Life and Work of Erich Fromm

Rainer Funk

Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, in Frankfurt am Main, the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. He died on March 18, 1980, in Locarno, Switzerland. The world in which Fromm was brought up was directed to traditional learning, to the perfection of man, to spiritual values--goals that were just opposed to the cliché of a successful Jew at that time. His mother, Rosa Krause, had an uncle, a brother of her father, who was a great Talmudist in Posen. He spent his last years in the Liebigstr. 27 in Frankfurt am Main, where Erich Fromm grew up, and became his first Talmudic teacher. When he was 16 he joined a group of students around Nehemia Nobel, the rabbi of the synagogue at Boerneplatz in Frankfurt. Nobel was a gifted preacher and mystic.

When Fromm graduated from the Woehler-Gymnasium in Frankfurt he started to study law at Frankfurt University; but law did not really satisfy him enough because he didn't want to become a lawyer. In 1919 he went to the University of Heidelberg and began to study sociology with Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s brother), philosophy with Heinrich Rickert and psychology with Karl Jaspers.

In addition to these teachers at the University of Heidelberg, Fromm was deeply influenced between 1920 and 1925 by another Talmudic teacher, Salmon Baruch Rabinkov. „Herr Rabinkov”, as he was referred to by everybody, was a Russian-born Talmudic teacher, an adherent of Habad Hasidism from Lithuania. Although Rabinkov impressed Fromm much more than his teachers at the university Fromm admired his doctoral father Alfred Weber as „a man of great intellectual power, of great integrity and of hard political conviction for freedom.“ (Fromm, 1979d, p. 20.)

From the very beginning, Fromm’s sociological interest actually was a social-psychological one, addressed to the question of what causes people to think, feel and behave in a uniform way. This was also the focus of his 1922 dissertation under Alfred Weber (cf. Fromm, 1989b): Fromm examined the social psychological function of Jewish law in the community life of the diaspora Jews--the Karaites, in Reform Judaism and in Hasidism. Fromms main interest was a socio-psychological although even at the time of his dissertation he didn't have a developed psychological concept with which he could grasp the psychic function of the religious ethos and other forms of solidarity within the Jewish community.

Religious and non-religious teachings and teachers had a great influence on Fromm. But there was already very early also another major interest, expressed in the psychologically oriented connoted question: „How is it possible?“ His sympathy for the prophets and their messianic visions of the harmonious coexistence of all nations was profoundly shaken by the First World War. „When the war ended in 1918, I was a deeply troubled young man who was obsessed by the question of how war was possible, by the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior, by a passionate desire for peace and international understanding. More, I had become deeply suspicious of all official ideologies and declarations, and filled with the conviction ‘of all one must doubt.’“ (Fromm, 1962a, pp. 6-7)

Six years later, psychoanalysis offered Fromm an answer to the question „How is it possible?“ Fromm was introduced to psychoanalysis by his friend Frieda Reichmann, with whom he opened a psychoanalytically oriented sanatorium in Heidelberg in 1924. She conducted his first didactic analysis, and in 1926 they were married. He had further analyses with Wilhelm Wittemberg in Munich, with Karl Landauer in Frankfurt and with Hanns Sachs in Berlin, where Fromm also finished training in 1930 and opened his own practice. His social psychologically focused interest continued and brought him into contact with the Freudian Marxists Siegfried Bernfeld and Wilhelm Reich at the Berlin Institute.

At the same time that Fromm opened his practice in Berlin, he was appointed by Max Horkheimer to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt—later known as the “Frankfurt School”--as its chief expert in all questions of psychology and social psychology. Here Fromm became intensively involved with Marxist theories and worked for years--in addition to his practice as therapist--on a socialpsychological field-research project on the unconscious attitudes of working people professing to be politically leftist (cf. Fromm, 1980a).

That Fromm’s socialpsychological interest originated in his religious upbringing is evident from his Talmudic teachers as well as from his studies in sociology and his dissertation on Jewish law. But seven years after he had finished his dissertation, Freudian psychoanalysis permitted him a new formulation of his social psychological interest in the language of Freud's theory of the formation of psychic impulses.

Fromm's main interest is in the libidinal structure of the human being as a socialized being. Thus it is mainly a question of those passionate strivings and the unconscious of the socialized individual, as these factors make themselves evident when the unconscious of society is itself the object of study. Then there is a libidinous structure of society, which can be recognized as independent from the socioeconomic situation, since the life experience of the group is determined by the economic, social and political conditions. This means that society has not only a certain economic, social, political and intellectual-cultural structure, but also a libidinal one specific to it.

When Fromm embraced the idea of a socially molded unconscious or an unconscious of society by which each individual is to a large extent predetermined, he defined the correlation of individual and society anew. It was no longer valid to say „here I am and there is society;“ but rather, „I am primarily a reflection of society, in that my unconscious is socially determined and I therefore reflect and realize the secret expectations, requirements, wishes, fears, and strivings of society in my own passionate strivings.“ In reality, none of the following—not the apparent separation of society and individual, not the apparent separation of conscious and unconscious, not the apparent separation of society and unconscious--actually exist. All of these dimensions are in the social unconscious of every single human being.

This new approach shifts the perspective to the recognition of the dynamics of the unconscious on a social scale and finally leads Fromm completely to downplay Freudian instinct theory in order to avoid giving a predominant position to insights into the this singular libidinal structure, which is not very relevant to the dynamics of the social unconscious.

At the end of Escape from Freedom (1941a) Fromm summarizes his new formulations: „We believe that man is primarily a social being, and not, as Freud assumes, primarily self-sufficient and only secondarily in need of others in order to satisfy his instinctual needs. In this sense, we believe that individual psychology is fundamentally social psychology or, in Sullivan's terms, the psychology of interpersonal relationships; the key problem of psychology is that of the particular kind of relatedness of the individual toward the world, not that of satisfaction or frustration of single instinctual desires.“ (1941a, p. 290)

This re-vision of psychoanalysis also manifested itself in new terminology. Since Fromm used the concept of character for his social psychological insights, he called drive theory “characterology”; drive structure became “character structure,” instinctual impulses became “character traits” or simply “passionate strivings”; drive itself is conceptualized as “psychological need”, libidinal instinct is now called “psychological” or “existential need” (in contrast to instinctive or physiological needs); the libidinal structure of a society became the “social character,” and instead of libido, Fromm, similarly to Jung, now spoke of “psychic energy.”

When one surveys Fromm’s numerous subsequent writings, one notices that all of his later works are far-reaching explications and modifications that illustrate his very specific approach to the individual as a social being. This holds true for Fromm’s concept in the thirties of the authoritarian character (developed ten years before Adorno et al. published Authoritarian Personality) and also for his later discoveries. In the forties and fifties he described the „marketing character“ and the „organization man“ (as Fromm’s analysand David Riesman did in sociological terms), and in the sixties he discovered a new orientation of social character: necrophilia, the passion to be attracted by all that is dead and without life (Fromm, 1973a). The foundation for these discoveries was laid in the early thirties when Fromm developed his own sociopsychological approach to man and society.

The coming of the Nazis to power in 1933 forced the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research to emigrate, first to Geneva, Switzerland, and then, in 1934, to Columbia University in New York. After a rather long illness, during which he stayed at Davos, Switzerland, Fromm accepted an invitation from the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute to give a series of lectures in 1933. When the Institute for Social Research found its new home in New York, Fromm moved there and resumed work at the institute while also continuing his psychoanalytic practice. From 1935 to 1939, he was a visiting professor at Columbia. His connection with the Institute for Social Research continued into the late thirties, when Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse came out against his reformulation of the Freudian theory of drives, the latter eventually denouncing him as a „neo-Freudian revisionist“ (Marcuse 1955, p. 238).

During the Second World War, Fromm tried to enlighten the American public concerning the real intentions of Nazism. In 1943, he and others founded the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology, and from 1946 to 1950 he was chairman of the faculty and chairman of the institute’s training committee. Throughout the forties Fromm taught extensively. From 1945 to 1947, he was a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and in 1948-49, he was a visiting professor at Yale. From 1941 to 1949, he also was a member of the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont, and in 1948 he became an adjunct professor of psychoanalysis at New York University.

Fromm was married a second time in 1944, to Henny Gurland, a German photographer who witnessed Frankfurt School-member Walter Benjamin’s suicide while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France to Spain in 1940. In 1940 Fromm became an American citizen. On the advice of a physician, who stated that his ailing wife would benefit from a more favorable climate, they moved from Bennington to Mexico in 1950.

In Mexico Fromm became a professor at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, where he established the psychoanalytic section at the medical school. He taught there until 1965, when he became a professor emeritus. Henny died in 1952, and Fromm married Annis Freeman in 1953. Annis was two years younger than Fromm. She was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Alabama. Trained in anthropology, she was most interested in his social approach to psychology. She planned their house in Cuernavaca, Morelos, where they lived from 1957 to 1974, when they moved to Switzerland.

In addition to his teaching duties in Mexico, Fromm attended to his responsibilities at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, held a position as a professor of psychology at Michigan State University from 1957 to 1961, and was an adjunct professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University after 1962. Despite his extensive teaching activities, he kept up his psychoanalytic practice for more than forty-five years, remained active as a supervisor and teacher of psychoanalysis, and participated in social psychological fieldwork in Mexico.

Since childhood, Fromm had been passionately interested in politics, and in the middle fifties he joined the American Socialist Party and attempted (fruitlessly, as it turned out) to provide it with a new program. Although he recognized that he was temperamentally unsuited to practical politics, he did considerable work to enlighten the American people about the current possibilities and intentions of the Soviet Union. Fromm taught a socialist humanism that rejected both Western capitalism and Soviet Communist socialism and sympathized with the Yugoslav „Praxis“ group’s interpretation of socialism.

His strongest political interest was the international peace movement. In this, he was motivated by the insight that the present historical situation will decide whether humanity will take rational hold of its destiny or fall victim to destruction through nuclear war. Fromm was a cofounder of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, the most important American peace movement, which not only fought against the atomic arms race but also against the war in Vietnam. His last important political activity was his work on behalf of antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy during the 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination (see Fromm 1994b).

After 1965, Fromm increasingly concentrated on his writing. Beginning in 1968, he spent the summer months in the exceptionally benign climate of the Tessin, Switzerland, where he moved permanently in 1974. He and Annis took up residence in Muralto, far from the hectic pace of modern life, and it was there that Fromm died on March 18, 1980. Solitude and retirement on the Lago Maggiore did not lessen Fromm’s interest in contemporary problems, a fact that is evidenced clearly by his literary productivity during the last years of his life.

As one surveys Fromm’s literary output, one is struck by the variety and breadth of his interests and research. 1941 Fromm published his first important monograph in social psychology, Escape from Freedom. Based on an analysis of the relation between Protestantism and the development of early capitalism, the work demonstrates the modern individual’s incapacity to value his “freedom from“ as a „freedom to.“ Instead, Fromm wrote, the modern individual attempts to escape from freedom by placing himself in authoritarian relations of dependency, becoming in the process destructive and conformist. The book’s insights into the contemporary situation in Nazi Germany made a considerable impression on the American public.

In the forties Fromm developed a characterology that widens the perspective of Freudian libido theory and its narrow human image, while simultaneously indicating the ethical relevance of the various character orientations. The results of this research found expression in Fromm’s important work, Man for Himself--An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (1947a).

The Sane Society, published in 1955, develops further the themes of Escape from Freedom (1941a) and Man for Himself (1947a). Written from the viewpoint of a humanistic ethic, the book points to the socioeconomic reasons that prevent the realization of the human project. His analysis of the modern capitalist and bureaucratic social structure lays bare the universal phenomenon of alienation that can be overcome only if economic, political, and cultural conditions are fundamentally changed in the direction of a democratic and humanist socialism.

In addition to these three works, with their abundant observations and discoveries, Fromm wrote a number of monographs during the fifties and sixties in which the horizons of his thought emerge more clearly. In 1950, he published a shorter work, Psychoanalysis and Religion, in which he discusses his understanding of a humanistic religion as influenced by psychoanalysis and Buddhism in greater detail. The Forgotten Language, a discussion of fairy tales, myths, and dreams as universal and revelatory phenomena of human existence, appeared the following year, in 1951. Fromm’s bestseller was the short book, The Art of Loving. Using the concept of „productive love,“ Fromm shows the consequences of a humanistic ethics for the understanding of self-love, love of one’s neighbor, and love of one’s fellow human being. Fromm paid tribute to Freud and Marx in three further books (1959a, 1961b, 1962a), while at the same time attempting to define his position in relation to these seminal modern thinkers. Marx’s Concept of Man (1961b) is of special significance because it drew the attention of the American public to Marx’s early writings, which were published in this book in English for the first time.

The importance of religion for a successful human existence and the future of man is clarified in two works, the essay „Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism“ (1960a) and You Shall Be As Gods (1966a), a „radical interpretation of the Old Testament and its tradition“ that pleads the cause of a nontheistic religion. Fromm develops a historical-philosophical perspective that views the Old Testament account of God and man as a process in the course of which man comes increasingly into his own. Thus God as an idea becomes identical with man’s complete „being at home with himself,“ and belief in a revealed God is understood as a stage on the path toward a „humanistic religion“ that develops in and through itself.

Subsequently, Fromm focused on two problems, one of which is the historically decisive question of whether man will once again become the master of his creations, or whether he will perish in an overly technological industrial world. Fromm’s writings on politics, especially on nuclear weapons and the peace movement (1960b, 1961a), and his The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (1968a), which can be considered a continuation of The Sane Society (1955a), address this question. The second problem relates to the decay of the individual and of humanity as a species. Using the types of nonproductive life he had previously explicated (1947a, 1964a), Fromm presents a systematic treatment of the polarity of possible orientations on the basis of character. The related questions concerning the antithesis of instinct and character, the inherent human destructive instinct postulated by behavioral research, and the skepticism concerning the human being’s potential goodness that this view entails (and the doubt this skepticism casts on humanism) guided Fromm’s research for five years. The results of his work over this period are summarized in The Anatomy ofHuman Destructiveness (1973a).

His last major publication, To Have or to Be? (1976a), attempts to synthesize the insights of social psychology with those of humanistic religion and ethics. Fromm identifies two fundamentally antithetical orientations of human existence--having and being--and links his abundant insights into the individual and social psyche to the tradition of humanistic religion and of significant historical figures. Fromm believed that responsible scientific work could not ignore the ends of its activity or refuse to synthesize insights from a variety of disciplines. Neither could it be neutral toward the ethical relevance of its findings. Science therefore requires a frame of orientation that is ultimately not deducible from the insights of any single discipline.


References Cited

Fromm, E. 1941a: Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

- 1947a: Man for Himself. An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Rinehart and Co.

- 1950a: Psychoanalysis and Religion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

- 1951a: The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths. New York: Rinehart and Co.

- 1955a: The Sane Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

- 1956a: The Art of Loving: An Inquiry into the Nature of Love. New York: Harper and Row.

- 1959a: Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence. New York: Harper and Row.

- 1960a: „Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism.“ In Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Ed. D. T. Suzuki and E. Fromm, pp. 77-141. New York: Harper and Row.

- 1960b: „The Case for Unilateral Disarmament. Daedalus 89 (4), pp. 1015-1028.

- 1961a: May Man Prevail?An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy. New York: Doubleday.

- 1961b: Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: E Ungar.

- 1962a: Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. New York: Simon and Schuster.

- 1964a: The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row.

- 1966a: You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

- 1968a: The Revolution ofHope: Toward a Humanized Technology. New York: Harper and Row.

- 1973a: The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

- 1976a: To Have or to Be? New York: Harper and Row.

- 1979d: „Erich Fromm: Du Talmud a Freud.“ Interview with Gerard Khoury in Le Monde Dimanche (Paris), October 21, xv.

- 1980a: The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study. Ed. Wolfgang Bonss. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

- 1989b: Das jüdische Gesetz: Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie des Diasporajudentums. Weinheim and Basel: Beltz-Verlag.

- 1994b: „Campaign for Eugene McCarthy.“ In Fromm, On Being Human. New York: Continuum 1994, pp. 89-95.

Marcuse, H. 1955. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.