We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Lawrence J. Friedman,
The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet
Columbia University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
No sooner had the fighting of World War II ended than the Cold War began, and the United States seemed plunged once more into the anxiety that had prevailed while the guns were firing. A manipulated terror of godless Communism, coupled with an even greater one of nuclear war, made the 1950s a decade in which ordinary women and men feared to speak freely or act independently. Injected into this unhealthy atmosphere was a straitjacket demand for conformity to what was rapidly becoming corporate America. In a world that had just fought one of the bloodiest wars in history for the sake of the individual, millions were rushing into the kind of lockstep existence that by definition meant a forfeiture of inner life.
Books written by sociologists, novelists, and psychologists describing this cultural turn of events were suddenly thick on the ground: David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (1953), Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1953), and in some ways the most penetrating of all, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a novel published in 1961 but set in 1955. It was a time, Yates claimed, that embodied “a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”
The book, however, that accounted most fully for the ’50s’ near-morbid desire for security at any price, had been written a decade earlier by the émigré psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom (1941), rooted in a European intellectual thought that had been heavily influenced by the work of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, brought social psychology to the United States where, in the years ahead, it flourished wildly. The book launched its author on one of the most celebrated careers that any public intellectual, anywhere, has ever achieved.
Erich Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt, Germany, into a lower-middle-class Jewish family that was nominally Orthodox. While Fromm never became religious, very early he fell in love with Judaism’s great book of wisdom, and for years wished only to become a student of the Talmud. At the same time, on the verge of teenaged life, he came under the influence of an employee of his father, who introduced him to the work of Karl Marx. Then came the First World War, which, in later years, Fromm labeled “the most crucial experience of my life.” His newest biographer, historian Lawrence J. Friedman, tells us in The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet that when the war was over the eighteen-year-old Fromm remained “obsessed by . . . the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior.” By Fromm’s own accounting, these three strands of influence—Talmudic ethics, Marxist socialism, and the psychological power of unreason—shaped his intellectual life.
In 1919 he entered the University of Heidelberg where he studied under Max Weber’s brother, Alfred, also a sociologist. Alfred Weber was convinced that while Freud’s discovery of the strength of instinct drives rooted in sexuality was undeniable, more important was the social reality in which the individual life was planted. Weber persuaded the young Fromm that social forces working on the psyche were the keys to what most troubled the human condition.
Nonetheless, Fromm also saw that to understand the workings of the psyche itself was vital. At the age of 22 he became a patient of Frieda Reichmann—a psychoanalyst ten years his senior who later became his first wife—and soon began to study analytic theory himself. He proved so precocious a student that by 1923 he was a practicing psychoanalyst in Berlin. In 1929 he became a lecturer and founding member at the Institute for Psychoanalysis at the University of Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, he quickly discovered that it was only Freud threaded through Marx that ignited his intellectual imagination, and he soon deserted one Frankfurt institute for another: the Institute for Social Research, which eventually gained international fame as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.
The Frankfurt School had been founded in 1922 by a wealthy Marxist who wished to see a body of research concentrated on the organized working class. By the end of the decade, however, a neo-Marxist development within the intellectual left was guiding the work of the Institute toward an exploration of the cultural rather than economic consequences of capitalism. It was this movement—led by scholars and critics such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Löwenthal—that established the Institute’s originality. When, around 1929, a group of psychoanalysts that included Fromm and Wilhelm Reich was recruited (mainly by Horkheimer), the Institute was given the grounding in neo-Freudian thought that—together with cultural Marxism—became its signature trait.
During those early years at the Frankfurt School, Fromm wrote a multitude of essays that joined the basic principles of psychoanalysis to those of historical materialism, analyzing instinctual drives and needs in relation to the overriding sense of alienation brought on by modern capitalism. These essays were the genesis of Escape from Freedom, the work that identified the existential drama of the human condition: the will at one and the same time to break loose from the constraints of social authority and to submit to them. It was the rise of Nazism—the incredible ease with which Hitler made his way to power first in Germany and then in Austria—that amazed Fromm and made clear to him that humanity at large was almost always drawn to the infantile comfort of having an external authority make all the decisions.
Overnight, it seemed, millions of people, indifferent to the loss of democracy, were happy to capitulate to the rule of the strongman, relieved to feel order restored when they were being told what they could and could not do, no matter the human cost. This was a crisis that, in Fromm’s view, threatened “the greatest achievement of modern culture—individuality and uniqueness of personality.”
Why was this happening? What was it in the human psyche that welcomed what Fromm could only think of as a return to tribalism? The more he thought about it, the more clearly he saw that in all human beings a tug of war persisted between the desire to have freedom and the desire to shun its responsibilities. Friedman calls the latter “conformist escapism.”
In Fromm’s view, humanity was always trading freedom for the comfort of external authority.
It was Fromm who saved the Institute from the Nazis. During a 1933 trip to the United States, he persuaded Columbia University to give the Institute refuge, and a year later a large contingent of its membership—including Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse—arrived in New York City, just one step ahead of certain arrest; not only were most of the Institute members Jewish, but their ideas also were anathema to National Socialism. It was then that Fromm’s life took its significant turn. While most of the Institute’s members continued to write in German for a select readership, Fromm instantly fell in love with America, the English language, and his own growing desire to become a social critic capable of reaching a wide reading public.
Over the next 40 years he would write some 25 books, give thousands of lectures, join the Culture and Personality movement started by anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, become—along with neo-Freudians Sullivan and Clara Thompson—a founding member of the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry in New York, and establish a psychoanalytic section at an important university in Mexico, all the while maintaining his own clinical practice in New York and publishing, year after year, the steady stream of books and papers about authority and the individual self that made him immensely rich and famous. When he died in 1980, a few days short of his 80th birthday, Fromm was one of the most influential public figures in the Western world.
Fromm’s thesis in Escape from Freedom was a simple one and, like Freud before him, he did not hesitate to use the conventions of mythic storytelling to make it vivid for the educated layperson. In Freud’s case the story derived from the classics; in Fromm’s, from Genesis (don’t forget those Talmudic studies). Human beings, he argued, were at one with nature until they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, whereupon they evolved into animals endowed with the ability to consciously reason and to feel. From then on they were creatures apart, no longer at one with a universe they had long inhabited on an equal basis with other dumb animals. For the human race, the gifts of thought and emotion created both the glory of independence and the punishment of isolation; on the one hand the dichotomy made the race proud, on the other hand lonely. The loneliness proved our undoing. It so perverted our instincts that we became strangers to ourselves—the true meaning of alienation—and thus unable to feel kinship with others.
And it is just here that Fromm and Freud part company in a way that accounts for the vital difference between social psychology and hard-worked analysis. For Freud, the all-important loneliness of mankind was inborn; for Fromm it was culturally created. Freud said the conflict of instinctual drives means that human beings are born into a sense of loss and abandonment that can be ameliorated only through psychoanalysis. Fromm said it was enough to understand that the race is born with a sense of connectedness that is destroyed by the social climate.
Ironically, though, for each of these thinkers, it was the exercise of the very powers that had brought about our downfall that alone could release human beings from the imprisonment of such separateness. If men and women learned to occupy their own conscious selves, fully and freely, they would find that they were no longer alone: they would have themselves for company. Once one had company one could feel benign toward others.
This, Fromm said, was the only solution to the problem of the alienated individual in relation to the modern world. The only thing that could save humanity from its own soul-destroying loneliness was the individual’s ability to inhabit what came to be known as the “authentic” self. If you achieved authenticity, you would be rewarded with the inner peace necessary to become a free agent who is happy to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The fly in the ointment, as Fromm the Marxist saw it, was that we were living in a world where “economic, social and political conditions . . . do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality.” That meant that the struggle to achieve authenticity was continually being so undercut that it became “an unbearable burden.” If a burden is unbearable one will do almost anything to be relieved of it, even if relief demands submission to a set of social conventions that suffocates the spirit. This, however, is a Faustian bargain that creates anxiety. Now, something was needed to dull the anxiety. Capitalism, as Fromm and many other Frankfurt intellectuals said, had just the thing: consumerism. The pursuit of worldly goods—escapist conformism—would etherize the unrealized hunger for a genuine self.
Fromm dedicated his professional life—in increasingly popular form—to this thesis. On many fronts, that popularity did him in. To begin with, the Frankfurt intellectuals heaped scorn on him for being in love with concrete reduction when they were in love with abstract elaboration. Then he was faulted by psychoanalysts for distorting or dismissing many of the basics of Freudian analysis and then by social critics for recklessly urging on his readers the pursuit of naked self-interest. But his insights struck home with millions of people who, suffering from our famous American “emptiness” (especially in the ’50s) were happy to take the existential journey to emotional fulfillment that his ever more prophetic-sounding books steadily promised.
In the Art of Loving Fromm argued that the phrase “falling in love” was a dangerous misnomer. We did not fall into anything; what we did, once attraction had allowed a relationship to form, was recognize ourselves in the other and then—through affection, respect, and responsibility—work hard to teach ourselves how to honor that recognition. “Once one had discovered how to listen to, appreciate, and indeed love oneself,” Friedman paraphrases The Art of Loving, “it would be possible to love somebody else . . . to fathom the loved one’s inner core as one listened to one’s own core.” In short, the dynamic would induce an emotional generosity that allowed each of us to be ourselves in honor of the other. Once one had achieved this admittedly ideal state, Fromm declared, as he did in every single book he wrote, one could extend that love to all mankind.
Today, Fromm’s thesis is so integrated into the therapeutic culture that it reads like a page out of a self-help book. That’s how foolishly programmatic it can sound to the contemporary ear. But in the 1960s his masterwork, Escape from Freedom, helped politicize a generation of analysands and activists. With the aid of Fromm’s book, these people gained a new grasp of the relation between historic injustice, psychological anxiety, and bourgeois reluctance to challenge the authority of outworn conventions even when an army of dissidents was gathering in the name of sacrificed individuality. Above all, Fromm’s insights shed light on the age-old fear of equality for women, blacks, and gays, and helped those on the barricades resist the castigation of frightened conservatives who labeled the liberationist cause “the selfishness of the Me Generation.”
Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet is not, strictly speaking, a biography. It is rather a very long summary of the twists and turns of Fromm’s life as a public intellectual. But the man who had dinner with presidents, gave lectures to thousands, sold books in the millions—we know him no better at the end of three hundred-odd pages than we did at the beginning. We are told that in the opinion of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, with whom he had an affair, Fromm exhibited a “self-righteous messianic or prophetic quality that limited” his capacity for “emotional sharing.” We are told that he was an addicted womanizer, and, although The Art of Loving came out of a happy second marriage, the affairs never stopped. We are told that in his psychoanalytic practice he was more guru than analyst, demanding of his patients that they “awaken” to what he insisted were their “choices,” the ones that would enable them “to become more spontaneous, joyful, exuberant, and productive.” All these things we are told, but there is no more compulsion to believe than to disbelieve them, as there would be if the man at the center had come alive on the page.
However, Friedman’s book is a thoroughly absorbing history of the cultural and political context within which Fromm’s life was lived. We feel the intellectual turbulence of Europe in the ’20s, the exciting crisis of Nazism in the ’30s (nothing more exciting than evil developing right before your eyes), and then the cynical innocence of America in the ’50s. We also feel the meaning of a particular man and a particular world well met, with each imprinting memorably on the other.
It is now more than 70 years since Escape from Freedom was published, and we are living in a world where women and men feel neither safe nor secure, nor, I daresay, authentic. We are, however, all of us, a thousand times more conscious than we were in 1941 of the fact that when we invoke those words—safe, secure, authentic—we are talking about a state of being that can never be handed us; it must be earned, from the inside out. For that sea change in the shared sensibility of the culture we have many influences to thank, among them, surely, the works of Erich Fromm.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.