Erich Fromm

A place for enthusiasts.

Erich Fromm, born as Erich Seligman Fromm, was one of the world’s leading psychoanalysts. He was also attributed as a social behaviorist, a philosopher and a Marxist. He was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany on March 23, 1900 to orthodox Jewish parents. The single child of a wine merchant, Fromm was reportedly a somewhat intolerable, phobic child. The fact that his mother was afflicted with depression and his father was characteristically a temperamental man did not really create an ideal childhood situation for him. Although he was given a conservative (and pluralistic) upbringing and education, Fromm eventually turned out to be a rebel, forsaking his religion to become an atheist. He completely debunked religion as the basis of strife, discord and inequality. Religion spewed hatred and since he belonged to an insecure era caught in between the First World War and the coming Second World War, he felt it best to give up religion in favor of more humanitarian and realistic philosophies.


Fromm’s academic record can be deemed as remarkable. He started out with sociology and found his true calling in psychology. It is perhaps ironically noteworthy that when he was a young boy he considered many Jewish intellectuals as his exemplars. Some of them were the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen the free thinking non-interventionist, the eminent Talmudist Rabbi Nehemia Nobel who was proficient in psychoanalytic literature as well, and Rabbi Salman Baruch Rabinkow, a Jewish mystic with a compelling approval for socialism. Such strong influences anticipated Erich Fromm’s proclivity for the committed, the analytical and the unrestricted schools of thought. Thus predictably his first job was as a rabbi.

The War As A Turning Point

The catastrophic First World War and the chaos that it led into the world deeply unsettled Fromm’s beliefs and changed his worldview completely. He once said: “When the war ended in 1918, I was a deeply troubled young man who was obsessed by the question of how war was possible, by the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior, by a passionate desire for peace and international understanding. More, I had become deeply suspicious of all official ideologies and declarations, and filled with the conviction ‘of all one must doubt.”

The War left him permanently changed. After finishing his graduation in legal theory from the University of Frankfurt in 1919, Fromm enrolled himself in sociology at the Heidelberg University. Under the tutelage of the eminent sociologist Alfred Webber he earned his PhD in the year 1922. Sometime in the middle of the 1920s Fromm changed his academic direction towards psychology. An opportunity to undertake training in psychoanalysis came to him through contact with Frieda Reichmann, who eventually became his wife in 1926. However, the marriage turned out to be an unsuccessful one. It was not just because Frieda was ten years older than him, but also because she had once been his psychoanalyst thereby making spontaneity and innocence absent from their married relationship. Despite their divorce Fromm and Frieda maintained a cordial personal and professional relationship.

Erich Fromm’s critical and social theories soon earned him a place in what was famously known as the ‘Frankfurt School’. He helped in initiating the establishment of the Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute and following Max Horheimerthen’s offer joined the prestigious Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. During the years 1929 to 1932 he taught at both the Institute and the University and did a research on the totalitarian disposition of German work forces before Hitler’s ascendency to power. This work was published posthumously in 1984 under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany.

In the light of Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi occupation, Erich Fromm was forced to flee his country of birth, first to Geneva and then finally to United States of America. In the year 1934 he joined Columbia University and also did a stint at lecturing in Yale University and Bennington College between the years 1941 to 1950. His years in USA also witnessed the famous and fruitful partnership with Karen Horney. While Horney explicated psychoanalytical theories to Fromm, the latter enlightened her on various sociological models.

Fromm’s first major publication was Escape from Freedom in the year 1942. Its central argument was “freedom from the traditional bonds of medieval society, though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity”. This isolation from society and its people, along with the uncertainties and doubts involved, enables to illuminate the manner and ways in which the general public seek the sanctuary and incentives of totalitarian societies like fascism. Escape from Freedom is perceived as one of the origins of political psychology.

Fromm & Freud

Many of Fromm’s works centred on Sigmund Freud. Fromm arrived in U.S.A. at a time when the Second World War was just around the corner. Fromm’s principles were found to be clashing with those of the American Freudians. Fromm credited a person’s psyche as the consequence of biology and as well as society. His predominant emphasis was on the consequences of consumerism on the consciousness of one’s own individuality.


Fromm scrutinized the teachings and theories of Freud’s work in detail. He recognized an inconsistency between his initial theories before and after the First World War. In his pre-WWI theories Freud explains human urges as a struggle between needs and suppression.The post-WWI theories however, explain the same human urges as a tussle between Eros (Life instinct) and Thanatos (Death instinct). According to Freud both these impulses merge and clash inside the individual. Eros signifies all the life affirming qualities like love, sexuality, imagination, pride, and progeneration. Thanatos on the other hand refers to the life denying negative impulses of violence, brutality, annihilation and death. Fromm accused Freud and other neo-Freudians of never admitting the inconsistencies in the two hypotheses.

He further evaluated Freud’s twofold thinking. Fromm believed that the Freudian explanation of the human consciousness as conflicts of two extremes was confined and restricting. Fromm denounced him as a misogynist bound by his inability to reason beyond the patriarchal norms of his time. Nevertheless Fromm held Freud and his achievements in great reverence because despite the numerous loopholes in his theories Fromm maintained that Freud together with the likes of Albert Einstein and Karl Marx was among the harbingers of the modern era.

Fromm & Marx

Perhaps one of Fromm’s greatest influences came from Karl Marx whom he considered as one of the greatest intellectuals of all times. His book called The Sane Society which came out in 1955 was inspired by the early teachings of Marx. Fromm’s variety of socialism and communism discarded both the capitalism that prevailed in Western societies and communism that marked the then Soviet nation. He considered the latter as mechanizing and life denying whose ultimate consequence was a worldwide case of isolation. He endorsed the early teachings of Marx and became known as one of the forefathers of socialist humanism, propagating his philosophies to Western societies.


Fromm’s second marriage was to Henny Gurlandin the year 1944. This marriage finally awarded him with an American citizenship. In 1950 he moved to Mexico to take up a position offered by the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. He continued teaching there until 1965. Moving to Mexico was a decision prompted by his wife’s ailment which led his wife’s doctor to prescribe a more complimentary climate for her recovery. Despite the move Henny died in 1952. As an active psychoanalyst he helped with the setting up of the Mexican Institute of Psychoanalysis and he remained its director till the year 1976.

Most Important Works

Some of Fromm’s major publications include Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), Marx’s Concept of Man (1961); Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud (1962); The Dogma of Christ, and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (1963); The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1963); Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970); The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) and many more.

Fromm’s works are infused with a genuine and philosophical humanism. The condition of human life and the evolution of man’s physical and intellectual abilities fascinated Fromm. In a world gradually heading towards a soulless mechanical existence impelled by technology, he fought for ways to preserve the spirit of man, the lifeblood of existence, the purpose of life and disintegration of society. Having witnesses the two world wars and the horrors they created, Fromm deliberated on the terrifying consequences of modern technology and warfare, which is a consequence of the same technology. He firmly believed that conviction in man and in his affirmative abilities together with harmony among all cultures were the foundations for a more positive and happy future.

Fromm’s third and final marriage was to Annis Freeman in 1953. He maintained his position at the Mexican university while he also lectured in other American universities for several months. His involvement in politics was not just in the form of armchair criticism. Apart from being a civil rights activist he also led vigorous movements against nuclear weapons, participated in anti-Vietnam protests, and even organized various movements for the protection of the environment. Erich Fromm gradually emerged as a well-liked theorist during the 1950s to 1960s although he was yet to cut much ice with the school of psychoanalysts.

Towards the second half of his life Fromm began to be increasingly occupied with the notions of death and mutability. His book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness demonstrates this idea at length along with his belief that the most important principle that drives mankind is the impulse that arises out of the absence of a genuine existence and individuality.

Fromm’s philosophical bent of mind found further expression in his last important work called To Have or To Be (1976). According to him ‘having’ and ‘being’ were the two components that made up life. ‘Having’ indicates all things material and is founded primarily on violence and gluttony. ‘Being’, on the other hand, is embedded in love and is governed by the spirit of communal harmony and constructive actions. He emphasized on the need to have a balance between the two components because an overriding ‘having’ would bring about chaos and destruction in the world. Thus he felt that a better future was contingent upon harmony of the two forms in life.

After leading an immensely gratifying intellectual life Erich Fromm passed away in 1980. He had by that time shifted to Locarno in Switzerland, where he eventually succumbed to a heart attack.