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New York City
October 2001

Psychoanalyst Reveals Human Destructiveness
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Not every intense fear, anger or sense of injury results in hate-filled aggression that makes itself felt in suicide bombings. “Malignant destructiveness” Erich Fromm calls it. That was over 30 years ago in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Holt Rinehart Winston), but in the wake of the horrors of September 11th Fromm’s remarkable book takes on new significance, both for what it says about the human propensity for “evil” and for what it implies about malignancy rooted in an apocalyptic theology that sanctions such killings.

Fromm, who died in 1980, was more than a psychoanalyst indebted to Freud. “Social philosopher” would be more apt. Deeply concerned about the increasing violence he saw in the world, particularly manifest in the psychic cripples, Stalin, Himmler and Hitler (Fromm’s chapters on them are particularly fascinating), Fromm set out to analyze theories about man’s persistent inhumanity to man: is man evil by nature or by nurture? Does evidence lie primarily with the Konrad Lorenz instinctivists or with the Skinner behaviorists? With a fairness not often found in passionate research, Fromm, who admirably concedes what he does not or cannot know, tips toward those who argue that malignant aggression is not innate.

A substantive part of this scholarly but readable inquiry into the causes and sadistic, egomaniacal manifestations of aggression is historical, overlaid with psychoanalytic theory that could easily be called revisionist Freudian were it not for the fact that, as Fromm shows, Freud revised himself, most notably in Civilization and Its Discontents, coming to believe that the death instinct was more primary than the Oedipal.

It is impossible and dishonorable to reduce Fromm’s deeply complex and extensive thesis to a few hundred words, but pressed to do so this is it: Man, alone of mammals, is the only primate who feels intense pleasure in killing and torturing, but not all men, not all cultures, not all times prove that man is instinctively, pathologically aggressive. Early primates lived in manageable, relatively war-free matriarchal societies, but the more civilized man became, the more aggression went from “benign” (natural) to “malignant” (vengeful). Man is an existential animal, gifted with reason and imagination that make him aware of his environment and self-aware of his freakish separation from it, the only animal in the animal kingdom that knows that birth is an accident and death inevitable.

Man longs for lasting oneness, unable to achieve. Most work out their passions, but those who don’t revert to instinctive ways and become the very unifying gods or idols created to save them from themselves. Such men are not mad but narcissistic, necrophiliac, delivering “justice,” seeking revenge, clever enough to exploit and manipulate masses living under intolerable conditions. For such destructive messiahs and those whom they convince to follow them, the malignant is seen as benign and natural, and the natural is seen as desirable and necessary. For him, Fromm says, with his social uprootedness, thirst for revenge, worship of hate, especially for his country’s abandonment of its feudal ways for corrupt capitalism, the world would pay. Bin Laden? No,the assassin of the liberal German foreign minister in 1922. The more the world changes . . . .

Still, despite the grim and overwhelming history of civilization, there is reason to hope. The future of an illusion? Well, man is a dreaming animal. Were hope not possible, however, it might be said that Erich Fromm would not, could not, have written this book. Or that we would not read it and not be moved to think about what we might do to bring light and warmth to this darkening planet.


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All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.