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Erich Fromm as a theorist

Dag Østerberg
Dag Østerberg
Author, professor. (1938 – 2017) Since the 1960 years has been one of Norway's foremost social theorists and intellectuals. has made important contributions to the so-called positivism debate and has shown a critical profile in his writings.
FREUD/MARX / Does historical materialism ("Marxism") have a flawed conceptual framework when it has to decipher the capitalist social formations of our time?


Why do industrial societies with a capitalist mode of production not collapse? Why is late capitalism more resilient than economic theory would suggest? The tendencies within capitalism as a mode of production have been to a considerable extent those which Marx predicted, but the tendencies within politics have deviated rather strongly from what he expected and advocated. Why was it e.g. no socialism in this country after the last war?

Fromm considers the theory of the "death instinct" to be a delusion.

On the theoretical level, we are here faced with the question of whether historical materialism ("Marxism") has a flawed conceptual framework when it is meant to interpret the capitalist social formations of our time. This question has occupied many people in our century, and important contributions to the answer are constantly being made. In particular, it is the relationship between Marx and Freud ("psychoanalysis") that has attracted attention: Can Freud's insights be added to Marx's in such a way that our insight into society becomes greater? And if so – how should it be done? Jean-Paul Sartre has his opinion about it, as does Herbert Marcuse (whom I have mentioned earlier in Orientering; see Another point of view is advocated by Erich Fromm, one of the world's most famous psychoanalysts, who has already won a large readership in Norway. In a recently published book, About Marx and Fromm, he discusses in a number of articles Marx's and Freud's teachings and how they are united in the most fruitful way.

Fromm sees in Marx a forerunner in the field of psychology – someone who saw through capitalism's perception of man, who realized that people's abilities are crippled under capitalism, and who boldly made a conceptual distinction between real and imagined needs, between real and alienated forms of activity, between real and fake wealth, etc. Marx perceived human nature as "dynamic" in Fromm's words, while the time period largely leaned towards an unchanging, "static" image of man.

Instincts and operational life

About Freud, Fromm claims that he was a distinctly bourgeois person, for better or for worse, and that his thinking changed as an expression of his bourgeois class interest. Before the First World War, Freud was an optimist and a lover of life, a children's liberator in the field of theory – while in the interwar period he developed a more and more gloomy view of life, where the concept of the death drive takes on great importance. Fromm considers the theory of the "death instinct" to be a fallacy, and regards Freud primarily as the one who founded a science about the nature of instincts and working life. Through the psychoanalytic method, knowledge is gained about how our conscious life is affected by forces we are not aware of in our own mind, i.e. "the unconscious".

Freud's thinking changed as an expression of his bourgeois class interest.

Fromm then claims that staid, conservative, authoritarian attitudes – i.e. attitudes that inhibit the development of socialism – must not immediately be interpreted as expressions of the contradictions within the mode of production, for property and class relations. This is the usual error of historical materialism, due to a lack of psychoanalytic knowledge. One must try to let instinct be a mediator of the class antagonisms. Mode of production and operating system together produce the ideological veil that prevents people from recognizing the mode of production in its reality. Psychoanalysis can, says Fromm, "show how the economic situation is transformed into ideology via man's instinctual life."

It is not without reason that social theory is in a rather disorganized state at the moment. On the one hand, both the course of events and scientific research have pierced the ideological veil through which late capitalism appears as a smoothly functioning system. Harmony-functionalism has seen its prime, at least for the time being. On the other hand, historical materialism has not found it easy to capture the new features in the social picture, or to shape new concepts that can guide socialist practice. As long as historical materialism cannot provide a superior understanding of phenomena such as "sniffing" or "stress", it is perhaps not so surprising that it is the parties of caution, the Christian People's Party and the Center Party, which reap the immediate benefit of these signs of weakness.

Ecological threats

The ideology of growth and prosperity enjoys less and less confidence, not least because of ecological threats, and the socialists' chances should have increased significantly. But can they be exploited? Only if we understand the relationship between the country's economic situation and the political attitudes of the various population groups better than until now. Erich Fromm's theory is a thought-provoking contribution, which even those of us who are not declared followers of Freud can welcome in Norwegian language.

190 pages, DKK 21.

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