Sunday, October 10, 2010

Guest Post: Fromm’s Socialist Program, Written in 1959 or 1960

Many academic scholars and many socialists may not know that Erich Fromm, perhaps the most famous social psychologist of the 20th Century, was a Marxist, writing “Let Man Prevail: A Socialist Manifesto and Program.” He wrote it for the Socialist Party (SP-SDF) in 1960. Here is some background. Of course, some of this may come as a surprise to those who have fallen for a caricature of Fromm: Wasn’t he once an early scientific leader of the Frankfurt School but later a disconnected “flake” praising Buddha, Jesus, Marx and Socrates, all as exemplars of some “art of loving”? But the caricature is a slander. Actually Fromm was always a science-minded, clear-headed organizer -- a socialist humanist and an organizer -- at least that is my Erich Fromm.
The Manifesto/Program was not adopted by the SP-SDF, although the party reprinted it at least three times in the 1960s. It was written roughly during the time Fromm was writing his classic Marx’s Concept of Man, and he was on the National Committee of the SP at the time.

With SANE already founded, partially named after Fromm’s earlier book, The Sane Society, there was an intense blip of public resistance to the 1950s “dog days” of hiding from McCarthyism. This new public resistance/peace movement worked in combination with the emerging civil rights movement: Coretta Scott King, for example, was also a founder of SANE. SANE began openly opposing the bomb shelter scam, a mass delusion that after nuclear explosions some of us could survive hiding underground and emerge later to start the world over. [My dad, incidentally, went to jail in 1961 for protesting bomb shelters – making front page of the Tacoma, Washington daily paper.] This is the period in which Fromm wrote his Manifesto/Program.

Let me briefly elaborate this peace movement aspect of Fromm’s work. In the 1950s, America was hardly a freely thinking society. There was McCarthy in Washington, and every state legislature had a little McCarthy to match him. There were witch-hunts in universities, and as we all know, Hollywood had a red scare where many progressive artists, like Charlie Chaplin, left the country or quit the industry. There was an arms race, brinkmanship, and glorification of big bombers and big bombs. There was “ethnic cleansing” against Mexican Americans in 1954 (The Government’s “Operation Wetback”), and southern states ferociously defended Jim Crow segregation. Because this was such a chilling time for social critics, it should not be underestimated how important a new open peace movement was in the late 1950s. (This was culturally a long time before the widely accepted 1965 to 1972 peace movement.) But by 1960, SANE was holding numerous rallies with some Hollywood figures coming out of Hollywood’s political seclusion: Marylyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Harry Belafonte, and Ossie Davis; and other prominent figures were emerging to face the insanity of the arms race: Dr. Benjamin Spock, Walter Reuther, Pablo Casals, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, and Norman Thomas emerging to speak together.) Of course the late 1950s was also still a dangerous time, with the FBI nuts, with Bobby Kennedy’s witch hunts against unions, and with state-level investigating committees against subversives, and with the John Birch Society and other rightist and racist groups skulking. So SANE becoming public was important psychologically, challenging the bizarre mentality of fleeing into the ground as a form of insanity.

Because the Communist Party was a shell of its previous self and was trying to recover from its semi-underground status during the McCarthy period, and because it was trying to digest the shocking “revelations” about Stalin in the 1956 Soviet Congress and the rebellions in the East Bloc, they had been reduced to hoping desperately (and fruitlessly, for the most part) to be accepted by the Democratic Party. The Trotskyists had done poorly in the 1950s too -- the term “dog days “ comes from James Cannon and was originally used to refer to a period in the 1920s -- and there were deep splits in Trotskyist ranks. Fromm was on the national committee of the merged Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, which had also had a difficult time and was looking for ways to regroup, and he had already been in correspondence (at least 50 letters in his lifetime), which lasted to his death, with Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of the still-active-today News and Letters left group, whose newspaper’s editor was a black auto worker.

I think what Fromm was trying to do with his new Manifesto/Program, which he hoped would be discussed in unions and left groups, was to provide a rallying cry to all leftists to come out of the 1950’s hole and to try something different than repeating the ineffectual “party-building” (“recruitment”) and sectarian proclivities of their recent past. He was hoping the left could work together to involve masses in socialist planning discussions, with discussions on educational reform, critiques of bureaucracy, etc. (Fromm reissued this basic proposal later, in 1968, as Toward a Revolution of Hope, with an explicit warning that voting Democrat or Republican in 1968 would not be a step in the right direction. (Fromm co-signed a statement with Herbert Marcuse and others that year criticizing dependence on the Democratic Party.) Revolution of Hope included a little clip-out page in the back of the book to mail back to him if workers or others would be willing to work with him to form a new network of “clubs.”

Marx’s Concept of Man in 1961 is the companion piece to the Manifesto/Program and is one of Fromm’s greatest achievements, spreading the word about the “early Marx” and locating Marx in a philosophical tradition that Fromm and Dunayevskaya were each calling Humanism. The “early” Marx, with his talk about “alienation” and our separation from our “species being,” was not accepted well by the old left. The Communist Party was going through one of its intense anti-intellectual phases, burrowing into trade union practice and focusing on telling the workers how money is being taken right out of their mouths and hands by the capitalists every day. You don’t need to know some humanist tradition of thought to get the workers angry about that, they figured. But still Fromm had immense influence, among second-level academic and church layers and the peace movement. Fromm had an impact internationally too, being one of the few people quoted in Paulo Freire’s Latin American classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And Fromm was the organizer of a momentous international symposium, creating the book Socialist Humanism, with East Bloc intellectuals in 1965; in the book, he contributed an article as did Dunayevskaya and Norman Thomas.

Fromm, from his 1960 Program/Manifesto to the 1965 Socialist Humanism Symposium, provided a powerful critique of Western “democracy” removed from its humanist “spiritual” roots, from the Renaissance to the Abolitionists. “Democracy” had been reduced to stale and oppressive rituals of rigged slates. And Manifesto/Program provided an implied critique of East Bloc “socialism” and of the left’s destructive bureaucratic cant about “party loyalty,” and its attachment to simple “trade union solidarity” -- I’ll scratch your back if you remember to scratch mine and “buy American” -- and offered an implied criticism of intellectual “service” to the cause matching worker production.
Fromm’s Manifesto/Program is reprinted in a later book by Fromm, Disobedience.
[A longer version of this piece by Nick Braune was presented at the 2008 Radical Philosophy Conference in San Francisco.]

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