Monday, April 15, 2019

Erich Fromm's Hit and Miss on 1984

Beginning with the 1961 edition of George Orwell's iconic novel 1984, the Afterward is an essay by the German Social Scientist and Philosopher Dr. Erich Fromm (1900-1980).

Of course, Fromm's analysis is temporally pegged to the time at which he wrote (1961).  This was a time when the entire world was obsessed with the Cold War, the Arms Race, and the seeming inevitability of an imminent World War Three and the destruction of life on the planet as we know it.  This prevailing spirit of the postwar age dominates literary interpretation of that era, and understandably so.  This was the year of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But the fact that history took a different trajectory than the "inevitable" nuclear war between the USSR and the USA exposes some of the blind spots of writers of that time - including Fromm.  His Afterward betrays his Socialist and anti-capitalist bias and sense of the "big corporation" as the real contemporary Big Brother, with no input of the State (other than its involvement in the promotion of the Arms Race). 

Thus much of the societal and governmental and philosophical warnings of Orwell are drowned out by Fromm's overbearing fear of thermonuclear war.

However, one aspect that Fromm saw coming that was indeed borne out by history is his observation on Orwell's treatment of truth:
Another important aspect is Orwell's description of the nature of truth, which on the surface is a picture of Stalin's treatment of truth, especially in the thirties. But anyone who sees in Orwell's description only another denunciation of Stalinism is missing an essential element of Orwell's analysis. He is actually talking about a development which is taking place in the western industrial countries also, only at a slower pace than it is taking place in Russia and China. The basic question which Orwell raises is whether there is any such thing as "truth." "Reality," so the ruling party holds, "is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else ... whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth." If this is so, then by controlling men's minds, the Party controls truth. In a dramatic conversation between the protagonist of the Party and the beaten rebel, a conversation which is a worthy analogy to Dostoyevsky's conversation between the Inquisitor and Jesus, the basic principles of the Party are explained. In contrast to the Inquisitor, however, the leaders of the Party do not even pretend that their system is intended to make man happier, because men, being frail and cowardly creatures, want to escape freedom and are unable to face the truth. The leaders are aware of, the fact that they themselves have only one aim, and that is power. To them "power is not a means; it is an end. And power means the capacity to inflict unlimited pain and suffering to another human being" [Cf. this definition of power in Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1941. Also Simone Weil's definition that power is the capacity to transform a living person into a corpse, that is to say, into a thing]. Power, then, for them creates reality, it creates truth. 
The idea that truth is subjective and malleable, that reality is a state of mind, and that control of the prevailing narrative is the epitome of power: power to create truth - has germinated and blossomed in the form of Postmodernism.  Postmodernism has made the transition from an arcane and eccentric literary theory to the dominant philosophy of our time. 

And Postmodernism led to the current "Social Justice" malaise and the rise of totalitarian "Intersectionality", following Orwell's trajectory about the control of language - known to us today as "Political Correctness" and expressed by Orwell as "Newspeak."

For a fast forward from Fromm's 1961 to 1984 as it truly exists in the present, I would recommend Dr. Michael Rectenwald's 2018 book Springtime for Snowflakes: 'Social Justice' and Its Postmodern Parentage.  Springtime is both a quick primer on Postmodernism (and its related literary theories) and how it led directly to the SJW "snowflake" culture that dominates the university, as well as how its Orwellian stranglehold on modern thought manifested itself in his own life and academic career as an actual Orwellian dystopia.

Dr. Fromm's Afterward is hit and miss - which is easy for me to say with nearly sixty years of hindsight that includes the rise of Postmodernism; the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union; the Socialist decimation of Zimbabwe and Venezuela; and the increasing cultural stranglehold of conformity, social and political language-policing, and the rise of Social Media in the enforcement of the Orwellian control of truth as a subjective and malleable tool in the hands of a powered elite rather than a transcendent and objective ideal of the human mind.

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