Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany on 23rd March, 1900. The son of a Jewish wine trader, Fromm graduated from the University of Frankfurt in 1919. The First World War had a deep impact on his thinking: "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."

Fromm studied sociology under Alfred Weber at Heidelberg and received his Ph.D. doctorate in 1922. Two years later Fromm joined with Frieda Reichmann, his future wife, to open the Therapeutikum in Heidelberg. Influenced by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Fromm began writing on psychology.

In 1929 Fromm, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Karl Landauer and Heinrich Meng, established the South German Institute for Psychoanalysis in Frankfurt. After completing his psychoanalytic training Fromm opened his own practice in Berlin. In 1933 Karen Horney invited Fromm to lecture in Chicago.

Fromm was strongly influenced by the work of Karl Marx. His biographer, Paget Henry, has argued: "Although he felt drawn to the ideas of revolutionary transformation that he found in Marx, and the way in which Marx made spirit a dialectical projection of the alienated and unrealized human potential suppressed by the existing social order, he found the psychological foundations of Marxism lacking. He sought to remedy this failing by linking Marxism's psycho-spiritual foundations to a number of important developments in Western psychological and spiritual thought."

Fromm recalled: "I wanted to understand the laws that govern the life of the individual man, and the laws of society-that is, of men in their social existence. I tried to see the lasting truth in Freud's concepts as against those assumptions which were in need of revision. I tried to do the same with Marx's theory, and finally I tried to arrive at a synthesis which followed from the understanding and the criticism of both thinkers."

An opponent of Adolf Hitler, Fromm emigrated to the United States in 1934. For the next five years he was employed at the Institute for Social Research in New York City. After leaving the institute in 1939 Fromm taught at several universities and wrote books on psychology and politics including Escape from Freedom (1941), Man for Himself (1947), and Psychoanalysis and Religion (1951). According to Paget Henry, in these books: "Fromm searched for a theory of human nature that would do justice to the concepts of spirit and transformation in Marx's own writings."

In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm argued for communitarian socialism. An active member of the Socialist Party of America, Fromm also published The Art of Loving (1956), Sigmund Freud's Mission (1959), Marx's Concept of Man (1961), The Dogma of Christ (1963), The Heart of Man (1964), The Revolution of Hope (1968), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) and To Have Or to Be? (1976).

Erich Fromm died on 18th March, 1980.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Erich Fromm, Leon Trotsky's Diary (1958)

The general habit of considering Stalinism and present-day Communism as identical with, or at least as a continuation of revolutionary Marxism has also led to an increasing misunderstanding of the personalities of great revolutionary figures: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotzky. Just as their theories are seen as related to those of Stalin and Krushchev, the picture of the “revolutionary fanatic” is applied to then as if it applied to the vengeful killer Stalin, and to the opportunistic conservative Krushchev. This distortion is a real less for the present and the future. In whatever way one may disagree with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotzky, there can be no doubt that as persons they represent a flowering of Western humanity. They were men with an uncompromising sense of truth, penetrating to the very essence of reality, and never taken in by the deceptive surface; of an unquenchable courage and integrity; of deep concern and devotion to man and his future; unselfish and with little vanity or lust for power. They were always stimulating, always alive, always themselves, and whatever they touched became alive. They represented the Western tradition in its best features, its faith in season and in the progress of man. Their errors and mistakes are the very ones which also follow from Western thinking; rationalism and the Western over-estimation of the efficacy of force, which underlies the great middle-class revolutions of the last for centuries.

It is not accidental that we know little of the personal lives of these men. They did not take themselves as important; they did not write about themselves, nor speculate about their motivations. In view of the fact that personal data on any of the great revolutionary leaders are very scarce, (we have Lenin’s, and Marx’s and Engel’s letters and - in German — a collection of personal memories about Marx) the Harvard University Press has rendered a singular service with the publication of Trotzky’s Diary from the year 1935, covering the time of the last months of his stay in France and of his arrival in Norway.

No doubt Trotsky as an individual was as different from Marx, Engels and Lenin as they were among themselves; and yet in being permitted to have an intimate glimpse of the personal life of Trotzky, one is struck by all that he has in common with these productive personalities. Whether he writes about political events, or Emma Goldman’s autobiography, or Wallace’s detective stories, his reaction goes to the roots, is penetrating, alive and productive. Whether be writes about his barber, the French police officials or Mr. Spaak, his judgment is profound and to the point. When he has a chance to get a visa from the newly formed Norwegian Labor Government, which would be a most fortunate salvation from an ever increasingly difficult exile in France, he does not hesitate for a minute to write a sharp criticism of the Norwegian Labor Party. In the midst of insecure exile, illness, cruel Stalinist persecution of his family, there is never a note of self-pity or even despair. There is objectivity and courage and humility.

This is a modest man; proud of his cause, proud of the truth he discovers, but not vain or self-centered. The words of admiration and concern in which he expresses himself about his wife are deeply moving. Just as was the case with Marx, here was the concern, understanding and sharing of a deeply loving man which shines through Trotzky’s diary. He loved life and its beauty. One version of his testament he ends with the following words: “I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and vileness, and enjoy it to the full.”

The gratitude we owe to the Harvard Press for rescuing the picture of Trotzky for the present and for future generations does not, however, prevent me from expressing shock and dismay at the fact that the Harvard University Press advertised the book recently saying: “If (the diary) reveals the anguish and loneliness of his exile, often lays bare his underlying fanaticism and selfishness, and offers positive, historically important commentary on both local and international politics.” (My italics, E.F.) Quite aside from the fact that it is most unusual that a publisher would criticize his own author by derogatory remarks in his advertising copy, this procedure is unforgivable because there is nothing in the diary which “lays bare” Trotzky’s selfishness. The only thing it lays bare is exactly the opposite. I would challenge the copy writer of the Harvard Press advertisement to quote even a single sentence from the diary which would indicate Trotzky’s “selfishness.” He probably fell for the popularly shared misunderstanding of such persons as Marx and Trotzky. If a man who sees the essence of social and individual reality says what he sees, without sham and equivocation, he is taken to be egocentric, aggressive and vain. If he has unshakable convictions, he is called a fanatic, quite regardless of whether these convictions are acquired by intense experience and thought, or whether they are irrational ideas with a paranoid tinge. It is to be hoped that the statement will be omitted from further announcements.

(2) Erich Fromm, Marx's Concept Of Socialism (1961)

Marx's concept of socialism follows from his concept of man. It should be clear by now that according to this concept, socialism is not a society of regimented, automatized individuals, regardless of whether there is equality of income or not, and regardless of whether they are well fed and well clad. It is not a society in which the individual is subordinated to the state, to the machine, to the bureaucracy. Even if the state as an "abstract capitalist" were the employer, even if "the entire social capital were united in the hands either of a single capitalist or a single capitalist corporation," [89] this would not be socialism. In fact, as Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, "communism as such is not the aim of human development." What, then, is the aim?

Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man. It is to create a form of production and an organization of society in which man can overcome alienation from his product, from his work, from his fellow man, from himself and from nature; in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world. Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, "a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality."

Marx expressed the aim of socialism with great clarity at the end of the third volume of Capital: "In fact, the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and of external utility is required. In the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of material production in the strict meaning of the term. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants, in order to maintain his life and reproduce it, so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands, because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis."

Marx expresses here all essential elements of socialism. First, man produces in an associated, not competitive way; he produces rationally and in an unalienated way, which means that he brings production under his control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power. This clearly excludes a concept of socialism in which man is manipulated by a bureaucracy, even if this bureaucracy rules the whole state economy, rather than only a big corporation. It means that the individual participates actively in the planning and in the execution of the plans; it means, in short, the realization of political and industrial democracy. Marx expected that by this new form of an unalienated society man would become independent, stand on his own feet, and would no longer be crippled by the alienated mode of production and consumption; that he would truly be the master and the creator of his life, and hence that he could begin to make living his main business, rather than producing the means for living. Socialism, for Marx, was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment. When man has built a rational, nonalienated form of society, he will have the chance to begin with what is the aim of life: the "development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom." Marx, the man who every year read all the works of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, who brought to life in himself the greatest works of human thought, would never have dreamt that his idea of socialism could be interpreted as having as its aim the well-fed and well-clad "welfare" or "workers' " state. Man, in Marx's view, has created in the course of history a culture which he will be free to make his own when he is freed from the chains, not only of economic poverty, but of the spiritual poverty created by alienation. Marx's vision is based on his faith in man, in the inherent and real potentialities of the essence of man which have developed in history. He looked at socialism as the condition of human freedom and creativity, not as in itself constituting the goal of man's life.

For Marx, socialism (or communism) is not flight or abstraction from, or loss of the objective world which men have created by the objectification of their faculties. It is not an impoverished return to unnatural, primitive simplicity. It is rather the first real emergence, the genuine actualization of man's nature as something real. Socialism, for Marx, is a society which permits the actualization of man's essence, by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.

That Marx could be regarded as an enemy of freedom was made possible only by the fantastic fraud of Stalin in presuming to talk in the name of Marx, combined with the fantastic ignorance about Marx that exists in the Western world. For Marx, the aim of socialism was freedom, but freedom in a much more radical sense than the existing democracy conceives of it-freedom in the sense of independence, which is based on man's standing on his own feet, using his own powers and relating himself to the world productively. "Freedom," said Marx, "is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it.... No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, another time as a universal right."

(3) Erich Fromm, On Disobedience (1984)

Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient--disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.

If the capacity for disobedience constituted the beginning of human history, obedience might very well, as I have said, cause the end of human history. I am not speaking symbolically or poetically. There is the possibility, or even the probability, that the human race will destroy civilization and even all life upon earth within the next five to ten years. There is no rationality or sense in it. But the fact is that, while we are living technically in the Atomic Age, the majority of men--including most of those who are in power--still live emotionally in the Stone Age; that while our mathematics, astronomy,and the natural sciences are of the twentieth century, most of our ideas about politics,the state, and society lag far behind the age of science. If mankind commits suicide it will be because people will obey those who command them to push the deadly buttons; because they will obey the archaic passions of fear, hate, and greed; because they will obey obsolete clichés of State sovereignty and national honor. The Soviet leaders talk much about revolutions, and we in the "free world" talk much about freedom. Yet they and we discourage disobedience--in the Soviet Union explicitly and by force, in the free world implicitly and by the more subtle methods of persuasion.

But I do not mean to say that all disobedience is a virtue and all obedience a vice. Such a view would ignore the dialectical relationship between obedience and disobedience. Whenever the principles which are obeyed and those which are disobeyed are irreconcilable, an act of obedience to one principle is necessarily an act of disobedience to its counterpart, and vice versa. Antigone is the classic example oft his dichotomy. By obeying the inhuman laws of the State, Antigone necessarily would disobey the laws of humanity. By obeying the latter, she must disobey the former. All martyrs of religious faiths, of freedom and of science have had to disobey those who wanted to muzzle them in order to obey their own consciences, the laws of humanity and of reason. If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary); he acts out of anger,disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle.

However, in order to prevent a confusion of terms an important qualification must be made. Obedience to a person, institution or power (heteronomous obedience) is submission; it implies the abdication of my autonomy and the acceptance of a foreign will or judgment in place of my own. Obedience to my own reason or conviction (autonomous obedience) is not an act of submission but one of affirmation. My conviction and my judgment, if authentically mine, are part of me. If I follow them rather than the judgment of others, I am being myself; hence the word obey can be applied only in a metaphorical sense and with a meaning which is fundamentally different from the one in the case of "heteronomous obedience."

But this distinction still needs two further qualifications, one with regard to the concept of conscience and the other with regard to the concept of authority. The word conscience is used to express two phenomena which are quite distinct from each other. One is the "authoritarian conscience" which is the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing.This authoritarian conscience is what most people experience when they obey their conscience. It is alsothe conscience which Freud speaks of, and which he called "Super-Ego." This Super-Ego represents the internalized commands and prohibitions of father, accepted by the son out of fear. Different from the authoritarian conscience is the"humanistic conscience"; this is the voice present in every human being and independent from external sanctions and rewards. Humanistic conscience is based on the fact that as human beings we have an intuitive knowledge of what is human and inhuman, what is conducive of life and what is destructive of life. This conscience serves our functioning as human beings. It is the voice which calls us back to ourselves, to our humanity.