Erich Fromm

Aggression and Freedom




This is a short extract from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm highlights the fact that freedom is a basic need and requirement of all human beings and aggression originates very often by its suppression. Because aggression leads to violence and loss of lives even when it is justified as reaction to exploitation and slavery, the solution is to produce a social organization where the free human being can develop and flourish, with the absence of any sort of manipulation and subjection.



Among all the threats to man’s vital interests, the threat to his freedom is of extraordinary importance, individually and socially. In contrast to the widely held opinion that this desire for freedom is a product of culture and more specifically of learning-conditioning, there is ample evidence to suggest that the desire for freedom is a biological reaction of the human organism.

One phenomenon that support this view is that throughout history nations and classes have fought their oppressors if there was any possibility of victory, and often even if there was none. The history of mankind is, indeed a history of the fight for freedom, a history of revolutions, from the war of liberation of the Hebrews against the Egyptians, the national uprisings against the Roman Empire, the German peasant rebellions in the sixteenth century, to the American, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Algerian, and Vietnamese revolutions [1]. Leaders have all too frequently used the slogan that they are leading their people in a battle for freedom, when in reality their aim has been to enslave them. That no promise appeals more powerfully to the heart of man is evidenced by the phenomenon that even those leaders who want to suppress freedom find it necessary to promise it.

Another reason for assuming there is an inherent impulse to man to fight for freedom lies in the fact that freedom is the condition for the full growth of a person, for his mental health and his well-being; its absence cripples man and is unhealthy. Freedom does not imply lack of constraint, since any growth occurs only within a structure, and any structure requires constraint (H. von Foerster, Molecular Ethnology, in Molecular Mechanisms in Memory and Learning, New York, 1970.) What matters is whether the constraint functions primarily for the sake of another person or institution, or whether it is autonomous, — i.e. that it results from the necessities of growth inherent in the structure of the person.

As a condition for the unstunted development of the human organism, freedom is a vital biological interest of man [2], and threats to his freedom arouse defensive aggression as do all other threats to vital interests. ls it surprising then that aggression and violence continue to be generated in a world in which the majority are deprived of freedom, especially the people in the so-called underdeveloped countries? Those in powers — i.e. the whites —would perhaps be less surprised and indignant if they were not accustomed to considering the yellows, the browns and the blacks as nonpersons and, hence, not expected to react humanly [3].

But there is an additional reason for this blindness. Even whites, powerful as they are, have surrendered their freedom because their own system has forced them to do so, although in a less drastic and overt way. Perhaps they hate those who fight for it today all the more because they are reminded of their own surrender.

The fact that genuine revolutionary aggression, like all aggression generated by the impulse to defend one's life, freedom or dignity, is biologically rational and part of normal human functioning must not deceive one into forgetting that destruction of life always remains destruction, even when it is biologically justified; it is a matter of one's religious, moral, or political principles whether one believes that it is humanly justified or not. But whatever one's principles in this respect are, it is important to be aware how easily purely defensive aggression is blended with (nondefensive) destructiveness and with the sadistic wish to reverse the situation by controlling others instead of being controlled. If and when this happens, revolutionary aggression is vitiated and tends to renew the conditions it was seeking to abolish.




[1] The revolutions that have occurred in history must not obscure the fact that infants and children also make revolutions, but since they are powerless they have to use their own methods, those of guerrilla warfare as it were. They fight against suppression of their freedom by various individual methods, such as stubborn negativism,refusal to eat, refusal to be toilet trained, bed-wetting, up and on to the more drastic methods of autistic withdrawal and pseudomental debility.
The adults behave like any elite whose power a challenged. They use physical force, often blended with bribery, to protect their position. As a result most children surrender and prefer submission to constant torment. No mercy is shown in this war until victory is achieved, and our hospitals are filled with its casualties. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable fact that all human beings — the children of the powerful as well as those of the powerless — share the common experience of once having been powerless and of having fought for their freedom. That is why one may assume that every human being — aside from his biological equipment — has acquired in his childhood a revolutionary potential that, though dormant for a long time, might be mobilized under special circumstances.

[2] Not only of man. The deteriorating effect on the animal of life in the zoo has been mentioned before and seems to outweigh the contrary views of even as great an authority as Hediger. (H. Hediger, Wildtiere in Gefangenschaft, Basel, 1942)

[3] Skin color has this effect only if it is combined with powerlessness. The Japanese have become pawns since they acquired power at the beginning of this century; the image of the Chinese changed for the same reason only a few years ago. The possession of advanced technology has become the criterion of being human.


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