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  • Erich Fromm and the Public Intellectual in Recent American History:An Interview with Larry Friedman
  • Randall Stephens
Randall Stephens:

The popular psychologist and social critic Erich Fromm was once one of the most influential public intellectuals in the West. Yet many are unfamiliar with his life and work today. Could you say something about his context and significance?

Larry Friedman:

Yes, that's true. But his influence is still felt in many quarters around the globe and, as you say, he was once a major public figure.

Fromm received a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Heidelberg and was trained to be a psychoanalyst at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Fromm's approach made him a central figure in what was called the neo-Freudian movement of psychoanalysts who departed from Freud and his followers. He was linked to and a leader of many of the causes and movements of his day, from critiques of consumerism and nuclear disarmament to popular psychology and Western humanism.

Fromm is significant for a number of reasons. But, perhaps most importantly, he had a wide influence as a best-selling author. His first book, Escape from Freedom (1941), linked Nazi and authoritarian regimes with the individual's fear of freedom and autonomy. To escape from freedom was to find a greater sense of order in sado-masochism and its cycle of degrading others. Fromm's The Sane Society (1955) railed against consumerism and made the case for local face-to-face democracy. His most enduring and popular work, The Art of Loving (1956), called for the love of self as a central component in the capacity to befriend and love others. It sold a staggering 30 million copies globally and was available in airports, drug stores, you name it. In 1973 he published The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which suggested that a conflict exists in all people between necrophilia and biophilia, a rage for death and annihilation on one hand and an affirmation and love of life on the other. To complete this book, Fromm took up the study of neuroscience, physical anthropology, linguistics, and other fields far outside of his training in psychoanalysis to explain why some favored death and destruction while others preferred life and love. We might speculate that if mainline psychoanalysis had branched into other fields as Fromm had done, psychoanalysis might have escaped the doldrums of recent decades.

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Liss Goldring's photograph of Erich Fromm, 1970.

Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Erich Fromm.


Your early work focused on the 19th century, and then you moved into 20th century topics. Was that a difficult transition to make?


Not really. The books I had written on earlier periods tended to focus on the relation of psychology to ideas and culture. So, when I wrote about abolitionists, I situated them in their social psychological contexts. My first book, The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South (Prentice-Hall, 1970), explored the social psychology of white racism. Then I wrote Inventors of the Promised Land (Knopf, 1975). I was looking at the early national period and the growing divisions—sectionalism, racism, and sexism—that tore at the fabric of nationalism. I carried my interest in the relationship between psychology and culture into the 20th century.


You've moved over quite a lot of ground. You also wrote about the Menninger Clinic, a major psychoanalytically informed American mental hospital.


That's right. I did a couple of semesters of interdisciplinary work at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. That work was mainly in personality theory, and I, of course, went to see founder and distinguished psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who was about 89 at the time. We hit it off tremendously. Menninger would ask me if I'd read The Brothers Karamazov, or Moby Dick. If I had, he would then say, "well, let's read it again tonight and talk about it in the morning." I visited Menninger every few days to talk about books. One day he threw a set of keys on the table, and I said "What are those?" He replied, "They're keys to the Menninger...


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