There is a striking paradox about the appearance of a new edition of The Sane Society today, thirty-five years after its original publication. On the one hand, the subject of the book—the psychological vicissitudes of life in advanced capitalist societies—is highly topical: indeed, its sombre mood is in some ways even more relevant to the climate of our culture now than it was in 1955.
On the other hand, though the concerns of the book may be contemporary, the genre in which it is written is definitely not. It is not only the remedy which Fromm proposes for the ills of our civilization that jars with current modes of thought; it is the very idea of proposing a remedy in the first place.
Grand generalizations about what is wrong with our culture and how to put it right are, nowadays, more often to be found on the shelves of alternative bookshops than in the university library. Intellectuals today are either pragmatically occupied with making a living, or immersed in a sort of refined hopelessness; like neurotics who have been disappointed by one failed therapy after another, they have resigned themselves to the one counsellor who has always had time for them—their despair. Perhaps a book like The Sane Society, precisely because of its unfashionable intentions, can help us to jar out of this dead-end mentality.
Let us consider first of all die respects in which this book is topical. How, indeed, can a work actually become more relevant than it was when it was written? The answer has to do with an increased readiness to doubt the sanity of our own society. Back in the 1950s, freed from the shadow of world war, and embarked on an unprecedented and seemingly limitless economic growth, few in the United States doubted that things were “getting better all the time” (as the Beades flippantly put it a few years later).
In this era of hard work and optimism, Fromm’s radical doubts about the structure of American society can have struck a chord among very few readers, however fascinating they may have found his discussions of personal growth and interpersonal relationships. In this book especially, he must have struck many people simply as a talented refugee who, after more than twenty years, was still having a hard time settling down to the American Way of Life.
‘Erich Fromm speaks with wisdom, compassion, learning and insight into the problems of individuals trapped in a social world that is needlessly cruel and hostile.’
Since then, however, we have had Vietnam, the “drop-out” generation, the student movement, global recession, alarms on the ecological front, and a revival of the faith in “market forces” which has brought back some of the worst features of nineteenth-century entrepreneurism. And as the twentieth century draws to a close, Western philosophers and social scientists have become plagued with doubts about the direction our civilization is taking and the durability of the values that have held it together until now.
A symptom of this unease is the fact that, although it is nearly half a century since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, the nightmare images of these events seem to play more obsessively on our consciousness now than when they had only just happened. Today, it would appear to be much harder to forget that these atrocities were perpetrated by people like us—and that similar inhumanities go on being perpetrated, day by day, systematically organized, ideologically sanctioned, and on a global scale.
Of course, the spectacular collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, with the mass conversion of one communist country after another to the ideals of democracy and consumerism, has given many renewed hope for “our” civilization. Certainly, these events confirm Fromm’s optimistic conviction that human bondage is an unnatural state, from which sooner or later people will manage to break free. Unfortunately, however, what the inhabitants of the communist world were trying to get away from is much clearer than where they wanted to get to (that is, if we assume that it has to do with something more than just videorecorders and Coca-Cola).
Laying bare the ills of communism does not, as many suppose, constitute a vindication of capitalism: “our” problems remain, and few have analysed them more thorouglily at a psychological level than Erich Fromm.
‘Dr Fromm is deeply concerned with the most important unifying questions that can be asked about contemporary western society – is it sane? He criticises very sharply those social psychologists who act as expert apologists for the status quo.’
-Asa Briggs, The New Statesman
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Free download ebook The Sane Society by Erich Fromm pdf – Second Edition