Seven reflexes of resistance
Radical humanism in a darkening world
This is the text of the Erich Fromm Lecture 2020, delivered digitally due to the coronavirus on 23 March 2020. It is available as a pamphlet, in German and English from the Erich Fromm Gesellschaft.
When I bought Erich Fromm’s book, The Working Class in Weimar Germany, in a second hand bookstore in the 1980s, I did so mainly because I liked the art deco font on the binding.
As I look back now, on the pencil marks I made in the book, I think I understood the basic point: that there were two kinds of personality on the left — one that embraced freedom and another that embraced authority, and that the latter made the KPD and its offshoots, during the regimes of Breuning and Von Papen, inadequate and confused fighters against Nazism.
At the time I thought: “OK, this has historical value, a warning from history”. I did not expect that 35 years later I would be centrally consumed with the same basic questions as Fromm was in 1929:
- What do far right activists think? Why?
- How do we dissuade them?
- How do we stop politicians of the mainstream from feeding their deadly fantasies?
- How do we build an alliance of the centre and the left to fight them?
To answer these questions I want you to join me in an act of imagination…
Imagine the Nazis had invented a time machine. And that, in the final days of the Second World War, they decided to send crack SS team into the future, to create a Fourth Reich.
What year do you think they would have aimed for?
Seventy-five years is a round number: well past the average life expectancy in Germany in 1945. So let us imagine that an SS unit materialises in April 2020. They overcome their shock at the ultra-liberalism of Western society; they marvel at our digital technologies; they discover to their horror that black American music has conquered the world. But then…
…they watch French riot cops fire gas shells into the faces of striking workers; and Hindu mobs in Delhi beating leftwing students with iron bars. They see the AfD scoring massively in Thuringia, and they see the CDU-CSU lean…