of Communism, and a Soviet Union of which patriotic Russians could be proud, and where they could once again find meaning — these are the principles underlying the redfaq.ru website — I do believe we in the West have to take notice, to understand what contemporary Russia is — what it continues to be — about. My feeling is that a watered-down, not very principled version of this kind of philosophizing is actually part and parcel of the Putin outlook. Even while he does business on world energy markets in the full global capitalist spirit, Putin must know that he can summon up this moralistic anti-capitalist patriotism any time he needs to make the case for more restrictions on ‘freedom’ at home, and people will accept it, because what they want is a good place, not necessarily a free one in American or European terms. What Fromm wrote initially in response to German conformity in the Hitler years, Russians like ‘Alekseeva’ now read as a critique of the ubercapitalism that has been destroying the Russian social fabric these last twenty years; but in a way it’s only a prop for what Russian philosophers never quite write down for themselves. So the relationship to European thought has always been.

I would like to have heard more about contemporary Russia in all these respects from the horse’s mouth, but our Prague speaker was shy.

If you read Russian have a look at redfaq.ru :potreblenie-155x155

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