‘The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet’ reviewed by Joan Braune

The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet

Columbia University Press, New York, 2013. 456pp., $29.95 / £19.95 hb
ISBN 9780231162586

Reviewed by Joan Braune

About the reviewer

Joan Braune is Lecturer in Philosophy at Gonzaga University and author of Erich Fromm’s …


Few twentieth century thinkers had greater influence on public opinion and socialist thought in the West than Erich Fromm (1900-1980), whose long, dynamic life of organizing encompassed founding roles in numerous influential institutions: The Free Jewish Study House in Frankfurt (which included Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Heschel, Gershom Scholem, and many other eminent scholars), the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, the International Federation of Psychoanalytic Societies (a radical alternative to Freud’s organization), and many others. Fromm spoke to audiences of thousands in the 1960s, appeared on television, wrote books that sold millions of copies, and constantly sought to reach a popular audience and to build discussion of, and a movement for, “socialist humanism.” His pioneering synthesis of Marx and Freud, his study of the early Marx, his theoretical accounts of hope and love as qualities of the true revolutionary, and his dialogues with disparate religious and cultural traditions, forge a legacy of emancipatory thought that cannot be ignored.

In light of the importance of Erich Fromm’s work, one can appreciate why a new biography—in fact, the first full-length English-language biography of Fromm—has just been published. The text proceeds chronologically, covering all periods of Fromm’s life, from his younger years in Germany, to his exile in the United States and Mexico, to his return to Europe at the end of his life. Lawrence Friedman presents various facts about Fromm’s life not previously available. It is a useful book in numerous ways.

However, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet is intensely hostile towards Fromm. In desperation to resurrect Fromm’s reputation—a sense of desperation that frankly is no longer warranted, since much recent work has begun to challenge Fromm’s erasure—some Fromm scholars have eagerly touted this book, failing to acknowledge what should be obvious: the book’s opposition to Fromm. Consequently, although the biography contributes to the scholarship on Fromm’s life, there is great need for a review focusing on its weaknesses, which result from certain limitations in perspective. It is important to discuss what some reviewers and commentators have not noted or have glossed over: 1) Friedman is not a philosopher or Critical Theorist, 2) he is not a leftist, and most importantly, 3) he does not like Fromm very much. Each of these aspects of the author is closely related to the limitations of the text.

Firstly, Friedman is not a trained philosopher or a Critical Theorist, as is clear when Friedman traces Fromm’s interest in contradictions (“binaries”) and paradoxical logic to Fromm’s friend Zen master D.T. Suzuki, without mentioning Hegel or Marx (xxxii). A lack of understanding of the role of dialectics and contradiction in Fromm’s thought also is evidenced in Friedman’s simplistic interpretation of Fromm’s early essay on J.J. Bachofen’s theory of “Mother Right.” Fromm’s essay explored why leftists like Friedrich Engels and proto-fascists like Ludwig Klages could both find Bachofen’s thought so compelling. Fromm analyzed the contradictions in Bachofen’s thought, discussing Bachofen’s position as a nostalgic aristocrat while old feudal formations were being swept away. In Friedman’s words, contradictions in Bachofen’s thought “made [Bachofen] human, Fromm perhaps rationalized—a creature of his time and place” (48). The statement that Bachofen’s contradictions just “made him human” exemplifies Friedman’s often superficial reading of Fromm’s writings. Friedman does not mention that Fromm’s early essay was a critique of capitalism, which concluded that Bachofen’s reactionary proponents could not understand him because they did not understand the contradictions of capitalism. Friedman offers a similarly superficial reading of Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, asserting that an “unsubstantiated” claim of the book was that “Marx’s later and systematized writings reveal considerably less about the human condition” (223). The claim seems “unsubstantiated” because it is taken out of context; the thesis of Marx’s Concept of Man is the roughly opposite: that Marx’s early writings on alienation reflected an ongoing humanistic commitment found in Marx’s later works.

Friedman does little to situate Fromm in the context of Critical Theory debates and conflicts with Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, or Walter Benjamin. When he does address Fromm’s role in the Frankfurt School, Friedman does not challenge the standard narrative that until recently rendered Fromm almost a “forgotten intellectual.” He mentions Neil McLaughlin, but he does not engage McLaughlin’s compelling series of essays critiquing the “origin myth” of the Frankfurt School that initially obscured Fromm’s role in the Institute for Social Research. Friedman also offers next to no discussion of Fromm’s philosophical engagement with thinkers such as Spinoza and Aristotle. (On Fromm as Aristotelian, see Lawrence Wilde’s excellent book, Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity.) Friedman finds Fromm’s commitment to “humanism” not only suspect—too much “universalism”—but vague and confused (116). If Friedman were better versed in the philosophical traditions Fromm cites and employs as sources of his humanism (including a range of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, German idealists, and Marx), he might find the category less arbitrary. Such engagement is required for understanding an intensely interdisciplinary thinker like Fromm.

Secondly, Friedman is a liberal, not a leftist. Noting this fact is not an ad hominem polemic, but is necessary for understanding the text. At times Friedman’s lack of knowledge of socialist politics and left history results in minor mistakes, as for example when he classifies Raya Dunayevskaya as a “Trotskyite scholar” (197). However, Friedman’s liberal paradigm poses deeper difficulties. He is critical of, or frightened by, Fromm’s Marxism, and whenever he seeks to present Fromm’s political engagement in a positive light, he tries his best to make Fromm seem like a liberal. He is far more fascinated by Fromm’s influence in circles of power and prestige than his influence on the masses. The fact that millions of copies of Fromm’s 1960s works were sold while not being taken up by the halls of the academy, he takes as a sign of the inadequacy of Fromm’s ideas, and he almost pities Fromm’s 1960s followers who embraced Fromm’s “repetitive,” insufficiently “nuanced” works. Friedman wants a Fromm who influences things behind the scenes with “philanthropic” donations (philanthropy being another of Friedman’s areas of research) and with policy advice to those in power. To the extent that Fromm does not fit the mold of liberal policy advisor, Friedman criticizes his politics as naïve. That Fromm’s work definitely influenced the Port Huron statement is mentioned in passing, but far more excitement is devoted to speculations that Kennedy placed a call to Fromm during the Cuban Missile crisis. The fact that Fromm’s ideas were influential on Martin Luther King is not even mentioned. And when Friedman does discuss Fromm’s involvement in the left, and specifically the Socialist Party (SP-SDF), he does not know any of the historical issues and questions, and he suggests that Fromm’s Socialist Manifesto and Program was probably rejected by the Socialist Party because Fromm was not prudent enough to run it by the party leaders first. Friedman is not able to address such questions as whether Fromm should be classified as a Trotskyist in the 1920s (as claimed by Gershom Scholem), and he seems to mistakenly link Fromm to Max Shachtman (245). (Fromm was part of the emerging Debs Caucus, the faction of the Socialist Party that opposed Shachtman.)

When Friedman cannot present Fromm as a behind-the-scenes policy advisor to those in power, he psychologizes Fromm’s activism and dismisses his agitational writings as poor scholarship. Fromm’s hectic 1960s lecture circuit was “hypomanic,” and Fromm’s speech against the Vietnam War to a packed crowd of demonstrators at Madison Square Garden on a cold day while sick with the flu, was an interesting example of Fromm’s psychological tendency to undermine his physical needs (251, 265). The rallying cry for change at the conclusion of Escape from Freedom Friedman finds too “optimistic” in its “prediction” that people will recover from the temptations of authoritarianism and build a humanistic future. This “prediction” puzzles Friedman, because Escape from Freedom, if anything, provides counter-evidence to this possible future. Friedman suggests that Fromm “came to this conclusion with little support from empirical research … and even acknowledged that he was on shaky ground” (114-5).

In reality, Fromm’s assertion of the possibility of revolution, following a foreboding cautionary text, is not an empirical “prediction.” Fromm’s defense of hope is a theme in his work and not a mere product of irrationally optimistic feelings. The conclusion to Escape should be read in light of his work in the 1960s on the concept of hope (including The Revolution of Hope: Towards a Humanized Technology). For Fromm, hope is an ethical imperative, grounded not upon predictions or high probabilities of successful outcomes, but an orientation towards the world sustained as long as there is even the slightest possibility of transformation. The role of “prophets” (among whom Fromm includes Marx and Rosa Luxemburg) is to present the masses with possible “alternatives” and to call upon them to decide for revolution. The hopeful prophet rejects determinism in favor of “alternativism,” giving greater credence to the subject’s agency.

Friedman repeatedly uses the word “prophetic” as a pejorative, and the contrast between the “prophetic” and the “evidence”-based is a major theme of the biography. Friedman consistently misunderstands Fromm’s concept of the prophetic and takes the prophetic to mean making predictions, the very determinism Fromm’s concept of the prophetic challenges. Further, any time Fromm’s tone is agitational, Friedman suspects that Fromm is making “prophetic” “assertions” that he cannot defend. Thus, Friedman distinguishes between Fromm the data-gathering researcher (whom he sometimes appreciates but finds sloppy) and Fromm the wild-eyed “all-controlling prophet” (229).

Thirdly, contrary to the hopes of some, Friedman’s lengthy new biography is not an attempt to revive Fromm’s popularity or improve Fromm’s reputation among academics. Friedman defends none of Fromm’s major ideas and criticizes all of them harshly, including Fromm’s humanism, his Marxism, his interpretation of psychoanalysis, his reading of Jewish thought, and his overall strategy for social change. Sometimes Friedman’s dislike for Fromm devolves into unsubstantiated charges, such as claims that Fromm callously allowed a relative to die in the Holocaust, was responsible for a patient’s suicide, and engaged in trysts with unnamed female patients (73, 123, 127).

As a liberal scholar of psychoanalytic history whose preferred model on psychoanalytic questions is the less politically engaged Erik Erikson, Friedman evidences mild interest in the academic history of psychoanalysis but avoids any silences or intrigue in that history. (Much more could be said about Fromm’s protest against the expulsion of Jewish members from the Berlin branch of Freud’s International Psychoanalytic Association, which problematically continued operating in Berlin under Nazi rule.) Friedman’s ideals are “psychohistory” (Erikson), “philanthropy,” and “scholarly caution” (117). Anything that smells to him of revolt or non-evidence-based faith (broadly construed) meets the quick cut of the scholarly knife of suspicion: it lacks “nuance”; it is too “prophetic,” a “jeremiad” lacking “empirical evidence”; it is “problematic” and “repetitive.”

Despite the biography’s serious weaknesses, The Lives of Erich Fromm makes some contributions to the study of Fromm’s life. Foremost among these is Friedman’s discussion of Fromm’s 1940s romance with African American anthropologist, choreographer, and Civil Rights activist Katherine Dunham. (Incidentally, although Friedman does not mention it, Dunham’s memoir of her time in Haiti, Island Possessed, praises Fromm’s humanism and seems to see it as harmonizing with the Negritude movement.) Secondly, there is the sad but valuable discussion of Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, who never fully recovered from the trauma of World War II and was burdened with burying Walter Benjamin after his suicide. Discussion of both Dunham and Gurland was minimal in the only biography of Fromm previously available to English-language readers, Rainer Funk’s shorter but very informative text, Erich Fromm: An Illustrated Biography. Thirdly, Friedman conducted a considerable number of interviews for The Lives of Erich Fromm, and one hopes that he might publish some transcripts, especially of the recollections from Fromm’s Mexican psychoanalytic students and from Tom Hayden on the influence of Fromm on the Port Huron statement. Finally, Friedman’s use of letters by Fromm to Ernst Simon confirms what readers have long suspected, that Fromm conceived his You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament as an intervention into Jewish political thought and a critique of the idea of a Jewish state from within the tradition of Jewish theology and philosophy. For these among other reasons, this biography is useful and deserves appreciation, as long as all remember that the book is opposed to Fromm.

4 October 2013

One comment

  1. Thanks for this. I enjoyed the biography and very much appreciate the rigour with which it was written by Friedman according to his value system. Equally I thank you for the rigour of your contribution here which clarifies some of my ‘notes to self’ when wondering did he actually ‘get’ Fromm.

    Very much appreciated and a good intervention.

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