Bettelheim and Fromm on Freud

Kurt Jacobsen

In 1959 Bruno Bettelheim, his own reputation in ascent (and since unjustly despoiled in the US ), reviewed Erich Fromm’s volume Sigmund Freud’s Mission, a perceptive little book he later thought could be most instructively compared with Ernest Jones’ adulatory and unreflective rendition of the master. So Bettelheim paired the reviews in the last collection before his death, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays (1989). The critique of official biographer Jones was pure Bettelheim – a cogent, insightful, and politely phrased demolition of a misguidedly worshipful three volume enterprise. 

What Bettelheim demolished were the bland claims of a fervent disciple bent on the (doubtless unconscious) disservice of distorting Freud by idealizing him. The idealizer cannot help but inject their own agenda into the subject of their acclaim. Jones therefore rattled on with his positivistic bent, intending above all, to convert Freud’s lucid prose into a turgid and medically suitable terminology for consumption by uptight, well-mannered, highly conformist medical opinion in the English speaking world. Indeed, Jones sought to please the very ‘medical model’ mentality Freud was at war with through most of his professional life. The medical model proposes that every mental disturbance has a physiological cause, or else it doesn’t count. In other words, human being cannot drive other human beings (or themselves, for that matter) crazy. Bettelheim later published a brilliant little volume of his own – Freud and Man’s Soul (1982) - trying to undo the damage that latter-day positivists like Jones, and translator James Strachey, could not help but inflict on Freud’s humanist project.

Unlike Jones, who troweled suffocating heaps of acclaim on Freud, Bettelheim found that Freud, in Fromm’s hands, “emerges alive and of vital concern to us, and by showing how much remains to be done. Fromm hands us a challenge.’[1] Fromm had kept keenly in mind Freud’s admonition that anyone who attempts an autobiography (and, as often as not, a biography) lays himself open to every imaginable form of flattering self-deception. Fromm’s clear-eyed irreverent perspective had far more to tell us about Freud’s audacious enterprise and its worth. Bettelheim, so far as I know, never met Jones. It’s not clear whether Fromm and Bettelheim met either.

But Bettelheim knew Fromm’s work as far back as the 1930s. And Fromm, like many Frankfurt School counterparts during his early dalliance with them, admired Bettelheim’s accounts of the pre-holocaust concentration camps, first published in 1943. As a result, at the University of Chicago Bettelheim and Edward Shils,, and then in Shils’ stead Morris Janowitz, soon were in touch with Leo Lowenthal and then Max Horkheimer.[2] Horkheimer invited Bettelheim and Janowitz to undertake a book-length study of anti-Semitism among enlisted US military personnel in what became the volume, Dynamics of Prejudice (appended to an additional study in their 1964 book Social Change and Prejudice).

Bettelheim and Janowitz came up with opposite conclusions to The Authoritarian Personality study on what amounted to class grounds. Adorno and co-authors traced anti-Semitism among upper and middle classes to their complacency about their secure position in the social structure, while Bettelheim and Janowitz found anti-Semitism among working class and lower middle class people was stirred by economic insecurity, ignorance, and their anxiety about the future. In the introduction, Bettelheim refers to Horkheimer as much as a friend as a consultant from the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee, which funded the study.[3] By then, of course, Fromm and the Frankfurt crew were not on speaking terms, but Bettelheim was not one to assess people by their connections, or to care about their spats. 

Bettelheim, a lifelong intellectual gadfly himself, praised Fromm for ‘highlighting the tremendous achievements, but not glossing over Freud’s failings, always intent on showing how psychoanalysis flowed from both.” Ambivalence and contradiction, Bettelheim, stressed, are always the key psychological phenomena to keep your analytical eye on in any arena. ‘Nothing is true in psychoanalysis, but its contradictions,’ as Adorno wisecracked in his own legendary exaggeration.  Fromm drew attention to how the consequences of Freud’s original ambitions to be a world reformer affected the psychoanalytic movement, which, in some respects and for too many analysts, “became less of a scientific society and more a semi-religious movement.”

This mordant passage certainly caught Bettelheim’s eye, the eye of an outsider who, despite his own renown, was only grudgingly accepted into the outermost edges of the psychoanalytic organizational fold. (Fromm, or course, had plenty of his own troubles with psychoanalytic societies.) Bettelheim often remarked that the intensive psychoanalytic training required a certain conformist mindset that ill-suited folks such as he and, indeed, most pioneers of the profession, who usually underwent relatively short analyses, unencumbered by a detailed unquestionable catechism.

Bettelheim fully appreciated too what Fromm termed the “Janus-like character of psychoanalysis as both a new science and a reform movement.” It is a phenomenon he saw up close in Vienna, where, as Russell Jacoby superbly documents, many of the second generation analysts were socialists and social democrats engaged in the public sphere.[4] This politically progressive trend withered with emigration to a proto-McCarthyite America (perhaps most tragically – or tragicomically -  in the case of acquaintance Wilhelm Reich, who had been a close friend of Bettelheim’s own analyst Richard Sterba).

Fromm‘s portrait of Freud captured the founder as ‘very insecure, easily frightened and vulnerable of feelings of persecution.’ His stance, according to Fromm was one wary of mankind so that ‘certainty for him was only to be found in reason, through knowledge.” Bettelheim approved of Fromm examining “Golden Siggi’s” (apple of Mom’s eye) relation with his father, terming ‘Freud a rebel, not a revolutionary because he wanted to be, and became, an authority for others to submit to.” This verdict, though, overplayed Freud’s unwarranted image as tyrant, even though that is not what Bettelheim or Fromm were putting their fingers on here. Bettelheim agreed heartily with Fromm that a person does not overcome his ambivalence towards authority until he frees himself from the attachment to authority that makes him wish to dominate others. Only then can he change from rebel into revolutionary” There is more than a grain of truth in saying that, “in this sense, Freud was and remained a rebel.” Later, Bettelheim’s misunderstanding of the motives of most 60s youth dissent – plus memories of Vienna campus Nazis in the 1930s - led him into some unfortunate remarks before Congress about ‘obsolete youth.’ A lot of other eminent émigrés at the time, including Erik Erikson, understandably felt the same.

A quibble arises. Was the aim to gain recognition from authorities, as Fromm (and Bettelheim) asserted, of utmost importance to Freud?  Such a sweet outcome of course would be a delicious one for any stubborn maverick to savor. But one has strong grounds to doubt this characterization since the gaining of recognition over decades was achieved mostly on Freud’s own terms. That is just not how ambitious people tend to behave. So this is a curious way to describe someone who stayed at the margins much of his life and only latterly acceded to measures of his friends to get his appointment as professor extraordinarius at University of Vienna.

Fromm notes Freud’s identification with Moses.who “wanted to transform the world.” Indeed. Freud said “psychoanalysis is the instrument destined for the progressive conquest of the id” –the conquest of passion by reason.’ Fromm goes on: “Since he had no faith in the average man, this new scientific morality was an aim that could only be accomplished by an elite.’ If true, it would have been a remarkably naïve remark to make considering how well Freud knew the elites. When Freud infamously wrote that most people he encountered are ‘just trash’ he was referring to the people he met on the couch and in his professional life, and those were the elites.

But Fromm also argues that Freud became “a Moses who showed the human race the promised land, the conquest of the id by the Ego and the way to this conquest.” True. Especially in the aftermath of the First World War, Freud enthusiastically backed educational experiments generally, and sliding scale fees, individually, to enable the wider population access to psychoanalytic insights and knowledge. This is the Freud that Fromm and Bettelheim deeply respected, but refused to venerate - for venerating Freud would have destroyed the bold searching spirit he embodied

 In his 1962 book Symbolic Wounds Betterlheim approvingly cites Fromm’s The Forgotten Language regarding the male envy of feminine characteristics and endowments.[5] ‘It seems that in any society envy of the more dominant sex is observed,’ Bettelheim, like Fromm and others, plainly saw. The then conventional “psychoanalytic opinion on circumcision and puberty rites represents an unbalanced view of the nature of human beings [and] reflects early theory concerned with the id, and not the ego psychology which has lately come to stand in the center of psychoanalytic speculation.  Ego and superego are not ‘mere’ superstructures built upon the “only reality” of the id. The human personality results for the continuous interplay of all three institutions of the mind…”[6] Freud, as he himself admitted about his metapsychological works, was clearly operating in a speculative realm. “To present these speculations as facts, simply because they originated with Freud, is not science, but mythology.”[7] In some high-flown places it actually takes guts to point this out.

 Bettelheim also applauded Fromm’s canny parallel drawn between Freud’s system and 19th century middle class economic beliefs in virtues of saving and accumulation. “By nonsatisfaction of instinctual desires, so Freud thought, by self-deprivations, the elite, in contrast to the mob, ‘saves’ the psychical capital for cultural achievements’ The whole mystery of sublimation, which Freud never quite adequately explained, is the mystery of capital formation, according to the myth of the 19th century middle class. Just as wealth is the product of saving, culture is the product of instinctual frustration.”[8] These are not thoughts spawned by men who were indoctrinated to believe ‘it all existed in our heads.’

 Bettelheim, returning to his review of Fromm, launched into a kindred-spirited condemnation of the dilution and taming of psychoanalysis especially by middle class mores and medical terms, witheringly observing

Those who embrace psychoanalsysis in the image of Freud today are mostly lonely urban intellectuals with a deep yearning to be committed to an ideal, a movement, without the ability to make real sacrifices for it – to relinquish status or success for an idea.….Here is a middle class for which life has lost its meaning. Its member are without political or religious ideals, yet are in search of meaning, an idea to devote themselves to, an explanation of life that requires neither faith nor sacrifices, and that will enable them to feel part of a movement without any major commitment.

 So the ‘enthusiasm, freshness, and spontaneity weakened, and hierarchy took over which claimed its prestige from the correct interpretation of the dogma and exercised power to judge who could be counted among the faithful? Eventually dogma, ritual, and idolatry toward the leader replaced the leader’s creative daring and imagination.” That is the routine Weberian tragedy that attends most leaders regarding some or most of their disciples.  Fromm, Bettelheim says, spotted the great liability ‘of this movement as its failure to extend the understanding of the individuals unconscious to a critical analysis of his society, and as a failure of Freudian psychoanalysis , past or present, to transcend a liberal middle class attitude toward society.  So that psychoanalsysis becomes a substitute satisfaction for a deep human yearning to find meaning in life, to be in genuine touch with reality and achieve closeness to others.”

 In Freud and Man’s Soul, Bettelheim, surely in Fromm’s footsteps or likely alongside him, went hammer and tongs against these middle class parlor game players, medicalizers and positivists who distance themselves tidily away from ‘a spontaneous sympathy of our unconscious with that of others, a feeling response  of our soul to theirs”[9] This was ‘the universal wish to remain unaware of one’s unconscious” by which most scientists desire not to be annoyed – and so ignore.  Even for a new cohort of analysts, as psychoanalysis became filtered through medical, class and social prejudices in the US and UK, the key terms were ‘invested with meanings opposite to those he intended.’ [10] American psychology “has become all analysis to the complete neglect of the psyche or the soul.” (19

 Fromm and Bettelheim would probably have disagreed on some other matters, such as the ameliorative aspects of socialization over the innate drives, but one cannot be sure since Bettelheim never had a cross word to say about Fromm – and, so far as I know, vice versa.

 Fromm and Bettelheim were vibrant and defiant scientific investigators who appreciated the conquistador Freud for what he offered, and among the offering one would not find any sacred certainties. Fromm certainly joined Bettelheim in the Kuhnian observation that, “If the investigator brings to the field strong convictions on the universal validity of certain theoretical speculations, he may treat observations as if they were facts of a lower order, acceptable only if they fit the theory or if he may so interpret them so that they seem to fit.”[11]  This all too paradigmatic propensity to shove round pegs in, um, square holes certainly applied to the medical model versus the upstart discipline of psychoanalysis - but it later figured as well as cautionary advice within a thriving psychoanalysis too, when it became endangered of becoming another model of inquiry whose value ossifies the moment it is treated as pure truth. The lesson?

Know thyself - and don’t forget to know thy society too.


[1] Bruno Bettelheim, Freud’s Vienna and other Essays (New York Knopf, 1990), p. 48.  Also titled Recollections and Reflections.

[2] Interview with Leo Lowenthal, 1991

[3] Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Social Change and Prejudice, including Dynamics of Prejudice  Glencoe, Ill, 1964 Free Press. pp. 101, 102 The latter volume was originally published in 1950.

[4] See Russell Jacoby, The Repression of Psychoanalysis (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991)

[5] Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 56.

[6]  Ibid., p. 21.

[7] Ibid. p. 43.

[8] Bettelheim Freud’s Vienna,  quoting from Fromm, pp. 54-55.

[9] Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York:  Knoff, 1980), p. 5.

[10] Ibid.p 11.

[11] Ibid., p. 61