The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet

The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet

By Lawrence J. Friedman (Columbia University Press, 2013)   Reviewed by Joseph Chuman


Erich Fromm changed my life–in very big ways. Vogue authors abounded on college campuses in the 1960s. Names such Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac were among those at the top of the list. For students poetically inclined there were Alan Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among many others. But for me the premiere writer was the social psychologist Erich Fromm. Fromm authored more than 20 books, and starting at the age of 16 when I entered college, I devoured them all. For a depressed and lonely teenager, Fromm’s humanistic psychology that valorized the “productive personality,” whose character is molded out of social experience and active engagement with life, spoke to me in ways that were inspiring and transformative. Though I have moved beyond his thought, I am forced to admit that no writer has more profoundly influenced my life, both in terms of framing my world view and anchoring my values, than has Erich Fromm

So when I heard that that a new biography of Fromm had just been published, my curiosity was piqued. A book on Fromm recalled me  to my formative years but also raised the question: Why now, when Fromm and those of his ilk seem passé, if not forgotten.

Lawrence Friedman’s The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, is a prodigious piece of scholarship. Friedman is a professor in Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative and has written texts on such psychological luminaries as Erik Erikson and Karl Menninger. The title of the current work recognizes Fromm’s multiple roles as psychoanalyst, social philosopher, political activist, prolific and phenomenally successful writer and social prophet.

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900 and issued from a long line of prominent rabbis. Himself an orthodox Jew steeped in Talmud and Chasidic folklore and song until he was 26, Fromm began to universalize his world view through exposure to the thought of Hermann Cohen, the famed neo-Kantian philosopher. Fromm, who was attracted to older women, was seduced by his analyst, Frieda Reichmann, 11 years his senior. They married and subsequently divorced, but it was through Reichmann that Fromm gained an appreciation for Freud, whose thought remained central to his life’s work. In 1929, Fromm joined the Frankfurt School of Social Research, a group of eclectic and skeptical Marxist scholars, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the most distinguished among them. It was at the Frankfort School that Fromm developed what would become the centerpiece of his theoretical work for the remainder of his life. That work centered on an attempt to fuse Freudian psychoanalysis with Marx’s social critique of capitalism, particularly ways in which the capitalist mode of production distorts human character and transforms human beings into mindless consumers and conformists, thus robbing them of their humanistic potentials.

In order to do this, Fromm abandoned orthodox Freudianism’s central focus on man’s biologically-based instincts for sex and aggression, and replaced them with what he referred to as “social character.” In short, one’s psychological orientation and well as personality is molded by interpersonal relations. This created the opportunity for the development of different personality types such the “authoritarian,” “dependent,” “sadomasochistic,” and “productive” personalities, as well as others.

His revision of Marx of was no less controversial. Rather than elaborating on the mature Marx of Capital, with its focus on economic determinism and mainstays of the Communist movement such as the dictatorship of the proletariat and the historically mandated role of the working class, Fromm revived and expounded on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Here he transforms Marx into a proto-psychologist who elaborated on the alienation of man from his labor, himself and his fellow men. The Manuscripts of 1844 points to a humanistic and socialist utopia, which reinforced Fromm’s own Messianic values, gleaned from the Jewish tradition.

In 1941, Fromm published his most important volume, Escape from Freedom, which attempted to analyze the compelling power of Nazism and its appeal to the German populace, though Fromm’s social psychology could be applied as well to strains of conformism salient in American capitalism. Fromm’s central thesis is that freedom generates anxiety.

“Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and thereby anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.”

This brief passage exemplifies the binary nature characteristic of Fromm’s thought; man either lapses into authoritarian obedience or moves ahead to claim his maturity, productivity and happiness. For Fromm, the latter is achieved through the positive unfolding of our potentialities, our human capacities for love, reason and productive work most of all. It is this unfolding and the society it prefigures that comprise the acme of Fromm’s vision, which he refers to as “humanistic socialism.”

Before a falling out with Adorno, Fromm relocated the Frankfurt Institute to Columbia University in 1934, where he secured a teaching position, and then later at Bennington College and Michigan State. All the while, he engaged his work as a practicing analyst, helped to found the William Allison While Institute, had an affair with Karen Horney, even as he analyzed her daughter, and developed working friendships with Arthur Schlesinger, Margaret Mead, and David Reisman, among other intellectuals. And he continued his writing, which enabled him to establish an international reputation. In 1955 he published The Sane Society, which picked up themes introduced in Escape from Freedom, as it used the norm of the productive personality to critique capitalist conformity, consumerism and the erosion of democracy. The next year, Fromm came out with The Art of Loving, which sold in excess of 25 million copies, more in Germany than any volume other than the Bible. This was an intensely active phase of his life in which he shuttled from Mexico City, where he and his second wife, Henny Gurland, relocated in 1950, to New York and elsewhere, treating patients, fulfilling speaking engagements and meeting with colleagues.

Later in life, Fromm, fearful of nuclear annihilation, became an activist in the service of disarmament and international peace. His reputation enabled him to develop extensive correspondences with Adlai Stevenson, William Fulbright, and later Eugene McCarthy, among others. And Friedman contends that Fromm influenced John Kennedy to develop a negotiating posture towards Khrushchev rather than ramp up what he saw as inevitable bellicosity leading to nuclear war.

Friedman’s treatment of Fromm is rigorous and balanced. His critique of Fromm confirms conclusions that I had drawn even in my admiring youth. Among them is that despite Fromm’s creativity, his influence rested greatly in the clarity and power of his prose, and much less so in the rigor of his scholarship. One is often left with the sense that authorities invoked by Fromm, whether they be Aristotle, Spinoza, Freud or Marx, are felicitously shaped to fit the Frommian mold. Despite, the remonstrations of serious academics, Luther is portrayed as the prototype of the authoritarian, Spinoza, the champion of humanistic psychology, and Marx the paragon of the happy and productive character type, though there is virtual consensus that Marx, though a genius, was a miserable human being, plagued by poverty and boils and given to drunken brawls in his youth. Marx also had two daughters, whom he undoubtedly loved, but who ended up committing suicide. The lack of nuance in his scholarship points to the reductive and the aforementioned binary nature of Fromm’s written composition. Human beings are not just this or that, of authoritarian or productive character, but complex mixes of traits manifesting themselves at different times of life, in varieties of contexts and informed by changing moods and dispositions.

Another flaw in Fromm, unasserted by Friedman, is Fromm’s implicit but unflagging moralism. In heralding the productive human being as the ideal type, Fromm failed to acknowledge humanity in its fallen state, so to speak. One leaves Fromm beguiled by his humanistic vision, but deflated that one cannot reach the bar he has set impossibly high.

Friedman has produced the most detailed, comprehensive, balanced and readable biography of one of the 20th Century’s most influential thinkers. Yet his study would be more satisfying if he had clarified what it all adds up to. Oddly missing is Fromm’s place as a harbinger of the Humanistic Psychology Movement, including figures such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Albert Ellis and others who helped to shape the geist of the 1960s. But the author is to be commended not only for his rigor but for putting before us the life of thinker who so powerfully influenced his own time, if not, unfortunately, our own.

Joseph Chuman, PhD, is the longtime leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, co-leader of the Ethical Culture Society of New York, and graduate-level teacher of Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.


One Comment

  1. Extremely well-informed review of the book and of Fromm.

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