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The Art of Being Erich Fromm

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Anita Hagan
Erich Fromm and his third wife, Annis Freeman, shortly after their marriage, Mexico, 1953

Some readers will recall being given a copy of Erich Fromm’s popular The Art of Loving in high school or college, usually remembering it with gratitude, but sometimes with a sense that its reliance on the ideas of Freud and Marx now makes it not only unfashionable, but old-fashioned. Still others may recall their first reading of Escape from Freedom, one of the earlier attempts to explain what became known as the authoritarian personality: it was provoked by astonishment that so many otherwise rational people followed leaders such as Hitler, but it was much more wide-ranging in its exploration of the fear of freedom and the longing to be dependent. Still others may remember Fromm as a political activist, prominent in the antiwar movement from the early 1950s, and visible for the last time on the public stage as an adviser to Eugene McCarthy during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1967–1968.

Lawrence Friedman’s biography has many virtues; it is meticulous, detailed, friendly to its subject but not uncritical, the result of many years of archival investigation and interviews with people who knew Fromm well. Friedman is a professor of history in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the author of several books on the history of psychology, including a biography of Karl Menninger. Erich Fromm himself was a far from careful scholar, but The Lives of Erich Fromm is a reassuringly solid piece of work. What makes it a model of intellectual biography, however, is the way it illuminates the Erich Fromm who became famous in America in the 1950s, by seeing him in his many different settings—geographical, social, intellectual, and emotional.

Not the least powerful light it shines on its subject is provided by its account of Fromm’s upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. Readers of one of his final books, To Have or to Be?, published in 1976, four years before he died, might well wonder how a disciple of Marx and Freud, both enemies of religion and mysticism, drew so enthusiastically on the ideas of Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century German Dominican friar and Christian mystic. They might equally wonder at Fromm’s attachment to Zen Buddhism and his long-lasting friendship with the Buddhist and Theosophist D.T. Suzuki. To the extent that there is an answer beyond Fromm’s temperamental hankering after psychic, social, and cosmic harmony, it lies in his early exposure to Talmudic scholarship and Hasidic mysticism.

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900. His father was a wine merchant. More importantly, Naphtali Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, and was more embarrassed than pleased at his own modest economic success, always regretting that he had become an undistinguished wine merchant rather than a more distinguished rabbi. Late in life, Fromm told a French interviewer the story of a great-grandfather who

happened to be one of the famous Jewish rabbis of his time; he lived in a small town of Bavaria and made his living by owning a small store and sometimes travelling a little bit and selling his goods. As the story goes, when a customer came in, interrupting him from the study of the Talmud, he showed some annoyance and asked, “Is there any other store here? Why do you have to come to interrupt me?”

The great-grandfather was Seligmann Bär Bamberger, who provided Fromm with an image of a “medieval” spiritual security that he longed for all his life. That it was impossible, he knew very well. Bamberger was a traditionalist, an antiassimilationist, and a fierce opponent of Reform Judaism. Fromm was an eclectic with boundless faith in human possibility and if anything over-eager to assimilate every good idea he embraced to every other good idea.

Nonetheless, Fromm might have emulated his great-grandfather at least to the extent of becoming a rabbi. He was a schoolboy during the Great War of 1914–1918, primed to be politically skeptical of German claims to be the innocent victim of British imperialism but intellectually dedicated to studying the ideas of the Jewish diaspora. During the war, he encountered Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, who had studied at Marburg with Hermann Cohen, a distinguished Kant scholar who welded the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy onto the Jewish religious tradition to create a form of “religious humanism” very like the humanism of Fromm’s later writings. But Nobel was also attracted to the mysticism of Chabad Hasidism, and this left a deep and permanent imprint on Fromm’s thinking.

Fromm was astonishingly precocious; before he was twenty years old, he was part of a circle based in Frankfurt that included Leo Löwenthal, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Baeck; with Nobel’s help, they set up a Jewish adult education project intended to remind their students of the riches of a tradition of which they were largely ignorant. Fromm combined this activity with studying at Heidelberg, where he worked with “his first and only gentile mentor,” Alfred Weber, brother of Max Weber. Although Fromm’s dissertation topic, on Jewish law in the diaspora, was remote from Weber’s interests, they got on well. Weber made sure that Fromm knew enough both about the German sociological and philosophical tradition represented by Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel and the techniques of empirical social science to stand him in good stead when he came to study the political attitudes of German workers a few years later.

Nehemiah Nobel died in 1922, but Fromm continued to study with Salman Rabinkow, a Russian who was a committed socialist as well as a considerable scholar whose inability to put his thoughts on paper is a painful contrast with the fluency of his student. Rabinkow not only taught Fromm the Talmud from a distinctively Lithuanian perspective, but introduced him to the work of Moses Maimonides. For the rest of his life, Fromm would sing the Hasidic songs that he and Rabinkow had sung in the evening after their study sessions. Fromm described him as the most important influence on his life, both intellectually and personally; certainly, Fromm’s conviction that socialism and Jewish humanism were natural allies seems to be rooted in his work with Rabinkow; it survived his rejection of Orthodox Judaism a year or two later, and it underlay everything he wrote about religion in his later years.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it also survived his immersion in the psychoanalytic tradition. His introduction to psychoanalysis was simultaneously his introduction to sex and marriage. Although Lawrence Friedman is a reticent writer when it comes to Fromm’s intimate life, he is intrigued as anyone would be by how attractive to women Fromm seems to have been, and in his youth to older women in particular. His first wife, Frieda Reichmann, was almost eleven years older than he; she had trained in the medical school at Königsberg, become interested in psychological trauma during the war, and decided to become a psychotherapist in the early 1920s. She and Fromm shared intellectual interests, but were well matched in a deeper way; he was looking to be mothered, and she was happy to take on the role. They married in 1926, and Friedman quotes Fromm’s father telling Reichmann, “Now, you can take care of him,” and quotes Reichmann later writing, “And by golly wasn’t he right!”

Before they married, she had begun a therapeutic analysis of Fromm, in violation of every principle of Freudian psychoanalysis. This stopped when they began to have sexual relations, and Fromm went on to be analyzed elsewhere. They also stopped being observant Jews; Fromm later recalled eating leavened bread at Passover as a gesture of emancipation, while Reichmann observed that when they discovered that nothing terrible happened, they went on to ham, lobster, and oysters.

The marriage slowly fell apart, however, even though they both sought help in analysis from the unorthodox analyst Georg Groddeck. Groddeck was a formative influence on other neo-Freudians such as Karen Horney and Sandor Ferenczi, and Fromm soon set up as a lay psychoanalyst in Berlin, where he met Otto Fenichel and Wilhelm Reich, and saw more of Karen Horney. But the crucial event was his attachment at the end of the decade to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, founded in 1923 under Carl Grünberg, an adherent of Soviet-style Marxism, but directed from 1930 by Max Horkheimer, who created what subsequently became known as “the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School.”

Fromm was a natural recruit. He was a Freudian and a Marxist, in neither case a rigidly orthodox adherent to the faith. He was unusual among practicing analysts in having no medical training, a fact that undermined his credibility with analysts in New York when he came to the United States a few years later. Nor was he taken with the deterministic, almost mechanical view of social and economic life that attracted so many Marxists. Marx’s early writings, which Fromm translated into English in the 1960s, were discovered in the late 1920s, and revealed a humanist Marx whose thoughts on the self-estrangement of both workers and capitalists within the market economy provided the basis for a critique of modern society that need not attach itself to an increasingly implausible story about the inevitability of proletarian revolution.

There was a strongly commonsensical aspect to Fromm’s position, one of the things that accounts for his extraordinary success as a popular writer. So far as contriving to unite the insights of Freud and Marx was concerned, his view was that Freud focused too narrowly and too exclusively on the individual. For Fromm, the individual’s character was the result of both the inbuilt psychological drives that Freud described and the cultural setting within which individuals had to make their way. The scientific, materialist Marx made individuals not much more than cogs in a machine operating blindly according to its—or his—own iron laws; the Marx concerned with the ethical disasters of a world in which we sacrifice everything to the dictates of the marketplace was a much more natural complement to Freud. It was Freud who said that “love and work” were the ingredients of happiness, but it was Marx whose “Notes on James Mill” gave an exalted picture of work in which each person worked to satisfy the human needs of the other and valued what they received just because it embodied that mutual concern.

Although Fromm seemed so well suited to the Frankfurt School, things did not go smoothly. The rise of Hitler meant that the institute’s resources were first transferred to Geneva, then, thanks to Fromm’s own negotiations, the institute itself moved to Columbia University. Fromm was the first member of the institute to go, in 1934. It was a highly productive move, even though his relationship with Horkheimer and the institute began to fray soon after. The problem was Theodor Adorno. Whether, as Friedman surmises, Adorno was eager to supplant Fromm as Horkheimer’s favorite collaborator or not, Adorno certainly thought that Fromm was rejecting far too much of Freud’s view of human nature. Like Herbert Marcuse two decades later, Adorno thought that once Fromm rejected Freud’s theory of instinctual sexual and aggressive drives, he had thrown out something essential.

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