‘Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future’ by Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune (eds) reviewed by Jeffery L Nicholas

and (eds)
Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future

Bloomsbury, New York and London, 2020. 248pp., $39.95 pb
ISBN 9781350279148

Reviewed by Jeffery L Nicholas

About the reviewer

Jeffery L Nicholas is author of Love and Politics: Persistent Human Desires as a Foundation for …


Overall, this collection is necessary reading for critical theorists. Not every essay deserves consideration from every reader, but each fruitfully explores aspects of Fromm’s theoretical insights in light of current social crises. Together, the essays highlight Fromm’s work that critical theorists and progressive politics must build upon.

Durkin’s Introduction provides an overview of Fromm’s contribution to and his association with the Institut für Sozialforschung. Fromm helped to integrate psychoanalysis and sociology for the Institute, resisting a reduction of either to the other. He shows that “the dynamic function of character [provides] the psychic basis of … society and, thereby, [is] a productive force alongside the material bases and ideological superstructure” (3). Fromm pits humanism against authoritarianism and develops resources for understanding both and supporting a humanistic ethic.

Each section includes three essays. Part I, Radical and Prophetic Humanism, includes Michael J. Thompson’s “Erich Fromm and the Ontology of Social Relations,” Michael Löwy’s “Jewish Messianism and Revolutionary Utopias in Central Europe” and George Lundskow’s “The Necessity of Prophetic Humanism in Progressive Social Change”

Thompson shows that Fromm’s believes social relations cause both the development of the self and society, shaping “psychological structures and drives of the self” (25). For Fromm, our drives express human needs of relation to other human beings and nature. “It is Fromm’s thesis throughout his work that these social-ontological relations can be evaluated based on the kinds of ends that they promote” (25). The ego is structured in such a way that the individual lives for self-development and creativity. In turn, the society benefits because these kinds of individuals constitute it. In contrast to defective relations, the mutual relations of healthy societies aim at a common interest and “institutions of society are organized around common goods and needs” (33).

Lundskow’s essay calls for “a new religion to play a social-psychological role in progressive social change” (52). Lundskow asserts that “societies require religious faith for human fulfillment” (52). The left has struggled because it has no “animating vision working toward a productive transcendence” (56). Such a vision comes from a progressive spirituality that contrasts with white male ethnonationalism, the dominant US religion. A progressive religion that can unify us toward a spiritual, though not necessarily religion or church-oriented, vision can help us to reset desires. Importantly, it cannot be closed off to existing religions. Lundskow draws on Thomas Paine’s “The Way,” to combine faith and science, and Huey Newton’s Black Panthers as inspiration for developing a progressive religion aimed at making the world a better place.

Part II, Social and Psychological Aspects, includes Roger Foster’s “Erich Fromm and the Prospects for Renewing Critical Theory in the Neoliberal Era,” Lynn S. Chancer’s “Feminism, Humanism, and Erich Fromm,” and Michael Maccoby and Neil McLaughlin’s “Sociopsychoanalysis and Radical Humanism: a Fromm Bourdieu Synthesis.”

Foster argues that Fromm’s psychoanalytic theory explains how contemporary anxieties lead, not to a better world, but the support of “regressive tendencies of capitalism” (76). Echoing a major theme of this text, Foster argues that Fromm insists that the relationship between the individual and society appears as a “socialized person” (78). Societies create common experiences which lead to the formation of similar characteristics in individuals. Individuals are emotionally invested in the social and economic structures of society that channel “individual needs into designated patterns of work and social relationships” (79). Fromm’s humanism seeks to understand how people can become motivated by the goods intrinsic to an activity. Fromm stands in stark contrast to, for instance, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth who have made peace with capitalism. Fromm never did, and his theory of the socialized person explains why compromise leads to authoritarian populism.

Maccoby and McLaughlin point out that whereas Bourdieu sought to establish himself in academic sociology, Fromm wrote for a popular audience; thus, Bourdieu’s work has received much attention for its contributions, while Fromm’s has not. Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus,” in short, points to underlying dispositions in a society that lead people to act in certain ways that have particular ends not consciously aimed at. Yet, its lack of explicit psychoanalytic theory makes it incapable of explaining why agents develop self-destructive traits. In contrast, Fromm’s notion of social character shows how objective social structures and psychological structures work together to produce common ways in which agents act in a society, including those that can be self-destructive. Combining habitus and social character, Maccoby and McLaughlin suggests, can open up paths for understanding the rise of, say, Trumpism.

Part III, Authoritarianism, Fascism, and the Contested Future, includes David Norman Smith’s “Anti-Authoritarian Marxism: Erich Fromm, Hilde Weiss, and the Politics of Radical Humanism,” Charles Thorpe’s “Escape from Reflexivity: Fromm and Giddens on Individualism, Anxiety, and Authoritarianism,” and Lauren Langman and George Lundskow’s “Social Character, Social Change, and the Social Future.”

According to Thorpe, Giddens believes the ontological anxiety of modernity results from the failure of modernity to allow the integration of religion and the sacred with our everyday activities. Giddens proposes a “Third Way” in which agents could pursue life politics in a world emerging from the militarism of the cold war. Yet, according to Thorpe, Giddens Third Way does not account for the way that globalized capitalism impedes on our everyday activities. Fromm, in contrast, recognizes that “the self-realization of individuals requires purposeful activity and in a completely interdependent modern society that can only be achieved through participatory democratic planning” (185). Fromm saw that agents need more than the negative freedom of modern society.

Langman and Lundskow use Fromm’s theory of the social character to understand our present historical moment and articulate a politics for the future. Fromm’s idea of social character views motivations, not as biologically, but as socially based, sees social character as historical and malleable, and understands that character is dynamic, able to change with social conditions in life. The future world depends, then, on the conflict between social movements and reactionary authoritarianism. The reason that the authoritarian personality seems dominant right now is that it is an adaptive mechanism that helps people survive under capitalism. Langman and Lundskow offer a set of premises for a sane society to achieve. Refraining from making concrete proposals for change, they believe that Fromm’s social types and understanding of life politics can helps us built a better society.

Braune’s conclusion defends Fromm as necessary for critical theory today. “Combatting fascism requires a return to the philosophical (existential) problem of the relationship between the individual and society” (220). Understanding agents individually limits the possibilities for fighting fascism. Instead, Fromm insists that we have a “deep human need to know the other, to uncover the ‘secret’ of what it means to be human” (222). Hope is neither deterministic or voluntarist. Rather, the radical hope we must bear is one that requires us to commit to reality and to building democratic communities.

The collection suffers a few minor problems. Durkin writes that “Fromm’s is a particular kind of critical theory: one that takes praxis, and its organic connection to social transformation, seriously, as opposed to rendering it opaque, if not wholly sundered, as is characteristic of certain other forms of critical theory … does not elicit an occult of subjectivity but clearly calls for individual development that leads out into structural changes as part of one and the same motion” (8). None of the essays address these particular features of critical theory. Further, situating Fromm in light of the Frankfurt School, the essays leave one wondering to what extent these features describe that version of critical theory. Nor do these essays address what might be the core of critical theory: viz., the pathologies of reason (Honneth 2009). Second, these essays provide positive evaluations of Fromm’s thought, yet none offer any substantive criticism of Fromm’s work. This collection convinces one that Fromm’s work is necessary for social critique, understanding our present moment, and pointing to possibilities for the future. Understanding his weaknesses, however, rather than making Fromm’s theory less valuable, would help critical theorists in determining how to approach future work. Third, the book is already dated. The book was published in 2020 at the height of Trump’s attempt to steal re-election, and some attention to Trump is warranted. Yet, attention should also have been given to Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro. More importantly, by looking so hard at Trump, the authors missed an opportunity to think about these movements beyond and outside of Trump.

The most significant issue of the book is that various authors refer to Darwin or to climate change, but none of the essays provide a careful analysis of how Fromm can help us to address, or even solve, that which is most likely to end human existence. Further, the few comments on Fromm’s notion of nature are problematic. Langman and Lundskow write that “people must transcend nature through creation rather than destruction, to live sustainably within natural limits” (208). What does it mean to, at one and the same time, transcend nature and live within natural limits? Understanding this dictum is important for understanding where “desires” fit into Fromm’s analysis. While recognizing that desires are socially shaped, one can wonder to what extent, if any, these desires are natural. If, as Thorpe insists, Fromm believed that we receive meaning from the sacredness of birth and death, we need to understand whether this sacredness is something of nature or different and to what extent birth and death are either or both. This question is important for understanding Fromm’s analysis of alienation. As Thorpe shows, Fromm thinks that human beings are freaks of nature because we are both part of and separate from the natural world. What does it mean to be separate from the natural world? What understanding of “natural world” underwrites these claims?

Despite these shortcomings, this collection rightfully defends the need for further study of Fromm for building a progressive critical theory and politics. The discussion of religion and the concept of social character are most valuable. The former opens up possibilities for alliances between religious groups and non-religious ones. It returns us to questions about the need human beings have for “religion” or spirit. One would like an essay here comparing Fromm’s analysis to Horkheimer’s discussion of nature and spirit in Eclipse of Reason. Understanding spirit and nature is necessary for analyzing how social structures under capitalism divorce spirit from the natural world, compartmentalizing spiritual needs from work and social life. To change the world for the better, we must be able to articulate what place spirit has in that world, how it functions to shore up our tendencies for freedom, and where institutionalized or orthodox religion might detract from those tendencies.

As evidenced by its presence in the text, Fromm’s notion of social character deserves greater attention. A driving question for left politics is why the revolution has not yet occurred. What happened to the radical possibilities of the 1960s? Why has the Arab Spring failed? Why do people demand a return to normal after the pandemic when so many expressed a thankfulness for time to be with family during the lockdown? No one has been able to provide an adequate account for the way that agents seem to choose destruction rather than life. Here, a fuller exploration of Fromm’s study of the Mexican village would have been warranted. Even with that, however, we need to commit to understanding social character, updating it to include “race,” sex, gender, as well as religion. The important part is to recognize the interweaving of objective social structures and psychological structures in relation to instinctual drives so as to educate ourselves how our decision-making can be deformed by anxiety or can lead to collective decision-making where we freely direct our future. No better study is warranted in this particular time of crises.

10 August 2021


  • Honneth, Axel 2009 Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press

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