Lawrence Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet
If your undergraduate years coincided with the tumultuous 1960s or early 1970s, as you exercised your newly-found freedom you could not have escaped Erich Fromm. His books seemed to be everywhere, and he seemed to have answers for a generation more than a bit despondent about where the world appeared to be heading. His first major work, Escape from Freedom, published during World War II, was a penetrating study of why people may prefer authoritarianism to democratic government. His later works, notably The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, expressed the ideals and growing pains of those angst-ridden 20 somethings who saw all too well the imperfections of the world they were poised to inherit from their parents.
If Fromm was everywhere then, he seems to be nowhere now. Escape from Freedom remains a cogent statement of what Fromm’s native Germany had become, and transformed itself after the war into a critique of post-war consumerism and materialism. The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, although published in the 1950s, seem like relics of the tumult of the 1960s, psycho-babble speaking to readers who were also lapping up Charles Reich’s fatuous The Greening of America, a work that now reads almost as a caricature of that era. Fromm’s works can’t be ridiculed in quite the same way, although from a perspective of 40 years later, they strike me as sophomoric. But, let’s face it, many of us reading them back then were more than a little sophomoric ourselves, even if we had evolved into juniors, seniors or young graduates.
Now, for those of us who haven’t thought much about Fromm in recent decades, Lawrence Friedman has produced The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, a penetrating biography of the man behind those books for a generation of sophomores. Digging deeply into his many books, Friedman accents Fromm’s “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-ii).
Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, into a middle-class German-Jewish family. He was an only child and never felt particularly close to his parents. His mother in particular was distant. Looking back on his childhood, Fromm found her uncaring — she had not mastered the art of loving was probably a thought that passed through Fromm’s adult mind, perhaps at the moment when the title of his future book crystallized for him. Although his immediate family was not religious, from his earliest years prophetic Jewish teaching had much influence on his writings and thinking, an influence that never vanished as Fromm drifted away from formal Judaism. Throughout his adult life, Jewish law and ethics proved to be an anchor for Fromm, an illustration of universal human needs and experiences.
Fromm became a psychoanalyst and began to make a name for himself at the Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s. But the 1930s were not among Germany’s better years and, with Hitler in power, most of the Frankfurt Institute moved to Columbia University in New York. Fromm migrated to the United States in 1934, and made what seems to have been a seamless transition to becoming an American in all senses of the term. Unlike most of his German colleagues at Columbia, Fromm was very comfortable in America and in using the English language, which he mastered in an amazingly short time.
Fromm’s field, psychoanalysis, was one which Sigmund Freud had essentially invented during Fromm’s early years. As a young psychoanalyst, Fromm developed views that set him apart from Freud. Fromm regarded Freud’s view of human beings as too dark, too focused on libidinal impulses. Fromm “modified but did not eliminate [Freud’s] centrality of instinctive life” (p.225). In some senses, Fromm’s life-long mission was to replace libido theory, the “underpinning of Freudian orthodoxy” (p.60), with a view of humans as “social beings whose lives are shaped by social structure and culture” (p. xii), and in this sense Fromm never seriously wavered from his counter-views of Freud.
The other central figure in defining Fromm’s professional career and shaping his views was Karl Marx. Early in his career, having deviated from Freudian orthodoxy, Fromm became convinced that the correct psychoanalytic view of man could be found through a synthesis between Marx’s rigidly materialistic emphasis on social-economic conditions and Freud’s focus on the inner psyche. While at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany, Fromm stumbled upon an early, unpublished manuscript Marx had written in 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called the Paris Manuscripts), in which Marx had emphasized the estrangement that capitalism inflicted upon the human psyche. Blending this younger and “more psychologically compelling Marx” (p.188) with the insights of Freud, Fromm developed his notion of “social character structure,” a notion based on the interplay between individuals’ “impulsive energy, religion [and] political ideologies” and the “economic organization of society” (p.60).
Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom, which Friedman terms “one of the most profound and captivating books ever written on the conflict between freedom and authoritarianism” (p.62), came out in 1941, with war raging in Europe. Escape was one of the first works to merge psychology and history although, Friedman notes, most critics found that Fromm’s psychology “outshone his history” (p.107). The central thesis which Fromm articulated in Escape was in many senses the central thesis of his writings for the remainder of his career:
[M]odern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. 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 which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man (p.99).
Although the future for liberal democracy appeared exceedingly bleak at the time of publication, Escape ended on an upbeat note. Fromm predicted the eventual spread of humanistic values, “almost as historical inevitability” (p.115). Friedman attributes Fromm’s optimism in part to his Jewish heritage and learning, noting that the Jewish prophetic tradition burst forth at the end of Escape from Freedom and helped make it a classic. As Fromm wrote the book, he was preoccupied with the rescue of family members and others from a “Holocaust in the making,” indicating that “much of his daily life was deeply embedded in the fabric of the book” (p.97). “The force and clarity of the work,” Friedman concludes, was “surely influenced by his almost daily interventions for émigré assistance” (p.76).
With the defeat of the Nazis and the onset of the Cold War, Escape from Freedom demonstrated its versatility by evolving into a book speaking to the conformist tendencies of the 1950s in the United States. Friedman argues that Escape can be fitted into the same niche as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, works which also addressed the comfortable middle class materialism that seemed to characterize 1950s America. Escape from Freedom had a wider focus than The Lonely Crowd, which was centered on the United States. In Friedman’s interpretation, one can see a 20th century version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Escape from Freedom, a statement of the perils of democracy in which people “dread their own free agency [and] fear themselves” (p.66-67).
In 1950, Fromm relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, where he taught until 1965, although he retained substantial ties with the United States throughout his time in Mexico. During the 1950s, Friedman contends, Fromm ceased to write as a scholar and “evolved into a best-selling author” and “icon of popular culture,” particularly in the United States (p.155). In an unremitting series of books — rarely supported, Friedman wryly notes, with “much logic or evidence” (p.155) — Fromm advanced emotionally powerful ideas about the importance of love, the dangers of nuclear war, and the insipidness of consumerism and materialism.
The Sane Society, published in 1955, focused on the Cold War culture of consumerism. Here, Fromm argued that love was the only force capable of counterbalancing narcissism and social conformity. A society achieved sanity where its citizens were “self-directed,” depending upon “their own capacities to love and to create, to think and to reason, to feel connected to themselves and to others” (p.188). Fromm relied heavily upon Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he had discovered while at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. “We consume, as we produce,” Fromm wrote in The Sane Society, echoing Marx, “without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; we live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them” (p.189).
The following year, 1956, saw the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm’s best selling book. With few footnotes or quotations and no index, the slim, 120 page volume was “quite short on scholarly paraphernalia,” as Friedman puts it (p.173). Here, Fromm posited that loving others starts with loving one-self. Self love opens an “entry way to the love of another and human kind” (p.175). Much to his chagrin, The Art of Loving was often paired with 1950s “self-help” best-sellers such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, works which “valued material acquisition and enhanced popularity as the avenues to happiness” (p.174). Quite unlike these works, The Art of Loving contained a scathing indictment of market capitalism and consumerism that emphasized the “severe limitations on love inherent in modern capitalist society and its focus on materialist acquisitiveness” (p.181), helping to explain the book’s appeal in the 1960s, when Carnegie and Peale seemed conspicuously out of step with the times.
In these and his other books written in the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm became what we might term today a “public intellectual,” speaking out on the issues of the day and engaging actively in politics. Fromm’s signature issue centered on the threat that nuclear weapons posed, a threat he considered more serious than the dictatorships of the 1930s. Fromm was a co-founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (usually referred to as “SANE,” a reference to The Sane Society). Fromm advised a wide range of American public officials during this time on the dangers of nuclear weapons, including John F. Kennedy, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.
Throughout his time of activism and engagement, Fromm continued to write prolifically, with his search for the ideal synthesis between Freud and Marx continuing. His 1959 work Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence invoked Marx as a “remedy” to Freud, but From still asserted that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious had struck a blow to conventional rationalists. More an “extended philippic than a closely reasoned or well-researched manuscript,” Sigmund Freud’s Mission nonetheless represented Fromm’s “most explicit reckoning with Freud” (p.221). Marx’s Concept of Man, published in 1961, relied again on Marx’s 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts to portray Marx as “deeply sensitive to inner, often unconsciousness psychological motivation” (p.223). Beyond the Chains of Illusions, published in 1962, represented Fromm’s “fullest effort to present his thoughts on Freud and Marx between two covers” (p.224). Unlike Freud, Fromm found that Marx had “delineated the psychologically crippling effect of class exploitation inherent in capitalism” (p.225). Marx thus helped Fromm establish an essentially social-democratic position as an alternative to a “repressive, class-based society” (p.226).
Fromm termed his social-democratic position “socialist humanism,” a creed that sought to elevate individual self-fulfillment as the centerpiece for structuring human institutions. Fromm utilized his socialist humanism project to connect like-minded humanists in the United States and Western Europe with Eastern European dissidents in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1965, Fromm edited a volume of essays entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, which became “perhaps the most cited and celebratory global expression of 1960s third world socialism, providing an international context to the increasing number of works by members of Fromm’s expanding circle of colleagues” (p.245-46).
In the 1960s, Fromm also began to explore what he termed “necrophilia,” a predilection for death, force, and destruction. Fromm posited “biophilia” as the counterpoint to necrophilia, a “heightened sense of aliveness” through which man “confirmed his powers and his sense of self” (p.215). This binary theme underscored Fromm’s 1973 work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Here, Fromm argued that the authoritarian character type he had been describing since Escape From Freedom and the necrophilic character type “operated in tandem, forming a partnership between the two most evil potentialities of the human condition” (p.308). To illustrate this lethal partnership, Fromm delved briefly into the character of Adolph Hitler and more fully into that of his notorious lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, a sadist who “sought total control over others and enjoyed inflicting misery” (p.309). Fromm’s analysis of Himmler provided concrete details for “some of the generalizations about the authoritarian personality that he had simply outlined in Escape from Freedom. It was Fromm at his peak as an intellectual and scholar in his last decade,” (p.310), Friedman concludes.
To Have or To Be, published in 1976, Fromm’s last major work, synthesized Fromm’s “most important ethical and psychological observations over the decade” on authoritarianism, necrophilia, consumerism and a depleted sense of self (p.318). The book presented another binary contrast, between “having” and “being” modes, across a wide range of human experience. Fromm suggested that the world would transition from having to being when such qualities as relatedness, love, and solidarity “permeated society’s current bureaucratic, greedy, materialistic, and unhappy existence’” (p.327). To Have or To Be enjoyed only modest success in the United States but was exceedingly popular in Europe, particularly with young Germans and Italians who were speaking out for “less materialist and consumer driven lifestyles” (p.327). Some Europeans characterized the book as a “counterpoint to problematic American values” (p.327).
While probing Fromm’s many writings, Friedman does not neglect the emotional and romantic side of the man. Friedman lets the reader decide whether Fromm the man adhered in his personal relationships to the principles which Fromm the writer had articulated. Fromm’s generally cold and distant relationship with his mother prompted him to seek emotional closeness in a wide variety of women. Fromm’s first wife, Frieda Reichman, whom Fromm married at age 26, was nearly 11 years older, and already a prominent psychoanalyst. After Fromm’s divorce from Reichman and shortly after his arrival in New York, Fromm had a long affair with prominent American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, also considerably older than Fromm; and another with an African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, committed suicide in 1952. The next year Fromm married Annis Freeman, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life.
Fromm retired with Annis to Locarno, Switzerland in 1976. He continued to write up to his death in 1980. While his works after Escape from Freedom may have lacked the rigor that would endear him to academics, Fromm nonetheless struck a responsive chord with an anxious reading public in the United States and throughout the world. Benjamin Friedman’s splendid interpretative biography provides those of us who are no longer sophomores with an opportunity to take another look at Fromm’s critiques of consumerism and materialism and reflect upon his formulations for achieving happiness.
Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 7, 2015