Eric Fromm

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Eric Fromm

Lawrence Friedman writes: "Fromm’s reputation has taken a decided turn downward among American intellectuals and scholars on the left. This came after Herbert Marcuse (1955) charged that by rejecting Freud on the primacy of libidinal drives and the centrality of the Oedipus Complex, Fromm had emptied psychoanalysis of its critical and radical content. For Marcuse, Fromm had become not a radical Marxian-Freudian, as he characterized himself, but a proponent of liberal reformist accommodation to basic capitalist social and political institutions and values. Coming from a respected European socialist intellectual and who pioneered in Critical Theory, Marcuse’s charge not only diminished Fromm’s American following. With the increasingly global marketplace for ideas, it hardly enhanced his reputation within the European Left or even among Latin American socialists. To be sure, scholars like Lawrence Wilde (2004) and John Rickert (1986) offered what has become a stock rebuttal in America and Europe -- that Fromm’s humanist vision was quite radical and hardly conformist accommodationism. Fromm was not calling for palliatives or social adjustments, they noted. Rather, he always insisted that social structures had to be altered fundamentally if the individual’s full potential for productivity and happiness was to be realized. Indeed, Finnish historian Petteri Pietikainen goes further, characterizing Fromm’s humanist vision of a “sane society” as socialist utopianism on the order of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1960).

"This stock rebuttal may sit well with certain enthusiastic suporters of Fromm’s prophetic “radical humanism.” But it is shallow and distortive. Indeed, Fromm’s longtime friend and analysand, David Riesman, felt that the rebuttal belittled the complexity of the man he knew so well. With increasing success, Riesman advised me years ago, Fromm meshed or integrated his prophet-like humanist visions with a hard-headed realism. As his biographer who has discerned a new way to access Fromm’s personal side, I must agree. Even as he wrote The Sane Society (1955) and The Revolution of Hope (1968), Fromm recognized that the odds were long against achieving a fully humanistic society that allowed its citizens to realize their complete productive potentials. Indeed, Fromm knew that in his lifetime, at least, his crusade for humanistic changes would yield mixed results at best. Thus, given ideological and psychological constraints that were bound to persist, most people would have to settle for a less than entirely happy and productive existence. Consequently, Riesman privately urged Fromm after the Marcuse attack to state quite explicitly what his books did not always make entirely clear -- that he was a radical in his basic humanist vision, but that he was a persistent champion of very concrete and achievable mid-twentieth century liberal reforms–- enhanced social welfare, expanded civil rights and civil liberties, strong trade unionism, specific workforce measures to diminish alienation, and pragmatic (perhaps halfway) steps to avert nuclear war. In his advocacy of these programs that could be effected without fundamental structural change, Fromm developed close friendships with and strongly influenced a number of important liberal reformist activists in the United States, Latin America, and Europe – perhaps most notably J. William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, Paulo Freire, Danilo Dolci, and Bertrand Russell. That is, Fromm worked for much of their “liberal tradition” of ameliorative accommodation within capitalist structures. He saw liberal reform measures as important in themselves as well as potential steps toward his more radical vision of a humanist and essentially democratic socialist order that continues to elude us." [1]

For further resources see


  • Herbert Marcuse, “The Social Implications of Freudian ‘Revisionism’,” in: Dissent, Vol. II (No. 3, Summer) 1955, pp. 221-240.


  • John Rickert, 1986: „The Fromm-Marcuse debate revisited,“ in: Theory and Society, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Vol. 15 (1986), pp. 351-400.
  • Lawrence Wilde, Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).


  • Hausdorff, D., Erich Fromm (Twayne Publishers, 1972).

Burston, D., The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991).

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. Lawrence Friedman, Recovering Erich Fromm’s Life: Some Dilemmas and Preliminary Solutions, Lecture presented at the International Conference about “Productive Orientation and Mental Health” on the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the International Erich Fromm Society, that took place October 29th to November 1 st, 2005, in the Centro Evangelico in Magliaso near Lugano, pp.8-9.