A Godless Jewish Humanist
The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet
by Lawrence J. Friedman, assisted by Anke M. Schreiber
Columbia University Press, 2014
Even before opening Lawrence J. Friedman’s biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, readers are alerted by its title to the enormousness of the task of conveying the range and reach of this once celebrated intellectual. Erich Fromm was a Heidelberg University-trained sociologist, a psychoanalyst who helped found and direct psychoanalytic institutes in the United States and Mexico, author of more than a dozen books—many of them best sellers—a social commentator, and a political activist who promoted worldwide socialist humanism and nuclear disarmament. For college students and the educated reading public from the mid 1940s through the late ’60s, Escape from Freedom (1941), The Sane Society (1955), and The Art of Loving (1956) were often their first introduction to psychoanalytic, Marxist, and sociological constructs that Fromm incorporated and popularized in his reader-friendly prose.
The Lives of Erich Fromm is a virtual encyclopedia of Fromm data, with an impressively broad sweep that illuminates a cultural atmosphere and zeitgeist very different from our own more specialized and compartmentalized era. Perhaps the book’s greatest appeal is Friedman’s evocation of the historical, cultural, and political milieus that are the context of this scholarly biography, ranging from the Free Jewish Teaching Institute (Lehrhaus) in Frankfurt, to the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research; from the therapeuticum (the experimental sanatorium founded in 1923 in Heidelberg by Fromm and his first wife, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann that melded psychoanalytic treatment with Orthodox Jewish communal living); to the culture and personality movement in New York that joined prominent neo-Freudians—Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, Clara Thompson, and Karen Horney—with eminent anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward Sapir; to the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and Amnesty International that Fromm helped to launch and fund.
The Public Versus the Private Lives of Erich Fromm
At the same time, Friedman traces the various, often parallel trajectories of Fromm’s life: his educational course, vocational development, emigration, institutional affiliations, significant relationships, and his steady output of books—for each of which he offers a detailed summary and statistics about sales and translations.
Friedman unfolds the public lives of Erich Fromm the social critic, political activist, and global educator with great vividness, but he is less successful at bringing to life the private Erich Fromm, whose inner life remains largely obscured beneath the evidence of his amazing productivity and range. While this might be regarded as a deficit in any comprehensive biography (and Friedman’s stated intention is to supplement previous Fromm biographies by elucidating the influence of his personal life on his intellectual contributions), it is especially striking in the biography of a man who defined himself as a psychoanalyst. Although the book is sprinkled with tart observations about Fromm—and even criticisms about the unabashed self-referential basis of his later writings or his “unethical trysts” with female patients—under Friedman’s hand they never quite coalesce into a satisfactory psychobiographical portrait. In one notable example, he observes:
For much of his life, Fromm responded to disappointments and adversities … [by] jumping from one location to another, quitting one professional association and joining or creating another, altering his conceptual and clinical approaches, and switching from one intimate friendship or bed partner to another.
This is heavy-duty stuff, seemingly ripe for analysis and interpretation, but in the very next sentence, Friedman reverses direction, foreclosing deeper exploration and turning weakness into asset: “There was a pertinacity here. Fromm would rarely allow a difficult situation to immobilize him,” he concludes summarily.
Friedman’s myopia, his tendency to justify and smooth over rough edges, is mirrored on a larger scale by his authorial stance in relation to his subject, regarding whom his undisguised admiration and identification seem to preclude more objective assessment and critique. At one point, he compares Fromm’s “narcissism” to Freud’s, noting, “both regarded themselves as founders of unique psychoanalytic ideas, institutions, and traditions.” The unqualified idealization expressed in the elevation of Fromm to Freud’s status highlights Friedman’s difficulty in consolidating a profile of a man with outsized talents and passions, as well as egregious shortcomings, and in producing a critical evaluation of Fromm’s intellectual contributions—his psychoanalytic and ethical humanism theories in particular.
Fromm was an avid student of great teachers and systems, beginning with the vast tradition of Jewish learning, and followed by Marxism and psychoanalysis. But it seems that his enthusiasm and valuation were matched by an equally strong need to reject essential components of every system, assimilate seemingly divergent concepts, and refashion them—often on a grand scale—into a new product of his own making.
Fromm was a master of syncretism, and while Marxism and Freudianism remained the orienting poles of his professional identity, he combined them with the ethical foundation derived from the Hebrew Bible, with elements of Christianity and Buddhism added to the mix. Friedman lays out a detailed map of the stages of Fromm’s intellectual journey, but he does not provide the psychological scaffolding or insight that might illuminate the course that Fromm charted.
Why, for example, did he find it necessary to reject Freud’s instinctual basis of psychic development and substitute in its stead the construct of social character (drawn from a fusion of Freudian and Marxian tenets)? What made him throw out the baby with the bath water instead of extending Freud’s idea into the social realm? Much later in life, Fromm apparently softened his anti-instinctual bias, and his constructs “biophilia” and “necrophilia,” first cousins of the life and death instincts enshrined in Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, appear without explanation or commentary (The Heart of Man, 1964).
With even greater cogency, the reader might wonder about what impelled Fromm, raised as an Orthodox Jew and enamored of its culture of learning and spirituality, to strip his ethical humanism of the influence and authority of a deity and to insist that everything of value is inherent in man (Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, 1947)? Although Friedman frequently refers to the deficiency of Fromm’s parents as role models, Fromm’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood were filled with powerful and sustaining relationships with mentors.
The precocious young Fromm began studying Talmud with his great-uncle Ludwig Krause, a Talmudic scholar, and as a teenager, came under the influence of Nehemia Nobel, rabbi of a prominent Frankfurt synagogue and student of the noted Kant scholar, Hermann Cohen, who had incorporated the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy into Jewish religious tradition. The Nobel circle, which included Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Leo Baeck, was instrumental in setting up the Free Jewish Teaching Institute (Lehrhaus) dedicated to introducing enlightened but assimilated German Jews to the richness of their Jewish heritage.
At the University of Heidelberg, under the tutelage of the sociologist Alfred Weber, brother of Max, Fromm wrote his dissertation on the function of Jewish law in maintaining social cohesion and continuity in three Diaspora communities: the Karaites, Reform Jews, and Hasidim. During the same period, he also studied with Salman Rabinkow, a Russian socialist and Talmudist, whom Fromm later acknowledged as his most influential mentor. Rabinkow introduced Fromm, variously, to the Lithuanian approach to Talmud, the writings of Maimonides, and the Tanya (the central text of Chabad Hasidism)—as well as to Hasidic melodies that Fromm reportedly sang for the rest of his life.
Friedman skillfully records the gradual transformation of Erich Fromm, the Orthodox Jew, the Frankfurt Institute academic, and psychoanalytic clinician—all private roles—into Erich Fromm, the public intellectual, educator, and activist. Both the cloistered cubicles of academia, and the individual focus of psychoanalysis, respectively, must have felt too restrictive to Fromm, especially when compared to the far-reaching impact of a political or religious system or the delivery of a message with universal reverberations. With his arrival in New York in the mid-’30s, Fromm began writing in English and grew adept at rendering psychological-sociological-political concepts accessible to a broad readership. His two best-known works, Escape from Freedom, an exploration of the seduction of and submission to authority and the fear of freedom, and The Art of Loving (which in Germany is still outsold only by the Bible) sold in the millions.
An Iconoclastic Proponent of Secular Religiosity
Fromm’s passion for refashioning ideas into a mold bearing his individual stamp seems nowhere more evident than in his application of Jewish ethical precepts and learning: Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (1947); You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition (1966); and To Have or To Be? (1976). His erudition is often on full display: in You Shall Be as Gods, he frequently offers his own translation of the Hebrew when the original interpretation does not measure up to his standards, and his love for the richness of the ancient texts is palpable. This does not deter him, however, from taking a free hand—the “radical interpretation”— in reaching the light at the end of the tunnel: a Frommian nontheistic humanist ethics.
Fromm could be alternately creative, iconoclastic, and single-mindedly reinterpretive in reaching his goal; one of the opening stories in Genesis, the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (the Fall, in Christian theology) is recast by Fromm as a salutary and emblematic act of disobedience that reveals the innate human potential for independence of mind and freedom.
In Fromm’s explication, Hebrew Bible idolatry was actually a demonstration of the triumph of the “having” mode over the “being” mode, a harbinger of Marx’s later emphasis on the corruption of capitalism and consumerism. The greed and acquisitiveness of the newly liberated Hebrews in the desert, unable to resist stockpiling manna that God had warned them would rot, is another illustration of both the having mode and the intolerance of freedom, as is the Jews’ insistence to the prophet Samuel, many generations later, that he appoint a flesh and blood king over them.
Fromm’s odyssey through the Hebrew Bible leads him to the prophets of messianic vision, who foretell a time of universal peace and co-existence when—in Fromm’s version—divisions between people and states will be eliminated, and a universal ethics, motivated by brotherly love and the joy of human productivity (a melding of Marx and Freud), will prevail. Ultimately, Fromm espouses a secular religiosity—a fervent devotion to ideals that emerge from self-cultivation that is not obstructed by recourse to God’s authority or external directives.
A New Ethical Humanism
Fromm’s attitude to authority was nothing if not vexed, and he had a visceral reaction to authority in any doctrinal form. In his critique of Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ventured that Fromm confused duty with authority, and, it might be suggested, authority with authoritarianism. Fromm’s antipathy to authority sparked his acclaimed formulations on authoritarianism, but also colored his controversial negation of key tenets of Freudian theory and the concept of a real God who is accepted as an external authority. Fromm took issue with the concept of the Freudian superego as an internally regulating authority that derived originally from parental authority, just as he did with the linkage of ethical principles to the authority of an existing God. He rejected Freud’s concept of the death instinct and the aggressive drive, just as he did the darker image of human nature captured in the idea of yetzer hara—the innate human propensity for evil and destructiveness. Fromm’s humanism is adamantly anti-theistic, anti-authority, and optimistic, if not actually utopian.
Fromm’s attitude to Freud (whom he never met) was admiring but critical, as the title of his posthumously published work, Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (1980) indicates. Freud referred to himself as a “godless Jew,” but his vehement opposition to religion stemmed from his conviction that it was based on infantile helplessness and dependency, and the false succor of illusions that it extended to its adherents. Fromm too might be described as a godless Jew, but one with an entirely different provenance and orientation. His quest was to free the cultivation of spirituality and ethics from their theistic, authoritative moorings in the Hebrew Bible and forge them—with elements of Hasidic mystical relatedness and themes from Marxism, Christianity, and Buddhism—into a new ethical humanism. A messianic mission, a desire to be a “light unto the nations” is discernible in the proselytizing, prophetic inflections of his late writings on ethical humanism. Freud, in his turn, might have identified in Fromm a tangled knot of Oedipal conflicts—the Freudian complex that signifies the generational struggle for power and authority, manifest in strife over the transmission or rejection of the old versus the new.
Friedman is lavish with information about Fromm but leaves the final assessment of his contributions up to the reader. Fromm’s legacy resides neither in the innovation nor the profundity of his psychoanalytic and ethical concepts. Rather, his place in intellectual history is assured by his adaptation and popularization of ideas—mixing and matching across systems—which he introduced into the public domain via his accessible and best-selling books. Without him, many of Freud and Marx’s ideas—and he courageously upheld the value of Marx’s contributions at the height of the Cold War—might have remained sequestered in academic isolation.
Perhaps Fromm’s greatest gifts were as a social psychologist and critic; he had his finger on the social and cultural pulse, auguring trends that were still incubating or in the process of fomenting. In Escape from Freedom he wrote about the global threat and psychological appeal of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, even as they were advancing. In The Art of Loving, he differentiated between healthy self-love and selfishness, daring to suggest that self-love was not only healthy and desirable but a prerequisite for loving others—anticipating by many years the work of the psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut. Assessing the threat of an engulfing consumerism, and the “having versus being modes,” he coined such enduring terms as “automaton conformity,” and the “marketing personality.”
Ultimately, it is impossible to pigeonhole Erich Fromm. He was a man of letters, and simultaneously a man of action, who used money earned from his books to support peace-promoting organizations. He was a psychoanalyst committed to the painstaking task of changing lives one by one, who sought at the same time to influence thousands and even millions of people with his ideas and prophetic exhortations. Prefiguring our contemporary immersion in global communication and veneration of celebrities, Fromm—a man of outsized passions and ambitions—was a public, celebrity intellectual and educator.