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Understanding White Racists

Escape from Freedom

by Erich Fromm
Avon, 336 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

by Erich Fromm
Fawcett, 256 pp., $.95 (paper)

The Authoritarian Personality

by Theodor Adorno et al.
Norton, 990 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Psychoanalytic Study of Society

edited by Warner Muensterberger, edited by Sidney Axelrad
International Universities Press, vol. 1 pp., $12.00

White Racism

by Joel Kovel
Random House, 300 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by James Agee, by Walker Evans
Ballantine, 428 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell
Berkley, 192 pp., $.75 (paper)

The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind

by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel

by C. Vann Woodward
Oxford University Press, 518 pp., $3.50 (paper)

As Hitler’s hysterically racist version of fascism year by year strengthened itself in Germany and then spread all over Europe, a generation of intellectuals, not to mention millions of ordinary men and women, had to confront some unsettling questions. Could “it” (Nazism) happen here or there or, indeed, anywhere? How did the nation of Beethoven and Brahms, Goethe and Schiller and Gropius turn itself over to a bunch of thugs, murderers, and confidence men? Was there something special about such a turn of events, something rooted in the German “national character,” in a particular people’s history and culture? And anyway, why did the Führer’s racial hate, directed at so many segments of the world’s population, strike so many responsive chords: enthusiastic applause; discreet approval; sympathy; the embarrassed silence of those who suddenly heard spoken on a grand scale what hitherto had to be whispered or joked about in private?

Once the Nazis were beaten, many of us were glad to forget those issues, or leave them to theologians, moral philosophers (sometimes masked as novelists or playwrights), and, not least, social scientists. Of the latter, some were traditional scholars: economists, political scientists, or historians, they had the task of sifting through the rubble of this century’s destroyed dreams and realized nightmares—in the hope of finding answers to all sorts of persisting questions. How deliberate was Hitler’s rise, how much the product of right-wing intrigue, left-wing myopia and ideological rigidity, popular indifference, rising unemployment, a long tradition of fear and hate that goes back, say, to Martin Luther’s later years? How did Versailles lead to National Socialism—and if Hitler’s particular leadership had not been available, might Germany never have embarked on the course that led to the Second World War? Indeed, could the Weimar Republic have survived and even flourished, given a reasonable measure of support from Germany’s one-time enemies (and constant competitors), the capitalist democracies of Britain, France, and the United States?

Meanwhile others belonging to relatively young fields like psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and anthropology began to come up with a different way of looking at the appearance of the Nazis—as well as developments in Europe and the United States. In 1941, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom anticipated this new kind of inquiry; there and in Man for Himself (1947) the eternal struggle between good and evil obtained yet another kind of metaphorical expression. An exploitative and hoarding “character type” was contrasted with its opposite, a loving and gentle “character,” and an “authoritarian” conscience was compared with the “humanistic” kind. Fromm has never been a naïve, label-prone psychoanalyst or social psychologist. He repeatedly reminds his readers that he is not trying to look upon the rise of Hitler and his followers as a purely psychological problem: “Nazism is a psychological problem, but the psychological factors themselves have to be understood as molded by socio-economic factors.”

Still, the Nazis progressively claimed the obedience, loyalty, and passion of the German people, and in Fromm’s mind did so for reasons that a certain kind of psychologist is especially trained to understand: insecure, fearful, narrow-minded, and blindly submissive parents, themselves hurt and stifled by the kinds of lives they have to live, turn on their children and make of them the kind of putty that shrewd demagogues can almost infinitely, it seems, shape and use.

Fromm does not hesitate to make generalizations. He speaks of the “lower strata of the [German] middle class, composed of small shop-keepers, artisans, and white collar workers.” He refers to their love of the strong and hatred of the weak; their pettiness and pervasive hostility; their thriftiness with feelings as well as with money; and essentially their asceticism, hence susceptibility to a leader who knows how to sanction mass hysteria. Unsure of their jobs or income they feel unsure of themselves, turn on outsiders and strangers with a vengeance, become envious of all sorts of people, and convert that envy into a curious (and dangerous) kind of moral indignation, which ambitious politicians have no trouble taking advantage of.

Needless to say, Erich Fromm did not claim that he had spent among German workers the amount of time analysts offer to their upper-middle-class patients. He does indicate in a footnote1 that the “view” he is presenting of German workers, and by extension others in the industrial nations of the West, “is based on the results of an unpublished study of the ‘Character of German Workers and Employees in 1929/30.’ ” In that study, interestingly enough, “the responses of six hundred persons to a detailed questionnaire showed that a minority of the respondents exhibited the authoritarian character, that with about the same number the quest for freedom and independence was prevalent, while the great majority exhibited a less clear-cut mixture of different traits.” Fromm studied the responses of that group of people to certain questions, then tried to make a series of formulations that would be suggestive and clarifying—just as a poet or dramatist hopes with a metaphor to make connections hitherto unnoticed.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fromm’s line of thinking was pursued with great thoroughness by Theodor Adorno and others in this country. The result was a vast study, The Authoritarian Personality, which extended and strengthened Fromm’s views. On the basis of questionnaires, psychological tests, and interviews, certain men and women were found to possess what was called an “authoritarian personality”: that is, they seemed rigid, conformist, somewhat self-righteous, not particularly introspective, rather deferential to those considered their superiors, and unable to tolerate life’s ambiguities. Such people were far more likely to be prejudiced and, as the book’s title suggests, those same people can be considered potential recruits for a totalitarian movement.

While Adorno and others were trying to distinguish between various “groups” of people by asking them questions and giving them tests, without getting to know them over the months, let alone years, of their lives, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were also speculating at great length on the forces that compel particular individuals to fear and hate others. Robert Waelder (1960) connected the totalitarian mentality to a “paranoid system.” Ernst Simmel (1946) and Rudolph Loewenstein (1947) emphasized the prejudiced person’s need to find scapegoats, to attribute his or her own greed, envy, hate, or lust to others.

As one goes through the articles and books by these and other analysts, the mind’s deviousness and complexity once again become clear—even as they do when a particular patient’s “psychodynamics” are discussed by the kind of doctor who treasures the subtlety and ingeniousness of a person’s thinking. Sibling rivalry, parricide, incest—themes familiar to Greek tragedians as well as to a white Southern novelist like William Faulkner—come up repeatedly in the psychiatric literature on racism, and if sometimes the formulations are extravagant or awkwardly stated, there can be solid and luminous moments, too.

The more tentative and modest efforts hold up today as the best. When, for example, the analyst Rudolph Loewenstein writes about anti-Semitism he draws upon his clinical work with both Christians and Jews, and carefully refrains from sweeping sociological or historical generalizations. Consequently, the reader gets a sense of depth: he has been taken deep into the confines of a concentration camp, helped to understand how the men there feel; but he is not allowed to forget that he will have to turn elsewhere if he would know when and by whom such a place was first developed, or what people now run and profit from it, and if indeed he would determine the spirit that, finally, obtains among the prisoners, hard-pressed and endangered as they are.

Still, as one analyst has commented, “Members of hate groups are not prone to subject themselves to psychological investigation. Therefore, any observation of such individuals, no matter how brief and incomplete, deserves to be communicated.” The analyst who wrote those words, Terry Rodgers, had seen one white man in analysis for five months and in so doing observed “the evolution of an active anti-Negro racist.”2 The man had come to the doctor with serious symptoms and as one reads the clinical discussion, one can only sympathize with both analyst and patient and be impressed with the unwillingness of the former to use his experience with the latter in order to characterize millions of other white people.

Another analyst, Dr. Joel Kovel, is more audacious and ambitious. In White Racism (1970) Dr. Rodgers’s brief and abruptly terminated clinical experience is called upon for good reason: the author has no firsthand clinical observations of his own to report, not to mention reports of interviews with any of the “white racists” he is convinced constitute the largest group of this nation’s population:

A really deep survey of white Americans would doubtlessly reveal a great mixture of racial patterns in everyone, but it might be predicted that the substantial majority continue to reserve their most intense feelings for the hallowed racial patterns of yore; that is, they hold to a mixture of dominative and aversive racist beliefs, according, one would expect, to their authoritarianism and the degree to which their superego has internalized aggression.

Dr. Kovel mentions the strong influence that Herbert Marcuse’s writing has had on his own thinking; both men have in common a bold and imaginative approach to the West’s social and political problems. Neither of the two is much given to optimism: Dr. Kovel says that only a “minority, who are in the vanguard of history,” are free enough of racism to offer any hope at all that things will basically change, and in One Dimensional Man Professor Marcuse sees most Western men and women rendered utterly inert and compliant by the power of what he calls “advanced industrial culture.” Those who dissent are in one way or another appeased, placated, deterred, assimilated. We are systematically indoctrinated with false needs, which are “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression.”

The result is that our “universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.” As for Marcuse himself, he and no doubt a few others, too, have somehow struggled away from such “hypnotic definitions”; and if one happens to wonder how he can be so sure that millions of Americans haven’t likewise done so, the answer is to be found in his book: the newspapers, radio, and television every day express what is on just about everyone’s mind, hence how corrupted and enslaved we all have become—except, of course, for a few social critics, like the author of One Dimensional Man.

Meanwhile millions of American men and women live and work and try to make do as best they can; and they, unlike the racist patient Dr. Rodgers writes about, do not find their way to the buildings where psychiatrists practice or, for that matter, to the academic offices of those social or political theorists who write so persistently and surely about what is happening to this or that “majority.” For over ten years I have been trying to find out how some of those American men and women (they are white-collar and blue-collar working people) think and feel about—well, about many things: black people, the bosses who own or run the nation’s factories and stores, the politicians who come and go, the radio or television programs that Professor Marcuse mentions watching and Dr. Kovel considers part of a culture which “generates racism for the benefit of a false whiteness.”

  1. 1

    Escape from Freedom (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1941), p. 42.

  2. 2

    The Psychoanalytic Study of Society, Vol. 1 (International Universities Press, 1960) pp. 237-347.

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