The Evolution of Erich Fromm

This blog originally appeared on December 12, 2011. 

“Fromm had an unparalleled ability to write for the public; the ability to express sensitive, complicated, and often paradoxical thoughts in a graspable way, while maintaining an intelligent conversation. Fromm was a man interested in actively incorporating his ideas and making them accessible to the man on the street.”

Erich Fromm was a central figure of the American counterculture from World War II through the heart of the Cold War era. Beginning with his first English title Escape From Freedom (1941), through his final writings dealing with existential humanism, On Being Human, Erich Fromm created a unique convergence of psychoanalysis, Marxism, humanism, and Buddhism. Not holding dogmatically to any one of these life philosophies, he instead mined each for wisdom that could help in coping with the issues of the late 20th century. Influences on Fromm’s thinking include the Talmud and the Torah, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha, Master Eckhart, and Goethe. His style of thinking was not singular, but rather, a plurality of convergences that resulted in a voice that helped to organize the voices of four decades of the conscientious.

What distinguished Fromm from other thinkers of his time was his rejection of dogmatism in any form. This free-floating pluralism resulted in a voice truly independent from a school of thought. Most notably might be Fromm’s split from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Through Fromm’s investigation and rejection of certain core, Freudian concepts, he found himself at odds with some of the Frankfurt School tradition. However, Fromm found this to be an experience of liberation, one in which he could retain much of what he found valuable in the Critical Theory tradition, while not being chained to it ideologically.
The most notable shift in Fromm’s thinking came in his 1960 text Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. As a thinker who would not moor himself to any one central piling, Fromm explored key concepts in the Eastern traditions. Not unlike his German predecessors Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger, Erich Fromm found Eastern thinking not only to enhance, challenge, and express many of the ideas of the Western tradition, but also to offer a new way of thinking about the issues that we face. Whereas popular figures such as Alan Watts would edify Zen and Tao, Erich Fromm integrated the Eastern ideas with the Western philosophical tradition. Fromm studied and practiced the life philosophy of Buddhism, however unlike others, it never became the life philosophy. Today the meeting of Buddhism and psychoanalysis has become a tradition of its own. This area of thought first found its voice through Erich Fromm.
The 1930s through the 1960s found Fromm doing most of his American writing. This was a time when academic psychology, as well as pop-psychology, was entranced with American behaviorism. For most academic psychologists Behaviorism was the arrival of psychology as a pure, lawful science. For those psychologists and other thinkers, outside of experimental psychology, behaviorism was yet another manifestation of the Newtonian fantasy. Fromm was not only critical of a dogmatically experimental psychology, but he considered it to be a dangerous ideology. Fromm was informed of the dangers of a purely experimental or scientific worldview through the writings Martin Heidegger. In The Sane Society Fromm takes on experimental psychology with Heideggerian sensitivities.
This discomfort with academic psychology continued when the cognitive movement began in the 1960s. Fromm became increasingly critical of models that overbearingly reduced human being into machines (in this instance computers). Fromm was not alone in this critique of behaviorism and, later, cognitive psychology. Humanistic psychology was the “third force” that reacted not only against experimental, but also, psychodynamic psychology. But Fromm was less interested in promoting any one school of thought than he was in integration of these schools. He was clearly critical of the movements in American, academic psychology, but he was equally as critical of Freudian psychoanalysis. Although Fromm considered his work to be humanist -he goes as far as to consider Marx as a great humanist- he is not the typical humanist of the period. Fromm’s writings and theories are far more developed and theoretical to be considered next to the typical, feel-good, representatives of the humanistic movement in psychology.
Fromm formed a convergence of philosophy, economics, theology, psychology, sociology, and political science. His theories and writings are difficult to place in any one academic department and truly contend the tendency to organize thinkers by subject matter. In Fromm’s texts we find that being human is a social conglomeration of the philosophical, the political, the emotional, and the spiritual. This, of course, reflects the soil in which he first broke through. Frankfurt School thinkers like Marcuse and Adorno had laid out the interdisciplinary approach; the blending of Freud and Marx was necessarily an interdisciplinary project. Fromm continued this project by reinvesting into man as a spiritual being.
Philosophically, Fromm dwells in that group of thinkers that come after the Kantian split. Clearly an existentialist, Fromm is informed not only by Kant but also Heidegger, Hegel, Husserl, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. He finds camaraderie with Spinoza, Master Eckhart, Leibniz, and Pascal and it is not uncharacteristic for him to draw on ancient Greek thinking. He does not, however, fetishize and romanticize Ancient Greece, instead he saves this honor for pre-enlightenment Europe.
Politically and economically, Fromm was a Marxist. However, his radical, humanist reading of Marx set him apart from his cohorts. Although he shared this position with the Frankfurt School thinkers, Fromm took Marxist humanism to a new level. In his 1961 text Marx’s Concept of Man, Fromm presents and discusses Marx’s early concepts of alienation and private property. Through Fromm’s pen we find these ideas made practical for the Twentieth Century in critical issues of freedom and a self, based on having.
Sociologically we find Fromm in the company of Marxist theorists. The ideas of Durkheim, de Toqueville, and Arendt resonate with the Frommian spirit. Psychologically, Fromm is a psychoanalyst. His rejection of Freud’s privileging of sexual drives is monumental and intelligent. His 1935 paper The Social Determination of Psychoanalytic Therapy alienated him from both orthodox psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School’s harbinger, Max Horkheimer. Although Freud had focused on culture, society, and civilization in his later writings, he still held culture to be the sublimation of sexual drives. Fromm did not entirely reject this, he did however, show that culture had become a greater influence on human being than biological drives. For orthodox Freudians this was heresy, but for the new wave of thinkers such as Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, and even Wilhelm Reich, Fromm was the pioneer of social psychoanalysis.
Erich Fromm was concerned not only with society and man as independent subjects, but rather of the Gestalt of the social person. Man and culture would not be parsed from one another as is customary in social psychology and sociology. Although he did not play-out the conversation of man and society, and the S/O split to its end, as did say, Jacques Lacan and the French thinkers of the 20th Century, he did introduce a widespread readership to the possibility of that kind of thinking. We can think of Fromm as someone who was completely aware of what was behind the curtain, but realized that pulling the curtain down too quickly would be uneventful. As a psychoanalyst, Fromm understood that nature resists sudden changes, and that to affect culture as a whole, new ideas were best presented in subtle chippings, rather than mammoth blows. In this way Fromm was much more effective at introducing the layperson to the ideas of Heidegger, Marx, and Adorno, than have been cultural icons such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard. Fromm had an unparalleled ability to write for the public; the ability to express sensitive, complicated, and often paradoxical thoughts in a graspable way, while maintaining an intelligent conversation. Fromm was a man interested in actively incorporating his ideas and making them accessible to the man on the street.
The issues that occupied Fromm’s thinking manifested during the pre-Nazi, modern world of political fascism, through the post-Vietnam War, postmodern world of culture marketing. His writings deal with individual freedom in the age political fascism through the age of technology. Many of his concerns continue to be the concerns of today, and where much of his thinking was premonitory, most of it has become more relevant than when it was written.
Overshadowing the issues of Nazi fascism, the American Civil Rights Movement, cultural colonialism, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and corporate fascism was the impending promise of atomic annihilation. The atomic question took center stage for much of Fromm’s life and became the most urgent issue to be addressed. But behind this external threat of a nuclear apocalypse was another issue of the problem of technology. Fromm was equally as concerned with the ideology, technology, politics, and capitalism as he was the atomic bomb. For Fromm, President Eisenhauer’s warning of a military-industrial-complex, a corporate incentive to go to war, was as threatening to mankind as the bomb.
At the foundation, however, of Fromm’s concerns was a person’s relationship with herself. Based on the human need for a sense of self, Fromm described a modern, social personality that was alienated from an authentic life and enmeshed in an ideology of consumerism. Fromm’s best-known book To Have or to Be is an exploration into the trend of basing one’s sense of self on what they have rather than on what they do. This is the Fromm that dealt with ideology and complex intersection of politics, economy, culture, and psychology in what is called personality.
Erich Fromm is a name that has not become forgotten, but perhaps has become overlooked, in 21st century thought. Fromm’s accessible, clearly written, and concise writing made him readable by nonprofessional thinkers. His ideas were comparable to those expressed by his Frankfurt School colleagues but did not assume or require a graduate degree to read. For this reason, a generation of revolutionaries came to embrace Fromm’s texts, while academic and public intellectuals have bypassed him for the more obscure writings of Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Even those German, French, and American writers of poststructuralism hold much in common with Fromm’s writing, if not for his clear and understandable style. For this reason, Fromm has been neglected by the academy and forgotten by the aging generation of 1960s radicals.
Erich Fromm’s thoughts and teachings are increasingly relevant to the issues of today. We will find that many of the issues remain, in addition to new manifestations of old problems. Much of his thinking, based on three thousand years of intellectual history, is timeless and reflects the core issues of human existence. What is unique about Fromm is not only how he presents his thoughts, but also, how he organizes and constructs them.