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Lio, E.

, 1989b
Enzo Lio
Alienation as a Central Concept
in Marxist and Frommian Humanism

Presentation at a German-Italian Seminar about Die Marx-Rezeption Erich Fromms,

February 17-19, 1989, Bologna.
Copyright 1989 and 2003 by Dr. Enzo Lio, Vicolo Quantinolo 5, I-40121 Bologna,
Italy, E-mail: enzo.lio[at-symbol]virgilio.it

Fromm quoted Terences statement that Nihil humani a me alienum puto. And if
this summarizes and focuses on the essence of humanism, then the following estatement by Goethe, that Man carries within himself not only his own individuality, but the individuality of the whole of mankind with all its potentiality, even
though he himself can only realise a small part of this potentiality because of the
external limits of his individual existence, is full of philosophical and psychological implications. There are several corollaries to both these statements; all men
of whatever race share the same nature and basic psycho-physical characteristics irrespective of cultural conditioning. This implies the need for greater human
dignity and liberty which is possible in that man can be perfected and is thus
gifted with a capacity for self-development, if correctly guided.
This vision of man is by no means new and can be found in the history of culture, religion, and philosophy in various parts of the world: in Buddhism and the
Hebrew-Christian tradition, in the classical philosophies of Greece and Rome, in
the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment and in positivism. A complete list of those
thinkers who share this vision would be far too long here, but some of the most
important are: Buddha, Spinoza, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Freud and Fromm himself.
Fromm was driven by a humanitarian spirit and gifted with a clear and penetrating mind and he dedicated his whole life to the study of the reasons guiding
human behaviour. As he himself says in a famous book published in 1962, Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encounter with Marx and Freud (1962a, p. 9f.),
his methodological approach can be summarized as a combination of empirical
observation and rational speculation:
I have always tried to let my thinking be guided by the observation of facts
and have striven to revise my theories when the observation seemed to warrant
it. As far as my psychological theories are concerned, I have had an excellent
observation point. Since 1927 I have been a practicing psychoanalyst. I have examined minutely the behavior, the free associations, and the dreams of the people whom I have psychoanalyzed. There is not a single theoretical conclusion
about mans psyche, either in this or in my other writings, which is not based on a
critical observation of human behavior carried out in the course of this psychoanalytic work.
Psychoanalysis started with Freud in the context of positivism. It applies the
idea of the universality of mankind insofar as it studies the unconscious mind with
the assumption that this is possible because the unconscious mind is the same in
all human beings. Fromm makes this very clear in his article A Global Philosophy
of Man (1966i) when he states: Unless we all were a little crazy, a little evil, and
a little good, unless we all carried in ourselvers all possibilities, good and bad,
which exist in man, how could anyone understand the unconscious, the nonconventional nonofficial content of another persons mind? Thus the subject of psychoanalytical inquiry is man in his totality, with his varied and real needs, as bio1

logical and cultural evolution has made him. But studying human beings is not
easy; the reasons for their actions are often the result of complex processes
which hide the real causes, their intellectual and emotional development is the
product of an ongoing interactive process between the individual and society, between individual needs and socio-historical reality.
Psychoanalysis must thus take all of these things into account to fully understand the human condition. Fromm was well aware of this and right from the beginning he realised that it had to become the domain of Freudian psychoanalysis
too. Freudian psychoanalysis was partially satisfactory, but theoretically incomplete and in need of modification, explanation and, obviously, elaboration. Fromm
levelled many criticisms at Freud but they can be summarised in just two main
points: 1) Freuds acceptance of German bourgeois materialism with all its theoretical implications, for example the fact that Freud could not conceive of any
form of mental activity which could not be traced to its correlative organic substratum; 2) Freuds bourgeois, patriarchal mentality and his inability to rise above the
values of his class, which had a notable influence on his thinking and on his theory. In particular Fromm challenged the idea that the purpose of therapy is to reinforce the ego and super-ego in order to control impulses better.
In Greatness and Limitations of Freuds Psychoanalysis (1979a, p. 7) Fromm
notes: The psychological concept corresponds to the social reality. Just as socially the majority is controlled by a ruling minority, the psyche is supposed to be
controlled by the authority of the ego and superego. The danger of the breakthrough of the unconscious carries with it the danger of a social revolution. Repression is a repressive authoritarian of protecting the inner and outer status quo.
It is by no means the only way to cope with problems of social change. But the
threat of force in keeping down what is dangerous is only necessary in an authoritarian system where the preservation of the status quo is the supreme goal.
Other models of individual and social structures can be experimented with. In the
last analysis the question is how much renunciation of happiness does the ruling
minority in a society need to impose on the majority? The answer lies in the development of productive forces in the society, and hence in the degree to which
the individual is necessarily frustrated. The whole scheme superego, ego id is a
hierarchical structure, which excludes the possibility that the association of free,
i.e., nonexploited, human beings can live hamoniously and without the necessity
of controlling sinister forces.
If taken out of context, the passage quoted above could have been written by
a Marxist revolutionary, and in my opinion Fromm was a Marxist in the original
sense of the word, perhaps more so than many so-called Marxists. He recognized that Marxism had regressed and he intended to restore it to its original universal, humanistic vocation. He accused Marxists of having degenerated in their
ideals and saw the need for the rediscovery of authentic Marxism which had been
lost in its transformation into doctrinarism by Stalin who is described in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973a) as a clinical case of non-sexual sadism. Fromm rightly believed that Marxism could greatly enrich psychoanalyitical
thinking. As a science which studies man, psychoanalysis cannot ignore the great
revolutionary force which was the result of the thinking of a man who, for the first
time in history, encouraged philosophers not simply to interpret the world but to
commit themselves to changing it.
Thus Fromm soon turned his attention to the critical understanding of those
theories which had revolutionized thinking in the humanities: in sociology, politics,
philosophy. He considered Marx to be the architects of the modern age, together with Freud and Einstein (1962a, p. 11), and one of the great humanists
who have contributed to the welfare and development of humanity. Fromm considered Marxs thinking as one of the deepest possible expressions of humanism,
one which goes beyond the distortions and adaptations used to rationalize failed
attempts at socialism. Consistent with the humanistic concept, Marxism is a philosophy for human beings insofar as it theorizes the development of their potenti2

ality based on the objective conditions of their existence and not on the ideas that
they have of themselves. This means it is based on their psychological, physical
and social prerogatives as beings who live in a certain socio-historical and cultural context.
Marx must have had this idea of man in mind as early as 1841. At the age of
twenty-three he argued in his degree thesis Differenz der demokritischen und
epikureischen Naturphilosophie that Democritus atomism was limited to a simple
description of the movement of atoms without offering any dialectical interpretation. Epicurus, on the other hand, tried to carry this out. Marx was already interpreting the clinamen (the free declination of atoms) in dialectical terms, and noted
that although it is to be rejected as a phenomenon, philosophically speaking it is
the manifestation of the nature of the liberty of self-consciousness, a fundamental
part of the ancient enlightenment of Epicurus. In the following year Marx wrote in
the Rheinische Zeitung of 14 July 1842 (MEG I,1,1, p. 242), a newspaper to
which he had earlier contributed articles defending press freedom (these had in
turn provoked the conservative Klner Zeitung into calling for censorship), as follows:
First the question is posed, Does philosophy have any right to discuss religious matters in newspapers too? The only way to answer this question is to criticize it. Philosophy, and above all German philosophy, has a solitary bent; left to
its own devices it will engage in monolithic system-building, it will succumb to
passionless introspection; thus right from the very start it is cut off from the raucously ephemeral, quick-witted world of the newspaper where the real source of
pleasure is the communication process itself... Only the philosophers do not grow
like mushrooms overnight; they are the fruit of their times, of their people... The
same spirit builds philosophical systems in philosophers brains as built the railroads with the hands of organized labor. Philosophy does not have a vantage
point outside of the world...
In essays from that period Marx fiercely defends the interests of the people,
especially the destitute, for example he bitterly criticized the injustice of the law
which abolished the custom by which the poor collected firewood from private
woods (debate on the law against stealing wood)
These few examples clearly show Marxs poltical and philosophical orientation. He felt the need to find a solution to the problems of humanity strongly and
this became the driving force behind the scientific development of his thinking,
which constantly sought to understand the complexities of human reality in order
to improve the conditions of its development. The break with Hegel can be seen
as a result of this line of thought. In the manuscript of Contribution to the Critique
of Hegels Philosophy of Right, Marx takes up Feuerbachs criticism of Hegel and
argues that Hegelian philosophy, although full of empirical data, tends not to offer
any criticism, as if the self were a predicate of thought. Thus it is unacceptable for
both theoretical and practical reasons. Theoretically speaking it inverts the natural relationship between thought and reality, making reality a product of thought.
Practically speaking it supports the idea that what exists is rational reality (all that
is real is rational and vice versa) thus supporting conservative ideology. Marx
was concerned that Hegelian philosophy could be used to rationalize the human
condition through the formulation of ideal categories which would sanction the
status quo and block any possibile change in the history of mankind. He believed
that all legal institutions came about as a result of the class struggle. Marxism
does not oppose idealism to a historical naturalism but to a materialistic consideration of the historically determined relationships between human beings and
between human beings and nature.
Marxs great contribution to human thought lies in the fact that he did not see
mans existence in abstract terms but rather, he saw how it was conditioned by
socio-historical reality and how this leads man to become alienated from himself,
from his own nature and real needs. In this way man strays from his natural path
which would otherwise lead to the development of his potentiality. This is the as3

pect of Marxist theory that most interested Fromm as he clearly stated in Beyond
the Chains of Illusion. My Encouter with Marx and Freud (1962a, p. 26): Marxs
protest against a social order in which man is crippled by his subservience to the
economy, and his ideal of the full unfolding of the total, unalienated man, is part
of the same humanistic tradition.
The interest Marx showed in economics ( he claimed to have read everything
that had been written on the subject before writing about it himself ) culminated in
the drafting of Das Kapital and was aimed at liberating man from material interests. This is also the main concern in Fromms most important works and in The
Sane Society he wrote: Since the modern capitalist employs labor, the social
and political form of this exploitation has changed; what has not changed is that
the owner of capital uses other men for the purpose of his own profit. The basic
concept of use has nothing to do with cruel, or not cruel, ways of human treatment, but with the fundamental fact that one man serves another for purposes
which are not his own but those of the employer. The concept of use of man by
man has nothing to do even with the question whether one man uses another, or
uses himself. The fact remains the same, that a man, a living human being,
ceases to be an end in himself, and becomes the means for the economic interests of another man, or him self, or of an impersonal giant, the economic machine.
The concept of human alienation is central to the theoretical development of
Marx and Fromm. Marx saw alienation as an unawareness of the self, of emotions, of the reality of ones being so that an alienated subject does not see himself as in terms of his own reality but in terms of the things he creates, which objectify his human qualities. Hegal believed that relationships themselves implied
alienation, whereas Marx argued that alienation was a certain type of relationship
and that it could be eliminated by changing the relationship. According to Marxist
theory, therefore, the human condition is historically determined and can in any
case be overcome with time. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
Marx criticizes traditional economics for taking as fact that which must be explained. Traditional economics held that the relationship between worker and
product could not be modified, thus mystifying the true nature of alienation which
is the result of a historically and socially contingent situation of constraint.
Marx takes his criticism of Hegels concept of alienation from Feuerbach, who
objected to the fact that Hegel had taken God as the author of history while man
was in a state of self-alienation. Feuerbach considered God to be simply an external projection of human qualities, made by man in order to enable him to experience his particular qualities through adoration. Thus Hegel believed that the
nature of existential relationships expresses a state of alienation. Marx thought
that the nature of relationships cannot be considered a state insofar as it exists
not as reality but as possibility. This implies that alienation can both be eliminated
and can return. This assertion merely expresses in words the dilemma of the human condition which must find an alternative and act on it if it is to overcome its
alienated state.
In Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encouter with Marx and Freud (1962a,
p. 53 and 56f.): Alienation as a sickness of the self can be considered to be the
core of the psychopathology of modern man... Precisely because the alienated
person has transformed his own functions of feeling and thought to an object outside he is not himself, he has no sense of I, of identity. This lack of sense of identity has many consequences. The most fundamental and general one is that it
prevents integration of the total personality... In the widest sense, evenry neurosis can be considered an outcome of alienation; this is so because neurosis is
characterized by the fact that one passion (for instance, for money, power,
women, etc.) becomes dominant and separated from the total personality, thus
becoming the ruler of the person. This passion is his idol to which he submits
even though he may rationalize the nature of his idol and give it many different
and often well-sounding names. He is ruled by a partial desire, he transfers all he

has left to this desire, he is weaker the stronger it becomes. He has become
alienated from himself precisely because he has become the slave of a part of
The phenomemon of transference is also seen in this light.In fact Fromm
maintains that the more alienated the individual, the greater the need to transfer
their parents qualities to the analyst in order to relive the sense of security and
protection which has been lost.
From what has been said it can be inferred that neither Marx nor Fromm saw
alienation as necessarily permanent, but as a continual threat to humanity, and it
can also be said that any attempt to eliminate it is compatible with human nature.
Both thinkers insist on the primary nature of alienation, it affects the whole of human reality, society, and nowadays the very survival of the species and of the
whole planet as well. Mans future lies in possibility and not in necessity and
whilst the number of choices is not infinite, the possibility to choose does exist.
Both Marx and Fromm saw that history and society could give and take away
from human beings the opportunity to evolve because men are gifted with the
ability to develop their being. By picking out the proletariat as the pole of the dialectic of the class struggle, Marx did not intend to give a fatalistic interpretation of
history, giving the impression that the oppressed classes everywhere would eventually and in any case free themselves of their chains in order to achieve their
own and societys emancipation. If Marxs intention is interpreted in this way, as it
often has been and still is, it would be impossible to understand even the concepts of class consciousness and class struggle. These concepts show that
change can only come about through the search for real tools connected to the
goal to be reached and through the effort to act. Fromm means the same thing
when he states that man can break the chains of necessity if he is aware of the
forces which act without his knowledge and if he makes the great effort to earn
his freedom.
Marxs solution to the problem of alienation as a consequence of change in
the economic structure seems too simplistic, but the necessity mentioned is a result of the contradictory nature of capitalism and of the forces at work in it. Marx
saw the advent of socialism as the only solution and its realisation must be a priority if human beings are to overcome the state of alienation to which the relations of production have relegated them. When Marx states in Das Kapital that
the mode of production of material life generally dominates the development of
social, political an intellectual life, the word dominates does not refer to any direct or inevitable determinism. It is not, as some detractors of Marxism maintain,
a question of economic reductionism but it is necessary to go through a series of
filters made up of the correlates between individual existence and group relations. This is a mechanism that Marx did not explain but which others, such as Althusser (A.I.S) and Fromm himself, have clearly illustrated: for example, when
they speak about the socialization of children, human passions and all the other
historical and cultural aspects which go to make up the subject matter of psychoanalytical study and of other related disciplines.
Conditioning by the the economic structure can thus be mediated by situations, institutions, and circumstances which imply changes in the direction and
extent of the original conditioning. Both Marx and Fromm were concerned about
the increasing lack of opportunity for mans emancipation because of the deeprooted conditioning which is typical of certain social orders and which leads to the
risk that mankind will be unable to realize its humanity. Neither thinker believes in
the inevitability of events but they do believe in possible alternatives that human
beings can exploit if they use their resources correctly. But conditioning is often
so strong that speaking of necessity seems unavoidable. However the concept of
necessity can be mystifying and Marx was aware of this when he objected to the
fact that capitalism believed that its laws were necessary. Those who believe that
the Marxist dialectic is one of natural necessity should reflect on this point.
In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx maintains that man is

the vehicle of the dialectic and if man can be perfected then anything which goes
beyond the realms of a dialectic of the possible would be a contradiction. In the
same way that Marx asserted that the proletariat must first become aware of its
interests and then begin the struggle, Fromm believed that alienation could be
remedied by the efforts of the individual who must become aware of the forces
which paralyse him before he can act. He also believed that it could be remedied
by social transformation aimed at eliminating the causes of alienation. Both thinkers believed that the relationship between man and nature and between man and
society is real and can therefore be corrected in an attempt to cure man and society. Both had a deep faith in human beings and both saw the danger of losing
the opportunity for any change in the historical situation with the consequent dehumanisation of the species. Both can be considered the guardians of mans
humanity: Marx as the theorist of a philosophy of commitment and Fromm as the
advocate of the psychoanalysis of love and of hope.
E. Fromm (1955a): The Sane Society, New York 1955
E. Fromm (1962a): Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encounter with Marx and Freud, New York
E. Fromm (1964a): The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil, New York 1964
E. Fromm (Ed.) (1965a): Socialist Humanism. An International Symposium, New York 1965
E. Fromm (1966i): A Global Philosophy of Man, in: The Humanist, Yellow Springs, Ohio 26
(1966), p. 117-122
E. Fromm (1973a): The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York 1973
E. Fromm (1979a): Greatness and Limitations of Freuds Psychoanalysis, New York 1979
E. Fromm (1981a): On Disobedience and Other Essays, New York 1981
I. Geymonat: Storia del pensiero filosofico, Milano, A.Garzanti Editore 1970
K. Marx: Oekonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844
K. Marx: Das Kapital
K. Marx - F. Engels: Das Kommunistische Manifest

Copyright 1989 and 2003 by Dr. Enzo Lio

Vicolo Quantinolo 5, I-40121 Bologna, Italy, E-mail: enzo.lio[at-symbol]virgilio.it