Erich Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt, Germany. His father was a
business man and, according to Erich, rather moody. His mother was
frequently depressed. In other words, like quite a few of the people we've
looked at, his childhood wasn't very happy.
Like Jung, Erich came from a very religious family, in his case orthodox Jews.
Fromm himself later became what he called an atheistic mystic.
In his autobiography, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Fromm talks about two
events in his early adolescence that started him along his path. The ﬁrst
involved a friend of the family's:
Maybe she was 25 years of age; she was beautiful, attractive, and in
addition a painter, the ﬁrst painter I ever knew. I remember having heard
that she had been engaged but after some time had broken the
engagement; I remember that she was almost invariably in the company
of her widowed father. As I remember him, he was an old, uninteresting,
and rather unattractive man, or so I thought (maybe my judgment was
somewhat biased by jealousy). Then one day I heard the shocking news:
her father had died, and immediately afterwards, she had killed herself
and left a will which stipulated that she wanted to be buried with her
father. (p. 4)
As you can imagine, this news hit the 12 year old Erich hard, and he found
himself asking what many of us might ask: why? Later, he began ﬁnding some
answers -- partial ones, admittedly -- in Freud.
The second event was even larger: World War I. At the tender age of 14, he saw
the extremes that nationalism could go to. All around him, he heard the
Germans) are great; They (the English and their allies) are
cheap mercenaries. The hatred, the "war hysteria,"
frightened him, as well it should.
So again he wanted to understand something irrational -- the
irrationality of mass behavior -- and he found some answers, this time in the
writings of Karl Marx.
To ﬁnish Fromm's story, he received his PhD from Heidelberg in 1922 and
began a career as a psychotherapist. He moved to the U.S. in 1934 -- a popular
time for leaving Germany! -- and settled in New York City, where he met many
of the other great refugee thinkers that gathered there, including Karen
Horney, with whom he had an affair.
Toward the end of his career, he moved to Mexico City to teach. He had done
considerable research into the relationship between economic class and
personality types there. He died in 1980 in Switzerland.
As his biography suggests, Fromm's theory is a rather unique blend of Freud
and Marx. Freud, of course, emphasized the unconscious, biological drives,
repression, and so on. In other words, Freud postulated that our characters
were determined by biology. Marx, on the other hand, saw people as
determined by their society, and most especially by their economic systems.
He added to this mix of two deterministic systems something quite foreign to
them: The idea of freedom. He allows people to transcend the determinisms
that Freud and Marx attribute to them. In fact, Fromm makes freedom the
central characteristic of human nature!
There are, Fromm points out, examples where determinism alone operates. A
good example of nearly pure biological determinism, ala Freud, is animals (at
least simple ones). Animals don't worry about freedom -- their instincts take
care of everything. Woodchucks, for example, don't need career counseling to
decide what they are going to be when they grow up: They are going to be
society of the Middle Ages. Just like woodchucks, few people in the Middle Ages
needed career counseling: They had fate, the Great Chain of Being, to tell them
what to do. Basically, if your father was a peasant, you'd be a peasant. If your
father was a king, that's what you'd become. And if you were a woman, well,
there was only one role for women.
Today, we might look at life in the Middle Ages, or life as an animal, and cringe.
But the fact is that the lack of freedom represented by biological or social
determinism is easy. Your life has structure, meaning, there are no doubts, no
cause for soul-searching, you ﬁt in and never suffered an identity crisis.
Historically speaking, this simple, if hard, life began to get shaken up with the
Renaissance. In the Renaissance, people started to see humanity as the center
of the universe, instead of God. In other words, we didn't just look to the church
(and other traditional establishments) for the path we were to take. Then came
the Reformation, which introduced the idea of each of us being individually
responsible for our own soul's salvation. And then came democratic
revolutions such as the American and the French revolutions. Now all of a
sudden we were supposed to govern ourselves! And then came the industrial
revolution, and instead of tilling the soil or making things with our hands, we
had to sell our labor in exchange for money. All of a sudden, we became
employees and consumers! Then came socialist revolutions such as the Russian
and the Chinese, which introduced the idea of participatory economics. You
were no longer responsible only for your own well-being, but for fellow
workers as well!
So, over a mere 500 years, the idea of the individual, with individual thoughts,
feelings, moral conscience, freedom, and responsibility, came into being. but
with individuality came isolation, alienation, and bewilderment. Freedom is a
diﬃcult thing to have, and when we can we tend to ﬂee from it.
Fromm describes three ways in which we escape from freedom:
1. Authoritarianism. We seek to avoid freedom by fusing ourselves with
others, by becoming a part of an authoritarian system like the society of the
Middle Ages. There are two ways to approach this. One is to submit to the
power of others, becoming passive and compliant. The other is to become an
authority yourself, a person who applies structure to others. Either way, you
escape your separate identity.
that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist, is not free
to choose his actions. But milder versions of authoritarianism are everywhere.
In many classes, for example, there is an implicit contract between students
and professors: Students demand structure, and the professor sticks to his
notes. It seems innocuous and even natural, but this way the students avoid
taking any responsibility for their learning, and the professor can avoid taking
on the real issues of his ﬁeld.
2. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by, in a
sense, eliminating themselves: If there is no me, how can anything hurt me?
But others respond to pain by striking out against the world: If I destroy the
world, how can it hurt me? It is this escape from freedom that accounts for
much of the indiscriminate nastiness of life -- brutality, vandalism, humiliation,
vandalism, crime, terrorism....
Fromm adds that, if a person's desire to destroy is blocked by circumstances, he
or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of self-destructiveness is,
of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses, drug addiction,
alcoholism, even the joys of passive entertainment. He turns Freud's death
instinct upside down: Self-destructiveness is frustrated destructiveness, not the
other way around.
3. Automaton conformity. Authoritarians escape by hiding within an
authoritarian hierarchy. But our society emphasizes equality! There is less
hierarchy to hide in (though plenty remains for anyone who wants it, and some
who don't). When we need to hide, we hide in our mass culture instead. When I
get dressed in the morning, there are so many decisions! But I only need to look
at what you are wearing, and my frustrations disappear. Or I can look at the
television, which, like a horoscope, will tell me quickly and effectively what to
do. If I look like, talk like, think like, feel like... everyone else in my society, then
I disappear into the crowd, and I don't need to acknowledge my freedom or
take responsibility. It is the horizontal counterpart to authoritarianism.
The person who uses automaton conformity is like a social chameleon: He
takes on the coloring of his surroundings. Since he looks like a million other
people, he no longer feels alone. He isn't alone, perhaps, but he's not himself
either. The automaton conformist experiences a split between his genuine
In fact, since humanity's "true nature" is freedom, any of these escapes from
freedom alienates us from ourselves. Here's what Fromm had to say:
Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet
transcending it. He has to ﬁnd principles of action and decision making
which replace the principles of instincts. he has to have a frame of
orientation which permits him to organize a consistent picture of the
world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to ﬁght not only against
the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another
anger which is speciﬁcally human: that of becoming insane. In other
words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his
life but also against the danger of losing his mind. (Fromm, 1968, p. 61)
I should add here that freedom is in fact a complex idea, and that Fromm is
talking about "true" personal freedom, rather than just political freedom (often
called liberty): Most of us, whether they are free or not, tend to like the idea of
political freedom, because it means that we can do what we want. A good
example is the sexual sadist (or masochist) who has a psychological problem
that drives his behavior. He is not free in the personal sense, but he will
welcome the politically free society that says that what consenting adults do
among themselves is not the state's business! Another example involves most
of us today: We may well ﬁght for freedom (of the political sort), and yet when
we have it, we tend to be conformist and often rather irresponsible. We have
the vote, but we fail to use it! Fromm is very much for political freedom -- but
he is especially eager that we make use of that freedom and take the
responsibility that goes with it.
Which of the escapes from freedom you tend to use has a great deal to do with
what kind of family you grew up in. Fromm outlines two kinds of unproductive
1. Symbiotic families. Symbiosis is the relationship two organisms have who
cannot live without each other. In a symbiotic family, some members of the
family are "swallowed up" by other members, so that they do not fully develop
personalities of their own. The more obvious example is the case where the
of the parent's wishes. In many traditional societies, this is the case with many
children, especially girls.
The other example is the case where the child "swallows" the parent. In this
case, the child dominates or manipulates the parent, who exists essentially to
serve the child. If this sounds odd, let me assure you it is common, especially in
traditional societies, especially in the relationship between a boy and his
mother. Within the context of the particular culture, it is even necessary: How
else does a boy learn the art of authority he will need to survive as an adult?
In reality, nearly everyone in a traditional society learns both how to dominate
and how to be submissive, since nearly everyone has someone above them and
below them in the social hierarchy. Obviously, the authoritarian escape from
freedom is built-in to such a society. But note that, for all that it may offend our
modern standards of equality, this is the way people lived for thousands of
years. It is a very stable social system, it allows for a great deal of love and
friendship, and billions of people live in it still.
2. Withdrawing families. In fact, the main alternative is most notable for its
cool indifference, if not cold hatefulness. Although withdrawal as a family style
has always been around, it has come to dominate some societies only in the last
few hundred years, that is, since the bourgeoisie -- the merchant class -- arrive
on the scene in force.
The "cold" version is the older of the two, found in northern Europe and parts
of Asia, and wherever merchants are a formidable class. Parents are very
demanding of their children, who are expected to live up to high, well-deﬁned
standards. Punishment is not a matter of a slap upside the head in full anger
and in the middle of dinner; it is instead a formal affair, a full-ﬂedged ritual,
possibly involving cutting switches and meeting in the woodshed. Punishment
is cold-blooded, done "for your own good." Alternatively, a culture may use
guilt and withdrawal of affection as punishment. Either way, children in these
cultures become rather strongly driven to succeed in whatever their culture
deﬁnes as success.
This puritanical style of family encourages the destructive escape from
freedom, which is internalized until circumstances (such as war) allow its
release. I might add that this kind of family more immediately encourages
perfectionism -- living by the rules -- which is also a way of avoiding freedom
destructiveness is inevitable.
The second withdrawing kind of family is the modern family, found in the most
advanced parts of the world, most notably the USA. Changes in attitudes about
child rearing have lead many people to shudder at the use of physical
punishment and guilt in raising children. The newer idea is to raise your
children as your equals. A father should be a boy's best buddy; a mother should
be a daughter's soul mate. But, in the process of controlling their emotions, the
parents become coolly indifferent. They are, in fact, no longer really parents,
just cohabitants with their children. The children, now without any real adult
guidance, turn to their peers and to the media for their values. This is the
modern, shallow, television family!
The escape from freedom is particularly obvious here: It is automaton
conformity. Although this is still very much a minority family in the world
(except, of course, on TV!), this is the one Fromm worries about the most. It
seems to portent the future.
What makes up a good, healthy, productive family? Fromm suggests it is a
family where parents take the responsibility to teach their children reason in
an atmosphere of love. Growing up in this sort of family, children learn to
acknowledge their freedom and to take responsibility for themselves, and
ultimately for society as a whole.
The social unconscious
But our families mostly just reﬂect our society and culture. Fromm emphasizes
that we soak up our society with our mother's milk. It is so close to us that we
usually forget that our society is just one of an inﬁnite number of ways of
dealing with the issues of life. We often think that our way of doing things is the
only way, the natural way. We have learned so well that it has all become
unconscious -- the social unconscious, to be precise. So, many times we believe
that we are acting according to our own free will, but we are only following
orders we are so used to we no longer notice them.
Fromm believes that our social unconscious is best understood by examining
our economic systems. In fact, he deﬁnes, and even names, ﬁve personality
types, which he calls orientations, in economic terms! If you like, you can take
Click here to see it!
1. The receptive orientation. These are people who expect to get what they
need. if they don't get it immediately, they wait for it. They believe that all
goods and satisfactions come from outside themselves. This type is most
common among peasant populations. It is also found in cultures that have
particularly abundant natural resources, so that one need not work hard for
one's sustenance (although nature may also suddenly withdraw its bounty!). it
is also found at the very bottom of any society: Slaves, serfs, welfare families,
migrant workers... all are at the mercy of others.
This orientation is associated with symbiotic families, especially where
children are "swallowed" by parents, and with the masochistic (passive) form
of authoritarianism. It is similar to Freud's oral passive, Adler's leaning-getting,
and Horney's compliant personality. In its extreme form, it can be
characterized by adjectives such as submissive and wishful. In a more
moderate form, adjectives such as accepting and optimistic are more
2. The exploitative orientation. These people expect to have to take what they
need. In fact, things increase in value to the extent that they are taken from
others: Wealth is preferably stolen, ideas plagiarized, love achieved by
coercion. This type is prevalent among history's aristocracies, and in the upper
classes of colonial empires. Think of the English in India for example: Their
position was based entirely on their power to take from the indigenous
population. Among their characteristic qualities is the ability to be comfortable
ordering others around! We can also see it in pastoral barbarians and
populations who rely on raiding (such as the Vikings).
The exploitative orientation is associated with the "swallowing" side of the
symbiotic family, and with the masochistic style of authoritarianism. They are
Freud's oral aggressive, Adler's ruling-dominant, and Horney's aggressive
types. In extremes, they are aggressive, conceited, and seducing. Mixed with
healthier qualities, they are assertive, proud, captivating.
3. The hoarding orientation. hoarding people expect to keep. They see the
world as possessions and potential possessions. Even loved ones are things to
possess, to keep, or to buy. Fromm, drawing on Karl Marx, relates this type to
the bourgeoisie, the merchant middle class, as well as richer peasants and
such groups as our own Puritans.
Hoarding is associated with the cold form of withdrawing family, and with
destructiveness. I might add that there is a clear connection with perfectionism
as well. Freud would call it the anal retentive type, Adler (to some extent) the
avoiding type, and Horney (a little more clearly) the withdrawing type. In its
pure form, it means you are stubborn, stingy, and unimaginative. If you are a
milder version of hoarding, you might be steadfast, economical, and practical.
4. The marketing orientation. The marketing orientation expects to sell.
Success is a matter of how well I can sell myself, package myself, advertise
myself. My family, my schooling, my jobs, my clothes -- all are an
advertisement, and must be "right." Even love is thought of as a transaction.
Only the marketing orientation thinks up the marriage contract, wherein we
agree that I shall provide such and such, and you in return shall provide this
and that. If one of us fails to hold up our end of the arrangement, the marriage
is null and void -- no hard feelings (perhaps we can still be best of friends!)
This, according to Fromm, is the orientation of the modern industrial society.
This is our orientation!
This modern type comes out of the cool withdrawing family, and tend to use
automaton conformity as its escape from freedom. Adler and Horney don't
have an equivalent, but Freud might: This is at least half of the vague phallic
personality, the type that lives life as ﬂirtation. In extreme, the marketing
person is opportunistic, childish, tactless. Less extreme, and he or she is
purposeful, youthful, social. Notice today's values as expressed to us by our
mass media: Fashion, ﬁtness, eternal youth, adventure, daring, novelty,
sexuality... these are the concerns of the "yuppie," and his or her less-wealthy
admirers. The surface is everything! Let's go bungee-jumping!
5. The productive orientation. There is a healthy personality as well, which
Fromm occasionally refers to as the person without a mask. This is the person
who, without disavowing his or her biological and social nature, nevertheless
does not shirk away from freedom and responsibility. This person comes out of
a family that loves without overwhelming the individual, that prefers reason to
rules, and freedom to conformity.
The society that gives rise to the productive type (on more than a chance basis)
doesn't exist yet, according to Fromm. He does, of course, have some ideas
That's quite a mouthful, and made up of words that aren't exactly popular in
the USA, but let me explain: Humanistic means oriented towards human
beings, and not towards some higher entity -- not the all-powerful State nor
someone's conception of God. Communitarian means composed of small
communities (Gemeinschaften, in German), as opposed to big government or
corporations. Socialism means everyone is responsible for the welfare of
everyone else. Thus understood, it's hard to argue with Fromm's idealism!
Fromm says that the ﬁrst four orientations (which others might call neurotic)
are living in the having mode. They focus on consuming, obtaining,
possessing.... They are deﬁned by what they have. Fromm says that "I have it"
tends to become "it has me," and we become driven by our possessions! The
productive orientation , on the other hand, lives in the being mode. What you
are is deﬁned by your actions in this world. You live without a mask,
experiencing life, relating to people, being yourself.
He says that most people, being so used to the having mode, use the word have
to describe their problems: "Doctor, I have a problem: I have insomnia.
Although I have a beautiful home, wonderful children, and a happy marriage, I
have many worries." He is looking to the therapist to remove the bad things,
and let him keep the good ones, a little like asking a surgeon to take out your
gall bladder. What you should be saying is more like "I am troubled. I am
happily married, yet I cannot sleep...." By saying you have a problem, you are
avoiding facing the fact that you are the problem -- i.e. you avoid, once again,
taking responsibility for your life.
Perfectionist to destructive
Freedom and responsibility
acknowledged and accepted
Fromm was always interested in trying to understand the really evil people of
this world -- not just one's who were confused or mislead or stupid or sick, but
the one's who, with full consciousness of the evil of their acts, performed them
anyway: Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and so on, large and small.
All the orientations we've talked about, productive and non-productive, in the
having mode or the being mode, have one thing in common: They are all
efforts at life. Like Horney, Fromm believed that even the most miserable
neurotic is at the least trying to cope with life. They are, to use his word,
But there is another type of person he calls necrophilous -- the lovers of death.
They have the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it
is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to
destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely
mechanical. It is the passion "to tear apart living structures."
If you think back to high school, you may remember a few misﬁts: They were
real horror movie aﬁcionados. They may have made models of torture devices
and guillotines. They loved to play war games. They liked to blow things up
with their chemistry sets. They got a kick out of torturing small animals. They
treasured their guns. They were really into mechanical devices. The more
sophisticated the technology, the happier they were. Beavis and Butthead are
modeled after these kids.
I remember watching an interview on TV once, back during the little war in
Nicaragua. There were plenty of American mercenaries among the Contras,
and one in particular had caught the reporters eye. He was a munitions expert -
- someone who blew up bridges, buildings, and, of course, the occasional
enemy soldier. When asked how he got into this line of work, he smiled and
told the reporter that he might not like the story. You see, when he was a kid, he
liked to put ﬁrecrackers up the backside of little birds he had caught, light the
fuses, let them go, and watch them blow up. This man was a necrophiliac.
Fromm makes a few guesses as to how such a person happens. He suggested
that there may be some genetic ﬂaw that prevents them from feeling or
responding to affection. It may also be a matter of a life so full of frustration
that it may be a matter of growing up with a necrophilous mother, so that the
child has no one to learn love from. It is very possible that some combination of
these factors is at work. And yet there is still the idea that these people know
what they are doing, are conscious of their evil, and choose it. It is a subject
that would bear more study!
Erich Fromm, like many others, believed that we have needs that go far beyond
the basic, physiological ones that some people, like Freud and many
behaviorists, think explain all of our behavior. He calls these human needs, in
contrast to the more basic animal needs. And he suggests that the human
needs can be expressed in one simple statement: The human being needs to
Fromm says that helping us to answer this question is perhaps the major
purpose of culture. In a way, he says, all cultures are like religions, trying to
explain the meaning of life. Some, of course, do so better than others.
A more negative way of expressing this need is to say that we need to avoid
insanity, and he deﬁnes neurosis as an effort to satisfy the need for answers
that doesn't work for us. He says that every neurosis is a sort of private
religion, one we turn to when our culture no longer satisﬁes.
He lists ﬁve human needs:
to overcome it. Fromm calls this our need for relatedness, and views it as love
in the broadest sense. Love, he says, "is union with somebody, or something,
outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity
of one's own self." (p 37 of The Sane Society). It allows us to transcend our
separateness without denying us our uniqueness.
The need is so powerful that sometimes we seek it in unhealthy ways. For
example, some seek to eliminate their isolation by submitting themselves to
another person, to a group, or to their conception of a God. Others look to
eliminate their isolation by dominating others. Either way, these are not
satisfying: Your separateness is not overcome.
Another way some attempt to overcome this need is by denying it. The
opposite of relatedness is what Fromm calls narcissism. Narcissism -- the love
of self -- is natural in infants, in that they don't perceive themselves as separate
from the world and others to begin with. But in adults, it is a source of
pathology. Like the schizophrenic, the narcissist has only one reality: the
world of his own thoughts, feelings, and needs. His world becomes what he
wants it to be, and he loses contact with reality.
Fromm believes that we all desire to overcome, to transcend, another fact of
our being: Our sense of being passive creatures. We want to be creators.
There are many ways to be creative: We give birth, we plant seeds, we make
pots, we paint pictures, we write books, we love each other. Creativity is, in
fact, an expression of love
Unfortunately, some don't ﬁnd an avenue for creativity. Frustrated, they
attempt to transcend their passivity by becoming destroyers instead.
Destroying puts me "above" the things -- or people -- I destroy. It makes me feel
powerful. We can hate as well as love. But in the end, it fails to bring us that
sense of transcendence we need.
We also need roots. We need to feel at home in the universe, even though, as
The simplest version is to maintain our ties to our mothers. But to grow up
means we have to leave the warmth of our mothers' love. To stay would be
what Fromm calls a kind of psychological incest. In order to manage in the
diﬃcult world of adulthood, we need to ﬁnd new, boader roots. We need to
discover our brotherhood (and sisterhood) with humanity.
This, too has its pathological side: For example, the schhizophrenic tries to
retreat into a womb-like existence, one where, you might say, the umbilical
cord has never been cut. There is also the neurotic who is afraid to leave his
home, even to get the mail. And there's the fanatic who sees his tribe, his
country, his church... as the only good one, the only real one. Everyone else is a
dangerous outsider, to be avoided or even destroyed.
"Man may be deﬁned as the animal that can say 'I.'" (p 62 of The Sane Society)
Fromm believes that we need to have a sense of identity, of individuality, in
order to stay sane.
This need is so powerful that we are sometimes driven to ﬁnd it, for example
by doing anything for signs of status, or by trying desperately to conform. We
sometimes will even give up our lives in order to remain a part of our group.
But this is only pretend identity, an identity we take from others, instead of one
we develop ourselves, and it fails to satisfy our need.
5. A frame of orientation
Finally, we need to understand the world and our place in it. Again, our society
-- and especially the religious aspects of our culture -- often attempts to provide
us with this understanding. Things like our myths, our philosophies, and our
sciences provide us with structure.
Fromm says this is really two needs: First, we need a frame of orientation --
almost anything will do. Even a bad one is better than none! And so people are
generally quite gullible. We want to believe, sometimes even desperately. If we
don't have an explanation handy, we will make one up, via rationalization.
is useful, accurate. This is where reason comes in. It is nice that our parents
and others provide us with explanations for the world and our lives, but if they
don't hold up, what good are they? A frame of orientation needs to be rational.
Fromm adds one more thing: He says we don't just want a cold philosophy or
material science. We want a frame of orientation that provides us with
meaning. We want understanding, but we want a warm, human
Fromm, in some ways, is a transition ﬁgure or, if you prefer, a theorist that
brings other theories together. Most signiﬁcantly for us, he draws together the
Freudian and neo-Freudian theories we have been talking about (especially
Adler's and Horney's) and the humanistic theories we will discuss later. He is,
in fact, so close to being an existentialist that it almost doesn't matter! I believe
interest in his ideas will rise as the fortune of existential psychology does.
Another aspect of his theory is fairly unique to him: his interest in the
economic and cultural roots of personality. No one before or since has put it so
directly: Your personality is to a considerable extent a reﬂection of such issues
as social class, minority status, education, vocation, religious and philosophical
background, and so forth. This has been a very under-represented view,
perhaps because of its association with Marxism. But it is, I think, inevitable
that we begin to consider it more and more, especially as a counterbalance to
the increasing inﬂuence of biological theories.
Fromm is an excellent and exciting writer. You can ﬁnd the basics of his theory
in Escape from Freedom (1941) and Man for Himself (1947). His interesting
treatise on love in the modern world is called The Art of Loving (1956). My
favorite of his books is The Sane Society (1955), which perhaps should have
been called "the insane society" because most of it is devoted to demonstrating
how crazy our world is right now, and how that leads to our psychological
diﬃculties. He has also written "the" book on aggression, The Anatomy of
has written many other great books, including ones on Christianity, Marxism,