The Importance of Erich Fromm: A Review of “The Lives of Erich Fromm” by Lawrence J. Friedman (2013)

On Multiple levels, Erich Fromm’s writings were prescient and as relevant currently (2021) as they were in the 1940s through the 1970s. Fromm was a psychoanalyst, social psychologist, political activist and public intellectual – perhaps the most influential one in the U.S. during the 1950s through the 1970s. Lawrence Friedman’s biography of Erich Fromm is a thoroughly engaging and balanced investigation into the many “lives” or areas of involvement of Fromm.

A key to Fromm’s impact is what Friedman states in his Prologue: “Fromm’s ‘life’ as a social critic and ‘public intellectual’ was facilitated by his remarkable capacity to convey complex thoughts in psychoanalysis, ethics, theology, political theory, social philosophy, cultural creations, and much more in simple, direct prose, that appealed to the latent ideals and fears of his time.” (p.xxi) I will not be commenting on most of Fromm’s books, but just to note here that his “Art of Loving” from 1956 has sold over twenty million copies, and “Escape from Freedom” (1941),according to Friedman, the “deepest and most important of Fromm’s books, which excavated the social psychology of authoritarianism during the age of Stalin and Hitler, has sold more than five million copies.” (p.xxii) And most of Fromm’s more than twenty books have sold in excess of a million copies.

Fromm was the rare social scientist/philosopher who influenced and was influenced by a number of disparate individuals and groups: Margaret Mead and her interdisciplinary circle of anthropologists and psychologists, often referred to as the culture and personality group; the Frankfurt Institute group, including, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and others; the sociologist David Reisman ; psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Freida Fromm-Reichmann, each of whom Fromm was married to; his twenty-three years in Mexico (1950-1973), where he established the Mexican Psychoanalytic Institute and prepared numerous Mexicans to become psychoanalysts; D.T. Suzuki, who mentored Fromm in his brand of Zen Buddhism; Martin Buber, who influenced Fromm and Freida Fromm-Reichmann in the 1920s to open a “therapeuticum’ for Jewish patients in Heidelberg; Fromm counted as friends, Adlai Stevenson, William Fulbright, Philip Hart, and Eugene McCarthy, all of whom sought his advice on world affairs.

Fromm remained committed to both Marx’s and Freud’s central ideas throughout his career. While he eventually distanced himself from Freud’s libido drive theory, he incorporated many other psychoanalytic insights into his own social character theory. Freidman states, “Fromm’s theoretical alternative to Freud was a vaguely outlined concept of ‘social character’ where external social structures recast inner impulses and provided a person his orientation in life.” (p. ) Fromm continued to wrestle with how to incorporate or discard Freud’s libido and instinct drive theory as he developed his own theory of social character. Freidman quotes Fromm: “Character can be defined as the form in which human energy is canalized in the process of assimilation and socialization… the character system can be considered the human substitute for the instinctive apparatus of the animal” (p.xxv) And: “Socially produced drives are specifically human and have to be explained as reactions toward a particular fit of social conditions and not as ‘sublimations’ of instincts” (p.xxvi) Freidman claims that Fromm continued to modify his concept of social character for the rest of his life, but when he first developed it, while he was still a connected scholar with the Frankfurt Institute in 1939, Fromm felt it was mandatory to pursue an alternative to the libidinal theory, and this led to his dismissal from the Institute. Freidman states, “Fromm’s colleagues at the Frankfurt Institute, clinging to the literal wording of Freud’s early texts even as Freud departed from them, felt betrayed and called for Fromm’s termination.”(p.xxi).

I have asked myself why I am so drawn to Fromm and his ideas. The conception and construction of this blog about psychotherapy and culture may provide evidence of my attempts to bridge individual psychology and social theory and my own experience as a practicing anthropologist and psychotherapist has led me to appreciate how Fromm spent his life (or lives?) writing about this very notion of the relationship between the individual and social human. I have written about Gregory Bateson being a kind of ‘bricoleur’ as he moved thorough a number of intellectual disciplines. I now regard Erich Fromm as a both an intellectual and activist ‘bricoleur’. He consistently applied theory to practice and he was able to reconceive and reconstruct his theories and practices based on new political and social conditions wherever he was living and working (Europe, Mexico, the U.S.). I am particularly interested in Fromm’s combining Marxian and Freudian concepts and in his formulations about authoritarian personalities and Fascism, though I will comment on of some of his other ideas as I continue posts.

Fromm wrote “Escape From Freedom” in 1940 and his prescience about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism is particularly potent currently as we are experiencing similar patterns throughout the world more than 80 years later. We might question whether Fromm’s interpretation of what causes authoritarianism fits the rise of Hitler and Musolini in the 1930s and 1940s or Bolsanaro, Trump, Putin, and Duterte in the 21st century, but his cultural, psychological character notions deserve close consideration. Fromm argued that since the enlightenment humans had been experiencing enhanced personal freedom, but that this freedom often set up unmanageable anxiety and uncertainty. Freidman says, “it was less burdensome to delegate new found freedoms to authority figures and to embrace the false securities they promised (i.e. simply conform to external social pressures) than to trust one’s own powers of rational decision making.” (p.66). Fromm also proposed that the dynamic of forfeiting one’s freedom to an authority figure or institution likely set up a neurotic strategy of sadomasochism as a way of coping. Large populations under authoritarian leaders and systems may experience powerlessness and may in turn displace their anger and frustration on those who are perceived as “other” (immigrants, women, socially/culturally different). Freidman says, “Freedom required that the individual summon the energy and courage to make spontaneous, productive, reasoned and life-affirming use of his autonomy, Fromm argued. One must not delegate choices to authority figures that offered sadomasochistic appeals and demanded social conformity.” p.83)

While Fromm was still involved with the Frankfurt Institute group, he and they were committed to Freud’s essential drive theory and to Marx’s early writing “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844). Fromm later (after he broke with the Frankfurt group and with Freud’s libido theory) wrote “Marx’s Concept of Man”(1961). Friedman says, “Fromm used ‘Marx’s Concept of Man’ to argue that the young Marx of the ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ filled Freud’s conceptual gaps by offering a thoroughgoing critique of the capitalist society and values that orthodox Freudians had uncritically accepted. Fromm found Marx deeply sensitive to inner, and often unconscious, psychological motivation. Fromm’s Marx was essentially a socialist humanist and a formulator of what he called ‘productive social character’.” (p.223)

In further explaining Fromm’s embracing humanist ideas of Marx, Friedman states: “In characterizing the 1844 Marx, Fromm was essentially expounding his own prophetically tinged credo for the 1960s. Marx’s essential concept was to transform man from an alienated laborer who detested his routine work and consumed to fill a sense of inner emptiness. Estranged man worked simply to have goods and services, not to be a vibrant, loving, creative, and productive entity. For Marx, ‘true’ socialism represented ‘the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization’. Only through humanistic socialism would man cease to be miserable, cease being an estranged cog in the process to enhance productivity and profits for the few; he would transcend the chronic ‘antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man’.” (p. 223)

Fromm presented a paper, “Marx’s Contribution to the Knowledge of Man” in Paris in 1968, and published in his 1970 book, “The Crisis in Psychoanalysis”. In this paper/article, Fromm argues his case for Marx’s dynamic humanist depth psychology. There are hints in the paper/article about Fromm’s later reckoning of Freud’s and Marx’s approaches to psychology. Fromm says, “Marx saw, and in this respect more deeply than Freud, that consciousness is the product of the particular practice of life which characterizes a given society or class. It is ‘from the beginning a social product’, like language, it arises ‘from the need, the necessity for intercourse with other men, While man thinks he is determined and motivated by his own ideas, he is in reality motivated by forces behind his back and of which he is not aware.'” (p.74) Fromm further states, “Marx’s concept of consciousness and ideology led to one of the most essential parts of his theory of revolution. In a letter of September, 1843, he speaks of consciousness as ‘a thing which the world must appropriate, although it does not want to do so… our motto must be then: reform of consciousness not by dogmas but by the analysis of the mythical consciousness unclear to itself, be it religious or political’. The destruction of illusions and the analysis of consciousness – that is to say, awareness of the reality of which man is not conscious, are the conditions for social change.” (p.74)

Fromm followed this with: ” Awareness of reality as a key to change is for Marx one of the conditions for social progress and revolution, as it is for Freud the condition for the therapy for mental illness. Marx, not being interested in problems of individual therapy, did not speak about the awareness as a condition for individual change, but considering his whole psychological system, it is by no means a tour de force to make this connection.” (p.75)

Most of what Fromm draws from Marx’s 1844 paper is not widely known or understood, but Fromm makes a clear case that Marx , while focusing on social dynamics, had preceded Freud in his position regarding illusions and embracing reality. I subscribe to the same world view. Humanity has not changed significantly since either Marx or Freud established their theories. The world in 2021 is awash in illusions, fake news, scams, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and bold political lies. Alienated man is all around us. Inequality is rampant throughout the world. The confrontation with illusions and embracing of reality that both Marx and Freud argued for has not taken hold to any significant degree. My blog continues to engage individual behavioral issues and social cultural influences. A psychological, cultural, economic, social revolution awaits us.