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The Art of Being Erich Fromm

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.

Adorno seems to have suspected what Marcuse articulated more sharply: that Fromm was not a revolutionary who thought that only with the overthrow of the current social order could we expect human happiness, but a meliorist. He thought he could show his patients in his psychotherapeutic practice, and later the readers of his many best sellers, how to be happy and useful on the basis of their own inner resources even if consumer society provided little help.

The conflict with Horkheimer and Adorno, which ended with Fromm being dismissed from the institute, was dispiriting, but New York gave him exactly what he needed. He became close friends with the Columbia social scientists, and widened his horizons. Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict found him more than receptive to the insights of the new cultural anthropology. Simultaneously, he became a close colleague of neo-Freudians such as Harry Stack Sullivan and Karen Horney. His emotional life was not neglected; his attractiveness to women much older than himself was still strong, and he had a long affair with Horney (whose daughter he analyzed in defiance both of orthodoxy and common sense), as well as with the African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham.

The outcome was his first and in many ways best book, Escape from Freedom. His studies in working-class political attitudes had revealed that many working- and lower-middle-class Germans had unexpectedly authoritarian attitudes. Today, we are unsurprised by the conservative moral, religious, racial, and political views of many white working-class Americans. Eighty years ago, the same attitudes came as a surprise to investigators. Escape from Freedom has a simple explanation:

It is the thesis of this book that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.

That striking dichotomy—total submission and quest for dependency or confident self-assertion—is characteristic of Fromm, and a good part of his appeal to many of his readers. But the heart of Escape was Fromm’s exploration of the different ways in which we evade the anxieties of freedom. Some aspects of the human condition were invariant; the first encounter with our own separate individuality occurs at birth when we are expelled from the security of the womb. During childhood we acquire a sense of self, and begin to become capable of acting autonomously. Unsurprisingly, Fromm’s anthropologist colleagues were doubtful whether anything could usefully be said about children in all societies; coming of age in Samoa was just too unlike growing up in Frankfurt.

But Fromm was interested only in the contrast between premodern Western society, which he thought of as a society that provided psychic security but left little room for individuality, and the modern society that had come into existence after the Reformation and the rise of the capitalist economy. It provided what he described as “negative freedom,” a loss of security and the promotion of an individualism that throws us on our own resources in a competitive and frightening environment. For Fromm, angst about human existence was not an inescapable element in the human condition, but it was hard to escape in modern society. He was not a Heideggerian, but a heretical follower of Freud and Marx.

The two names with the longest entries in the index of Escape are those of Luther and Hitler. It is an old accusation against Luther that he taught the Germans to subject themselves to authority in a way that disabled them from joining liberal Europe. It is not obvious that the charge is just. As Friedman mildly observes, the Luther who serves as a proto-Hitler, demanding absolute submission to God and authority, “was not the Luther portrayed by Reformation scholars.” As to why Hitler found willing followers, Fromm reached for an explanation in the development of a sadomasochistic psychology; the authoritarian personality was manifested in submission to superiors and brutality to inferiors.

Although the search for the authoritarian personality was the centerpiece of Escape from Freedom when it appeared in 1941, elements of Fromm’s later criticisms of the consumer society were already visible; in particular, some sharp comments about the commercialization of friendship antedate his later observations about what he called the “marketing” personality, the character of people who treat their own abilities as so many resources to extract favors from others. They are much like the greeters at Wal-Mart, from whom one can hardly expect affection for incoming customers. The other strategy for evading the need to cope with the demands of freedom that Fromm identified was “automaton conformity,” essentially going through the motions that authority requires. Friedman rightly observes that this was an idea that resurfaced a decade and a half later in William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.

The title of Lawrence Friedman’s biography is well chosen. Not only did Fromm lead several lives in sequence, in Germany, the United States, and Mexico, he invariably led several at once. At the height of his career, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s, he was in near-perpetual motion between Mexico City and New York, lecturing inside and outside the academy, analyzing patients, training students, running psychoanalytic institutes in Mexico and New York, advising politicians about disarmament, trying to create a worldwide movement for socialist humanism, urging an end to nuclear weapons, and writing a string of highly successful books. Nor did this interfere with his private life. Fromm married his third and last wife, Annis Freeman, in 1953; it was a long and happy marriage, although Annis had doubts about her husband’s fidelity that Friedman seems to share.

The subtitle of the biography is equally well chosen. If readers of Lawrence Friedman’s engaging account of Erich Fromm remember one thing from The Lives of Erich Fromm, it will be that The Art of Loving has sold twenty-six million copies since it was published in 1956. In a recent interview, Friedman puts the number at thirty million. According to Friedman, it had by the early 1980s become the second-best-selling work in the German language, eclipsed only by the Bible. A fiftieth anniversary edition was published in 2005. Friedman writes: “On Valen- tine’s Day in recent years, the book has been featured in the window of the Harvard Cooperative store in Cambridge, purporting to instruct those who lacked ‘rich productive lives.’” This may seem strange: The Art of Loving is far from a handbook promising satisfaction to anyone who masters its techniques; the “loving” whose art it encourages its readers to practice has more in common with agape, the divine love that Saint Paul speaks of, or with spontaneous selfless secular love, than with the erotic drives on which Freud concentrated his attention.

The book’s success is less strange than it appears. Fromm was insistent that the last thing he wanted to do was write a self-help manual in the fashion of How to Win Friends and Influence People, still less a Western Kama Sutra. He was a friend and political supporter of Adlai Stevenson, who famously quipped that he found “the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling,” and would have hated the idea that he had anything in common with Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale. Indeed Dale Carnegie’s notion that we should work on our personality to make ourselves attractive to others the better to sway them to our purposes is just what Fromm criticized as the “marketing” personality.

Nonetheless, The Art of Loving really is a self-help manual. It has a great deal in common with the innumerable works that fill the “personal development” sections of bookstores throughout the US. What gives it its edge is that it is self-help for readers who wish to know something about the ideas of Marx and Freud, who think that contemporary societies overvalue money and consumption, and who are receptive to Fromm’s insistence that if love is an art, it takes knowledge and effort to master the art. Fromm’s message was, as he said himself in the preface to The Art of Loving, familiar to anyone who had read Escape from Freedom, Man for Himself, or The Sane Society; but while those books were substantial and sociological, The Art of Loving was very short, very personal, and aimed directly at the reader.

Others besides Lawrence Friedman also ascribed its success to more personal factors. Fromm had had a difficult second marriage; he and Henny Gurland were devoted to each other, but she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis; she was a depressive, but the constant pain of her illness would have destroyed the tranquility of a much happier person.

Henny committed suicide in 1952; soon after, Fromm began his courtship of Annis Freeman, and they married in December 1953. The Art of Loving appeared two years later, and its markedly optimistic, even exuberant tone reflected Fromm’s own uninhibited happiness. Fromm always held that a person who was really capable of love would love not only whomever he or she was “in love” with in the conventional sense, but humanity generally, and life itself. On this occasion, the unity of theory and practice seemed to have been achieved; readers often remark on the sense of a personal encounter with the author that they experience.

Love of the world is entirely consistent with thinking that it is endangered by human folly and aggression, and Fromm was one of innumerable writers on the left who thought that the cold war was all too likely to end in a nuclear holocaust and the end of civilized life. This was what led him into American politics. He was famous enough to get the attention of serious politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and William Fulbright; Annis was wealthy in her own right, and once The Art of Loving started selling in vast numbers he too was rich enough to contribute to political campaigns and pay for advertisements in The New York Times and elsewhere calling for nuclear disarmament and the pursuit of less hostile relations with the Soviet Union and its allies. It appears that, through his connection with influential academics and politicians, he may even have had some influence on President Kennedy with his suggestion that the United States should embarrass the Soviets with kindness, so to speak, engaging in measures of unilateral disarmament to reassure the Soviets of the peacefulness of American intentions.

Even someone with as much energy and self-discipline as Fromm would have found the constant moving back and forth between New York and Mexico very hard work, and he largely settled in Cuernavaca in a substantial house with a beautiful garden. During the 1960s, Fromm himself suffered several heart attacks and began finally to slow down. He did a little active campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in the fall and winter of 1967 and 1968, but found it very hard work. In the early 1970s, he and Annis moved to Locarno; he kept writing to the end, arguing against Konrad Lorenz as he had earlier done against Karl Menninger that human destructiveness was not something built inextricably into the human psyche, but the result of our social incompetence. Mankind had created societies that fostered greed, antagonism, and the pursuit of worldly success. It would be hard to achieve a society that the socialist humanism of the young Marx had pointed to, but such a society would foster loving relationships rather than destructive ones.

Fromm died in 1980. He still has many admirers, especially in Germany. Whether Friedman is among them is not easy to tell. It is clear that he fell for Fromm when he encountered his work as a new student in Berkeley in 1958. But he is an evenhanded biographer, and we are told over and over again that Fromm was repetitive, slapdash, unwilling to do the research necessary to find something really new to say about the subjects he had made his own. On the other hand, Friedman is rightly impressed by Fromm’s fluent and engaging writing, and his ability to get complicated ideas across in clear and readable prose.

He is equally impressed by Fromm’s impact on his contemporaries. Admirers of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd will read it with new eyes now that they know that Riesman was not only a close friend but was analyzed by Fromm. Some of Friedman’s readers will be reinforced in their preference for the pessimistic Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents while rejecting Fromm’s utopian hopefulness; some will be skeptical about the “humanist” Marx whom Fromm admired. It is a measure of the fastidiousness of Friedman’s biography that he leaves his readers free to explore their own reactions.

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