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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 48 November 25, 2023

The Authoritarian Personality | Erich Fromm

Saturday 25 November 2023


by Erich Fromm

What do we mean by “authoritarian personality”? We usually see a clear difference between the individual who wants to rule, control, or restrain others and the individual who tends to submit, obey, or to be humiliated. To use a somewhat friendlier term, we might talk of the leader and his followers. As natural as the difference between the ruling and the ruled might — in many ways — be, we also have to admit that these two types, or as we can also say, these two forms of authoritarian personality are actually tightly bound together.

What they have in common, what defines the essence of the authoritarian personality is an inability: the inability to rely on one’s self, to be independent, to put it in other words: to endure freedom.

The opposite of the authoritarian character is the mature person: a person who does not need to cling to others because he actively embraces and grasps the world, the people, and the things around him. What does that mean? Children still need to cling. In their mother’s womb they are — in a physical sense — one with their mother. After birth, for several months and in many ways even for years, they remain — in a psychological sense — still a part of their mother. Children could not exist without the mother’s help. However, they grow and develop. They learn to walk, to talk, and find their way around the world which becomes their world. Children possess two skills, inherent to the individual, which they can develop: love and reason.

Love is the bond and the feeling of being one with the world while keeping one’s own independence and integrity. The loving individual is connected with the world. He is not frightened since the world is his home. He can lose himself because he is certain of himself.

Love means recognizing the world as an emotional experience. However, there is also another way of recognizing, understanding with the mind. We call this kind of understanding reason. It is different from Intelligence. Intelligence is using the mind to reach certain practical goals. A chimpanzee demonstrates intelligence when he sees a banana in front of his cage but cannot reach it with either one of the two sticks in his cage, then he joins both sticks and gets the banana. This is the intelligence of the animal, which is the same manipulating intelligence that we usually call understanding when talking of people. Reason is something else. Reason is the activity of the mind which attempts to get through the surface to reach the core of things, to grasp what really lies behind these things, what the forces and drives are that — themselves invisible — operate and determine the manifestations.

I have given this description of the mature, i.e. the loving and reasoning individual to better define the essence of the authoritarian personality. The authoritarian character has not reached maturity; he can neither love nor make use of reason. As a result, he is extremely alone which means that he is gripped by a deeply rooted fear. He needs to feel a bond, which requires neither love nor reason — and he finds it in the symbiotic relationship, in feeling-one with others; not by reserving his own identity, but rather by fusing, by destroying his own identity. The authoritarian character needs another person to fuse with because he cannot endure his own aloneness and fear.

But here we reach the boundaries of what both forms of the authoritarian character — the ruling and the ruled — have in common.

The passive-authoritarian, or in other words, the masochistic and submissive character aims — at least subconsciously — to become a part of a larger unit, a pendant, a particle, at least a small one, of this “great” person, this “great” institution, or this “great” idea. The person, institution, or idea may actually be significant, powerful, or just incredibly inflated by the individual believing in them. What is necessary, is that — in a subjective manner — the individual is convinced that “his” leader, party, state, or idea is all-powerful and supreme, that he himself is strong and great, that he is a part of something “greater.” The paradox of this passive form of the authoritarian character is: the individual belittles himself so that he can — as part of something greater — become great himself. The individual wants to receive commands, so that he does not have the necessity to make decisions and carry responsibility. This masochistic individual looking for dependency is in his depth frightened -often only subconsciously — a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness, aloneness. Because of this, he is looking for the “leader,” the great power, to feel safe and protected through participation and to overcome his own inferiority. Subconsciously, he feels his own powerlessness and needs the leader to control this feeling. This masochistic and submissive individual, who fears freedom and escapes into idolatry, is the person on which the authoritarian systems — Nazism and Stalinism — rest.

More difficult than understanding the passive-authoritarian, masochistic character is understanding the active-authoritarian, the sadistic character. To his followers he seems self-confident and powerful but yet he is as frightened and alone as the masochistic character. While the masochist feels strong because he is a small part of something greater, the sadist feels strong because he has incorporated others — if possible many others; he has devoured them, so to speak. The sadistic-authoritarian character is as dependent on the ruled as the masochistic -authoritarian character on the ruler. However the image is misleading. As long as he holds power, the leader appears — to himself and to others — strong and powerful. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost his power, when he can no longer devour others, when he is on his own.

When I speak of sadism as the active side of the authoritarian personality, many people may be surprised because sadism is usually understood as the tendency to torment and to cause pain. But actually, this is not the point of sadism. The different forms of sadism which we can observe have their root in a striving, which is to master and control another individual, to make him a helpless object of one’s will, to become his ruler, to dispose over him as one sees fit and without limitations. Humiliation and enslavement are just means to this purpose, and the most radical means to this is to make him suffer; as there is no greater power over a person than to make him suffer, to force him to endure pains without resistance.

The fact that both forms of the authoritarian personality can be traced back to one final common point — the symbiotic tendency — demonstrates why one can find both the sadistic and masochistic component in so many authoritarian personalities. Usually, only the objects differ. We all have heard of the family tyrant, who treats his wife and children in an sadistic manner but when he faces his superior in the office he becomes the submissive employee. Or to name a better known example: Hitler. He was driven by the desire to rule all, the German nation and finally the world, to make them powerless objects of his will. And still, this same man was extremely dependent; dependent on the masses’ applause, on his advisers’ approval, and on what he called the higher power of nature, history, and fate. He employed pseudo-religious formulations to express these ideas when for example he said: “the heaven stands above the nation, as one can fortunately mislead man, but not heaven.” However, the power that impressed Hitler more than history, god, or fate was nature. Contrary to the tendency of the last four hundred years to dominate nature, Hitler insisted that one can and should dominate man but never nature. In him, we find this characteristic mixture of sadistic and masochistic tendencies of an authoritarian personality: the nature is the great power which we have to submit to, but the living being is there to be dominated by us.

However, we can hardly close the topic of the authoritarian personality without talking about a problem that is cause for a lot of misunderstandings. When recognition of authority is masochism and its practice sadism, does that mean that all authority contains something pathological? This question fails to make a very significant distinction between rational and irrational authority. Rational authority is the recognition of authority based on critical evaluation of competences. When a student recognizes the teacher’s authority to know more than him, then this a reasonable evaluation of his competence. The same is the case, when I as the passenger of a ship recognize the authority of the captain to make the right and necessary decisions if in danger. Rational authority is not based on excluding my reason and critique but rather assumes it as a prerequisite. This does not make me small and the authority great but allows authority to be superior where and as long it possesses competence.

Irrational authority is different. It is based on emotional submission of my person to another person: I believe in him being right, not because he is, objectively speaking, competent nor because I rationally recognize his competence. In the bonds to the irrational authority, there exists a masochistic submission by making myself small and the authority great. I have to make it great, so that I can — as one of its particles — can also become great. The rational authority tends to negate itself, because the more I understand the smaller the distance to the authority becomes. The irrational authority tends to deepen and to prolong itself. The longer and the more dependent I am the weaker I will become and the more I will need to cling to the irrational authority and submit.

All the great dictatorial movements of our times were (and are) based on irrational authority. Its driving forces were the submissive individual’s feeling of powerlessness, fear, and admiration for the “leader.” All the great and fruitful cultures are founded on the existence of rational authority: on people, who are able to muster the given functions intellectually and socially and have therefore no need to appeal to irrational desires.

But I do not want to close without emphasizing that the individual’s goal must be to become his own authority; i.e. to have a consciousness in moral issues, conviction in questions of intellect, and fidelity in emotional matters. However, the individual can only have such an inner authority if he has matured enough

First published: in Deutsche Universitätszeitung, Band 12 (Nr. 9, 1957), pp. 3-4

Translated: by Florian Nadge;

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