(1900-1980) German-American philosopher, psychoanalyst, and member of the Frankfurt School who advocated application of psychoanalytic theory to cure societal ills. Like Marcuse, Fromm synthesized Freudian and Marxian thought; however, the two thinkers sharply clashed from the 50s through the 70s.

"It is of vital importance to distinguish between a psychology that understands and aims at the well-being of man and a psychology that studies man as an object, with the aim of making him more useful for the technological society." -- Erich Fromm, "The Present Technological Society"
Erich Fromm (1900 - 1980), psychoanalyst and philosopher, was born to Orthodox Jewish parents on March 23, 1900, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He studied the Torah intensely as a child and young man and continued to practice his faith until his 26th birthday; it remained a life-long influence.

Like many Europeans, Fromm was profoundly shaken by World War One:

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. More, I had become deeply suspicious of all official ideologies and declarations, and filled with the conviction ‘of all one must doubt.’ (E. Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, 1962, p. 4)
Soon afterwards, he discovered the writings of Karl Marx. He studied psychology, sociology and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, his teachers including existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. He then studied psychiatry in Munich and later Berlin. In 1926 he married Frieda Reichmann, but the marriage did not last.

He was among the founders of South German Institute for Psychoanalysis in Frankfurt am Main, and in 1930 joined the Institute for Social Research, later to become famous as the Frankfurt School. Although the school subsequently tried to write him out of its history, he was a core member in the early 1930s. Fromm's project became that of integrating the insights of psychoanalysis and of Marxist sociology in order to understand the individual and society and the relation between the two. The Institute for Social Research was forced to flee Germany in 1934, following Nazi persecution. It eventually settled in New York, based at Columbia University.

However, he quarrelled with other members of the movement until the end of his life, due partly to the conflicts between the theories of Sigmund Freud and of Karl Marx, and in 1939 he left the Institute for Social Research. Some Marxists were opposed to Freud's ideas about the irrational drives of humankind or saw psychoanalysis as essentially counter-revolutionary, an attempt to stifle dissatisfaction with modern capitalism, when the goal was to maximise dissatisfaction and promote revolution.

The concepts of the id and dark unconscious drives were considered by some of Fromm's critics as making Freudianism incompatible with the socialist project of creating a utopian society free from dissatisfaction. If we are essentially rational it would be simple for us to live in harmony, but unconscious drives to destruction and dominance and the irrational influence of our passions render problematic any possibility of peaceful and equal existence. (Herbert Marcuse, another Frankfurt School member influenced by Freud was to wrestle with the same dilemma in his work, but in a very different way, essentially denying the significance of the death drive.)

But Fromm was committed to the Freudian ideal of psychoanalysis as rational and humanistic, based around achieving knowledge where before there was irrationality and mystery:

Freud's aim was to help the patient to understand the complexity of his mind, and his therapy was based on the concept that by understanding one's self one can free one's self from the bondage to irrational forces which cause unhappiness and mental illness. This notion is part of the great Eastern and Western tradition from Buddha and Socrates to Spinoza and Freud. (Taken from his scathing review of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics: E. Fromm, "'Dianetics' - For Seekers of Prefabricated Happiness", The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 3, 1950, p. 7.)

In 1944 Erich Fromm became an American citizen and married Henny Gurland; she died in 1952. He moved to Mexico in 1950 for the sake of his wife's health. He established the psychoanalytic section at the medical school of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. At the same time, he maintained contacts north of the border and was active within the Socialist Party of the USA.

In 1966 he retired from active work at the university, becoming professor emeritus and putting his energies into activism. In his later years he campaigned mainly on peace issues, opposed to nuclear weapons and to the Vietnam War. He co-founded the pressure group SANE and he campaigned for the election of Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic Party presidential candidate defeated by Richard Nixon in 1968.

Fromm died in 1980 from a heart attack after a long history of heart problems, and he was cremated in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Fromm's work always had a Marxist basis, but in his later years assumed a more humanist philosophy. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, including many technical psychoanalytic works, but also the million-selling book The Art of Loving (1956), an account of a humanistic philosophy based around love for oneself and fellow human beings, and The Forgotten Language (1951) about the importance of fairy tales.

His greatest sociological and political work is perhaps The Sane Society (1955). This sets out the limitations of modern capitalist society, with a particularly acute and sometimes humorous attack on the narrow horizons and conformism of suburbia. He attacks the alienation produced by modern society and how this society fails to fulfil basic human needs while limiting people to a narrow existence and restricting their behaviour through social pressures.

It also seeks to offer a psychoanalytic perspective on what a society needs to offer a person. In this, his work seems influenced by Aristotle's notion of happiness as lying in moderation, in the mean of all things. Thus, Fromm says, people need to have a sense of belonging to a community and place, but also the freedom to move on. They need community but also individuality. He does all this in a rigorous yet readable style that is far from the often-impenetrable writings of Theodor Adorno and many other Marxists.

Other important books expressing his view of society are Escape from Freedom (1941) and Man For Himself (1947). As a psychiatrist and a politically-committed thinker sought to uncover the relations between the individual and society. He studied how the flawed social norms of a flawed society can put pressure on the personality leading to mental illness. He was important in developing the ideas of how social interactions affect psychology; although whilst Freudianism focussed overwhelmingly on individual experience he was by no means the first thinker in the world to consider these wider things.

Escape from Freedom explained how social class affects individual psychology, written from a technical psychoanalytic viewpoint, and he was one of the first thinkers to focus on the importance of work and status on the individual's mind. He described, for instance, how poor people scrambling desperately to make a living become focussed exclusively at a deep psychological level on material things to the detriment of their emotional life. His work was ground-breaking in employing the analytical skills of anthropology to study not far-off "primitive" societies but the different groups making up modern industrial society.

Fromm's work has perhaps fallen into comparative obscurity compared with contemporaries like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, despite many common points in their criticism. There may be a number of reasons for that, from the increasing scepticism about Freud's theories, to the sense that Adorno is better because he is more unreadable and uncompromising. Nonetheless, Fromm was a very important figure in his time, both as a campaigning radical and as a thinker, and his work is as relevant and accurate today as it ever was.

Selected Bibliography in English

The International Erich Fromm Society has a website at http://www.erichfromm.de which contains many texts by and about Fromm, including autobiographical notes, the quoted essay on Dianetics and many psychoanalytic papers, in both English and German.

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