On the Authoritarian Personality

On the face of it, one of the more inexplicable elements of humans is our tendency to not only accept suffering, but to give it out to others. One can find an example in the cases of tradesmen bullying apprentices – many of the bullies were themselves bullied when they were apprentices, yet instead of concluding that apprentices should be treated with dignity, they turn around and dish it out when they get their chance. Similar examples can be found in parents who beat their children, who were themselves beat when they were young, or in the women who practice circumcision upon their daughters, granddaughters and nieces, who at the same time endure violence from their husbands.

On reflection, it makes no sense; it not only seems abhorrent, but illogical too – why would you try and justify the same torment you yourself endured? To be sure, there are more circumstantial reasons behind each specific example I mentioned, but allow me to generalise the cases a little; there may be value in stepping back and looking at things from a wider perspective.

Erich Fromm chipped away at our problem. Fromm was a German leftist and Jew who underwent his theoretical training as an associate of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. After fleeing Germany in the 1930s, he set up shop in both the USA and Mexico, as a lecturer and professional analyst. As a Freudian and a Marxist – albeit as idiosyncratic versions of both – Fromm pushed for a humanist approach to socialism, offering a critique of both Soviet communism and western capitalism as being deleterious to the human spirit.

Fromm believed that we are mistaken when we think of people who wish to dominate and people who wish to submit as being total opposites. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin; together, the dominant and the submissive form “the authoritarian personality”. The opposite of the dominant is not the submissive – instead, the opposite of both is the “mature personality”.

The root of both submissiveness and dominance is to be found in a lack of independence, an inability to cope with freedom. This is at the core of the authoritarian personality. Both kinds of authoritarian need to feel bonded to someone or something in order to live, but they can’t find it with either love or reason, the two things Fromm says allow us to form bonds whilst keeping our own independence.

Fromm’s definitions of love and reason are a bit technical. In short, love is not simply the connection to your romantic partner or children, but an emotional feeling of being one with the world. The person in love preserves their own integrity as a lover. Reason is not the same thing as intelligence – Fromm understands intelligence as simply using your mental aptitude to solve a particular task, like a dog sitting down to get his owner to give him a treat. Reason, on the other hand, is much more than this; it’s a way of understanding, of reckoning with what we experience and grasping something beneath its surface layers.

Instead of bonding through love or reason, the authoritarian finds a bond by fusing with others and “destroying [their] own identity”. The submissive-type feels bonded in service to a master or in the mass of a large movement. They can’t carry any responsibility or make decisions independently, so they seek out relationships of dependency – to Hitler, or to the communist party. On the other hand, the strength of the dominant-type comes from the way they incorporate the personalities of others into themselves. They are as dependent on the ruled as the submissive is on the ruler. In addition to this, many rulers regard themselves as submitting to a high power; Hitler, as Fromm notes, was fanatic about man submitting to nature.

Both forms of the authoritarian personality trace back to the root issue – symbiotic relationships, or relationships of mutual dependency. This is one explanation about why we can see sadism and masochism in the same person. Fromm uses the example of a man who beats his wife but then goes to work and becomes a perfect sycophant to his boss. We could also use the example of a religious monarch that rules over many, yet is the “first among servants” to God.

Assessing this as radicals, our first thought is to note the back-to-front approach. Instead of looking at flawed personalities as a result of authoritarian systems, we’re almost looking at authoritarian systems as the result of flawed personalities. It’s as if we were to understand capitalism by reference to the “capitalist personality”, which involves using people for money, glorifying competition, and so on. Perhaps it will say something interesting about business people, but what does it mean for our main task – the destruction of authoritarianism altogether?

Fromm’s viewpoint is naturally one more amenable to psychiatrists and liberals than it is to unionists and anarchists (his book Escape from Freedom begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson about the inalienable rights of man). It’s an attempt to posit an individual understanding of what is fundamentally a collective problem. This goes some way in explaining how an explicit radical like Fromm could make a comfortable living in McCarthyite America, writing mass-market consumer books about love and freedom. The prevalence of individualised models of disorder is a sign of the working class’ weakness.

The flawed person is treated as a sick creature who can find treatment in therapy; the cure offered is not in greater association among fellow workers, in working class institutions, or in fighting the class war; the solution is to be found in a well-paid professional. This is not to say that psychologists are useless – in the modern world, they are essential to our survival – but that their activities will not likely result in the development of socialism. True, a radical psychoanalyst like Fromm condemns capitalism as a source of illness; nonetheless, he operates as a walking contradiction: capitalism harms the person, yet the cure for the harm is not in the abolition of capitalism – or in the process of building the movement to destroy it.

Still, I can’t help but feel that Fromm was onto something. A truly critical understanding of society does not need to be a dogmatic, mechanistic one – for example, we’d expect a proper critical understanding to be quite different from the “dialectical materialist” caricature of Marx, the one that puts forward a mechanical thesis along the lines of “all subjective thought is determined by the objective material world”. After all, Marx himself wrote something very relevant about this:

Both for the production on a mass scale of communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.

As it stands now, the working class is deeply fractured by economic stratification, by ideology, by categories of race, gender and so on, but also substantially by personality. The constitution of the movement to get rid of capitalism – and with it all these horrendous social problems – will require a reckoning with these differences, and this is where Fromm shows his worth. When we engage with our fellow workers, we are not merely engaging with simple carriers of wider social norms, we’re engaging with real people who do not merely internalise norms, but reflect on them, practically understand them and generate their own.

Why do some people – of identical class backgrounds – become socialists, but others devotees of some religion? Why do some join a union, and others scab? Why do some treat co-workers with respect, and others treat co-workers with scorn? Why are some men abusive and controlling, yet others respectful and open? The answer does not lie sitting on Fromm’s chaise lounge, but that does not mean we cannot mine his work for what is useful. His work brings us closer to understanding who we are, and where we fit into the system.

When it comes to the chicken-and-egg problem of what comes first, the authoritarian personality, or the authoritarian structure, we have to admit that there is no clear answer; these two things are in constant interplay with each other. It’s a knot we don’t untie with simple reflection, but in the practical fight for social progress. Fromm was right to seek a resolution to the problem of the authoritarian personality in the development of the faculties of love and reason, towards maturity and independence; he was wrong to seek it in professional therapy, or apply it only to the individual. The resolution will come in the resolution of the class war – the end of authoritarianism altogether, where we stop talking about this or that person but begin to speak of humanity altogether.

This article from Sydney Anarcho-Communists Bulletin #2.