Book Review

“The Making of a Public Intellectual”

TheLives_ErichFromma review by Kurt Cavender

The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet
by Lawrence J. Friedman
410 pages. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Following an early interest in the Talmud and rabbinical studies, Erich Fromm trained as a sociologist at the University of Heidelberg under Alfred Weber, and as a clinical psychoanalyst with the unorthodox Freudian Georg Groddeck in Baden Baden.  He worked with Max Horkheimer and Leo Lowenthal as a social psychologist and researcher for the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, and was instrumental in the Institute’s 1934 relocation to Morningside Heights, where he began to develop his concept of ‘social character’ while writing his classic analysis of authoritarianism, Escape from Freedom (1941).  In the US, Fromm, along with Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan, became a leading figure in the Neo-Freudian school of psychoanalysis, and helped to shape the movement’s break with orthodox Freudian drive theory through his work with the Washington School of Psychiatry and the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology.

With his move to Mexico City and foundation of a department of psychoanalysis in the medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Fromm published a series of books that firmly established him as a polemicist and public intellectual with a wide popular readership:  Man For Himself (1947), Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), The Sane Society (1955), and The Art of Loving (1956).  In the latter two books, Fromm began to articulate his vision of a humanist socialist society, and this coincided with a sharply political turn in his thinking, leading to his campaign activism for Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy, his diplomatic negotiations alongside Amnesty International to secure the release of political prisoners in GDR, his cold war criticism and organization of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, and his occasional foreign policy advisory roles within the US Senate and the Kennedy administration.

It is in accounting for these diverse and frequently contradictory “lives” that Lawrence Friedman is primarily interested:  Erich Fromm as Talmudic scholar and ethicist, as unorthodox psychoanalytic theorist and clinician, as rigorous sociological researcher, as polemicist and popularizer of new ideas, as political activist and foreign policy expert, as best-selling author, as deeply committed humanist and lover of life.  Because of this rhetorical investment, the arrangement of The Lives of Erich Fromm is only loosely chronological.  Instead, Friedman chooses to privilege thematic discretion over temporal continuity and the result is that, especially at times when two or more of Fromm’s “lives” seem to overlap, chronologically consecutive moments may be separated by several chapters and years of  biographical material.  This is far from a weakness, however.  The primary emphasis on Fromm’s ideas and  allows Friedman to articulate a compelling analysis of the trajectory of Fromm’s remarkable career as a thinker, and of the influence of community on his rhetorical style and conceptual development.  In particular, Friedman’s ambition is to reconstruct, using Fromm’s own writings as a fossilized record of his intellectual development, the transition from meticulous scholar to polemicist who increasingly “borrowed heavily from conceptual structures and historical perspectives” developed in his own early publications (251).  The result is a compelling explanation of how “the prophet won out over the serious and cogent critics who had evaluated his work” (257) that becomes the basis for conceptualizing the life of the public intellectual—impassioned advocate for an ethical and life-affirming politics, but with a penchant for unsubstantiated proclamations and a resistance to critical self-correction—that Friedman characterizes as Fromm’s “longstanding disposition toward prophetic declarations” (246).

To understand this passage from scholar to prophet, Friedman organizes The Lives of Erich Fromm around three key conceptual developments in Fromm’s work.  The first traces the gradual emergence and solidification in Fromm’s thought of his theory of social character as an alternative to the orthodox Freudian location of biological drives and instincts as the constitutive material of human personality and identity.  While Fromm’s more conventional colleagues in the international psychoanalytic community and at the Frankfurt Institute accepted Freud’s hypothesis that “instincts were endemic to the inner self…and were determinative of human personality”, by the late 1930s Fromm’s fully realized theory of social character posited that “outer social structures shaped instinctive life” and “instinct existed, but they were socially grounded” (46).  This deviation formed the basis of many of his early institutional conflicts in Germany and in the US.

Although Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s rejection of social character seems to have played a major role in deciding Fromm’s expulsion from the Frankfurt Institute in 1939, Friedman argues convincingly that the seeds of this break with Freud were present in Fromm’s thinking even as early as the completion of his dissertation on the function of Jewish law in Diaspora communities, more than fifteen years earlier.  By the time Horkheimer—looking to combine rigorous empirical sociological research with Marxist humanism and Freudian insights on human subjectivity—offered him a position with the Institute in 1929, Fromm had already begun in his clinical practice to “recognize the socialized human being as the central concern” and to express an “interest in character patterns and in the ways social and political conditions affected analytic therapy” (26).  Indeed, while other Frankfurt Institute researchers resisted American cultural integration, Fromm began to associate frequently with Karen Horney’s and Harry Stack Sullivan’s NeoFreudian communities and with the sociologists and social anthropologists of Margaret Mead’s Culture and Personality movement, and it was among these American thinkers that Fromm found his new intellectual home after he left the Institute.  It was at this intersection, where he was able to draw on the empirical data from his work at the Institute and combine it with his clinical intuitions about identity and socialization (encouraged greatly by Sullivan and Mead), that Escape from Freedom—Fromm’s most disciplined and rigorous work of research and analysis—was completed and published.

The second key conceptual development that Friedman identifies in Fromm’s intellectual trajectory emerges in the aftermath of his painful expulsion from the Frankfurt Institute, and from the bitter antagonisms between and within the heterodox NeoFreudian peripheries of mid-century American psychoanalysis.  It is an insight which, Friedman argues, like the concept of social character, originated not in Fromm’s theoretical speculation but in his clinical practice:  that love, as a mode of openness and intentional vulnerability between two individuals, might also become a model for the individual’s engagement with society at large.  If the subject of Escape from Freedom was the individual’s struggle to manage the terrible liberties imposed by modern society, with the dissolution of the self within a greater authoritarian identity appearing in the early twentieth century as an ominously attractive solution, then Fromm’s thinking in the late 1940’s began to turn towards “explaining that a growing disposition in American culture toward psychological interpretation of human motivations should never replace efforts to understand and facilitate human ethics” (150).

With this turn towards the ethical in his writing, combined with his increasing estrangement from the academic communities of his early career, Fromm’s work in the late 1940s and ’50s aimed to engage a popular, rather than scholarly, readership as he sought to articulate a model of ethical social engagement in the context of Cold War managerial capitalism and consumer culture.  Here, Friedman argues, Fromm’s early Talmudic training and love for a Jewish tradition of humanist ethics reemerged as a powerful influence on his thinking.  Beginning with Man For Himself and continuing with Psychoanalysis and Religion, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm began to develop and outline his vision of the corrosive effects of materialist culture on social character, and of genuine self- and other-love as the only restorative.  Significantly, it is during this period of his development that Fromm began to neglect researched argumentation and empirical data in favor of theoretical speculation and unsubstantiated assertion.  By this time living in Mexico and far removed from any readership bold enough to offer clarifying comments or critical suggestions, Fromm became with each publication more abstract and self-referential, with the speculative conclusions of one book becoming the foundational assumptions of the next.  Uninhibited by a need for nuance or argumentative clarity, Fromm’s passionate and prophetic rhetorical style developed as an effective mode of popular engagement, and The Art of Loving—which asserted a direct correlational sympathy between practices of egocentric self-love, social love of an other, and universal love for all of humanity—became his most widely read publication, with more than twenty-five million copies sold.

Friedman understands the third major conceptual development in Fromm’s career as an explicit politicization of the utopian ethical ideals developed in The Art of Loving.  As Fromm’s theoretical humanist commitments became more concrete, he began for the first time to assume an active role in national and international politics.   Beginning with an advisory role in Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign that led to some foreign policy consultation by the Oval Office when Stevenson became a part of the Kennedy administration in 1960, Fromm began to understand that international nuclear brinksmanship constituted an existential threat far exceeding that of the authoritarian tendencies of managerial capitalism and consumer society.  From this point on, Fromm’s writing assumed the form of a broadly appealing “plea to recover man’s humanism and sanity in a world heading for nuclear war” (185).  When Fromm, more than a decade later, published The Revolution of Hope (1968) as a campaign document for Eugene McCarthy’s Democratic primary challenge to President Johnson, he in it articulated a fully realized version of a love-motivated political program first suggested in The Sane Society: a “democratic grassroots movement globally globally but especially in the United States, to assure a humanistic alternative” to industrialized mechanical destruction (270).

But for Friedman, the remarkable conceptual development that emerges here begins with Fromm’s desire to ground his increasing political activity in the psychoanalytically informed social theory developed in his earlier work.  To this end, Fromm offers a theoretical framework organized around the two contradictory impulses defining human life:  biophilia, the impulse towards love, openness, sustainability, and productivity; and necrophilia, “crav[ing] the disintegration of living forms” represented most significantly by the “willingness of the superpowers to risk extinguishing life on Earth” (253-4).  This opposition, although it seemed to mimic the Freudian twin drives of Eros and Thanatos which Fromm had rejected so vehemently thirty years earlier, would become the structural   for all of Fromm’s later political and social writing.  Uninterested in interrogating what Friedman calls the “ontological status” of these terms, Fromm instead deployed them as abstract figurations of the best and worst of which humanity might be capable:  “Society moved along a continuum between biophilia and necrophilia, but survival mandated that society embrace biophilia, a quality that emerged in a society that facilitated material security, justice, freedom, and creative work” (255).  This was Fromm in his fully prophetic mode—offering in compelling language an uncomplicated vision of a simple choice between everything desirable in life and everything repulsive.

It is unfortunate that what might be the most inventive and compelling insight of Friedman’s argumentation frequently remains submerged beneath the surface of the text.  The first chapter of The Lives of Erich Fromm offers a short account of Fromm’s childhood, including his love of Talmudic studies and Jewish ethical traditions.  Indeed, the frequent reappearance throughout the text of Fromm’s early tutor, Salman Rabinkow, as an explanatory figure for otherwise irreconcilable connections in Fromm’s thinking strongly suggests that it is the vision of ethics and commitment to social justice cultivated during his early religious studies, rather than psychoanalytic theory or Marxist politics, that maintains the central unity between Fromm’s diverse lives.  If the argumentative trajectory of The Lives of Erich Fromm has any serious weakness, it is that Friedman was unable to build a more detailed analytical comparison between the ideas and arguments encountered during Fromm’s early religious education and his own increasingly prophetic mode of discourse.  For instance, Fromm’s early friendship with Leo Lowenthal was heavily influenced by a shared interest in Jewish mysticism, an interest which both also shared with Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer.  But in Freidman’s accounts both of Fromm’s bitter conflicts with the Frankfurt Institute in the ’30s and of these conflicts’ reenactment during his 1955-56 debate with Herbert Marcuse, his analysis of the origins of the conflicts’ substance—Fromm’s concept of social character—in Jewish ethical philosophy seems somewhat underdeveloped.

Likewise, Friedman locates the origins of Fromm’s controversial clinical approach firmly within his Talmudic training:  his clinical method figured “the psychoanalyst as spiritual teacher”, and analysis “resembled his captivating sessions with Salman Rabinkow” where “the spiritual core of each permeated and invigorated the other through a warm, nonjudgmental interchange of mind and soul” (125).  Indeed, it was during Fromm’s unorthodox clinical sessions that he began to diverge from Freud in theory as well as practice—“eschew[ing] Freudian neutrality and fac[ing] the patient warmly but directly” (85) created a different kind of clinical relationship in which socialization might replace libidinal drives as the likely structure of human personality.  The result is a sense, but never quite a fully argued claim, that Fromm’s commitment to concepts deeply embedded in his religious training and cultural tradition played a critical role in isolating Fromm from the two intellectual communities in which he was most invested: critical scholarship at the Institute for Social Research, and mainstream American psychoanalysis.

These are comparatively minor criticisms, though.  Taken as a whole, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet seems very much an account that Fromm himself might appreciate, in that, rather than attempting to unify or normalize his intellectual development, Friedman locates it within the social context of Fromm’s many diverse and contradictory communities, suggesting that it is these contradictions in Fromm’s loyalties and commitments that motivated his remarkable career as a thinker.  If for no other reason than that it goes a long way towards rehabilitating the neglected legacy of an instrumental member of the Frankfurt Institute and an important contributor to American NeoFreudian psychoanalysis, The Lives of Erich Fromm represents a much needed work of historical scholarship.  But perhaps more important than that, Friedman’s work is remarkable in that it focuses, not on one or a few of Erich Fromm’s more or less publicly visible “lives”, but on the contradictions and antagonisms between them, and in this way constitutes an insightful study of what it means to be a human and an intellectual in contemporary Western society.

Kurt Cavender is the Andrew Grossbardt Graduate Fellow in the Department of English at Brandeis University. His research focuses on 20th and 21st century American literature, digital media, the historical novel, and violence and revolution.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I’ve been thinking about Fromm more as I’ve been reading about the Frankfurt Institute. This helps me to understand the various Fromms “out there.” – TL

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