Lawrence J. Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm – Love’s Prophet

(New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)

This well written and meticulously researched biography of Erich Fromm is organized around three leading themes. One of these is the multi-faceted role Fromm played as a social critic and public intellectual throughout his life, which began in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900 and ended in Switzerland in 1980. Fromm played an important role, on a global scale, in the peace movement; actively opposed the Cold War; and, as an advocate of what Friedman calls “a democratic socialist ‘Third Way’” between capitalism and Stalinism, expounded a political philosophy grounded in socialist humanism. He was frequently an informal adviser to Presidents and made himself available to innumerable progressive causes. A telling example of his contributions as a public intellectual was his 1955 work, The Sane Society, which, Friedman tells us, “served as a theoretical guide or platform for the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, which Fromm helped to establish” (184). That book, like many others he published over more than forty years, sold in the millions of copies.

A second major theme of the biography – adumbrated in the book’s title – is Fromm’s profound intellectual and moral indebtedness to the Jewish prophetic tradition. Friedman makes it clear, although without explicitly saying so, that Fromm was what Isaac Deutscher characterized as a “non-Jewish Jew,” that is to say, one who, inspired by Jewish moral philosophy and steeped in study of the Old Testament and the Talmud, went well beyond the boundaries of Jewry in his search for a system of thought that was universalist rather than narrowly sectarian, and international rather than nationalistic. Fromm thus rejected the premises of Zionism and became a critic of Israeli nationalism as well as of all other nationalisms.

Friedman’s discussion of Fromm’s education as a thinker shaped by his Jewish heritage is, to my mind, one of his book’s most important and valuable features. From 1916 to 1921, notes Friedman, Fromm “actively studied topics linked to the Hebrew Bible in a small group led by Rabbi Nehemia Nobel in Frankfurt, that included Martin Buber, Leo Baeck, and Gershem Scholem” (xxxiii). Fromm turned to his father Naphtali and to several of his uncles for instruction on the Talmud and on the Hebrew Bible. And behind these men was another key Jewish figure, his paternal grandfather, Rabbi Seligmann Pinchas Fromm, who became leader of the Frankfurt Jewish community. Concerning the specifically Jewish component of Fromm’s conception of life, Friedman has fascinating things to say about the dissertation that Fromm wrote for his degree at the University of Heidelberg (the Weber he mentions here is Alfred Max Weber, Max Weber’s brother):

Although Weber was no expert on Jewish law, theology, or history, he knew that the young Fromm was hardly disposed to write a dissertation on any other topic. To be sure, Weber insisted that Fromm master his own writings as well as those of Dilthey and Simmel. He recognized, however, that Fromm also wanted to draw on key Jewish theologians and philosophers. They agreed that Fromm would write his dissertation (“Jewish Law: A Contribution to the Study of Diaspora Judaism”) on the function of Jewish law in maintaining social cohesion and continuity in three Diaspora communities—the Karaites, the Reform Jews, and the Hasidim. Without a state, a common secular language, or even the opportunity to build a place of worship, Fromm argued, a Jewish social body bound by a law-abiding ethos was able to endure and to perpetuate both a belief system and a unique culture. (13)

Fromm’s complex role as a theorist and practitioner of psychoanalysis constitutes the third prominent aspect of this biography. Many people not otherwise well informed about Fromm’s life know him as the author of one of the first attempts to apply psychoanalytic concepts and categories to the study of 20th-century totalitarianism, namely Escape from Freedom (1941). Fromm was able to play a significant role in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research – first in Germany and then, after 1939, at Columbia University – because of the breadth of his frame of reference, which by 1930 embraced Jewish philosophy, Marxist studies, and his training at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (where his teachers included Hans Sachs and Theodore Reik).

Friedman’s discussion of Fromm’s lifelong effort to connect Marxism and Freudianism is of particular interest. Few psychoanalysts have been as devoted as Fromm to explicating those of Marx’s concepts that, far from clashing with Freud’s teachings, foreshadowed and illuminated them in original and stimulating ways. One of Fromm’s most explicit attempts to accomplish this was in his 1961 book Marx’s Concept of Man, in which he introduced Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (which had first been published in 1932) to English-language readers. Here Fromm focused on Marxism as essentially a “humanist philosophy” whose widespread influence could not be explained solely by its economic analysis of capitalism. Fromm rejected the tendency of many social democrats and liberals to delink Marx’s materialist conception of life from his insights into the ways in which capitalism alienated human beings from each other and from the natural world. Fromm rejected the view that Marx was “anti-spiritual,” arguing instead that “Marx’s philosophy was, in secular, nontheistic language, a new and radical step forward in the tradition of prophetic Messianism; it was aimed at the full realization of individualism, the very aim which has guided Western thinking from the Renaissance and the Reformation far into the nineteenth century.”1

Here I think Fromm may have been idealizing certain elements of Marxism in the name of his own wishful ecumenism. Friedman does not have very much to say about this question. On the other hand, he does an excellent job of explicating the ways in which Fromm tried “to link as persuasively as possible the Marxist analysis of social structures with a psychoanalytic excavation of the individual psyche” (36). This point is key to Friedman’s argument that “uniting his social and psychoanalytic thought became the signature theoretical contribution of [Fromm’s] career” (37). Fromm never lost sight of the social origins of all bodies of thought.

The three themes of Fromm’s life—his commitments as a social critic and public intellectual, the Jewish components of his worldview, and his striving to connect the thought of Freud to that of Marx—are consistently and organically linked by Friedman to the more than twenty books that Fromm produced. The titles are indicative of Fromm’s interests and aims: The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness; The Art of Loving; The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil; Man for Himself; May Man Prevail?. These titles point to the affinity of Fromm’s thought with the socialist humanism of such 20th-century thinkers as Adam Schaff and Raya Dunayevskaya, both of whom were friends of his. Fromm was concerned with the attributes and qualities that give humanity its distinctive character. His main purpose was to probe as deeply as possible the forces and impulses that could lead human beings either to a life-denying destructiveness or to an affirmation of what was most positive and creative in the human spirit.

I should also mention the many insights Friedman offers into Fromm’s personal life. Fromm’s amatory adventures, his abiding love for his third wife Annis Freeman, his failings as well as his abilities as a colleague, his enjoyment of the sensual side of life, his experiences as an urbane intellectual who relished good company and good wine – these and other aspects of Fromm’s many-sided personality are treated with exemplary frankness. The book’s discussion of Fromm’s friendships and professional ties gives us the sense of a man in constant search for ways of being creatively active in the world. We can be grateful to Friedman for the painstaking research (over a ten-year period) and discriminating intelligence that enliven his portrait of one of the past century’s most productive thinkers and activists.

Reviewed by Frank Rosengarten2


1. Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961), 2-3.

2. [Ed. Note: This review was completed by Frank Rosengarten shortly before his death.]

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