Erich Fromm was one of the most influential and creative public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He was a mentor to David Riesman and an inspiration for the New Left.
As the rise of global right-wing populism and Trumpism creates new interest in the kind of psycho-social writing and popular sociology that Fromm pioneered in the 1930s, this timely book tells the story of the rise, fall and contemporary revival of Fromm’s theories.
Drawing from empirical work, this is an invaluable contribution to popular debates about current politics, the sociology of ideas and the prospect of a truly global public sociology.
This article presents the story of the rise, fall and revival of Erich Fromm, arguably the most important psychosocial thinker of the 20th century. Fromm was a major intellectual figure in the 1940s, 1940s and 1950s in a period of time when psychosocial work was growing in influence. Work that continues in that tradition is outlined and the implications this story holds for the psychosocial school of thought is spelled out through given events in the world today (Trumpism and right wing nationalism in particular) that once again create space for psychosocial ideas. The opportunities and the challenges faced today by the psychosocial perspective are discussed in light of the lessons that can be learned by looking at the earlier case of the rise and fall of Erich Fromm and the current global revival of interest in his theories. I conclude by offering some thoughts on how elements of sectarianism have sometimes plagued the psychosocial perspective and how this can be avoided in the coming years as we look forward to the coming triumph of depth psychological perspectives in the social sciences.
The world was in flames and chaos in 1940 when Erich Fromm was finishing writing his book Escape from Freedom (1941) and living in exile in New York City. Hitler dominated Europe with Nazi firepower and war making, and fascists were in power in Italy, Japan, and Spain. Stalin ruled Russia with brutality and an iron hand while fighting Hitler on his western front before the United States joined the war. The Battle of Britain raged in the air over the United Kingdom with Prime Minister Churchill promising a fight to the death while President Roosevelt in the United States was still debating America’s role in this increasingly global conflict on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was in this context that Erich Fromm published Escape from Freedom with Farrar and Rinehart, a major New York commercial book press. With this soon-to-be best-selling book, Fromm entered the stage as a public sociologist with a theoretical and political intervention that would help define the debate about fascism for a generation of intellectuals. The book outlined the research agenda he would follow for the rest of his life and it would make him famous.
Fromm was a left-wing Jewish exile from Nazism, living in New York City. He was making a living from his therapeutic practice with a safety net provided by a significant settlement he had received when he gave up his tenured status with the Frankfurt School led by Max Horkheimer. Before Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s writings had been mostly theoretical and empirical papers (predominantly in German although increasingly in English) all written for academic and clinical audiences of his peers.
As a practice and a vision, public sociology has swept through the discipline in the years since Michael Burawoy’s 2005 call for action in his speech, ‘For Public Sociology’. The German critical theorist Erich Fromm was among the most creative, visible, and influential practitioners of public sociology in the middle of the twentieth century until his death in 1980. The great American theorist Robert Merton taught Fromm’s classic book Escape from Freedom in sociology courses at Columbia University and Fromm was widely cited in the top sociology journals in the Cold War era. Fromm was the author of a number of best-selling works of social science, selling millions of books in the age of the paperback well before the internet and social media. Yet his work is largely unmentioned among the canonical figures of the craft of public sociology such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, C. Wright Mills, and David Riesman.
Born in 1900 and brought up in Germany, he lived in the United States and Mexico for decades while enjoying a massive global influence, particularly in Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. Fromm is an important part of the history of global public sociology. As the global neo-liberal consensus collapses in the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Fromm’s public sociology should be celebrated and renewed both within our discipline and in the broader public imagination.
Fromm earned a PhD at Heidelberg University in the department of national economy with a specialization in sociology under the supervision of Alfred Weber, Max Weber’s younger brother.
Public sociology runs against the grain of the professionalizing logic of modern academic disciplines (Burawoy, 2005). We do not have adequate theories about how this kind of intellectual activity is produced and sustained in the era of the research university.1 Scholarship on particular public sociologists is often tinged with either hero worship or giant killing. ‘Great thinker’ or ‘excluded genius’ tropes get in the way of systematic explanations of how sociologists actually come to write and speak to the public.
Sociology today is a profession embedded in modern research universities, having left behind its origins in conservative religious defenders of the medieval traditionalism and hierarchy (Nisbet, 1952), the positivist sects of Saint-Simon and Comte (Coser, 1965), social work reform (Deegan, 1988), and the grand theories of its founders Durkheim, Weber, and Spencer. With the creation and expansion of tenure within research universities, most young scholars see becoming a professor as a career path, not a vocation aimed at changing the world. This is true, even though many young scholars are recruited into the discipline through political engagement. Public sociologists who see their primary goal as engaging the public with ideas will always be a minority in the discipline because of the reward structures that encourage ‘professional’ and ‘policy’ over ‘public’ and ‘critical’ sociology (Burawoy, 2005). Traditional public sociologists who speak and write to the public based on their specialized knowledge emerge as scholars establish their credentials and careers close to the centre of the field.
Fromm’s declining health in the later part of the 1960s called him home to Europe. Living out the last decade of his life on a lake at Locarno, Switzerland, Fromm finished his academic career with two major scholarly books: Social Character in a Mexican Village (written with Michael Maccoby, 1970) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). These two books represent Fromm’s final framing of his intellectual and public sociological legacy and a response to the criticisms of social character theory and his revision of psychoanalysis respectively. Contrary to the myth that Fromm had become a purely popular writer who produced little of academic value (Coser, 1984; Friedman, 2013), these two books were his most scholarly despite being published by commercial presses. Social Character and Anatomy represent Fromm’s analytic voice and a return to the scholarly writing he did in the 1930s and 1940s.
Reminiscent of the working class in Weimar and authoritarian family studies conducted while part of the Frankfurt School, Fromm had a number of goals for Social Character in a Mexican Village. First, he wanted to provide evidence for his theory of social character by revisiting and refining the interpretive questionnaire method from the Weimar study in the late 1920s and early 1930s using Mexico as a case study. Second, he wanted to provide policy advice on local village development to different levels of government. In addition, he raised normative questions about existing theories of capitalist growth for what was then referred to as the Third World (Fromm and Maccoby, 1970; Maccoby and McLaughlin, 2020). The book was thus professional, policy and critical sociology.
Just after The Art of Loving brought celebrity fame, Fromm entered into an intense decade of activism. Fromm was not directly involved in sustained political activism for most of his life. Beginning in the mid-1950s and lasting for more than a decade until he was sixty-eight years old, Fromm began a long personal campaign for nuclear disarmament, human rights, global peace, humanistic socialism, presidential electoral politics, and the protests to end the brutality of the American war in Vietnam. The increasing danger of nuclear war that careful observers of Soviet–Chinese and US tensions could not fail to notice in the Cold War period pushed Fromm into action. Fromm would sustain his activist work for a decade.
Fromm’s active clinical practice and involvement in the institutional life of both the Frankfurt School and various psychoanalytic institutes, along with teaching and his active publishing regime, left him little time to be politically active. By the time he moved to Mexico City in 1950, Fromm was busy taking care of a gravely ill wife, involved in the practical and factional political work of the Mexican Psychoanalytic Institute he had established, and travelling for regular part-time university teaching at various universities in the United States (Friedman, 2013; Funk, 019). Fromm had been attempting to cut back his formal responsibilities at the Mexican Psychoanalytic Society and Institute for a number of years (Friedman, 2013 p 292) and in 1965 retired from the National Autonomous University. This left him more time for politics as well as writing.
By 1975, Fromm was essentially a forgotten public sociologist in the United States and the English-speaking world. Yet Fromm’s analysis of the mechanisms of escape involved in both far-right-wing movements and left-wing authoritarianism, his emphasis on the distorting power of the market as it permeates character and reshapes personalities, his contribution to theories of alienation and the development of humanistic Marxism, and his empirical work on the relationship between social character, alienated work, and economic development all brought insights and ideas into sociology.
Fromm’s theoretical account of the power of emotions, passions and narcissism in human destructiveness and his insights into the psychosocial logic of social life (McLaughlin, 2019) are sociological perspectives worthy of renewed attention. The undertheorized power of emotions amplified so intensely by social media today (Gardner and Davis, 2013; Lukiannoff and Haidt, 2018) has become apparent to sociologists who prematurely dismissed psychoanalytic insights (Cavalletto and Silver, 2014). Fromm’s unique account of human nature and motivations, and his pioneering critique of the patriarchal and the positivistic limitations of Freud’s theories, are an indispensable intellectual resource for social theory today.
Fromm’s pathbreaking role is a largely unacknowledged part of the history of public sociology. There was no Marxist sociology in America when Fromm published Escape from Freedom but conservative sociologist Edward Shils understood the importance of this book. In The Calling of Sociology (1980), Shils argued that Escape from Freedom offered:
Without the dogmatism of a political party, a plausible conception of a cataclysmic event of human history, and it was, moreover, one which was harmonious with the enhanced and widened political sensitivity of the new generation of sociologists. (Shils, 1980 p 113)
At the end of the Second World War, Fromm was a well-known social scientist, psychoanalyst and social critic living in New York City poised to become the most influential public sociologist of his time. Financially secure and no longer constrained by his connection to the Frankfurt School network or to orthodox Freudian sponsorship and institutions, Fromm was well positioned to take his social theory and sociology directly to the public. Fromm was connected to top commercial press editors in New York, their respect earned from the success of Escape from Freedom. Able to write clearly and quickly in English, Fromm entered the period of the height of his fame and influence throughout his forties, fifties, and early sixties.
There was a brief moment in the wake of Escape from Freedom’s critical success where Fromm had an opportunity to gain influence inside professional sociology in the United States.1 Fromm rejected a sustained engagement with the discipline,2 preferring to write books to mass audiences. Best-selling books from Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (1947), Psychoanalysis and Religion (950), The Sane Society (1955a), and The Art of Loving (1956a) made Fromm the most visible and important popularizer of the ideas of both Freud and Marx in America in the Cold War era. Fromm had moved from the role of empirical researcher to social critic and public sociologist. Fromm interpreted, popularized, and revised Marx, Freud and the broader European intellectual tradition for Americans in an age of the paperback, mass conformity, and anti-communism.
Fromm was at the height of his fame and scholarly status in 1955 after the publication of The Sane Society but in 1955–1956, two publishing events occurred that led to his rapid decline in prestige. This broader reputational decline led to the eventual forgetting of his role as one of the disciplines’ great public sociologists. The Fromm–Marcuse debate in Dissent magazine in 1955–1956 and the publication of The Art of Loving in 1956 seriously damaged Fromm’s intellectual reputation. The decline in his scholarly stature took decades but Fromm was no longer cited in professional sociology by the 1980s and early 1990s. This in turn made him unavailable as a resource and inspiration for the revival of ‘public sociology’ in the early years of the twenty-first century. This history is worth revisiting.
In 1955, Frankfurt School-associated German philosopher Herbert Marcuse was in exile in the United States and was just about to publish Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1956a). Marcuse adapted the appendix of his book on what he viewed as the radical Freud and published it as an essay attacking Fromm and the neo-Freudians in the left-wing magazine, Dissent. Dissent was a journal with low circulation but high intellectual status and was central to the world of what intellectual historians call ‘The New York Intellectuals’ (Wald, 2017). The rebuttal and counter-rebuttal exchange between Fromm and Marcuse eventually became known as the Fromm–Marcuse debate among critical theorists and intellectual historians. Their dialogue played a major role in both creating Marcuse’s reputation as an important radical intellectual during the 1960s era and in damaging Fromm’s scholarly and intellectual standing, especially in the United States.