Erich Fromm and the Revolution of Hope

The German socialist thinker Erich Fromm developed a powerful critique of authoritarian culture in response to the rise of Nazism. Today’s Left has much to learn from that critique, and from his defiant political optimism in the face of dark times.

Erich Fromm in 1974. Wikimedia Commons / Müller-May / Rainer Funk

The German socialist thinker Erich Fromm is an unjustly neglected figure, certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Fromm’s analysis of authoritarian culture offers what is in many ways a more grounded alternative to the influential theories of Horkheimer and Adorno. It also reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.

Scholarship on the Frankfurt School and critical theory has minimized Fromm’s contribution, continuing a trend that Max Horkheimer himself inaugurated after Fromm’s departure from the Frankfurt Institute in 1939. This has left us with a picture of Frankfurt School critical theory that is rather one-sided, lacking a serious account of Fromm’s thought and his influential critique of authoritarianism.

Fromm’s story shows us that a critique of authoritarian culture — one that identifies the strong tendencies toward passivity and reaction in the general population — can retain its central thrust, while still maintaining some of the optimism of the original Marxian critique of capitalism, and its orientation toward political action here and now.

Early Years

Fromm was born in 1900, into a middle-class, orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main. His initial plan upon leaving school was to become a Talmud scholar; instead, his father persuaded him to study law at Frankfurt University, where he lasted less than a year before transferring to Heidelberg’s Ruprecht Karl University to study nationalökonomie (national economics).

In Heidelberg, under the tutelage of Alfred Weber (brother of Max), Karl Jaspers, Hans Driesch, and Heinz Rickert, Fromm attended classes on the history of philosophy and psychology, social and political movements, and the theory of Marxism. During this period, Fromm continued his Talmud studies side by side with his academic work. The romantic socialism of his Talmud teacher, Salman Rabinkov, was particularly influential.

Like Max Horkheimer, Fromm refrained from direct involvement in socialist politics during these early years. He was a member of neither the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) nor the German Communist Party (KPD). Fromm’s strongest engagement at this time remained his Jewish studies.

He helped set up an influential Jewish Teaching Institute (Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus), at which he lectured along with figures such as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Leo Baeck, and Siegfried Kracauer. He also established a sanatorium in Heidelberg with his future wife, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, for the specific psychoanalytic treatment of Jewish patients.

Fromm’s interest in Marxism grew from the mid-1920s — in the period that Karl Korsch dubbed the “crisis of Marxism” — during which he studied at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Fromm, who had by this point renounced Judaism, was part of a group of young dissident socialist thinkers, including Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel, who were concerned with applying the ideas of psychoanalysis to social issues.

This group, like many others in Germany at the time, wanted to understand why socialism had thus far failed to materialize in Germany, even though it had a large working class and a highly organized labor movement. Influenced by the critique of “mechanical Marxism” that Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch had inaugurated, they tried to identify what might be called the “subjective” barriers to socialism. They believed that psychoanalysis could play a particularly important role in illuminating those barriers.

Joining the Frankfurt School

During this period, Fromm made the acquaintance of Max Horkheimer, who was also interested in the potential for psychoanalysis to make sense of the failures of socialism. Horkheimer at this time was affiliated with the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, set up in 1923 by Felix Weil, son of a wealthy businessman, and a former student of Karl Korsch.

Although the Institute initially resembled an orthodox Marxist center for labor studies, after Horkheimer became its director in 1930, its focus shifted toward the interdisciplinary mixing of philosophy with the empirical social sciences, and particularly the mixing of sociological and psychoanalytical concerns. At Horkheimer’s instigation, Fromm received an invitation to join the institute, where he and Horkheimer were to be the central intellectual force in these early years, pioneering the fusion of psychoanalysis and Marxism long before Theodor Adorno entered the picture.

At the institute, Fromm took charge of an innovative empirical study of manual and white-collar German workers. Making use of a detailed questionnaire distributed to some 3,300 workers, the study sought to analyze the relationship between the psychological makeup of the workers and their political opinions. As the questionnaire revealed, the majority of respondents associated themselves with the left-wing slogans of their party, but their radicalism was considerably weaker when it came to more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions.

Fromm concluded that roughly 10 percent of the participants were “authoritarian,” roughly 15 percent were “democratic/humanistic,” and the remaining 75 percent were somewhere between the two. The authoritarians, he predicted, would support a future fascist political movement, while the democrats/humanists would stand up and oppose them. The problem was that the democratic/humanistic segment might not be strong enough to defeat the authoritarian 10 percent if those in the middle were psychologically unprepared to resist the authoritarians.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany — partly because of the subsequent breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer — it clearly shone considerable light on what was to transpire under the Nazi regime. It was also a rare example of empirical research into the lives and attitudes of the working class from within the Frankfurt School tradition.

Fromm remained an important part of the institute’s work for much of the 1930s. He was largely responsible for the relocation of the institute to the United States in response to the Nazi takeover, making personal contact with scholars at Columbia University, where the institute eventually settled. He was also pivotal to the institute’s continuing research on authoritarianism, and he played a central role in the 1936 Studien über Autorität und Familie (Studies on Authority and the Family) — a one-thousand-page preliminary report that helped pave the way for the institute’s more famous work on The Authoritarian Personality.

However, Fromm’s revision of Sigmund Freud during this period began to alienate him from Horkheimer. Fromm argued that the key problem of psychology was how individuals relate to one another and to the society around them; it was not a matter of predetermined libidinal stages (anal, oral, genital, etc.), as was the case in Freud’s theory. The burgeoning intellectual relationship between Horkheimer and Adorno contributed further to this sense of alienation. Fromm left the institute toward the end of 1939.

Fear of Freedom

Not long after his departure from the institute, Fromm broke onto the US intellectual scene with his work Escape from Freedom (1941). The book’s central theme was that Europe had sacrificed its progress over the course of centuries toward ever-greater forms of political freedom — and even toward socialism — through its capitulation to fascism. Fromm wanted to explain how Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals had come to support Adolf Hitler.

He put forward the notion of a “sadomasochistic” or “authoritarian” character, which combined strivings for submission and for domination to provide the human basis for authoritarian rule. Fromm wanted to transcend simplistic explanations of Nazism that depicted it as an exclusively political or economic phenomenon, without falling back on purely psychological theories (suggesting that Hitler was mad, and his followers equally so). He sought to understand Nazism as both a psychological and a socioeconomic problem.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower middle classes. He argued that certain socioeconomic and political changes had left a deep psychological mark, removing traditional supports and mechanisms of self-esteem. Those changes included the declining status of this class in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation, as well as the defeat Germany had suffered in World War I.

Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness upon which Hitler had been able to capitalize. His sadomasochistic message of love for the strong and hatred for the weak — not to mention a racial program that raised “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder — provided a means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Escape From Freedom was not merely an analysis of Nazism. At the heart of its thesis was the notion that capitalism — particularly in its monopolistic phase — fostered “the development of a personality which feels powerless and alone, anxious and insecure,” and which is therefore tempted to surrender its freedom to strongman leaders.

Fromm’s analysis explicitly spoke of the conditions for fascism that existed in the United States: the effects of the Great Depression, the existence of increasingly mechanized forms of factory work, the prevalence of political propaganda and hypnoid forms of advertising, interacting with a purported psychological tendency toward “automaton conformity” on the part of a significant percentage of the population.

The Marketing Orientation

Fromm returned to the theme of social conformity fourteen years later in The Sane Society (1955), which identified a widespread, socially patterned “pathology of normalcy” governing advanced capitalist societies. The Sane Society engaged in an extended critique of mid-twentieth-century US society, which for Fromm was essentially a bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism.

As part of this critique, Fromm utilized the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant personality type in US society. This notion was clearly a social-psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, with the idea that humans were alienated from themselves and their own powers and capacities. For Fromm, the “marketing orientation” denoted a mode of existence in which people experienced themselves and others as commodities — literally as something to be marketed.

The Sane Society did show a certain affinity with the emphasis of the other Frankfurt School theorists on the integration of the working class into capitalist society. But there was a greater sense in Fromm’s work of the possibilities for change, even if he did not identify a particular social agent that would be responsible for such change. Fromm devoted considerable space to practical alternatives, including an extended analysis of communitarian work practices, such as Marcel Barbu’s watch-case factory at Boimandau.

The Sane Society was also notable for its criticism of aspects of the Marxist project, especially concerning the traditional concept of revolution. Fromm believed that there was a profound psychological error in the famous statement that concludes the Communist Manifesto, suggesting that the workers had “nothing to lose but their chains.” As well as their chains, the workers also had something else to lose: all the irrational needs and satisfactions that had originated while they were wearing those chains.

Fromm argued that we need an expanded concept of revolution: in terms of not only external barriers, but of internal, subjective barriers as well. Such a concept would address the roots of sadomasochistic passions, such as sexism, racism, nationalism, and other deformities of individual and social character that were not necessarily going to disappear rapidly in the context of a new society.

Capitalism and Love

Fromm continued his analysis of the subjective barriers to a true humanistic socialism in The Art of Loving (1956), perhaps his best-known work. He was adamant that there was a deep incompatibility between “the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love.”

The criticism of love — which, for Fromm, is not a phenomenon restricted to its romantic manifestations — was therefore also a criticism of capitalism, and of the ways in which it obstructed genuine forms of love that would be realized in a more human society. Fromm demanded that we analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

During the 1950s, Fromm joined the American Socialist Party–Social Democratic Federation (SP–SDF) and sought to influence its program. The resulting document, published as Let Man Prevail (1958), set out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he called “radical humanism.” The text was full of criticism of the USSR as a form of “vulgarized, distorted socialism.”

What Fromm offered in its place was a democratic, humanist form of socialism that placed the human being at the center. He finished with a set of short- and medium-term goals, including proposals to increase grassroots participation in the economic, social, educational, and political spheres. At the very time when Horkheimer and Adorno were moving further away from organized politics, in the shadow of Auschwitz, Fromm, the most Jewish of all the Frankfurt School thinkers, was moving toward it.

He continued on this path in the 1960s. May Man Prevail? (1960) was an analysis of Soviet Communism intended to influence a move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War. Fromm’s extended critique of Stalinism and post-Stalinist Khrushchevism also stressed the managerial and bureaucratic similarities between the Soviet and American systems. His text referred approvingly to the anti-colonial revolutions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and there were some sharp words directed at Western hypocrisy.

A Return to Marx

In Marx’s Concept of Man (1961), Fromm turned back toward Marx. The book contained the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which became a key reference point for Marxist humanism, prefaced by a few short essays on Marx and his philosophy. Fromm sought to restore Marxism to its original form as “a new humanism,” cleansed of the distortions of Soviet and Chinese communism.

Marx’s Concept of Man helped popularize Marx in the United States and challenged some misunderstood views of his thought that predominated in the English-speaking world at the time. The book was not without its problems. In a letter to the Russian-American Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya, Fromm himself admitted that his account of Marx was “too abstract.” All the same, it is notable that Fromm’s engagement focused on the whole of Marx’s work. Fromm rejected the idea of a sharp break between the “early Marx” and the “late Marx,” promoted by figures such as the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser.

Fromm’s renewed engagement with Marx continued with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion in 1962. In this work, Fromm further developed his Freudian-Marxist social-psychological theory of social character. This included an attempt to bolster the Marxian theory of ideology that praised the unacknowledged psychological insights in Marx’s work. Fromm explicitly praised Marx as a thinker of “much greater depth and scope than Freud,” underlining the centrality of Marx to his own project.

Fromm also played a leading role in the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965). Working with Raya Dunayevskaya and the Polish Marxist Adam Schaff, he assembled a global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, drawn largely from Eastern Europe (with many from the Yugoslav Praxis school), but also from Africa and India. Contributors included Herbert Marcuse, Karel Kosík, Gajo Petrović, Mihailo Marković, Léopold Senghor, Ernst Bloch, and Maximilien Rubel, as well as Dunayevskaya and Schaff themselves.

Dealing with Politics

Fromm remained a prominent figure on the US left over the years that followed, despite living mostly in Mexico. Unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, who refused to criticize the Vietnam War, Fromm was vocal in his anti-war stance. He gave many speeches on college campuses and even wrote speeches for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1967–68 anti-war challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries.

In this capacity, Fromm drafted a long “Memo on Political Alternatives” that identified a series of democratic, grassroots movements, essentially similar to those outlined in The Sane Society, that could form the basis for a mass movement of people. The memo appeared in print as The Revolution of Hope (1968) after McCarthy’s failed presidential bid.

Fromm steadfastly defended himself against critics who accused him of social-democratic reformism, including his old friend Herbert Marcuse. Referring to the apparent hopelessness of Marcuse’s account of critical theory in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Fromm suggested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.”

From the late 1960, after a series of heart attacks, Fromm’s political engagement slackened, and his energies turned more towards academic concerns. Even so, Fromm did not sever his connections with left-wing causes. His 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness engaged with contemporary academic discussions of human nature, challenging the view of that nature as innately aggressive and avaricious that would provide intellectual ballast for the neoliberal era.

The last of Fromm’s social and political writings, To Have or to Be? (1976), appeared after he had returned to Europe from Mexico. He took up again the discussion of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, integrating them with a critique of capitalism’s ecological destructiveness that helped inspire the European Green movement. Once again, Fromm worked the text around his call for practical economic, social, and political reforms, this time moving even closer to Marx in proclaiming what he saw as “the beginning — and rapidly increasing — decline of capitalism.”

A Thinker for Our Age

In one of his few comments on Max Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, written toward the end of his life, Fromm gave a sense of what he considered to be the nature of “critical theory”:

As far as I know, the whole thing is a hoax, because Horkheimer was frightened . . . of speaking about Marx’s theory. He used general Aesopian language and spoke of critical theory in order not to say Marx’s theory. I believe that that is all behind this discovery of critical theory by Horkheimer and Adorno.

While Fromm’s writings did pay insufficient attention to the waves of labor unrest in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, unlike Horkheimer, Fromm did not view the rise of fascism as having marked the final defeat of the socialist project. Instead, the experience of fascism spurred Fromm deeper into forms of left-wing political engagement, characterized by a spirit of radical hope and optimism, and a return to Marx that was intended to help revive the Left on a mass basis.

In many ways, Fromm is the Frankfurt School thinker most suited to the current age. His vision was attentive to the interrelations between economics, culture, and human emotions, and he avoided the pitfalls of either melancholic resignation or schematic determinism. He placed the regressive and reactionary tendencies of the present firmly at the forefront of his analysis, yet also sought to identify tangible avenues for progress.

In a political context that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, with a recession that threatens to be as deep as the Great Depression, a socialist account that pays no heed to the danger of authoritarianism would be as irresponsible as one that presented it as our inevitable fate. It is here, as well as through his engagement with the humanism of Marx, that Erich Fromm still has many valuable lessons to offer us.