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Erich Fromm

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erich fromm

Erich Fromm (1900-1980)


Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900, the only child of orthodox Jewish parents. He began studying jurisprudence at the University of Frankfurt in 1918, but moved to the University of Heidelberg the following year, where he switched to to sociology under Alfred Weber (brother of the famous sociologist Max Weber). He studied psychology under the brilliant psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jasper, and philosophy with Heinrich Rickert. Being brought up in Jewish orthodoxt, Fromm's thesis looked at the relationship between spiritual teachings and social relations. Fromm received his Ph.D. in sociology in 1922. He then trained to become a psychoanalyst. He began his own clinical practice in 1927 in Berlin, where in 1930 he met  Wilhelm Reich and other Marxist analysts at the Berlin Institute. The same year, he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and completed his psychoanalytical training. Here he delved more deeply into Marxism, and his interests turned decisively to issues of the socio-psychological nature of different social and political formations. In this he shared the same interests as reich, whose Mass Psychology of Fascism later attempted to understand and explain why it was that Hitler's support stemmed mainly from the working class who should, according to Marxist theories, be instead supporting the socialist revolution.

With the Nazi takeover of power in Germany, Fromm moved to Geneva and then, in 1934, to Columbia University in New York to work at the New School of Social research along with his other refugee Frankfurt colleagues  Marcuse,  Horkheimer and Adorno.


He worked there until the late 1930s when a diagreement with his colleagues about his abandonment of Freudian "drives and an eventual bitter condemnation from Marcuse (who labelled him a "neo-Freudian revisionist") led him to withdraw. The problem had been in Fromm's interest in Freud's theory of the libido - as being, from a Marxist perspective, independant of the socio and economic circumstances operating in society. Fromm's socio-psychological theorising suggested that indeed the libido of the individual was not by definition shaped only by instinct, but also by the social circumstances of the society in which it experienced itself. From this perspective, whole societies were able to exhibit markedly different manifestatuions of libido - and of the subconscious. The individual, from this perspective, adapts to the social circumstances in which he or she finds him/herself and repressions come into play which are culture-specific. By this measure, whole societies can exhibit patterns of mass psychosis. There are echoes here again of the later work of laing, who maintained that the manifestation of schizophrenia resulted from the self-preserving adaptation of individuals to insane (family) circumstances.

Fromm first gave voice to these theories in his groundbreaking book Fear of Freedom (1941), in which he suggested (again presaging Existentialists like Sartre and R. D. Laing) that an inherent fear of taking responnsibility for and control of one's own life in the face of society's demands and mores constitutes a real and present psychological impulse - leading in extreme cases, to the kinds of passivity and public quiescence that had occurred in Nazi Germany. He noted that:

"We believe that man is primarily a social being, and not, as Freud assumes, primarily self-sufficient and only secondarily in need of others in order to satisfy his instinctual needs. In this sense, we believe that individual psychology is fundamentally social psychology or, in Sullivan's terms, the psychology of interpersonal relationships; the key problem of psychology is that of the particular kind of relatedness of the individual toward the world, not that of satisfaction or frustration of single instinctual desires."

His theory was that people in modern society were unable to translate their "freedom from" into a capacity to experience "freedom to"", and instead sought refuge in totalitarian systems and regimes that made the crucial life-transforming decisions for them. He extended this thesis later with the publication of The Sane Society (1955) in which he described the nature of manʻs alienation from himself. In the same work he goes to some lengths to describe the "true" or creative nature of human existence that is realisable through a transformed social world. This idea is extended yet again in his later The Art of Loving (1956) in which he places the capacity (or incapacity) for self love and love of other as the benchmarks of emotional and mental health. From had considerable personal success in the United States, but was unable to achieve any wide acceptance or understanding of his theories.

Fromm had moved to Mexico in 1950 and lived there teaching (as well as in America). In the mid 1950s he joined the American Socialist Party, and his teachings incorporated an ideology that rejected both capitalism and State Communism. In 1958 he recorded three television interviews with CBS's Mike Wallace. These encapsulate most of Fromm's theoretical base and can be viewed below.




During the 1960s he became politically active against the Vietnam War and in support of Senator Eugene McArthy's bid for the Presidency (1968). He continued to teach in America and Mexico until 1974, when he moved to Switzerland with his third wife where he continued to writer and publish in social isolation. He died there in 1980. In his later years he publishe4d a final work on identity - the difference between an insecure  identity based upon possessions and a secure one based upon experience. He tied this theorisinng back to the work of Marx, closing the circle on his own theoretical journey.

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To read a brief but comprehensive biography of Fromm, click here

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