The Authoritarian Personality by Erich Fromm 1957

Erich Fromm 1957

The Authoritarian Personality
First published: in Deutsche Universitätszeitung, Band 12 (Nr. 9, 1957), pp. 3-4; Translated: by Florian Nadge; CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011. 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
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a particle. by destroying his own identity.marxists.” the great power. The authoritarian character has not reached maturity. or this “great” idea. The individual wants to receive commands. to feel safe and protected through participation and to overcome his own 2 of 5 4/17/12 1:38 PM . in feeling-one with others. Reason is the activity of the mind which attempts to get through the surface to reach the core of things. then he joins both sticks and gets the banana. to grasp what really lies behind these things. he can neither love nor make use of reason. This is the intelligence of the animal. so that he does not have the necessity to make decisions and carry responsibility. i. state. he is looking for the “leader. or idea may actually be significant. what the forces and drives are that — themselves invisible — operate and determine the manifestations. this “great” institution. the masochistic and submissive character aims — at least subconsciously — to become a part of a larger unit. which requires neither love nor reason — and he finds it in the symbiotic relationship. I have given this description of the mature. understanding with the mind.e. As a result. institution. Intelligence is using the mind to reach certain practical goals. aloneness. a pendant.. or just incredibly inflated by the individual believing in them. But here we reach the boundaries of what both forms of the authoritarian character — the ruling and the ruled — have in common. He needs to feel a 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. of this “great” person. at least a small one. powerlessness. What is necessary. not by reserving his own identity. It is different from Intelligence. that he is a part of something “greater. or idea is all-powerful and supreme.” 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 passive-authoritarian. another way of recognizing. or in other words. The authoritarian character needs another person to fuse with because he cannot endure his own aloneness and fear. that he himself is strong and great. powerful.. party. The person. which is the same manipulating intelligence that we usually call understanding when talking of people. Because of this. This masochistic individual looking for dependency is in his depth frightened -often only subconsciously — a feeling of inferiority. he is extremely alone which means that he is gripped by a deeply rooted fear. Reason is something else. but rather by fusing. the loving and reasoning individual to better define the essence of the authoritarian personality. We call this kind of understanding reason. is that — in a subjective manner — the individual is convinced that “his” leader.The Authoritarian Personality by Erich Fromm 1957 http://www.

The different forms of sadism which we can observe have their root in a striving. when he is on his own. This masochistic and submissive individual. masochistic character is understanding the active-authoritarian. he has devoured them. and the most radical means to this is to make him suffer. When I speak of sadism as the active side of the authoritarian personality. so to speak. this same man was extremely dependent. dependent on the masses’ applause. the sadist feels strong because he has incorporated others — if possible many others. to make him a helpless object of one’s will. to dispose over him as one sees fit and without limitations. 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. The sadistic-authoritarian character is as dependent on the ruled as the masochistic -authoritarian character on the ruler. And still. He was driven by the desire to rule all. While the masochist feels strong because he is a small part of something greater. To his followers he seems self-confident and powerful but yet he is as frightened and alone as the masochistic character. inferiority. More difficult than understanding the passive-authoritarian. the sadistic character. only the objects differ. the German nation and finally the world. on his advisers’ approval. and fate. is the person on which the authoritarian systems — Nazism and Stalinism — rest. However the image is misleading. As long as he holds power.marxists. which is to master and control another individual. who fears freedom and escapes into idolatry. Usually.The Authoritarian Personality by Erich Fromm 1957 http://www.. when he can no longer devour others. many people may be surprised because sadism is usually understood as the tendency to torment and to cause pain. Or to name a better known example: Hitler.. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost his power. as there is no greater power over a person than to make him suffer. to become his ruler. history. He employed pseudo-religious formulations to express these ideas when for example he said: “the heaven stands above the nation. But actually. to make them powerless objects of his will. Humiliation and enslavement are just means to this purpose. as one can 3 of 5 4/17/12 1:38 PM . this is not the point of sadism. who treats his wife and children in an sadistic manner but when he faces his superior in the office he becomes the submissive employee. We all have heard of the family tyrant. the leader appears — to himself and to others — strong and powerful. and on what he called the higher power of nature. he feels his own powerlessness and needs the leader to control this feeling.

does that mean that all authority contains something pathological? This question fails to make a very significant distinction between rational and irrational authority. who are able to muster the given functions intellectually and socially and have therefore no need to appeal to irrational desires.e.. I have to make it great. This does not make me small and the authority great but allows authority to be superior where and as long it possesses competence. Its driving forces were the submissive individual’s feeling of powerlessness. Rational authority is the recognition of authority based on critical evaluation of competences. god. Hitler insisted that one can and should dominate man but never nature. objectively speaking. But I do not want to close without emphasizing that the individual’s goal must be to become his own authority. In him. to have a consciousness in moral issues.” All the great and fruitful cultures are founded on the existence of rational authority: on people. because the more I understand the smaller the distance to the authority becomes. When a student recognizes the teacher’s authority to know more than him. when I as the passenger of a ship recognize the authority of the captain to make the right and necessary decisions if in danger. but not heaven. there exists a masochistic submission by making myself small and the authority great. The irrational authority tends to deepen and to prolong itself.. conviction in 4 of 5 4/17/12 1:38 PM .” However. and admiration for the “leader.The Authoritarian Personality by Erich Fromm 1957 http://www. In the bonds to the irrational authority. The rational authority tends to negate itself. or fate was Irrational authority is different. then this a reasonable evaluation of his competence. i. 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. It is based on emotional submission of my person to another person: I believe in him being right. but the living being is there to be dominated by us. The same is the case. Rational authority is not based on excluding my reason and critique but rather assumes it as a prerequisite. competent nor because I rationally recognize his competence.marxists. we can hardly close the topic of the authoritarian personality without talking about a problem that is cause for a lot of misunderstandings. Contrary to the tendency of the last four hundred years to dominate nature. fear. fortunately mislead man. so that I can — as one of its particles — can also become great. When recognition of authority is masochism and its practice sadism. the power that impressed Hitler more than history. 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. not because he is. However. All the great dictatorial movements of our times were (and are) based on irrational authority.

Erich Fromm Archive 5 of 5 4/17/12 1:38 PM .The Authoritarian Personality by Erich Fromm 1957 http://www.marxists.. and fidelity in emotional matters. The development of these characteristics is the basis for one’s own authority and therefore the basis for political democracy. the individual can only have such an inner authority if he has matured enough to understand the world with reason and love. questions of intellect.

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