Philosophy, Politics, recent

The Frankfurt School and the Allure of Submission

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.
~Erich Fromm

Since at least the advent of modernity and liberalism, tremendous emphasis has been placed on the importance of human freedom. For classical liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, freedom was the fundamental characteristic of human beings; at the center of all our practical moral action. The American and French Revolutionaries both invoked the infringement of liberty to justify the overthrow of existing tyrannical orders. And, today, political culture is saturated with references to the importance of making choices, living life as one see’s fit, and non-coercion by the state. Socialists in the Jacobin and conservatives at the National Review debate what is really necessary to secure freedom, but none disputes its importance.

Each of these positions relies upon the belief that human freedom is either basic to our nature, essential for the realization of our moral potential, or both. But if this is true, then what explains the appeal of totalitarianism? One of the great intellectual efforts undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War was to try and figure out why so many people would willingly surrender their freedom, and even exult in submission, in order to commit murder on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Countless artists, philosophers, sociologists and economists have provided explanations. One of the deepest accounts come from the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, who had a dark and melancholic interpretation of what happened.

The Human Yearning for Submission

I have discussed the Frankfurt School in some detail here before, so will largely refrain from rehearsing their history. Most were refugees from Nazi Germany, particularly Jews such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who fled across Europe or to the United States to avoid persecution and death. As the full horror of Nazi crimes became ever more apparent, they adapted their philosophical synthesis of psychoanalytic and Marxist theory in an effort to understand why millions of Germans and European collaborators submitted with very little resistance to what Hannah Arendt would call “the banality of evil.” Their conclusions are sobering.

For Erich Fromm, author of Escape from Freedom, the mistake many liberal theorists made was to presume that people actually want to be free. At a conscious and public level, they will of course protest that this is the case. But at a deeper psychological level, he argued, there lies a yearning to escape the burdens of liberty. This is in part because, from a very early age, we are inculcated with a sense of dependence on authority figures, ranging from our parents to the state. These are often not malicious forces, and may indeed be motivated by love and the child’s interests. But many of us fail to ever truly outgrow this dependence on various forms of authority to provide us with a sense of direction and purpose. Many of us submit to these authorities because pleasing them provides a profound sense of meaning to life. Gratification of authorities associated with the super-ego becomes a source of pleasure, as we push aside our own desires and submit to the imperatives of our culture or political system. Without such an attachment to authority we feel we are thrown into adulthood with no sense of direction or purpose in life, forced into the most horrible situation of all: having to choose our path for ourselves. This necessary part of individuation (that is, the process of becoming an individual human being) and maturity is extremely alienating and difficult. As Fromm put it:

The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. The primary ties offer security and basic unity with the world outside oneself. To the extent to which the child emerges from that world it becomes aware of being alone, of being an entity separate from all others. This separation from a world, which in comparison with one’s own individual existence is overwhelmingly strong and powerful, and often threatening and dangerous, creates a feeling of powerlessness and anxiety. As long as one was an integral part of that world, unaware of the possibilities and responsibilities of individual action, one did not need to be afraid of it. When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

As we struggle to get through these early periods of alienation integral to individuation, the desire for a simpler period when we were not faced with the “possibilities and responsibilities of individual action” rarely fades entirely. This problem is exacerbated in modern (now post-modern) societies, in which, as Max Horkheimer pointed out in Eclipse of Reason, many of us are educated to think in terms of instrumental reason. That is to say, our education focuses on providing us with intellectual tools to help us better pursue our goals, with little emphasis placed on indicating what goals are actually worth pursuing. This produces individuals who are uncertain and adrift, leading many to seek consolation in the easy pleasures offered by consumerism and the manufactured entertainment of Adorno’s culture industry. They are never fully able to complete the process of individuation because they do not know what to commit their lives to beyond the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the competitive struggle for economic advancement.

In such a situation, we cannot even define who we truly are because we cannot determine what goals to pursue to give genuine form and texture to life. This leads to a yearning—particularly acute in times of personal or socio-political crisis—for the return of an authority which can tell us who were are and what to do. The example these theorists had in mind was of course the economic downturn provoked by the Great Depression and the consequent political instability. These developments wracked the fragile Weimar Republic and created the perfect conditions for this yearning for submission to authority to radicalize.

The Unbearable Nature of Freedom

In such times of crisis, what Fromm calls the “authoritarian personality” begins to emerge, characterized by a combination of sadism and masochism. The authoritarian comes to believe that the reason for their sense of alienation is the fundamental disorder of the world. Reality presents itself as something which is entirely beyond control of individual action—frightening and overwhelming. The authoritarian personality, therefore, wants the power to control existence, but also to be freed of the agony of deciding what to do with that control. Choice just presents more chaotic possibilities, and the authoritarian personality wants no part of such responsibilities. They therefore search for a form of order to which they can submit, which often takes the form of a totalitarian movement. Totalitarians promise to provide the sense of order and purpose missing from the lives of proto-authoritarians by paradoxically liberating them from the burden of freedom with demands for absolute conformity. They also offer them the power to control the world by eliminating all the elements within it that do not conform to the order they demand.

This brings us to the most despairing feature of Frankfurt thinking about freedom; under the right conditions many of us do not want it for ourselves or others. Freedom naturally brings with it the possibility of chaos. If I have to choose for myself what to do, there is always a good chance I will choose incorrectly and make a mess of my life. For a true individual, this possibility is to be accepted or even welcomed since it is our mistakes as much as our successes which define us. That is too high a risk for proto-authoritarians. It is far easier and safer to submit to authority and its promises to order your life for you. Rather like Adolph Eichmann, who Arendt argued had abandoned his will and capacity to think independently entirely to the party he served. The result is, as Herbert Marcuse might have put it, the flattening of the human personality and capacity to reason to one dimension.

Nor does the authoritarian personality want anyone else to have freedom. This is because if other people are free to do as they please, they too are capable of bringing disorder into your life through actions which you cannot control. Such sentiments become especially pronounced when we encounter those who do not look or act like us, and who can trigger acute anxieties about what their intentions. In Nazi Germany, the specter of Jewish and foreign conspiracies was constantly invoked to generate anxiety and a sense of chaotic disintegration. Jewish Germans and foreign elements were blamed for everything that went wrong in society, leading the Nazi party to demand ever more power, and to impose ever greater restrictions on the population to combat their influence. As Slavoj Zizek often points out, this even included making transparently self-contradictory claims about these foreign elements. Jews were simultaneously presented as both sub-human and in control of a vast conspiracy to control the globe. They were both insignificant and a massive threat to German hegemony. Any reasonably individuated person would notice this contradiction and insist that no rational person can accept it. But in a society where even thinking in a manner which did not conform to the interests of the totalitarian party could result in one’s imprisonment and destruction, who would dare express such opinions?

On Death and Love

For Fromm, Horkheimer, and Adorno, this project could only end in a desire for mass death. This is because, in a nihilistic sense, death is the ultimate form of order, stripped of all the anxieties and challenges which come with life. Life, after all, is possibility. And possibility is fundamentally linked to our freedom to decide to change our course, to not conform and take the path less travelled. This is intolerable to the authoritarian personality, who ultimately decides the only way to truly eliminate all dangerous possibilities is to eradicate life itself. One sees this calcified “philosophy” materialized in the mechanical ordering of the Nazi concentration camp system. Endless trains of living beings were efficiently moved across continents to giant factories of death where they could be processed, enslaved, and finally liquidated. In the end, the totalitarian demand for order in death even turned on itself. In the final days of Nazi Germany, when the whole world closed in on Berlin, Hitler demanded the destruction of German infrastructure and ranted about how his people had failed him and deserved to be cast onto the ash heap of history.

For Fromm, the only way to truly individuate and avoid the temptations of authoritarianism is through sincere love for others and the world. One of his great insights was to point out how difficult this can be. In The Art of Loving, Fromm observes that most of us do not truly care for others. We use and manipulate others for our own purposes, even trying to remold those closest to us to better satisfy our needs. This demonstrates how the kernel of the authoritarian personality can be found even in our most subtle and intimate relations with others; it can be intolerable to truly let those we profess to care about be free. And so we waste our own freedom in a vain attempt to control them; often from fear that they will abandon or disappoint us. To truly love, one must be willing to allow other people to be who they are. And it also means accepting our own fundamental inability to remake the world as we wish. This of course means risking a great deal, but the alternative is far more desolate.


Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

Featured Image: WikiCommons


  1. I do not think it is a mistake to presume that people actually want to be free. I think the mistake is assuming that a yearning to be free implies altruistic motives. I submit most who advocate for freedom do so selfishly without seeing how interconnected freedom actually is. So “A” can advocate for his right to use marijuana while simultaneously working to restrict his neighbor’s right to own firearms. In other words as long as the Nazis don’t come for me, I don’t care. Eventually the Nazis do come for you or you simply abide by the Nazis out of fear from what you have witnessed done to others. It is somewhat counterintuitive but one’s freedom may be intertwined with the freedom of his enemy.

    Another factor is the appeal to the public good. The authoritarian couches all in terms of the public good. However one quickly learns the public good is a euphemism for the good of the authoritarian and at the expense of the individual or the minority. Herein lies the problem with focusing on the collective over the individual. The collective promises utopia and freedom from chaos which sounds wonderful until the collective turns on you.

  2. Once again, McManus scrupulously avoids mention of left-wing totalitarianism, rendering this, his latest offering, as tendentious as most all his other work.

  3. Open question for the author or anyone else:

    Studying the causes and effects of the holocaust is a worthwhile pursuit but why are the 15 million Chinese who died as a result of the Japanese occupation and internment camps often forgotten? Weren’t there actually two holocausts during this time period?

  4. For Marxist true believers like Fromm (and McManus, the author of this essay) everything but socialism (which has never truly existed according to them) is fascism. I believe when Fromm and the other Frankfurt school theorists finally “gave up hope” on the Soviet Union in the Fifties, they simply called it fascism, i.e. not true socialism. The pattern of these people is predictable and tiresome.

  5. Exactly right. All ideologies are ‘fascistic’ in a general sense, and one of the most fascistic ideologies ever is Marxism itself.

  6. Speaking of Fromm, who writes very beautifully about love, here is a paean he composed two years after publishing The Art of Loving, in which he heaps praises upon Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, proclaiming that they represent the “flowering of Western humanity,” that they were “unselfish and with little vanity or lust for power,” and that “whatever they touched became alive.” Trotsky in particular Fromm calls a “deeply loving man”, and quotes from the great man’s diary: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and vileness, and enjoy it to the full.”

    It’s worth recalling, in this connection, that Trotsky wrote in 1920 a book entitled The Defence of Terrorism. “The road to Socialism,” he writes, “lies through a period of the highest possible intensification of the principle of the State … The State, before disappearing, assumes the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the most ruthless form of State, which embraces the life of the citizens authoritatively in every direction.”

    To which Kolakowski, the great Marxist apostate, comments: “It would be difficult indeed to put the matter more plainly. The state of the proletarian dictatorship is depicted by Trotsky as a huge permanent concentration camp in which the government exercises absolute power over every aspect of the citizens’ lives and in particular decides how much work they shall do, of what kind and in what places. Individuals are nothing but labour units. Compulsion is universal, and any organization that is not part of the state must be its enemy, thus the enemy of the proletariat. All this, of course, is in the name of an ideal realm of freedom, the advent of which is expected after an indefinite lapse of historical time.”

    All this, that is, in the name of love.

  7. Ah, how mistaken you are: liberalism is the ideology of the individual.

  8. I’m afraid that’s the only reason they’re published here: a misguided journalistic attempt to appear “balanced” and respectable. But regardless of how many doting articles on marxist intellectuals by McManus it posts, Quillette will continue to be routinely dismissed as a “right-wing rag” by those beholden, often for professional reasons, to official ideologies. I wouldn’t much mind if McManus’ articles weren’t so misleading. It’s irritating that he doesn’t just admit his marxist faith in the coming end of history. Instead he puts on airs of disinterested objectivity.

  9. You want an honest opinion?

    China went Communist and the West won the cold war- and Japan’s part of the West. So’s Israel.

  10. Not much of a victory.

    As I’ve quoted this before:

    Another vital root of today’s “woke” ideologies lies in perhaps the most overlooked development of the last 30 years: the Soviet Union’s collapse, which was met with a stunning intellectual indolence, from Washington to academia. What followed the USSR’s demise was the first left-wing movement in history to oppose the Enlightenment. Ironically, it was French thinkers, from Michel Foucault to Jacques Lacan, who reduced the idea of truth to the status of a social construct. In effect, the realities of Communist failure were obscured by the mystifications of postmodernism. “It was as if,” notes Hilton Kramer, “an intellectual Iron Curtain of highly sophisticated mendacity had been erected in anticipation of the fall of the actual Iron Curtain in order to forestall any prospect of a moral reckoning.” Kramer argued that a serious audit of Communism’s crimes would have shut the door on utopia, but postmodernism succeeded in sidestepping the mass graves. A moral reckoning never occurred. Instead, postmodernists have made numerous attempts to rescue utopia—this time constructed out of the Lego-like building blocks of intersectionality.

  11. De Toqueville is good on this. Here he is talking about Americans.

    “The hatred which men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become more scarce and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely at the very time when they have least fuel. I have already given the reason of this phenomenon. When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye; whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity: the more complete is this uniformity, the more insupportable does the sight of such a difference become. Hence it is natural that the love of equality should constantly increase together with equality itself, and that it should grow by what it feeds upon. This never-dying, everkindling hatred, which sets a democratic people against the smallest privileges, is peculiarly favorable to the gradual concentration of all political rights in the hands of the representative of the State alone. The sovereign, being necessarily and incontestably above all the citizens, excites not their envy, and each of them thinks that he strips his equals of the prerogative which he concedes to the crown. The man of a democratic age is extremely reluctant to obey his neighbor who is his equal; he refuses to acknowledge in such a person ability superior to his own; he mistrusts his justice, and is jealous of his power; he fears and he contemns him; and he loves continually to remind him of the common dependence in which both of them stand to the same master. Every central power which follows its natural tendencies courts and encourages the principle of equality; for equality singularly facilitates, extends, and secures the influence of a central power.”

    So it’s not that they identify with the State, not completely. The State to them is just kind of like a benevolent parent. It’s a kind of childlike mentality in relation to the State.

    Here’s something else (from an academic paper) on de Toqueville’s notion that power becomes increasingly centralized in the State in democratic times. In our current climate of “inequality for the sake of equality” (equity) I think it’s particularly germane.

    “Tocqueville’s understanding of the tendency of democratic ideas to concentrate power in the hands of the sovereign can be summarized accordingly: the democratic love of equality leads men to seek a sovereign that serves all subjects in an equal way. They therefore prefer uniform legislation and willingly surrender social power to the state. Economic interests in democracies lead individuals or groups to seek special treatment from government to further their own causes, and hence the central power spreads as it becomes entangled with the commercial endeavors of its citizens. The privileges granted to some are felt and despised by others out of their love of equality, and these citizens look to the government to rectify these injustices of privilege. This appeal to government to level the playing field in fact gathers yet more power into the sovereign’s hand. It is important to note that all three stages of this ‘‘cycle’’ serve to concentrate power into the hands of the central government. Moreover, the cycle begins and ends with the love of equality. To simplify: it begins with equality, sees the emergence of inequality, and rights itself back to equality—all the while aggregating power in the central authority.”

  12. “Something more is going on. There are too many forces that have an interest in spreading this mindset,”

    It seems that “something more” is a powerful but barely scrutable force which is working through our mass psychology. I hear this business about postmodernism being passe and I am familiar with some of the new baroque reactions, but I totally agree that its seductive power yet predominates - I believe it’s somewhere in Matthew where it says “ye shall judge them by their fruits”.

    I personally see very little coming out of academia which deals with the elemental issues. All of modernism (and postmodernism is, in my opinion, the sclerotic priestly phase of modernism) I believe isn’t so much grounded on the Death of God as it is the denial of the Tao, the denial of the Logos etc. Is reality unified or not? Leibniz’s God and the death of Leibniz’s god reflect a common mentality.

    As far as LSD and mystical experiences, I think you are correct insofar as such experiences have been misunderstood and become abstractions, forms of mystical tourism. An inordinate fascination with Buddhism, deep ecology etc are other examples of the stupification which arises in an unprepared and fragmented mind (notice how virtually all these people end up being Progressives). This need not be the case.

  13. I’m using the word fragmentation so suggest an inability to apprehend the whole. This is manifest in the modern world in many ways. The rise of science means we know the world by breaking it into pieces and then we remake the world out of the pieces. Modern human consciousness is an adaptation to that world – ideology, skepticism, so-called critical thinking all reflect this.

    Postmodernism carries the processes of fragmentation to its final solution – it demystifies, deconstructs, debunks everything (even science itself) until nothing is left but the pure subjective will of the individual – any and all attempts at a “metanarrative” are delusory self serving excercises of power. Progressives are simply carrying out the logical political consequences of these “truths”. We must “celebrate diversity”, we must insure all outcomes to be equal, or as you say, we must insure “there will be no reality imposed on us”.

    As we see this progressive vision is full of contradictions, absurdities and inevitably totalitarian: The new metanarrative is there will be no more metanarratives; in order to insure there will be no hierarchies there must be new bureaucratic hierarchies; all ideas are equal and the idea that all ideas are equal is the most equal of all; reason and logic are tricks used to maintain power etc. And how is the celebration of diversity anything but the celebration of fragmentation?

    While you are correct that such thinking is “trying to force down our throats” a single vision of reality, I think that vision of reality is based on the elementally unknowable fragmented universe not the unified universe suggested by the Tao or Heraclitus’ Logos, or Spinoza’s God. This is a purely nihilistic vision – there is nothing outside of us which requires recognition. To acknowledge the Tao is to acknowledge the necessity of accommodating ourselves to forces greater than ourselves. Emerson said everyone is capable of an original relationship to the universe which is not the same thing as saying everyone can make up their own universe.

    I wholly agree that “mysticism for the masses” is not a good idea. New Agey experiences of Oneness have been appropriated somehow for progressive causes. But I question the validity of transforming a mystical experience into an ideological program. Historically, such mystical experiences when articulated appeared as myth which accepts the necessity and persistence of conflict and paradox.

  14. Thanks for your very thoughtful response much of which I agree with. I think you raise an important and neglected topic. It’s easy to dismiss the absurdities of political progressives but don’t all kinds of high minded people like David Bohm ultimately end up in the same place? As much as I agree with your observations, however, I think we are using certain terms in different ways.

    To begin with David Bohm is by no means my inspiration for my ideas on this particular matter. As I think I mentioned, I haven’t actually read any Bohm in a number of years. I do admire his comments on the nature of science and I think he does have a strong “theoretic” sense of the wholeness of reality. However, I think he makes the not uncommon mistake of transforming that original presumption of unity into a kind of theoretical social program – as you accurately point out. Bohm’s colleague Albert Einstein does much the same thing when he calls for some kind of world government to deal with nuclear proliferation etc. Neither Bohm nor Einstein seems to have a very profound understanding of the origins and nature of human culture.

    You make an interesting and valid connection between the postmodern vision and Bohm’s own social vision. Ultimately they both look to impose a a kind of unified vision onto reality, but I believe they lack a unified understanding of how human cultures arise. I’m not disagreeing that they both seek a kind of unity but this is a unity which does not account for the whole, a kind of pseudo unity.

    Apparently both Bohm and the postmodernists emphasize a kind of epistemological relativism – the acknowledging of many perspectives - and from this they dismiss the notion of a metanarrative as futile and oppressive. They take this epistemological relativism as “true” and they logically deduce what they think a fair and just society should look like.

    It was actually Nietzsche who inspired this whole business of perspectivism and both Bohm’s and the postmodern interpretation I believe are vulgarizations of Nietzsche’s view. Nietzsche understood that individuals had varying perspectives and that there was not one “true” perspective, but he aspired (and he urged modern man) to a greater and more powerful perspective by appropriating many perspectives. Nietzsche understood this was a creative and unifying act of the imagination. We humans are forms of energy (will to power) existing in a greater sea of energy. We give form and order to our lives by an act of the imagination which involves the acceptance and transformation of forces greater than ourselves. This is Nietzsche “tragic world view” – all human ideas are poetic and limited.

    In contrast, accepting the primacy of the truth of “epistemological skepticism” leads to certain logical conclusions – all metanarrative are dead, all human discriminations which separate us are arbitrary, there is no one truth etc- So shouldn’t we all accept this and get on with the business of constructing a just society? And here’s where George Orwell is rolling over in his grave: The new metanarrative is: There are No More Metanarratives. The new dominant perspective is: The Perspective which Honors All Perspectives Equally. The new absolute truth is: There is No AbsoluteTruth. The only non oppressive idea is to recognize the oppressiveness of all ideas – this is what I understand as “woke”.

    This new society does not arise from a creative act of transformation of the forces of nature, this new society arises as an act of ideation – after all doesn’t reality consists of human ideas? This is what I’m calling fragmented because it does not acknowledge that we are one with forces greater than ourselves. This is what Nietzsche calls a “theoretic world view”- human ideas make or control reality. We may be alienated from nature but at least we can control and manipulate it to be fair to everybody. Modern man, in effect, trades meaning for power.

    Nietzsche, unlike his postmodern followers, realizes the absurdity of this position. To try and construct a society presuming no meaningful forces greater than ourselves is an act of nihilism. Reality takes a form and we exist as forms within this form whether we acknowledge it or not. A metanarrative historically is simply a story or myth which attempts to comprehensively describe reality, to give reality a shape which helps us survive . This is what Nietzsche aspires to with his appropriation of many perspectives – he aspires to a powerful comprehensive and unifying description of reality. Nietzsche aspires to embrace and acknowledge all of reality (amor fati), to accept there is no life without death, no evil without good etc. This is what Nietzsche means by overcoming nihilism. This involves willingly making discriminations, defining “horizons” and defining who we are and what we value. To denounce the making of discriminations as somehow evil, to pronounce the end of metanarratives, to affirm liberation as a good in itself is simply to accept a state of idiocy and impotence This is why Nietzsche ridicules “the last man” - The last man presumes to have escaped nature and history but as he fantasizes about equality and happiness he is merely impotent as he resigns himself to his alienated and fragmented state.

    So I’m using the word fragmentation to describe our modern inability to apprehend ourselves as continuous with forces greater than ourselves. As I said before: fragmentation reflects an inability to see the whole. Postmodern progressives, David Bohm or anyone else who believes that we can simply logically come up with some just vision reflects, in my opinion, an extreme state of psychological fragmentation. These are vain “total” ideas, totalitarian ideas. And I believe the likes of Matt McManus and John Rawls operate on the assumption that our social order is primarily a theoretical event.

  15. I dont’ think it’s a mistake to assume people want to be free, either. And I would agree that this yearning is essentially selfish. But i think the author is correct in asserting that freedom implies responsibility and “aloneness” that is too intimidating for many. They retreat to a comfortable confinement instead. Doesn’t mean they don’t want freedom, they just lack the courage to pay the price for it. Kind of describes today’s society, doesn’t it? Give me all the goodies, just don’t make me work for them. Give me all the freedoms, just don’t make me fight for them. Real freedom is being one’s own agent, making the decisions, accepting the outcome.

    This is, obviously, not a new idea. “those that would surrender their freedom for security deserve neither.” So said a founding father.

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