From The Socialist Standard January 1995 .
To Have or to Be
The title of this article is taken from the book of the same name by the psychologist , Erich Fromm. It is probably true to state that many Socialist Party members view psychology with some suspicion because of its tendency to see “abnormal” human behaviour in isolation; but Fromm is in no doubt that it is our sick society that leads to such behaviour , and not the reverse . Thus , his ideas are worthy of study by socialists .
Fromm commences To Have Or To Be by stating that the failure of capitalism , aside from its economic contradictions lies in its two main premises :
“The first is ‘that the aim of life is happiness , defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel ( radical hedonism )”; The second is ‘that egotism. Selfishness, and greed , as the system needs to generate them in order to function, leads to harmony and peace’ ”
With regard to the first premise , Fromm distinguishes between subjectively felt needs (desires) whose satisfaction leads to monetary pleasure , and objectively valid needs that are rooted in human nature , and whose realisation is conductive to human growth which produces “well-being”
Fromm notes the contradiction between the concept of unlimited pleasure and the ideal of disciplined work , and between obsessional work ethic and the ideal of complete laziness. “Both contradictory attitudes” , we are told , “correspond to an economic necessity ; twentieth-century capitalism is based on the maximum consumption of the goods and services as well on routinised teamwork”
Fromm sums up the first section by stating that “…[the] pursuit of happiness does not produce well-being”. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people lonely , anxious , depressed , destructive , dependent - people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save! "
The second psychological premise of capitalism , that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace , is equally rejected by Fromm .To be an egoist means:
“I want everything to myself, that possessing , not sharing , gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having , I am more the more I have .
I can never be satisfied , because there is no end to my wishes : I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less.”
Fromm is in no doubt that the passion for having must lead to never - ending class war and , in global terms, international war. He states that “Greed and peace preclude each other” . He is also in no doubt that the development of an economic system as an autonomous entity , independent of human needs and human will , is a recent development . The question , therefore , is no longer “What is good for the system?” - and the assumption is that the latter is good for the former.
And this assumption is bolstered by the further assumption:
“That the very qualities that the system required of human nature - egotism, selfishness and greed - were innate in human nature ; hence, not only the system but human nature itself fostered them”
Societies in which egotism , selfishness and greed did not exist , were supposed to be “primitive” and their inhabitants “childlike” . People refused to recognise that their traits were not natural drives that caused industrial society to exist , but that they were the products of social circumstances .
Fromm reinforces his assertion with the little-known , but surprising , fact that the majority of the world’s languages have no word for “to have” . Such languages express possession in the form “it is to me” , whilst others have only developed the construction “I have” at a much later date . “This fact”, argues Fromm, “suggests that the word for “to have” develops in connection with the development of private property , while it is absent in societies with predominantly functional property ; that is , possession for use” And “While private property is supposed to be natural and a universal category , it is in fact an exception rather than the rule if we consider the whole of human history”
Thus , for Fromm , the difference between “being” and “having” is between a society centred around persons and one centred around things such as property , profit and power . The distinction is between “I have knowledge” and “I know” - where “knowing” means to “see reality in all its nakedness”.
Fromm therefore concludes that the character traits engendered by or socio-economic system are pathogenic , and produce sick people and a sick society . Given that fact , we are headed for an economic catastrophe unless we change our social system . The physical survival of the human race depends on it .