Erich Fromm (1900-1980) achieved international fame for his writings and lectures in the fields of psychoanalysis, psychology, and social philosophy. He wrote extensively on a variety of topics ranging from sociology, anthropology, and ethics to religion, politics, and mythology.
Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 23, 1900, and died in Muralto, Switzerland, on March 18, 1980. He grew up in a devout Jewish family, but abandoned religious orthodoxy early in life when he became convinced that religion was a source of division of the human race. His academic career was impressive. He studied at the Universities of Frankfurt and Munich and received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg. Later, he obtained psychoanalytic training at the prestigious Psychoanalytic Institute of Berlin under the leadership of such prominent Freudian analysts as Hanns Sachs and Theodor Reik. After pursuing a brief career as a psychoanalyst he left Nazi Germany in 1934 and settled permanently in the United States. Fromm taught in various universities such as Bennington College, Columbia, Yale, New School for Social Research, Michigan State, and the Universidad Autónoma de México. In 1962 he became professor of psychiatry at New York University.
Fromm wrote more than 20 books. Some of them became popular bestsellers: Escape from Freedom (1942); Man for Himself (1947); Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950); The Forgotten Language (1951); The Sane Society (1955); The Art of Loving (1956); Marx's Concept of Man (1961); Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud (1962); The Dogma of Christ, and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (1963); Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960); The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1963); The Heart of Man (1964); Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970); The Revolution of Hope (1968); The Crisis of Psychoanalysis (1970); and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973).
A sincere and profound humanism permeates all of Fromm's writings. He was genuinely concerned with the reality of human existence and the full unfolding of man's potentialities. He searched for the essence of man, the meaning of life, and the nature of individual alienation in the modern technological world. Deeply moved by the destruction and the suffering caused by two world wars, Fromm wrote extensively on the threats of technology and the insanity of the arms race. Faith in the future of man and the unity of humanity was the base of his humanistic vision.
Freud and Marx were the most decisive influences on Fromm's thinking. Originally Freudian in his intellectual orientation and clinical practice, he gradually grew more distant from Freudian therapeutic principles and later became a major critic of Freud. Along with Karen Horney, Harry Sullivan, and Karl Jung, Fromm was considered a Freudian revisionist and the founder of the neo-Freudian school. He rejected Freud's libido theory, the Oedipus complex, and the instincts of life and death as universally constant in the human species. Instead, he insisted on cultural variations and the influence of the larger context of history and social conditions upon the character of the individual. The concept of the unconscious and the dynamic conception of character were considered to be Freud's major achievements. The task of analytical social psychology, Fromm wrote, is that of understanding unconscious human behavior as the effect of the socio-economic structure of society on basic human psychic drives. Likewise, the character of the individual is rooted in the libidinal structure of society, understood as a combination of basic human drives and social forces. In the last analysis, Fromm rejected Freudian theory as authoritarian, repressive, and culturally narrow, enabling the individual to overcome the conflict between society and personal gratification and accept bourgeois norms.
In contrast, Fromm's admiration for Marx was complete. He considered Marx a sincere humanist who sought an end to human alienation and the full development of the individual as the precondition for the full development of society (Marx's Concept of Man). Marx's emphasis on the socio-economic base of society as a major determinant of human behavior was accepted as a given by Fromm. Marxism, though, needed to be completed by a dynamic and critical psychology—that is, a psychology which explained the evolution of psychic forces in terms of an interaction between man's needs and the socio-historical reality in which he lives (The Crisis of Psychoanalysis). Fromm never renounced his project of merging psycho-analysis and Marxism. This was his major work as a member of the Frankfurt School (The Institute for Social Research), a school committed to Critical Theory, a critique of the repressive character of bourgeois society. Psychological theory, he wrote, can demonstrate that the economic base of a society produces the social character, and that the social character produces ideas and ideologies which fit it and are nourished by it. Ideas, once created, also influence the social character and, indirectly, the socio-economic structure of society (Socialist Humanism).
In his popular book Escape from Freedom Fromm analyzed the existential condition of man. The source of man's aggressiveness, the human instinct of destructiveness, neurosis, sadism, and masochism were not viewed as sexually derived behavior, but as attempts to overcome alienation and powerlessness. His notion of freedom, in contrast to Freud and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, had a more positive connotation. It was not a matter of attaining "freedom from" the repressive character of the technological society, as Herbert Marcuse, for instance, held, but "freedom to" develop the creative powers of man. In Man for Himself Fromm focussed on the problem of neurosis, characterizing it as the moral problem of a repressive society, as the failure of man to achieve maturity and an integrated personality. Man's capacity for freedom and love, he noted, are dependent upon socio-economic conditions, but are rarely found in societies where the drive of destructiveness prevails.
In the Sane Society he attempted to psychologize society and culture and showed that psychoanalytic principles can be successfully applied to the solution of social and cultural problems. In a society becoming increasingly insane, he wrote, only a concern for ethics can restore sanity. Each person needs to develop high ethical standards in order to rejuvenate society and to arrest the process of robotization of the human being. Technological domination is destructive of human personality. Man's need to destroy, for Fromm, stemmed from an "unlived life," that is, the frustration of the life instinct. Love becomes the only answer to human problems (The Art of Loving). He advocated a "socialist humanism" which in theory and practice is committed to the full development of man within the context of a socio-economic system that, by its rationality and abundance, harmonizes the development of the individual and society (Socialist Humanism).
In contrast to the pessimistic and deterministic conclusions of Freudian theory and the nihilistic implications of Critical Theory, Fromm functioned as a voice of conscience. He maintained that true happiness could be achieved and that a happiness-oriented therapy, through empathy, was the most successful one. He severely criticized established psychoanalysis for contributing to the dehumanization of man (The Crisis of Psychoanalysis). Also, consistent with his philosophy of love and peace, Fromm fought against nuclear weapons and helped organize a "sane society" movement to stop the insanity of the arms race.
His influence on humanistic psychology was enormous. Many later social analysts were inspired by Fromm's writings. An example would be the work of Christopher Lasch on the Culture of Narcissism, which continued in the United States Fromm's effort to psychoanalyze culture and society in a neo-Freudian and Marxist tradition.
Further Reading on Erich Fromm
Fromm is listed in most social science encyclopedias. For a general summary of his work, a more complete intellectual biography, and a critical assessment of his theories see: Jay Martin, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School (1973); Don Hausdorff, Erich Fromm (1972); B. Landis and E. Tauber (editors), In the Name of Life: Essays in Honor of Erich Fromm (1979) and "Erich Fromm: Clinician and Social Philosopher," in Contemporary Psychoanalysis (1979); and Richard Evans, Dialogue with Erich Fromm (1966).
Numerous dissertations have been written on Fromm. See J. Zimmerman, "Transcendent Psychology: Eric H. Erikson, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, A. Maslow and Harry S. Sullivan and the Quest for a Healthy Humanity," Dissertation Abstracts International (1982); S. J. Dembo, "Synthesis of Liberation: Marx-Freud and the New Left, An Examination of the Work of W. Reich, E. Fromm and H. Marcuse," Ph.D. Dissertation, Rutgers University (1975); and C. E. Daly, "The Epistemology and Ethical Theory of Erich Fromm as the Basis for a Theory of Moral Education," Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University (1977).
Additional Biography Sources
Evans, Richard I. (Richard Isadore), Dialogue with Erich Fromm, New York, N.Y.: Praeger, 1981, 1966.
Knapp, Gerhard Peter, The art of living: Erich Fromm's life and works, New York: P. Lang, 1989.