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Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1900, Erich Fromm was affiliated with the Institute for Social Research, later known as the “Frankfurt school,” from 1928 to 1938. Trained in psychoanalysis, Fromm combined Freudian psychology with Marxian social theory. In his early essays he indicates the common dialectical and materialist elements in Marx and Freud and applies his Marxian social psychology to interpret such phenomena as religion, the sadomasochistic roots of the authoritarian personality, and the dominant bourgeois character types.
Forced to flee from Nazi Germany in 1933, Fromm settled in the United States and lectured at the New School of Social Research, Columbia University, Yale University, and Bennington College. In the late 1930s Fromm broke with the Institute of Social Research, and with Escape from Freedom (1941) he began publishing a series of books that won him a large audience in the United States and eventually throughout the world.
Escape from Freedom argued that alienation from soil and community in the transition from feudalism to capitalism increased insecurity and fear. Documenting some of the strains and crises of individualism, Fromm attempted to explain how alienated individuals seek gratification and security from social orders such as fascism. Protestantism, with its emphasis on individual salvation and damnation, increased individuals’ fears and made them susceptible, he argued, to manipulation by social forces. Moreover, capitalism, with its emphasis on individual gain and harsh market competition, which mediated success and failure, also contributed to feelings of insecurity. Migrations from country to towns and factories, central to industrial modernity, created a new urban civilization that increased individuals’ feelings of rootlessness and alienation.
In the late 1930s Fromm broke with the Frankfurt school, in part over his interpretation of Freud and in part over personality conflicts with key members such as Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Henceforth, Fromm went his own way, often appearing as a prophet in the desert of American affluence and consumerism as he attacked the “marketing orientation,” the bourgeois proclivity to privilege having over being, and indeed the entire American system of institutions and values.
His post–World War II books, Man for Himself (1947) and The Sane Society (1955), applied Fromm’s Freudian-Marxian perspectives to sharp critiques of contemporary capitalism. Fromm popularized the neoMarxian critiques of the media and consumer society, and promoted democratic socialist perspectives during an era when social repression made it difficult and dangerous to advocate radical positions. Although his social critique was similar in many ways to that of his former colleague Marcuse, the two thinkers engaged in sharp polemics from the mid-1950s into the 1970s. Marcuse began the polemic by attacking Fromm as a neo-Freudian revisionist (Marcuse 1955, p. 238), and Fromm retaliated by calling Marcuse a “nihilist” and “utopian” (Fromm 1970, p. 62). Marcuse claimed that Fromm’s emphasis on the “productive character” simply reproduced the “productivism” intrinsic to capitalism, and that his celebration of the values of love, in books such as The Art of Loving (1957), and religion simply reproduced dominant idealist ideologies (Marcuse 1955, p. 258).
Fromm was a prolific writer up until his death in 1980, publishing a series of books promoting and developing Marxian and Freudian ideas. He was also politically active, helping to organize the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1957 and engaging in early “ban the bomb” campaigns, as well as participating in the U.S. antiwar movement of the 1960s. Fromm continued to argue for a humanistic and democratic socialist position, and claimed that such elements were intrinsic in Marxism. His many books and articles had some influence on the New Left and continue to be read and discussed today.
- Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Fromm, Erich. 1947. Man for Himself. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Fromm, Erich. 1955. The Sane Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Fromm, Erich. 1956. The Art of Loving. New York: Bantam Books.
- Fromm, Erich. 1970. The Crisis of Psychoanalysis. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Premier Books.
- Burston, Daniel. 1991. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Funk, Rainer. 1982. Erich Fromm: The Courage to Be Human. New York: Continuum.
- Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.
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