Biography of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm

Biography of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm

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 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 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 s 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-d 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 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.



Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, in Frankfurt-am-Main, which at the time was part of the Prussian empire. Erich grew up as an only child in an Orthodox Jewish family. Two of his paternal great-grandfathers and his paternal grandfather were rabbis. His mother's brother was a well-respected Talmudic scholar.

At age 13, Fromm began his Talmudic studies, that would last fourteen years during which time he was exposed to socialistic, humanistic, and Hasidic thought. Though devoutly religious, his family was involved in commerce, as most Jewish families in Frankfurt were.

Fromm described his childhood as growing up in two distinct worlds, the traditional Jewish and the modern commercial. By age 26, he rejected religion because he felt it was too divisive.

Still, he carried his early memories, impressed with the Talmud's messages of compassion, redemption, and messianic hope.

Two events in his early life had serious effects on his outlook on life. The first, at age 12, was the suicide of a young woman who was a friend of the family. Her life had many good attributes, yet she could not find happiness.

The second, at age 14, was the outbreak of World War I. Fromm witnessed many ordinarily gentle people turn hateful and homicidal. The search to understand the cause of suicide and bellicosity underlies much of Fromm's thinking.

In 1918, Erich Fromm began his studies in Germany, at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt-am-Main, beginning with two semesters of jurisprudence.

During the summer semester of 1919, Fromm studied at the University of Heidelberg, where he switched to study sociology under Alfred Weber (brother of Max Weber), Karl Jaspers, and Heinrich Rickert. Fromm received his Ph.D.

in sociology from Heidelberg in 1922, and completed his psychoanalytical training in 1930 at the Psychoanalytical Institute in Berlin. In that same year, he began his own clinical practice and joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

After the Nazi takeover of power in Germany, Fromm moved to Geneva, Switzerland and in 1934, to Columbia University in New York. After leaving Columbia, he helped to pioneer the New York Branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1943. In 1945, he helped form the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology.

Fromm was married three times. His first wife was Frieda Reichmann, a psychoanalyst who gained a good reputation from her effective clinical work with schizophrenics.

Their marriage ended in divorce in 1933, but Fromm acknowledged that he learned much from her. At age 43, Fromm married Henni Gurland. They moved to Mexico City in 1950 because of her health problems, but she died in 1952.

A year after her death, Fromm married Annis Freeman.

When Fromm moved to Mexico City in 1950, he became a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and established a psychoanalytic sector of the medical school. He taught at the UNAM until his retirement in 1965.

Fromm was also a professor of psychology at Michigan State University from 1957 to 1961 and served as an adjunct professor of psychology at the graduate division of Arts and Sciences at New York University. In 1974, he moved to Muralto, Switzerland. He died at his home in 1980, five days before his eightieth birthday.

Throughout his life, Fromm maintained his own clinical practice and published a series of books, the most popular of which was The Art of Loving (1956), which received international success.

Psychological theory

Beginning with his first seminal work, Escape from Freedom (known in Britain as The Fear of Freedom), first published in 1941, Fromm's writings were notable as much for their social and political commentary as for their philosophical and psychological underpinnings.

His second seminal work, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, first published in 1947, was a continuation of Escape from Freedom. Taken together, these books outlined Fromm's theory of human character, which was a natural outgrowth of Fromm's theory of human nature.

Fromm's most popular book was The Art of Loving, an international bestseller first published in 1956, which recapitulated and complemented the theoretical principles of human nature found in Escape from Freedom and Man for Himself, principles which were revisited in many of Fromm's other major works.

Central to Fromm's world view was his concept of self as social character. Fromm saw basic human character stemming from our existential frustration of being a part of nature, while needing to rise above nature through our reasoning and ability to love.

The freedom to be unique individuals is fearful, so human beings tend to surrender to authoritarian systems.

Fromm extolled the virtues of people taking independent action and using reason to establish their own moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian norms.

Human beings have evolved into beings, conscious of themselves, their own mortality, and their powerlessness before the forces of nature and society, and no longer united with the universe as they were in their instinctive, pre-human existence as animals. According to Fromm, the awareness of a disunited human existence is the source of all guilt and shame, and the solution to this existential dichotomy is found in the development of one's uniquely human powers of love and reason.

Fromm distinguished his concept of love from popular notions of love to the point that his reference to this concept was virtually paradoxical.

Fromm considered love to be an interpersonal, creative capacity rather than an emotion, and he distinguished this creative capacity from what he considered to be various forms of narcissistic neuroses and sado-masochistic tendencies that are commonly held out as proof of «true love.

» Indeed, Fromm viewed the experience of «falling in love» as evidence of one's failure to understand the true nature of love, which he believed always had the common elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.

Fromm also asserted that few people in modern society had respect for the autonomy of their fellow human beings, much less the objective knowledge of what other people truly wanted and needed.

Fromm often referred to examples from the Talmud to illustrate his ideas, but with interpretations that were far from traditional.

Fromm used the story of Adam and Eve as an allegorical explanation for human biological evolution and existential angst, asserting that when Adam and Eve ate from the «Tree of Knowledge,» they became aware of themselves as being separate from nature, while still being a part of it.

Putting a Marxist spin on the story, he interpreted Adam and Eve’s disobedience as a justified rebellion against an authoritarian God. Resolution of the human condition, according to Fromm, cannot involve any input from the Almighty or any other supernatural source, but only by our own efforts to take responsibility for our lives.

In another example, Fromm pointed to the story of Jonah, who did not wish to save the residents of Nineveh from the consequences of their sin, as demonstrative of his belief that the qualities of care and responsibility are generally absent from most human relationships.

In an addendum to his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil, Fromm wrote as part of his famous Humanist Credo:

I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: (love of life), love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom. (c. 1965)

Political ideas and activities

The culmination of Fromm's social and political philosophy was his book The Sane Society, published in 1955, which argued in favor of humanist, democratic socialism.

Building primarily upon the early works of Karl Marx, Fromm sought to re-emphasize the ideal of personal freedom, missing from most Soviet Marxism, and more frequently found in the writings of libertarian socialists and liberal theoreticians.

Fromm's brand of socialism rejected both Western capitalism and Soviet communism, which he saw as dehumanizing and bureaucratic social structures that resulted in a virtually universal modern phenomenon of alienation.

He became one of the founders of the Socialist Humanism, promoting the early Marx's writings and his humanist messages to the United States and Western European publics.

Thus, in the early 1960s, Fromm has published two books dealing with Marx's thought (Marx's Concept of Man and Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud). Working to stimulate the Western and Eastern cooperation between Marxist Humanists, Fromm published a collection of articles entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium in 1965.

Periodically, Fromm was active in U.S. politics.

He joined the Socialist Party of America in the mid-1950s, and did his best to help them provide an alternative viewpoint to the prevailing «McCarthyism» of the time, a viewpoint that was best expressed in his 1961 paper May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy. However, as a co-founder of SANE, Fromm's strongest political interest was in the international peace movement, fighting against the nuclear arms race and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. After supporting Eugene McCarthy's losing bid for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Fromm more or less retreated from the American political scene, although he did write a paper in 1974 entitled Remarks on the Policy of Détente for a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.


Fromm as a psychologist has not left a substantial legacy. His desire to see Freudian theory rely on more empirical data and methods was better met by others such as Erik Erikson and Anna Freud.

Fromm is sometimes noted as a founder of the Neo-Freudians, but is little acknowledged for any influence on them. His ideas on psychotherapy were an influence in the field of humanistic approaches, yet he criticized Carl Rogers and others to the point of isolating himself from them.

His theory of personality is not usually discussed in theories of personality text books.

His socio-political influence concluded with his contemporary activities in American politics of the 1960s and early 1970s.

However, his books are perennially rediscovered by scholars who are individually influenced. Fifteen such individuals formed the International Erich Fromm Society in 1985. This society, grown to over 650 members, seeks to encourage scholarly works and investigations Fromm's work.

Major works

  • Fromm, E. 1994. (original 1941) Escape from Freedom. (AKA The Fear of Freedom.) Owl Books. ISBN 0805031499
  • Fromm, E. 1947. Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics.
  • Fromm, E. 1950. Psychoanalysis and Religion.
  • Fromm, E. 1951. The Forgotten Language: the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths.
  • Fromm, E. 1955. The Sane Society.
  • Fromm, E. 1956. The Art of Loving.
  • Fromm, E. 1959. Sigmund Freud's Mission: an analysis of his personality and influence.
  • Fromm, E. 1960. Let Man Prevail: a Socialist Manifest and Program.
  • Fromm, E. 1960. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, with D.T. Suzuki and Richard de Martino.
  • Fromm, E. 1961. Marx's Concept of Man.
  • Fromm, E. 1961. May Man Prevail? An inquiry to the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy.
  • Fromm, E. 1962. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: my Encounter with Marx and Freud.
  • Fromm, E. 1964. The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil.
  • Fromm, E. 1966. You Shall Be as Gods
  • Fromm, E. 1968. The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology.
  • Fromm, E. 1970. Social Character in a Mexican Village.
  • Fromm, E. 1970. The Crisis of Psychoanalysis: Essays on Freud, Marx, and Social Psychology.
  • Fromm, E. 1973. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
  • Fromm, E. 1976. To Have or to Be.
  • Fromm, E. 1984. The Working Class in Weimar Germany. (a psycho-social analysis done in the 1930s).
  • Fromm, E. 1986. For the Love of Life.
  • Fromm, E. 1989. The Art of Being.

All links retrieved August 18, 2017.


Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

Biography of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was a 20th century sociologist, psychoanalyst, and something of a polymath who studied and published work in a diverse array of fields, including psychology, anthropology, religion, ethics, psychoanalysis, sociology, and philosophy. His psychological writings intersperse politics with philosophy, and Fromm is viewed by many as the founder of political psychology.

Professional Life

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900. He studied law at the University of Frankfurt until he changed his field of study to sociology and enrolled in the University of Heidelberg. After he graduated in 1922 with his PhD in sociology, he continued to study psychology and psychiatry at the University of Munich, and he trained at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Berlin. 

Fromm practiced psychoanalysis in Berlin and established the Psychoanalytic Institute of Frankfurt.

He also joined the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research where he was a teacher between 1929 and 1932.

The Institute later became known as the Frankfurt School for Critical Theory, and is one of the most widely known centers dedicated to Marxist interdisciplinary social psychology.

Fromm fled from the Nazis in 1933 to the United States, where he worked at Columbia University in New York until 1941. Fromm came into contact with a new school of sociologists and analysts, including Karen Horney, a well-known German psychoanalyst who was famous for questioning and revising several Freudian theories.

Fromm ultimately rejected Freudian theory and helped to propel the neo-Freudian movement. Fromm established the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology and lectured at Yale University, the New School for Social Research, and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis.

From 1941–1950, Fromm was a faculty member at Bennington College.

Fromm relocated to Mexico City in 1951, where he was a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Frontera. From 1955–1965, Fromm was head of the psychoanalysis department at the university.

During this time, he also visited the University of Michigan and New York University as a professor.

He later taught at the Mexican Society of Psychoanalysis, before he moved to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1980.

Contribution to Psychology

Fromm was a fierce social critic who wrote extensively about political philosophy. He is also known for his criticisms of the work of Sigmund Freud. Fromm noted that some of Freud's early work conflicted with his later work, and he lambasted Freud for his misogyny.

Two of Fromm's most important works, Escape from Freedom and Man for Himself, combine elements of philosophy and psychology, laying the foundation for political psychology. The Art of Loving was his most commercially successful book.

Fromm's Jewish roots are clearly present in each of his books, and he often wrote secular interpretations of scripture. His humanistic philosophy is based primarily upon his understanding of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Fromm argued that Adam and Eve had done the right thing by eating the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, emphasizing that moral authority should come from carefully investigated ideals rather than authoritarian mandates from God or other figures.

This anti-authoritarian bent is a significant part of Fromm's philosophy, and many of his writings extolled the virtues of socialist democracy.

He believed that embracing freedom is a sign of psychological health and that some psychological problems stem from attempts to escape from freedom and conform to society's demands.

He embraced the concept of biophilia, the love of humanity and nature, and argued that biophilia was a sign of good psychological health.

Books by Erich Fromm

  • Escape from Freedom (1941)
  • Man for Himself (1947)
  • The Art of Loving (1956)
  • Sigmund Freud's Mission; an Analysis of his Personality and Influence (1959)
  • Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960)
  • May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy (1961)
  • Marx's Concept of Man (1961)
  • Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud (1962)
  • Socialist Humanism (1965)
  • The Nature of Man (1968)
  • The Crisis of Psychoanalysis (1970)
  • The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973)
  • To Have or to Be? (1976)
  • Greatness and Limitation of Freud's Thought (1979)
  • The Art of Being (1993)
  • The Art of Listening (1994)
  • On Being Human (1997)

Last Update: 07-06-2015


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