Fromm, Erich (1900–1980)

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FROMM, ERICH (1900–1980)


German-born intellectual and social critic.

Few European intellectuals in the twentieth century played the role of the global public intellectual and interdisciplinary scholar as successfully as the controversial social critic Erich Fromm. He was the author of such influential books as Escape from Freedom (1941), The Sane Society (1956), and To Have or to Be (1976). Fromm was born in Germany in 1900 and was a member of the "critical theorists" of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. Exiled from Nazi Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler, Fromm moved to the United States and wrote bestselling and critically acclaimed books on Nazism, communitarian socialism, disarmament, Freudian theory, and humanistic Marxism. Moving to Mexico City in the early 1950s, and then back to Europe in the last decade of his life, Fromm's influence was truly global.

Fromm was one of the most articulate and courageous psychoanalytic revisionists, building on Freud's intellectual legacy while moving beyond some of the outmoded aspects of orthodoxy. Like earlier psychoanalytic rebels Carl Jung, Otto Rank, and Alfred Adler as well as his contemporaries Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan, Fromm was skeptical of traditional libido theory and the organized dogma of the psychoanalytic movement. Unlike some of Freud's less imaginative followers, Fromm was an internal critic of orthodoxy committed to Freud's insights into character, the irrational and the unconscious. Fromm's account of both the greatness and the limitations of Freud's thought was outlined in a number of highly influential and bestselling books such as Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), Sigmund Freud's Mission (1959), and The Crisis of Psychoanalysis (1970). Fromm practiced psychoanalysis from the late 1920s well into the 1960s, gaining a reputation as an insightful, caring, and committed although not uncontroversial clinician. A European intellectual to the core, few writers, paradoxically, were as successful at popularizing Freud in America. Some of his Freudian detractors, however, felt that Fromm had gained his fame in the United States by diluting Freud's stoic European pessimism and challenging theoretical insights for the allegedly more shallow and optimistic Americans, particularly in his hugely popular The Art of Loving (1956). Ultimately, Fromm is best seen as one of Freud's loyal but most creative and innovative followers.

Fromm was also an influential public intellectual and social scientist who had been trained in sociology at Heidelberg by Alfred Weber. Fromm was an early critic of the consumerism of modern globalizing culture, an opponent of traditionalism and neo-liberalism in the global south, and a leading voice against both the American military and corporate empire and communist dictators. Fromm's Escape from Freedom (1941), in particular, will be remembered as one of the classic works of social psychology of the twentieth century. His thesis about how the breakdown of community can lead to a fascist "escape from freedom," moreover, is all too relevant today as we reflect on the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe, the rise of Islamism, and the re-emergence of right-wing authoritarianism throughout Western Europe and the United States in the early years of the twenty-first century. Fromm's association with the Frankfurt School has often been forgotten, but he worked on an early empirical study of working-class support for Nazism that led directly to the famous The Authoritarian Personality (1950) project. Furthermore, the Harvard University sociologist David Riesman's bestselling classic The Lonely Crowd (1950) came partly out of a dialogue with Fromm, an example of the creativity that flowed from "critical theory meeting America." Unfairly characterized as a simplistic popularizer, Fromm's work from the 1970s, particularly Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970) (written with Michael Maccoby) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) combined sophisticated theory, detailed engagement with empirical evidence, and true interdisciplinary range.

Fromm was not without his critics. The Berkeley liberal political theorist John Schaar viewed Fromm as an unrealistic utopian proponent of an "Escape from Authority." Fromm was widely attacked by neo-conservatives for his opposition to the Vietnam War, American-led "modernization," and the nuclear arms race and for his radical democratic ideas on education. Allan Bloom's bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) famously made Fromm a key villain in the importation of European ideas that had led to alleged "Nietzscheanization of the American Left" (Bloom, 1987). Ironically, given these critiques of Fromm's alleged ultra leftism, Fromm was also accused of being a liberal conformist by Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and various interpreters of "critical theory." Contrary to these polarized views that were reinforced during the late twentieth-century attacks on humanism during the debates on postmodernism, Fromm's contribution to twenty-first-century political philosophy and social criticism will likely be remembered as a European moderate democratic socialist communitarian humanism. When Fromm returned to his European roots in the last decade of his life, his popular "radical humanist" radio broadcasts in the early 1970s and his bestselling book To Have or to Be had a significant influence on the emergence of the Green movement. Given Fromm's own religious Jewish roots, and his conflicted relationship with both Marxism and psychoanalysis, Fromm's career might best be summed up as a constant and creative "escape from orthodoxy" along the road to his emergence as a truly engaged global public intellectual.

See alsoFreud, Sigmund; Psychiatry; Psychoanalysis; Social Democracy; Socialism.


Bloom, Alan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York, 1987.

Brunner, Jose. "Looking into the Hearts of the Workers, or: How Erich Fromm Turned Critical Theory into Empirical Research." Political Psychology 15, no. 4 (1994): 631–654.

Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Maccoby, Michael. "The Two Voices of Erich Fromm: The Prophetic and the Analytic." Society 32 (July-August 1995): 72–82.

McLaughlin, Neil. "Nazism, Nationalism, and the Sociology of Emotions: Escape from Freedom Revisited." Sociological Theory 14, no. 3 (1996): 241–261.

——. "How to Become a Forgotten Intellectual: Intellectual Movements and the Rise and Fall of Erich Fromm." Sociological Forum 13 (1998): 215–246.

——. "Origin Myths in the Social Sciences: Fromm, the Frankfurt School and the Emergence of Critical Theory." Canadian Journal of Sociology 24, no. 1 (1999): 109–139.

——. "Optimal Marginality: Innovation and Orthodoxy in Fromm's Revision of Psychoanalysis." Sociological Quarterly 42, no. 2 (2001): 271–288.

Richert, John. "The Fromm-Marcuse Debate Revisited." Theory and Society 15, no. 3 (1986): 181–214.

Roazen, Paul. Political Theory and the Psychology of the Unconscious: Freud, J. S. Mill, Nietzche, Dostoevsky, Fromm, Bettelheim and Erikson. London, 2000.

——. On the Freud Watch: Public Memoirs. London, 2003.

Schaar, John. Escape from Authority: The Perspectives of Erich Fromm. New York, 1961.

Neil McLaughlin

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Fromm, Erich (1900–1980)

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