Erich Fromm – The Escape from Freedom

The Escape from Freedom

From 1941 to 1943, Karen Horney’s American Institute for Psychoanalysis proceeded in an amicable fashion. In April 1943, yet another furor shook the psychiatric com- munity. Her institute withdrew Erich Fromm’s privilege to conduct training analyses because he lacked a medical degree, and it was feared that his presence would jeopardize plans to develop a relationship with the New York Medical College (Perry, 1982).

Some colleagues thought it unfair that Fromm should have to suffer the same kind of arbitrary expulsion that Horney herself had encountered previously. In any case, Fromm recovered quite well from this painful professional setback: He went on to become a renowned figure in the realm of personality theory.


  • To devise a theory that retains Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious but stresses the social determinants of personality, notably the influence of society and the parents, rather than instincts.

  • To dispense with Freud’s controversial (and unmeasurableconstruct of libido.

  • To correct Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature by showing that we have healthy inner potentials.

  • To warn that being human is a challenging task because, unlike lower species, our behavior is not programmed by instincts and we have to make (often difficult) choices.

  • To encourage us to make healthy choices, rather than unhealthy ones that seem easier: a loving concern for humanity rather than narcissism and selfishness, a positive and creative influence on our environment rather than destructiveness, identity and independence rather than dependence on and protection by others.


  • To show that freedom can be threatening, and that we are all too likely to adopt methods for escaping from it that harm ourselves and others.

  • To correct Freud’s belief that mental illness usually has sexual causes by showing that psycho- pathology is caused by our poorly designed society and pathogenic parenting.

  • To propose sweeping changes that will make society less pathogenic.

  • To devise improved methods of dream interpretation.


Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, in Frankfurt, Germany. He was the only child of parents he describes as very neurotic; his father was a wine merchant. Fromm’s childhood included a strong Jewish influence, but he rejected organized religion at the age of 26 because “I just didn’t want to participate in any division of the human race, whether religious or political” (Fromm, 1962b; see also Fromm, cited by Evans, 1966, p. 56).

Unlike Freud, Jung, Adler, and Horney, Fromm had no medical training. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1922, and studied at the internationally renowned Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. As with Adler, the ravages of World War I came as a profound shock and influenced Fromm toward socialism. Fromm married Frieda Reichmann in 1926, a noted psychoanalyst in her own right and the therapist of Joanne Greenberg (“Hannah Green”), author of the well-known autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The marriage ultimately ended in divorce. Fromm married Henny Garland in 1944 and, after her death, Annis Freeman in 1953.

Fromm visited the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933 as guest lecturer, and emigrated to the United States 1 year later. His first book, the landmark Escape From Freedom, appeared in 1941. Because it departed from standard Freudian theory by stressing the effect of social factors on personality, Fromm was dropped as a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (Roazen, 1973, p. 12). He also suffered the aforementioned split with Horney at about this time.

In 1945, Fromm joined the prestigious William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry. He also taught at Columbia University, Bennington College, Yale University, Michigan State University, New York University, and the New School for Social Research. Fromm maintained an active interest in social problems and political philosophy, helping to organize SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) in 1957. His published works include some volumes, many of which have proved popular with the general public.

Fromm served as professor of psychiatry at the National University in Mexico for 16 years. He died of a heart attack at his home in Muralto, Switzerland, on March 18, 1980.


Fromm’s theory emphasizes the influence of society on the formation and development of personality. His work strongly reflects the theories of Karl Marx, whom he regards as an even more profound thinker than Freud. (See for example Fromm, 1961; 1962a; 1970/1971a.)

Organic Versus Nonorganic Drives: Isolation and Contradiction

To Fromm, “man [is] an anomaly, … the freak of the universe” (1955/1976b, p. 30). Our fundamental motive is self-preservation, which we fulfill through our inborn organic (instinctual) drives: hunger, thirst, sex, and

defense through fight or flight. Yet our superior intellect sets us apart from nature and the animal kingdom. We are unique in many ways, which causes us to feel more isolated and anxious than any other species.

Unlike lower organisms, many crucial human motives consist of learned nonorganic drives. Human behavior does not follow a preordained instinctual course, for we possess such unique characteristics as self-awareness and imagination. Instead, we must struggle to ascertain the reasons for our existence and create our own place in the world. We must confront the distinctively human problems of boredom and discontentment. And we must face the threatening realization that death will deprive us of sufficient time to fulfill our potentials, so that “it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are [truly] born” (Fromm, 1955/1976b, p. 32; see also Fromm, 1964/1971b, pp. 147–148; 1968/1974b, p. 62; 1973, pp. 4–8,

72–73, 225–226; 1947/1976a, pp. 48–58, 98).

Nonorganic Drives

Since our nonorganic drives are not instinctual, we have no innate program that ensures their fulfillment. It is all too easy to opt instead for goals that are more alluring, but result in unhappiness—or even in psychopathology.

The Need for Others. Because of our painful and uniquely human feelings of isolation, and because we are woefully weak in comparison with the forces of nature, we must cooperate in order to survive.1 “Man is, primarily a social being … [and] individual psychology is fundamentally social psychology ” (Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 317–318; see also Fromm, 1976c, pp. 104–105).

The best way to secure firm roots in the world is love, which resembles the Adlerian construct of social interest. The art of loving involves caring for other people, knowing their true feelings and wishes, respecting their right to develop in their own way, and having a sense of responsibility toward humanity:

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is … an orientation of character which deter- mines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole.… If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. (Fromm, 1956/1974a, pp. 38–39. See also Fromm, 1956/1974a, pp. 18–25; 1968/1974b, pp. 81–83; 1947/1976a, pp. 104–107, 134; 1955/1976b, p. 38; 1976c, p. 103.)

Every human being has the capacity for love, but fulfilling this potential is far from easy. We begin life as wholly self-centered infants (“primary narcissism,” as in Freudian theory), and pathogenic experiences in later years can cause us to revert to this immature state (“secondary narcissism”). The resulting behavior is like that of an author who meets a friend and talks incessantly about himself, only to conclude with: “Let us now talk about you. How did you like my latest book?” (Fromm, 1964/1971b, p. 81. See also Fromm, 1964/1971b, pp. 71–116; 1973, pp. 201–202; 1947/1976a, pp. 132–137; 1955/1976b, pp. 39–41;

1980, pp. 43–54).

Primary narcissism has some value, for we would be unlikely to survive the challenges of life if we regarded ourselves as unimportant. Most of us remain at least somewhat narcissistic throughout our lives (Fromm, cited by Evans, 1966, p. 69). But perhaps the most important of all human goals is to minimize this innate tendency and relate to others with love.

TranscendenceUnlike other species, human beings are not satisfied with the role of creature. We need to transcend the animal state and exert a significant effect on our environment, and Fromm (like Adler and Horney) believes that we have an innate tendency to achieve such superiority in constructive ways. “Strivings for happiness and health … are part of the natural equipment of man.… All organisms have an inherent tendency to actualize their specific potentialities” (Fromm, 1947/1976a, pp. vii, 29; see also Fromm, 1973, pp. 235–237; 1955/1976b, pp. 41–42).

Here again, fulfilling our positive potentials is no easy task. In addition to a genetically determined impulse to preserve ourselves against threat by attacking (benign aggression), we also possess the capacity for nonorganically motivated destructiveness that serves no rational defensive purpose (malignant aggression). If normal personality development should be blocked, as for example by pathogenic parental behaviors, transcendence may be sought through malignant aggression instead of healthy creativity:

The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. (Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 207. See also Fromm, 1964/1971b, pp. 35–69; 1973; 1947/1976a, p. 218.)

IdentityLower animals have no sense of identity, but humans need to feel: “I am I” (Fromm, 1955/1976b, pp. 62–64). The growing child must learn to surrender its ties with the parents and accept its separateness from other organisms.

As with the other nonorganic drives, identity is not easily achieved. Life has many dangers, and it is tempting to seek safety by acquiring an all-powerful protector. Even the growing child’s so-called Oedipal strivings are due solely to this desire for security:

[The maturing individual is] more aware than the infant of the dangers and risks of life; he knows of the natural and social forces he cannot control, the accidents he cannot foresee, the sickness and death he cannot elude. What could be more natural, under the circumstances, than man’s frantic longing for a power which gives him certainty, protection, and love? . . . Thus he is torn between two tendencies since the moment of his birth: one to emerge to the light and the other to regress to the womb; one for adventure and the other for certainty; one for the risk of independence and the other for protection and dependence. (Fromm, 1964/1971b, pp. 120–121. See also Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 208–230; 1950/1967, pp. 76–80; 1973, pp. 358–362; 1947/1976a, pp. 43–44, 159-161; 1955/1976b, pp. 44–471980, pp. 27–38.)

The desire to be independent conflicts with the wish to escape from the dangers of freedom. Dependence is alluring, since it offers protection from nature and society. But it is also unhealthy, since it precludes the development of a sense of identity. To Fromm, therefore, people are not truly fulfilled as cogs in a machine—even so elegant a one as our modern technological society.

Frames of Orientation. Like Jung, Fromm concludes that life must have a sense of meaning and purpose. We need a personal philosophy that establishes our values and goals in life, guides our behavior, and delineates our place in the world (a frame of orientation). “ ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ . . . [He needs] an answer to the human quest for meaning, and to [the] attempt to make sense of his own existence” (Fromm, 1947/1976a, pp. 55–56; see also Fromm, 1950/1967, pp. 25–26; 1968/1974b, pp. 65–70; 1973, pp. 230–231; 1955/1976b, pp. 64–66; 1976c, pp. 135–139).

Healthy frames of orientation emphasize love, competence, productivity, reason, and the love of life (biophilia). But the need for a unifying personal philosophy is so powerful that even an irrational frame- work, appropriately rationalized, is preferable to none at all. (This is why people can so easily fall under the spell of a warmonger, dictator, or religious zealot.) Unhealthy frames of orientation emphasize the love of death (necrophilia), destruction, power, wealth, dependence, and narcissism.

Healthy and unhealthy frames of orientation may blend together in varying degrees. A biophilic and loving person may also be somewhat narcissistic or power-oriented, or a conscious and charitable frame of orientation may conceal one that is unconscious and selfish. Yet regardless of the form, “we do not find any culture in which there does not exist [some] frame of orientation. Or any individual either” (Fromm, 1973, p. 230).


Fromm devotes relatively little attention to the structure of personality. He concludes that psychology is better off “free from the restrictive influence of the libido theory, and particularly the concepts of id, ego, and superego” (Fromm, 1973, p. 84; see also Fromm, 1956/1974a, pp. 33–38; 1947/1976a, pp. 145– 175; 1955/1976b, pp. 50–51).

Mechanisms of Defense and Escape

Fromm regards unconscious processes as extremely important. He also emphasizes such defense mechanisms as projection, reaction formation, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and repression.

A person, even if he is subjectively sincere, may frequently be driven unconsciously by a motive that is different from the one be believes himself to be driven by.… Freud’s revolution was to make us recognize the unconscious aspect of man’s mind and the energy which man uses to repress the awareness of undesirable desires. He showed that good intentions mean nothing if they cover up the unconscious intentions; he unmasked “honest” dishonesty by demonstrating that it is not enough to have “meant” well consciously.… [Therefore,] only a psychology which utilizes the concept of unconscious forces can penetrate the confusing rationalizations we are confronted with in analyzing either an individual or a culture. (Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 85, 158; 1973, p. 79. See also Fromm, 1950/1967, pp. 58–59, 74–75; 1947/1976a, pp. 228–230; 1980,

pp. 23–26.)

The most likely subjects of repression are such unpleasant emotions and beliefs as destructiveness, necrophilia, hate, envy, hypocrisy, revenge, and the fear of death.

Fromm also describes three other devices that we use to alleviate the painful human condition of isolation, and to escape the threatening freedom from preordained instinctual behaviors. One such mechanism of escape is authoritarianism, a powerful emotional attachment to another individual that consists of two opposing tendencies: an admiration for authority and a desire to submit to powerful others (masochism), together with a wish to be the authority and dominate other people (sadism). Examples include marriages characterized by excessive submission and domination, often with both partners reflecting both tendencies at different times, and fanatical followers of tyrants such as Hitler. Malignant aggression is an escape mechanism that seeks to eliminate external threats. The most com- mon mechanism of escape in our modern society is automaton conformity, a chameleonlike immersion in a socially acceptable role. Automaton conformity is undesirable because it conflicts with the need for identity—and because whole societies as well as individuals can be “sick,” making the com- mon mode of behavior pathological. (See Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 163–230; 1964/1971b, pp. 117–134; 1955/1976b, pp. 21–28.)


Unlike Freud, Fromm does not posit specific developmental stages. He also differs from psychoanalysis by arguing that personality can continue to develop during adulthood, although external influences must be intense to affect an older and less impressionable individual (Fromm, 1973, p. 370; 1976c, p. 106). Fromm does share Freud’s belief as to the existence of childhood sexuality, however. And he agrees that personality is primarily determined during the early years of life, with the unusually long period of human dependency serving as a powerful lesson about the need to relate to others.

The growing child slowly learns to distinguish between “I” and “not-I” through its contacts with the environment, notably those involving the parents. This increasing sense of identity and separation from the parents is essential to healthy development, but it also intensifies the child’s feelings of isolation. The freedom to do what we want is accompanied not only by freedom from the hindrance of authority, but also from the comforts of security and protection. As humanity has gained greater independence throughout the course of history, we have become more isolated and anxious. “When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects” (Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 45).

If the child’s belief in its own ability keeps pace with the increasing feelings of isolation, anxiety is minimal and personality development proceeds normally. Such positive growth is facilitated by parents who are biophilous, affectionate, and nonthreatening. But if the sense of self-reliance is damaged by pathogenic parental behaviors, the child is likely to sacrifice its innate healthy potentials and seek to escape from the threatening human state of isolation in misguided ways. For example, authoritarian par- ents may use the child to fulfill their frustrated ambition for professional success, or to enjoy a sense of personal power. Such parents may repress their true intentions (and lack of love) by lavishing the child with attention, advice, or gifts—everything but genuine warmth, and the right to be independent:

The child is put into a golden cage, it can have everything provided it does not want to leave the cage. The result of this is often a profound fear of love on the part of the child when he grows up, as “love” to him implies being caught and blocked in his own quest for freedom. (Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 168. See also Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 216–217, 268; 1956/1974a, pp. 51–52; 1947/1976a, pp. 136, 157–158.)

Other pathogenic parental behaviors include pessimism, narcissism, necrophilia, and physical abuse. To Fromm, such forms of maltreatment are so prevalent that “one must believe that loving parents are the exception, rather than the rule” (1976c, p. 45).

Character Typology

The healthy personality is typified by biophilia, love, creativity, and reason. These characteristics com- prise the productive frame of orientation (Fromm, 1964/1971b; 1947/1976a, pp. 89–113).

As we have seen, the undesirable or nonproductive frames of orientation include narcissism, necro- philia, dependence, compulsive strivings for power or wealth, and the mechanisms of escape (authoritarianism, automaton conformity, and malignant aggression). In addition, Fromm (1947/1976a, pp. 70–89) has described four other nonproductive orientations. The receptive orientation, like Horney’s “moving toward people,” constantly seeks to be loved and nurtured by others. The person with an exploitative orientation strives to obtain rewards through force or cunning, like Horney’s “moving against people.” The hoarding orientation is denoted by miserliness, compulsive orderliness, and obstinacy, and resembles the

Freudian anal-retentive character and Horney’s “moving away from people.” Like Adler’s (1927/1957,

p. 181) description of people who guard their wretched treasures, “the hoarding character experiences himself like a beleaguered fortress; he must prevent anything from going out and save what is inside” (Fromm, 1973, p. 293). Those who adopt the marketing orientation regard themselves as products that will “sell” in the social marketplace. Although some social expertise and polish is desirable, these individuals repress their needs for identity and self-realization in order to become what others want them to be.


Dream Interpretation

Like Freud, Fromm regards dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. He concludes that dream interpre- tation is probably the most important and revealing technique in psychotherapy, and he recommends that all of us learn to understand the language language of dreams. “[As] the Talmud says, ‘dreams which are not interpreted are like letters which have not been opened.’ . . . [Dreams] are important communications from ourselves to ourselves” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 10; see also Fromm, cited by Evans, 1966, p. 36).

The Purpose of Dreams. Fromm agrees with Freud that dreams can fulfill our wishes, that they are triggered by day’s residues, and that threatening truths may be concealed in various ways. A young lawyer was criticized at work by his boss, but dismissed this incident as trivial. That night, he dreamed of riding a white charger before a cadre of cheering soldiers. Thus he alleviated his fears of failure and restored his self-esteem, which had been shaken by the events of the preceding day. The dream fulfilled these wishes in a disguised manner, similar to military daydreams he sought comfort from as a child when rejected and taunted by his peers (Fromm, 1951/1957, pp. 150–157).

Fromm also shares Jung’s belief that dreams can have obvious and undisguised meanings, and that they need not involve childhood conflicts. A dream may express current anxieties and misgivings, pro- vide accurate and important insights about ourselves or other people, or propose solutions to our waking problems. A writer was offered a tempting position that would compromise his integrity for a great deal of money. He resolved this dilemma by dreaming that two opportunists advised him to drive up a peak, whereupon he was killed in a crash and awoke in terror—a clear indication that accepting the job would destroy him psychologically. Similarly, the discoverer of the benzene ring first visualized the correct chemical structure in a dream of snakes biting each others’ tails. “We are not only less reasonable and less decent in our dreams but . . . also more intelligent, wiser, and capable of better judgment when we are asleep than when we are awake” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 33; see also Fromm, 1951/1957, pp. 36–45; 1964/1971b, pp. 42, 127–128; 1947/1976a, pp. 168–169; 1980, pp. 100–101).

Regardless of the specific content, every dream is a deliberate creation of the dreamer. “Whatever the role we play in the dream, we are the author, it is our dream, we have invented the plot” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 4). Nor is a dream ever unimportant, although its true significance may be concealed by a trivial façade. A young woman once claimed that a dream of hers was meaningless because it consisted only of serving her husband a dish of strawberries, whereupon he pointed out with a laugh: “You seem to forget that strawberries are the one fruit which I do not eat” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 149; see also p. 24). Whether this dream expresses a severe marital conflict or only mild annoyance is not clear; but, like all dreams, it deals with important issues.

Dream Symbols. Dreams are expressed in symbolic language, an important mode of communication also found in fairy tales and myths. Unlike Freud, Fromm regards many dream symbols as asexual. A person who feels lost and confused may dream of arriving at the outskirts of a city where the streets are empty, the surroundings are unfamiliar, and there is no transportation to where the dreamer

wishes to go. Or, since symbolic language has its own syntax and can be quite unrealistic, the dreamer may depict a cowardly human being in the form of a chicken. (See Fromm, 1951/1957, pp. 11–23, 28.)

Some dream symbols have universal meanings because they are intrinsically related to what they rep- resent, such as the power and vitality of fire, the slow and steady quality of moving water, and the security of a valley enclosed by mountains. In contrast to Jungian archetypes, universal symbols result from these intrinsic meanings rather than from racial inheritances (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 18). Other dream elements possess only an accidental, learned relationship to the concepts that they express. The street or city where one falls in love is likely to symbolize happiness, whereas the identical scene may represent sorrow to an individual who suffered a painful parting there. The meaning of accidental symbols must be supplied by the dreamer, and Fromm (like Freud) uses free association to bring this information to consciousness.

The Dreams of Freud and Jung. Interpreting one’s own dreams is no easy task, and Fromm argues that even Freud and Jung showed a tendency to shy away from threatening truths. Freud once dreamed of having written a botanical monograph, with each copy containing a dried specimen of the plant in question. Based on extensive free associations, Freud interpreted this dream as an expression of pride in his professional achievements. However, Fromm concludes that the dream actually reflects profound self-reproach over Freud’s puritanical and lifeless treatment of sexuality. “He has dried the flower, made sex and love the object of scientific inspection and speculation, rather than leave it alive” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 93).

Jung once dreamed of killing someone named Siegfried with a rifle, became horror-stricken, and awakened with the thought that he must kill himself unless he could understand the dream. He eventually decided that he had symbolically murdered the hero within himself, thereby expressing a sense of humility. Fromm suggests that Jung was at this time angry with his esteemed mentor Freud, even to the extent of har- boring powerful unconscious death wishes (which Freud had commented on, but which Jung indignantly denied). The dream-victim was actually Freud himself, with Jung unable to recognize the truth because he was repressing a necrophilous orientation. “The slight change from Sigmund to Siegfried was enough to enable a man whose greatest skill was the interpretation of dreams, to hide the real meaning of this dream from himself (Fromm, 1964/1971b, p. 44; see also Fromm, 1951/1957, pp. 47–108; 1980, pp. 73–89).


Fromm accepts Freud’s definition of mental health as the capacity for love and productive work. He also agrees that psychopathology represents a difference in degree, rather than in kind:

The phenomena which we observe in the neurotic person are in principle not different from those we find in the normal. They are only more accentuated, clear-cut, and frequently more accessible to the awareness of the neurotic person than they are in the normal.… (Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 159; see also p. 46.)

Causes of Neurosis. In addition to such pathogenic parental behaviors as authoritarianism, narcissism, pessimism, and physical abuse, neurosis is often caused by the culture in which one lives. Fromm argues that society seeks to make people wish to do what they have to do, which presents “a difficult problem: How to break a person’s will without his being aware of it? Yet by a complicated process of indoctrination, rewards, punishments, and fitting ideology, [society] solves this task by and large so well that most people believe they are following their own will and are unaware that their will itself is conditioned and manipulated” (Fromm, 1976c, p. 78; see also p. 133). Ironically, we are pressured into automaton conformity by the society that we have created to serve our ends.

To make matters worse, we are constantly bombarded by pathogenic stimuli. These include the “rationalizing lies” used by modern advertising that play upon our sexual desires, threaten us with social ostracism unless we use the appropriate deodorants, promise revolutionary changes in our love life if we

purchase a particular brand of toothpaste, or urge us to buy products simply because they are endorsed by famous or attractive individuals. “All these methods are essentially irrational; they have nothing to do with the qualities of the merchandise, and they smother and kill the critical capacities of the customer like an opiate or outright hypnosis” (Fromm, 1951/1957, p. 35; 1941/1965, p. 149; 1976c, p. 188).

Also adding to our sense of alienation and insignificance are elected politicians whom we hardly ever see in person, and who cunningly hide their true intentions behind jargonistic double-talk; huge bureau- cracies that regard the individual as unimportant; repetitive jobs that transform workers into machinelike cogs, and eliminate the pride of producing a complete product; vast and overcrowded cities; conflicting societal prescriptions that advise us to be self-centered winners on the one hand, and charitably selfless on the other; and the ominous threat of nuclear war. And since parents serve as “the psychological agent[s] of society,” we are all exposed to these influences (at least indirectly) from the moment of birth. In fact, “the real problem of mental life is not why some people become insane, but rather why most avoid insanity” (Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 315; 1955/1976b, p. 34; see also Fromm, 1947/1976a, p. 132; 1981).

Dynamics of Neurosis. According to Fromm, neurosis always consists of a conflict between two opposing forces. It occurs when our healthy innate drives toward self-realization and independence are blocked by parental or societal influences. The individual may then opt for narcissism instead of love, malignant aggression instead of transcendence, dependence instead of identity and independence, or any of the other nonproductive frames of orientation. The goal of the psychologist is not to define and treat a set of symptoms, but to understand the neurotic character and the resulting difficulties in living. (See Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 162, 176, 201; 1950/1967, p. 65; 1947/1976a, p. 222.)

Psychotherapy and Social Reform

Fromm accepts many of the tenets and procedures of Freudian psychoanalysis, including the need to bring unconscious material to consciousness, free association, resistance, transference, countertransference, working through, and the importance of dream interpretation. He also shares Freud’s belief that psychoanalysis is not suitable for everyone, nor can it guarantee improvement. Fromm prefers to dispense with transference neurosis, however, and to have the patient perceive the analyst as a genuine human being. He favors the Adlerian technique of early recollections, and he shares Horney’s view that insights must be achieved on both an intellectual and emotional level in order to be effective. Analytic therapy strives to help the patient replace the chosen nonproductive frame(s) of orientation with the productive orientation, as by abandoning narcissism in favor of love. (See Fromm, 1950/1967, p. 84; 1973, pp. 205–207; 1947/1976a, p. 225; 1976c, pp. 31, 169–170; Fromm, cited by Evans, 1976, pp. 30–55, 82.)

For the most part, Fromm’s psychological prescriptions refer to society rather than to the individual. He warns that the diminishing worldwide supply of food, the environmental deterioration resulting from such influences as the automobile and pesticides, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons have brought us to a crisis that threatens the very survival of our species:

Some 10–20 million people are starving to death annually now … [while] population growth increases the probability of a lethal worldwide plague and of a thermonuclear war.… [Thus] for the first time in history, the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.… [Yet] we go on plundering the raw materials of the earth, poisoning the earth, and preparing nuclear war. We hesitate not at all leaving our own descendants this plundered earth as their heritage. (Fromm, 1976c, pp. 10, 166, 189.)

To Fromm, the only alternative to disaster is a radical remodeling of society. Unlimited population growth must be checked, and wasting the earth’s resources through conspicuous and excessive consumption must be abandoned. The “brainwashing” techniques of modern industrial and political advertising must be prohibited, so that we can wean ourselves from such propaganda and learn to make better use of our powers of reason. Consumer strikes should be used to impress our will on industry, since a boycott

by even 20% of the buying public would have a profound impact. The reestablishment of the town meeting would enable people to exert a more meaningful effect on the process of government. Education should enable students to fulfill their innate potentials and experience what they learn, rather than merely memorizing a vast number of unrelated facts. The gap between rich and poor nations must be closed by appropriate foreign aid, so as to decrease the probability of epidemics and nuclear wars instigated by the “have-nots.” A guaranteed annual income must be established, ensuring everyone of the right to subsist. Women must be freed from patriarchal domination. Movies should foster pride in the whole human race, rather than one particular national or ethnic group. A Supreme Cultural Council, neither elected by popular vote nor appointed by the government, should be established to advise political leaders and the citizenry. Finally, atomic disarmament is essential (Fromm, 1976c, pp. 173–196; see also Fromm, 1941/1965, p. 273; 1964/1971b, p. 112 n. 14; 1968/1974b, pp. 119–120; 1955/1976b, pp. 291–298; 1981).

Fromm recognizes that many people are too accustomed to our present society to accept such drastic alterations, even at the cost of possible future catastrophes. Nor is he optimistic about the possibility that academic psychology will provide effective answers, concluding that researchers all too often prefer to deal with problems that are insignificant but capable of rigorous measurement. Yet despite the difficulties and limited chances of success, Fromm argues that the attempt to change must be made:

If a sick person has even the barest chance for survival, no responsible physician will say “Let’s give up the effort,” or will use only palliatives. On the contrary, everything conceivable is done to save the sick person’s life. Certainly, a sick society cannot expect anything less. (Fromm, 1976c, p. 197; see also Fromm, 1976c, p. 11; Fromm, cited by Evans, 1966, p. 74, 84.)‌

Other Applications

As would be expected from his definition of love, Fromm differs from Freud by regarding “loving thy neighbor as thyself” as our most important standard (Fromm, 1950/1967, p. 84). But Fromm cautions that religions may preach harmful and outdated principles that stifle the healthy growth of individuals and societies. And he dislikes the divisiveness that results from the existence of many religions, so he prefers to emphasize the commonness of all humanity. (See Fromm, 1941/1965, pp. 81–122; 1950/1967; 1947/1976a, pp. 23–24; 1976c, pp. 41–44.)

In addition to dreams, Fromm devotes considerable attention to the symbolic nature of literature and mythology. For example, the story of Little Red Riding Hood symbolically describes a young girl’s problems with sexuality and male–female conflicts, with the heroine’s red cap representing menstruation and men depicted as dangerous wolves (Fromm, 1951/1957, pp. 235–241).


Criticisms and Controversies

Not surprisingly, Fromm’s sweeping recommendations for social reform have proved to be highly controversial. His socialistic approach is unacceptable to those who believe that capitalism, with its faults, is the best method for meeting the needs of the people. Some of his proposals are vague and lacking in detail, whereas others would be extremely difficult to implement (as he himself concedes). Fromm’s writings lack the quantitative analyses commonly expected of a scientist, especially one who proposes such profound social changes. In contrast to Freud, it is even difficult to detect much correspondence between Fromm’s conclusions and evidence from his psychoanalytic practice. This absence of hard data gives his books a distinctly sermonic tone, which he justifies with the subjective argument that he finds in psychology that which proves him to be right (Fromm, cited by Evans, 1966, p. 80).

Some noted philosophers have questioned Fromm’s interpretation of Marxist socialism as humanistic. Unlike Freud, Fromm often does not clarify the relationships among terms used in his earlier works and those in his later writings. Fromm’s theory has generated little empirical research. And he appears to ignore important similarities between the constructs of other theorists and his own.


Fromm’s warnings about the dangers of abusing our environment, world famine, and nuclear war are timely and important. He has made major contributions to our understanding of dream interpretation and totalitarianism. His inclusion of organic drives is preferable to Adler’s rejection of innate determinants of behavior, and his view of feminine equality accords more closely with modern opinion than that of Freud. Fromm’s emphasis on narcissism also seems justified when applied to our affluent, “spoiled” society. As a colleague of such noted psychologists as Horney and Sullivan, Fromm has exerted some influence on theories other than his own.

Like Horney, Fromm does not pretend to offer a complete theory of personality. But Horney’s insights into neurotic behavior make her writings of considerable value to psychology, whereas Fromm’s sweeping yet unsubstantiated social criticisms would seem to belong more in the realm of philosophy. Psychologists and personality theorists are expected to follow a more scientific course, where recommendations are clearly linked to clinical and/or research data. By devoting so much of his attention to apparently unsupported speculations, Fromm himself has limited the impact of his work on modern psychological thought.

Suggested Reading

Among Fromm’s many titles, two stand out: Escape From Freedom (1941/1965), which has been praised as a landmark in psychological, political, and philosophical thought, and his classic work on dream interpretation, The Forgotten Language (1951/1957). The Art of Loving (1956/1974a) has also achieved wide popularity, and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) offers interesting insights into this important area.


  1. The basic nature of human beings. Fromm emphasizes the conflict between our innate, organic animal side and the uniquely human characteristics of self-awareness, reason, and imagination. He also stresses the importance of such nonorganic drives as the need for others, transcendence, identity, and frames of orientation. Fromm is optimistic about human nature, but he is more pessimistic than Horney about our secondary capacity for learned pathologi- cal behavior. Nonorganic drives are difficult to satisfy, since there is no innate program that ensures their fulfillment. Thus love may surrender to narcissism, transcendence to destructive- ness, and identity to dependence.

  2. The structure of personality. Fromm accepts the importance of unconscious pro- cesses, repression, and defense mechanisms. But he rejects the Freudian constructs of id, ego, and superego; nor does he favor any alternative structural model. He does posit three mech- anisms that we use to escape the threatening freedom from preordained instinctual behav- iors: a sadomasochistic attachment to another person (authoritarianism), eliminating external threats (malignant aggression), and a chameleonlike immersion in a socially acceptable role (automaton conformity).

  3. The development of personality. Fromm concludes that personality may continue to develop into adulthood, but he posits no specific developmental stages. He warns against such pathogenic parental behaviors as authoritarianism, narcissism, pessimism, and physical abuse. He also devotes considerable attention to such nonproductive character types or frames of ori- entation as receptive, exploitative, hoarding, and marketing. In contrast, the healthy productive orientation stresses biophilia, love, and reason.

  4. Further applications. Fromm is noted for his major work on dream interpretation, The Forgotten Language. He argues that dreams may be relatively obvious as well as disguised, and that we are often wiser in our dreams than when we are awake. Fromm is also a social philoso- pher who offers numerous criticisms of our hypocritical, alienating, and destructive society. He therefore proposes sweeping (and highly controversial) changes in the basic structure of society.
  5. Evaluation Fromm’s radical and sermonistic proposals for social change often seem unscientific and excessive. Yet his works have also been praised as landmarks in psychological, political, and philosophical thought, and it is by no means clear that his recommendations can be safely ignored.