Recent critics of the new narcissism not only confuse cause and effect, attributing to a cult of privatism developments that derive from the disintegration of public life; they use the term narcissism so loosely that it retains little of its psychological content. Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, drains the idea of its clinical meaning and expands it to cover all forms of “vanity,” “self-admiration,” “self-satisfaction,” and “self-glorification” in individuals and all forms of parochialism, ethnic or racial prejudice, and “fanaticism” in groups. In other words, Fromm uses the term as a synonym for the “asocial” individualism which, in his version of progressive and “humanistic” dogma, undermines cooperation, brotherly love, and the search for wider loyalties. Narcissism thus appears simply as the antithesis of that watery love for humanity (disinterested “love for the stranger”) advocated by Fromm under the name of socialism.
Fromm’s discussion of “individual and social narcissism,” appropriately published in a series of books devoted to “Religious Perspectives,” provides an excellent example of the inclination, in our therapeutic age, to dress up moralistic platitudes in psychiatric garb. (“We live in a historical period characterized by a sharp discrepancy between the intellectual development of man . . . and his mental-emotional development, which has left him still in a state of marked narcissism with all its pathological symptoms.”) Whereas Sennett reminds us that narcissism has more in common with self-hatred than with-self-admiration, Fromm loses sight even of this well-known clinical fact in his eagerness to sermonize about-the blessings of brotherly love.