The Two Voices of Erich Fromm:
The Prophetic and the Analytic
by Michael Maccoby
Published in: Society, July/August. This article is adapted from a
lecture given at the Erich Fromm International Symposium,
Washington, DC, May 6 1994.
Erich Fromm's contribution to our knowledge of individual and social behavior
has neither been fully appreciated nor developed. Fromm's most popular books
which expand our understanding of both love and destructiveness have, to a large
extent, been assimilated into that body of knowledge which forms the foundation
of intellectual thinking in Europe and the United States. Although he introduced
many American intellectuals of the 40s and 50s to the relevance of psychoanalysis
to understanding 20th century social pathology, typical intellectuals of today think
of Fromm, if at all, as a critic of the mass consumer society. A smaller number
recognize the contribution he made in Escape from
Freedom to understanding
the psychic appeal of fascism, an understanding relevant to current events in
Russia and the Balkans. But relatively few appreciate his most valuable and
original legacy: understanding human character in relation to society.
Why has Fromm's work been so neglected? To start with, his ability to write
directly to a large general audience as in The Art of Loving , which was a best
seller in the late 50s, made him suspect to the academic Mandarins whose criteria
for profundity includes incomprehensibility to the uninitiated. In fact, Fromm
provoked defensiveness and even a kind of antipathy from academics he termed
alienated and psychoanalysts he criticized as bureaucratic in their technique and
poorly educated in the humanities and social sciences. Furthermore, Fromm
would not fit himself into a neat intellectual category. Although he fully
acknowledged his debt to Freud, he relentlessly criticized the limitations and
contradictions in Freud's theories. Although he explored the influence of culture
on character development, he strongly differentiated himself from "culturalists"
such as Sullivan, Horney and Margaret Mead who described culture in terms of
behavior patterns and did not analyze socio-economic factors. Although Fromm
agreed with Marx's analysis of social change and shared his messianic view of
history, he was also a deeply religious non-theist who drew his concept of human
development from the Jewish bible, Zen Buddhism, and Christian mysticism.
Although he shared, to a large extent, their critique of capitalism, Fromm was
rejected by the psychoanalytic left. His former colleagues at the Frankfort School,
particularly Herbert Marcuse, dismissed him as a conformist unwilling to support
the radical action necessary to change society.
Inevitably, experts in one or another social science or version of psychotherapy
were put off by Fromm's unlikely mix of Freud, Marx and religious mysticism.
For example, although Erik Erikson told me he had learned a great deal reading
Escape from Freedom, he was not prepared to
accede to the demand of The Sane
Society to accept communitarian socialism as the prescription for social well
being and healthy character development.
My purpose is not to defend Fromm from his critics. Like any major thinker,
Fromm's views changed over time and there are, as I shall describe,
contradictions in his views and limitations in his approach, especially his
psychoanalytic technique. Rather, I shall try to describe and clarify what I hear as
the two dominant voices in Fromm's work, the analytic and the prophetic.
William James wrote that theory, like music, expresses the composer's
personality, and both of these voices came from deep inside of Fromm. I believe
that by scoring them separately so to speak, they can be better understood and
most important, usefully developed. When Fromm is most convincing, the two
voices harmonize. When he is least convincing, the prophetic drowns out the
My analysis of these two voices is based not only on my reading of Fromm, but
also hearing them directly when I worked with him in the 60s.
My Experience with Fromm
In the summer of 1960, when I drove from Cambridge, Massachusetts to
Cuernavaca, Mexico with my wife, Sandylee, it was to enter into an eight year
apprenticeship to Fromm. That June, I had received a doctorate from Harvard in
Social Relations, combining clinical and cognitive psychology with sociology and
anthropology. I had decided that my next step should be psychoanalytic training,
since psychoanalytic investigation seemed the best way to further my
understanding of human motivation. In seeking psychoanalytic education, I
considered the Boston Institute where I had helped Ives Hendrick with his
research, and I talked with Erik Erikson about working with him at Austen
Riggs. Both were encouraging. However, David Riesman, who had been analyzed
by Fromm and who I had worked with as a teaching assistant, reported that
Fromm was looking for a research assistant in Mexico and suggested that we
meet. The reason I decided to study with Fromm was the appeal of both voices,
the analytic and the prophetic. Fromm defined the meaning of human
development in a way that appealed to me emotionally as well as intellectually. It
seemed to me that Fromm's call to create a sane society was urgently required by
a world teetering on the edge of nuclear war. World War II and the holocaust
was a recent and searing memory. Fromm's analysis of human destructiveness
provided some understanding of behavior that seemed incomprehensible and
inhuman. I hoped that through my personal psychoanalysis, Fromm would help
me to develop not only my capability as a researcher, but also my capacity for
love and reason.
I should note here that when I told Grete Bibring of the Boston Psychoanalytic
Institute that I was considering training with Fromm, she said "you will probably
get along very well together, but he will never analyze the transference." To a
large extent, she was correct, for reasons I shall describe.
Before leaving for Mexico, I joined Fromm, David Riesman and others in
founding The Committee of Correspondence and writing for its newsletter
arguing for arms control and improved relations with the Soviet Union.
Fromm accepted me as an apprentice. He needed someone with training in
research design, statistics, and projective testing to work with him on the
sociopsychoanalytic study of a Mexican village, and in return for my assistance,
he agreed to admit me to the Mexican Psychoanalytic Institute and to be my
training analyst. He also made it clear that my personal goals for analysis and my
political engagement were important in his decision to work with me. During the
next eight years, I was Fromm's research assistant, analysand, supervisee, and
collaborator, culminating in 1970 with the publication of our book,
Social Character in a Mexican Village.
I agreed to Fromm's condition of apprenticeship, that I first learn his theory and
work with it, before criticizing it, as he expected I would someday do. He said
that he hoped I would be able to express this theory in my own words and expand
it, and this has been my goal.
The Two Voices
During the time I was in analysis with him, Fromm's technique changed from one
that was extremely influenced by his then recent exploration into Zen Buddhism
with D. T. Suzuki to one which emphasized a more systematic investigation into
the patient's character and psyche. At times, he experimented with technique
using the active methods pioneered by Sandor Ferenczi, including relaxation
exercises and suggestion about associating to a theme. He also tried techniques
used by Wilhelm Reich to attack character armor. While his shifting of analytic
approach complicated his attempts to describe his practice, this does not fully
explain his dissatisfaction with the drafts he wrote on technique. I believe that
what blocked his writing on technique and also limited his effectiveness as an
analyst was the inability to always harmonize the analytic and prophetic voices.
This disharmony resulted in a confusion concerning the goals and methods of
At its purist, Fromm's analytic voice was exploratory, experimental, and
skeptical. It asked for evidence and questioned conclusions drawn too quickly. His
prophetic voice was urgent, impatient, and judgmental. It contrasted reality with
a demanding ideal of spiritual development. It condemned rather than analyzed
evil. At times, Fromm the analyst was transformed into Fromm the rabbi or Zen
master who responded to the student's inauthentic behavior not by analysis, but
with disgust or the verbal equivalent of cracking him over the head with a stick.
At his most analytic, Fromm conceived of psychoanalysis as a method to help
suffering people to liberate themselves from crippling fear and to realize more of
their creative potential. In this mode, he emphasized the importance of
psychoanalytic diagnosis at the start of treatment, and he was realistic about the
patient's prognosis and limitations.
At his most prophetic, Erich Fromm's mission was to bring about a messianic age
of peace and human solidarity, and he used psychoanalysis as a spiritual
discipline for himself and his disciples. He viewed neurotic symptoms as a partial
rejection of oppressive or alienating authority. The psychoanalyst's role was to
help give birth to the revolutionary within the neurotic.
Fromm's inconsistent approach to therapy expressed the contradiction between
his theory of social character and his ideal of the productive character which
became increasingly mystical. I shall return to this point that the disciplines of
therapeutic psychoanalysis and spiritual development, while they share elements
in common, are essentially different, and that Fromm sometimes confused the
Fromm believed that his most original ideas were the theory of social character,
the interpretive questionnaire as a method of studying character, and the theory
of destructiveness. He described each of these in his analytic voice. In two major
studies, one of German workers and employees in 1930 and the other of Mexican
villagers in the 1960s, Fromm tested and developed the theory and methods of
social character research.
He continually elaborated his theory of destructiveness. The sociopsychoanalytic
analysis of sadomasochism and malignant destructiveness was well-tested both
clinically and in the social character research. The more controversial and less
well studied theory of necrophilia, defined as the love of death, decay and rigid
order which he first described in his 1964 book The Heart of Man, expressed the
prophetic view of evil and was contrasted to his concept of biophilia, love of life,
which at the extreme, expressed being vs. having and the driving force of
The Two Voices in Fromm's Approach to Character and Society
To appreciate Fromm's approach to clinical diagnosis, his theory of character
must first be understood. While Freud's libido theory with its analogy of forces
and cathexes corresponds to a late 19th century view of physics, Fromm's theory
of character development is fully consistent with modern evolutionary biology.
Humans are distinguished from other animals by a larger neocortex with fewer
instincts. Character is the relatively permanent way in which human drives for
survival and self-expression are structured in the socialization process. Thus
character substitutes for or shapes human instinct. But human survival is not
merely a matter of physical survival. Man does not live by bread alone. We are
social animals who must relate to others, and we are spiritual animals who must
infuse our lives with meaning in order to function. Our brains need to operate in
the past, present, and future simultaneously. Without a sense of hope, they turn
off. To survive in the early years, we require caring adults. To learn to master
the environment, control our fears and passions and live in harmony with others,
we need teachers. To give meaning to our lives, we must acquire a sense of
identity and rootedness. Religions both sacred and secular (including tribalism
and nationalism), with objects of devotion, guiding myths and rituals, serve this
We not only must live our lives, but also solve the contradictions stemming from
our existence, the animal and human needs, physical survival and emotional
sanity. Fromm said that given our contradictory tendencies and awareness of our
mortality, the question of why people remain sane is perhaps more difficult to
answer than the question of why they become insane.
Character is a solution to those contradictions. It is like a complex computer
program that takes the place of what is to a greater extent hard-wired in other
animals. Biological research indicates we are closer to other animals than we like
to believe, and this, perhaps, is what keeps many of us sane. We imitate and
identify with those most like ourselves. We can use the culture, or more precisely
the social character as an off-the-shelf solution to the problems of existence.
Although other animals also develop cultures to transmit patterns of behavior
between the generations, human culture is more complex and varied. With our
large neocortex, we are able to learn and change. Although we share almost 99
percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees, the other one percent allows us
to choose between either becoming more uniquely and fully human or regressing
to tribalism and/or psychopathology. Fromm termed the striving to become more
fully human as "progressive," and he believed the great monotheistic humanistic
religions and Buddhism, which is non-theist, shared the goal of directing people
to a solution of achieving unity with nature through individuation, love of the
stranger, and reverence for life. This solution increases our consciousness and
strengthens community, while the regressive solutions result in either individual
psychopathology (symbiosis, narcissism and destructiveness) or group narcissism
and hostility to people outside the tribe.
Speaking in his analytic voice, Fromm describes the social character as the
cement that holds society together. It is what adapts humans to their environment
in such a way that they want to do what they need to do to keep a particular
society functioning. In this sense, some emotionally disturbed persons have failed
to develop the social character; their emotions do not support adaptive behavior.
Or the social character of some disturbed people might clash with the
environment, because it is adapted to a disappearing world. In this situation, the
social character is transformed from social cement to social dynamite. Thus, in
Escape from Freedom, Fromm describes how the lower-middle class German
suffered a sense of powerlessness and meaningless in the 1920's. Hoarding,
dutiful, conservative, and hardworking emotional attitudes no longer guaranteed
prosperity. The harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles after World
War I caused runaway inflation that destroyed savings,while money was being
made by wild speculation. The humiliation of the Kaiser by the allies was felt as a
personal indignity and loss of meaning. The flaunting of a sexual freedom and
burlesque of authority in the Wiemar republic aroused indignation and anger
which Hitler was able to manipulate in forging an ideology, a new religion, which
blended the desire for revenge, the focussing of hatred on the Jews as scapegoats,
with inspiring hopes to create a great new civilization.
Analytically speaking, normality and mental health require that the child develop
a social character in order to gain the competencies required for survival in a
society. This is consistent with C.G. Jung's view was that only through adaptation
to a culture could a person begin to achieve individuation.
However, speaking in the prophetic voice, Fromm questioned whether adaptation
produced healthy people.
If the society is itself not healthy, then to be normal is to acquire a "culturally
patterned defect," in effect to be sick. The neurotic who will not adapt may be
healthier than one who is adapted. What does healthy mean for Fromm?
In The Sane Society, he writes that "Mental health, in the humanistic sense, is
characterized by the ability to love and to create, by the emergence from the
incestuous ties to family and nature, by a sense of identity based on one's
experience of self as the subject and agent of one's powers, by the grasp of reality
inside and outside of ourselvesthat is, by the development of objectivity and
reason. The aim of life is to live it intensely, to be fully born, to be fully awake.
To emerge from the ideas of infantile grandiosity into the conviction of one's real
though limited strength: to be able to accept the paradox that everyone of us is the
most important thing there is in the universeand at the same time no more
important than a fly or a blade of grass."
With this definition, has any society ever produced many healthy people? Can
any society, other than the messianic vision of the prophet Isaiah, achieve sanity?
The model of a sane society Fromm proposes is communitarian socialism. He
quotes a description of Boimondeau, a cooperative watch factory in France as an
ideal. According to this account, workers balanced work and education, collective
and individual development. But when I tried to find out what happened to
Boimondeau, I learned that the factory did not survive in the competitive
marketplace. Like many other promising and shortlived cooperative enterprises,
Boimondeau depended on an exceptional leader who left. This communitarian
ideal remains theoretical. It is not a convincing solution.
Is Fromm correct that modern industrial society forms an alienated social
character? Is the prototypic modern individual a person who adapts to the
market economy by making him/herself into a saleable commodity, thus
becoming detached from authentic emotions and convictions? Is the modern
person's goal nothing more elevated than success in the career market and the
pleasure of continual consumption: having vs being? Does health require us to
transform society and transcend the social character?
I have used Fromm's method of social character investigation, the interpretive
questionnaire, in rural and urban Mexico, the U.S., U.K, and Sweden. In all of
these societies, there are significant variations in social character. Overall, the
more that people leave village life and adapt to industrial society, the more
abstract their language becomes, the more detached they are from direct emotion,
and authentic relationships, and to some degree, dreams and the inner life. I say
"to some degree", because villagers are extremely conformist and fear even
perceiving anything that is new and different. Just as the urban individual steeped
in book learning loses the peasant's reliance on keen observation, so the industrial
person's detachment and abstract thinking also allows greater flexibility,
willingness to adapt to the new. Furthermore, rural people are more likely to
fear the stranger and distrust those who do not share blood ties.
Within industrial society, the factory and construction workers and engineers I
have interviewed market their skills, not their pleasing personalities. Recently,
advances in production technology require both increased technical skill and
greater cooperation with others at work, but the latter is a matter of listening to
others and solving problems together, not selling oneself. Bureaucratic middle
managers and professionals are the ones most forced to market themselves, and
their overadaptation can cause symptoms of depression and self-disgust. These are
also the people who are most likely to be victims of corporate "downsizing" due
to the drive for continual innovation and productivity caused by frantic global
competition. While the most educated and technically competent are swept up in
this vortex, people in rural villages and ghettoes of prosperous cities struggle on
the margins of the economy, within a hopeless culture of escapism and violence
The description by Fromm and other intellectuals of the 50s (e.g. C. Wright Mills
& William H. Whyte) of a complacent, conformist marketing society seems
benign in the light of the last 30 years. They were writing during a brief
historical period when U.S. industry controlled international markets and
companies could afford to be stable bureaucracies, stocked with middle managers.
Fromm uses the marketing character as a basis for his prophetic denunciation of
modern society, but the question remains of how healthy any society can be and
which societies allow the greatest opportunity for healthy development. Children
have no alternative but to adapt to the family which is the major carrier of social
character. Those with healthier families or exceptional genes may adapt with
greater resiliency and independence as compared to those with less healthy
families. What would it mean to transcend the social character?
The Productive Ideal
Fromm's model of the healthy individual who transcends and transforms society
is the "productive character," the individuated person who loves and creates.
Unlike his other character types - receptive, hoarding, exploitative and marketing
- the productive character lacks clinical or historical grounding. It is a
In our study of Mexican villagers, Fromm and I searched for the productive
character, but did not find one. The closest we came were independent farmers
who were more productive and loving than the average. In my studies of
workers, engineers and managers. I have also found people who are more active
and creative than the average, but they do not fit Fromm's description of the
productive character. Furthermore, most of the more productive professionals
are not loving. (Einstein is an example of an extremely productive thinker who
was not loving.) Productiveness in work does not necessarily imply
productiveness in caring about other people.
In Social Character in a Mexican Village,
Fromm and I ended up contrasting
productive and unproductive aspects of the social character. The productive
peasant shares many of the adaptive independent, hoarding, family-oriented traits
of the dominant social character, but is more individuated, more innovative and
hard working while less suspicious and fatalistic. The productive peasant is more
likely to relate to children in terms of furthering their development rather than,
as is the more common pattern, demanding strict obedience. However, this is far
from Fromm's ideal of the productive person whose aim is to live life intensely,
"to be fully born, to be fully awake." The more productive peasant must still
adapt to a mode of work that requires hoarding traits common to peasants
throughout the world.
In his earlier writing, inasmuch as Fromm describes a real life productive
character, it is an unnamed creative artist. In later works, examples of
productiveness are Zen masters and Master Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic.
In his search for the productive ideal, Fromm's prophetic voice suppresses his
analysis of social character. The artist has been a romantic model for bourgeois
society: the individual who resists pressures to conform and succeeds in setting
his or her own terms of self expression which are ultimately accepted and
appreciated by society. The artist shows qualities of craftsmanship, creativity,
independence, and determination. However, many productive artists are not
loving people (e.g. Monet, Picasso), and Fromm does not describe a single
creative artist who fits his ideal. Furthermore, the very few artists who make a
living from their work today are caught up in a marketing web of art dealers,
changing fashion and intellectualized hype.
In terms of social character, the religious masters cited by Fromm should be
viewed within the context of feudal society. Zen masters are unchallenged
authorities who rule monasteries and dominate the emotional life of their
disciples. Eckhart was head of German Dominicans, and his vow of celibacy
freed him from the demands of family. Fromm himself was attracted to a semi
feudal role as head of the Mexican Institute of Psychoanalysis during the 50s and
60s. There he personally analyzed the first generation of analysts, and was the
unchallenged arbiter of disagreements among members of the society.
These feudal models will not inspire the children of the information age. To
develop the modern social character in a productive direction, it is first essential
to understand its positive potential.
The Two Voices in Fromm's Approach to Clinical Work
In his analytic voice, Fromm criticized Freud's patriarchal attitude as limiting the
development of psychoanalysis as a science. He criticized Freud's use of the couch
and the routine of analysis as bureaucratizing psychoanalysis. In contrast, Fromm
attempted to create what he called a more "humanistic" face-to-face encounter.
Here the analytic and prophetic voices sometimes harmonized and sometimes
Fromm's psychoanalytic technique was essentially different from Freud's psychic
archeology. Like Ferenczi, Fromm emphasized the importance of experience
rather than interpretation, and he believed the analyst must understand the patient
by empathy as well as intellect, with the heart as well as the head. But unlike
Ferenczi, he was not searching for childhood traumas, but rather present-day
passions. Memory might serve to illuminate a pattern of behavior from childhood
such as betrayal of one's ideals to gain approval from authorities. Fromm
believed that what blocked development was not our memories but our choices,
our irrational attempts to solve the human condition through such mechanisms as
sadism, regression to the womb, or narcissistic invulnerability. His goal was not
to heal a psychic wound, but to liberate, so that the patient could become free to
make better choices.
Fromm believed that the psychoanalyst should be active and penetrating, bringing
the session to life by demonstrating his own urgency to understand and grasp life
fully. Here the prophetic voice sometimes over-whelmed analysis. Fromm
became like a religious master who unmasks illusion and thus expands the limits
of the social filter, dissolving resistances. By experiencing and confessing to one's
unconscious impulses, the patient would gain the energy and strength to change
his or her life, and to develop human capabilities for love and reason to the
fullest. This is an unproven theory, and in practice, Fromm's technique
sometimes resulted in a very different outcome.
Although Fromm's thesis shares Freud's conviction that the truth will set man
free, it moves in a different direction from Freud's emphasis on psychoanalysis as
a process that patiently uncovers and interprets resistance in order to regain lost
memories. Both Freud and Fromm define psychoanalysis as the art of making the
unconscious conscious; both recognize that we resist knowing the truth and that
resistances must be overcome. But their views of resistance are somewhat
different. For Fromm, repression is a constantly recurring process. One resists
perceiving and knowing out of fear of seeing more than society allows or because
the truth would force one to experience one's irrationality or powerlessness. The
pattern of repression set in childhood is like the refusal to see that the emperor
has no clothes. The analyst is the fearless master who has gone further and deeper
beyond convention and into his own irrationality. His attitude models
productiveness and mature spontaneity, free of illusion. In contrast, Freud defines
resistance more narrowly. Repressed, unconscious wishes to maintain infantile
sexual fantasies, and the childhood fear of being punished (castration) because of
one's libidinal impulses, act as resistances to memory. These repressions bind
energy into neurotic patterns.
For Freud, the key to analyzing and overcoming resistance is transference. The
patient directs or transfers desire and fear onto the analyst who becomes a
substitute for figures of the past. Resistance will be overcome only if the "acting
out" within analysis is interpreted and transformed into emotionally charged
memory which can be "worked through" and reintegrated into a more mature
psyche. The working through frees the blocked energy of repressed wishes and
defenses. It allows the patient to give up infantile objects and desires and discover
better ways to satisfy needs. In this framework, if the analyst dramatically
unmasks truth, this may strengthen the transferential resistance, either because the
patient denies unbearable feelings or adopts another defense, such as passive
acceptance. Overcoming this resistance requires patiently analyzing the various
forms it takes.
Fromm proposes a broader concept of transference. The analyst represents
infantile authority: the mother who solves all of life's problems or the father who
is never satisfied with his son's achievement. Instead of facing reality
independently, the patient continues to transfer interpersonal struggles and
wishes. While this aspect of transference is not contradictory to Freud's views (in
The Future Of An Illusion, he describes religion in these terms), Fromm's
approach in fact tended to strengthen this type of transference and with it the
patient's resistance to remembering. He would focus on feelings about the analyst
in the here and now and the function they served. His urgency of getting to the
truth short circuited the process of working through the transferential feelings
and their origins.
Although Fromm criticized Freud as too much the bourgeois patriarch and
showed how this limited his insights, Freud's approach to technique can be more
democratic than Fromm's, especially if the Freudian analyst does not force fit the
patient into a formula. To be sure, Freud advocated rules in the doctor-patient
relationship, in part to protect himself. These are followed bureaucratically by
many analysts. An example is that the patient lies on a couch and cannot see the
analyst. Freud did not like to be stared at all day. However, Fromm's piercing
blue eyes could and sometimes did freeze the patient, and his intensity which
could make one feel more alive could also provoke defensive reactions. Freud did
not describe the analyst as guru or model, and his own self-analysis showed him
as all too human. He saw the analyst as a professional with technical training who,
in addition, should have a radical love of truth, a broad education in the arts and
sciences, and knowledge of his own unconscious. The goal for analysis was not to
become a productive person, but to be liberated from crippling neurosis.
Freud cautioned against expecting too much from a neurotic who has been cured.
In his prophetic voice, Fromm suggested that neurotics are humanly healthier
than those with the dominant social character or socially patterned defect who
have adapted to a sick society and are alienated from themselves. The Frommian
neurosis as described in The Sane Society, results from incomplete rebellion
against constricting authority and lack of confidence or courage to follow one's
insights, to take one's dreams seriously.
A number of narcissistic patients with grandiose ideals for themselves and society
were attracted to Fromm's therapy.But the Frommian approach both increased
transference resistances and the patient's sense of guilt about unworthiness,
unproductiveness, and dependency. Patients compared themselves to the
"productive" analyst, and instead of remembering and experiencing childlike
drives, humiliations, rages, and fears as a means to mastering them and losing the
need for narcissistic solutions, they attempted to resolve conflicts by becoming
ideal persons, like the master. In so doing, patients fearing disapproval by the
master, again submitted to authority and repressed sexual or angry impulses
directed against the parent. Frommian disciples identified with the master and
self-righteously directed anger and contempt at others who were not good
Frommians. This became a pattern among Fromm's disciples at the Mexican
Thus, Fromm's humanistic voice which sought to correct the more impersonal,
obsessional and dogmatic approach of the early Freudians was never fully heard.
The analyst-religious master's prescription for productive development blocked
patients from discovering their own avenues for development.
The Productive Ideal and Religious Conversion
In his later works, the models of productiveness became more and more
religious, closer to Zen enlightenment or the ideal of non-deistic cosmic unity
than to the psychoanalytic aim of lifting infantile repressions and expanding the
realm of ego in place of id. William James' observations, in The Varieties of
Religious Experience (1902), can help us to view Fromm from the perspective of
religious thinking. James writes that both Buddhism and Christianity are religions
of deliverance which preach that "man must die to an unreal life before he can be
born into the real life." He also proposes that the full significance of these
religions appeals to a particular type of person who may develop an approach to
life similar to Fromm's productive ideal.
James described and contrasted three personality types. The "healthy minded" are
those with a "harmonious" personality. They tend to be upbeat and adapted to
society. James used the term "healthy" in a rather ironic way. The healthy
minded avoid or repress unpleasant perceptions. They have little tolerance for the
second type, the "morbid minded" who always see the downside of life. Acutely
sensitive to painful realities, the morbid minded must struggle with depression
and despair. A third type, which is closer to the morbid-minded, suffer from a
"discordant" personality. They struggle with two selves, ideal and actual. Like
Saint Augustine and other religious figures, they search restlessly for "the truth"
until through self-analysis and religious discipline, they are reborn with "a new
zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical
enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism." The result of being reborn
is similar to Fromm's ideal.
Fromm had this type of discordant personality; he told me that he continually
struggled with irrational impulses. Like Augustine's wrestling with his sins and
temptations, Fromm used analysis of both himself and his disciples to increase
awareness of the split between ideal and actual selves, to experience regressive
drives and to frustrate rather than repress them, while at the same time
strengthening productive needs.
Like Saint Augustine, Fromm came to believe that health as defined by the
productive character is not gained merely by insight or even experiencing what
has been repressed. This definition of health requires spiritual development
achieved through a courageous practice of life that frustrates greed and
overcomes egoism through meditation and service.
Fromm was deeply religious but did not believe in God. Yet, one can argue that
his concept of the cosmos, like that of Spinoza, is a non-anthropomorphic view of
God, consistent with Jewish tradition. (When I said this to him, he did not object
but said that the only absolutely essential commandment for a Jew was that which
forbids all idolatry.) In You Shall Be As Gods,
he describes the Bible as evolving
the concept of God from a tribal deity to the unknowable God of Moses and the
prophets. This God who cannot be made into an idol of any kind first establishes
the law and then demands that the people transform themselves according to a
messianic vision of harmony and justice. Fromm was attracted to Buddhism,
because it did not require belief in God but was based on a rational analysis of
overcoming pain and suffering by living a good life. Yet, the appeal of the Jewish
tradition, especially chasidism with its animation and joyful music continually
called him back. (He often hummed chasidic music, interspersed with Beethoven
and other German classics.)
Perhaps, the most important aspect of religion for Fromm personally was the
hope it offered. He was not a Christian, because he did not find hope in a life to
come. Hope was to be found in two ways. One was the coming of the messianic
age, which according to Jewish tradition could happen anytime the world was
ready. The other source of hope was a mystical unity with the cosmos, a
transcendence of life that would overcome the fear of death.
If one does not believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, there are two main ways
to grapple with the fear of death. One is regression to the "oceanic feeling" of
infantile pre-conscious unity with the mother. This is the appeal of alcohol and
drugs. The other is to overcome one's egoism and experience the mystical sense
of fully awakened, life loving unity with nature. In this regard, Fromm practiced
Zen meditation, and, in his 70s, he showed me how he also "practiced" dying, by
lying on the floor and pretending to give up the ghost while feeling this oneness.
The source of Fromm's prophetic voice was his search for hope, not only for
himself but for humanity. In his 50s, when he wrote The
Sane Society, hope
sprang mainly from his messianic drive to save the world, and this was also the
reason why he so admired Karl Marx. In this context, the productive orientation
is that of the messianic revolutionary.
In his late years, although Fromm did not lose his messianic hope, he became
increasingly disappointed with the revolutionaries of the 60s, the failure of
Eugene McCarthy to lead a movement with him in the U.S. and the decline of
Marxist humanism in Eastern Europe. In his final work,
To Have Or to Be?, his
hope shifted, and the model of the productive person became less the messianic
revolutionary and more the biophilic mystic.
The Analytic Voice
For Fromm to write a book on technique that truly harmonized the two voices,
he would have had to describe a systematic approach to understanding a patient.
He would have had to critique Freud's papers on technique in the careful way he
analyzed Freud's theory of aggression in The Anatomy of Human
Destructiveness. If he had attempted this, he might have recognized what was
valuable in Freud's strategy, and he might have developed a more differentiated
approach to therapy and analysis. Even then, I believe he would still have had
difficulty in resolving the contradiction between his discussion of analysis as a
more democratic, humanistic encounter and his attitude of the omniscient master.
In my experience, Fromm was penetrating and compassionate but not particularly
empathic. Indeed, while his writings on humanistic analysis leave the impression
that a loving, productive analyst will be able to know patients from the inside by
empathizing or listening to them in a way a Zen master listens to all of nature, his
practice was to use the interview and sometimes projective tests as x-rays of the
When Fromm focussed on concrete cases as a teacher, he was closer to Freud,
minus libido theory, than to either Ferenczi or Zen Buddhism. He was at his most
analytic when he interpreted social character from an interview or questionnaire
and when he described psychoanalytic diagnosis. I refer to notes from a seminar
on diagnosis he gave in 1963 to our class at the Mexican Institute.
The analyst should determine first, the symptoms, goals and pathology of the
patient. What is the type and the degree of pathology, e.g. regressive symbiosis,
narcissism, and/or destructiveness? Fromm advised that most conflicts presented
by the patient are screens. The analyst cannot help the patient decide whether or
not to get divorced or leave a job. These hide the deeper conflicts, which Fromm
sometimes called the secret plot. An example is Ibsen's Peer Gynt: the modern
alienated man who claims he wants to be free and express himself but really
wants to satisfy all his greedy impulses and then complains that he has no self,
that he is nothing and nobody.
The prognosis is better if the patient's goal is to achieve health in terms of
increased capability for freedom and loving relationships, rather than getting help
to solve a specific problem which may be merely a symptom of the failure to
maintain the cover story.
Second, the analyst should determine the strength of the resistance. He suggested a
test of telling the patient something which appears repressed, indicated by a slip
of the tongue, a contradiction, or a dream. If there is a positive reaction, the
prognosis is better. If there is anger or the patient doesn't hear, the prognosis is
very bad. Fromm considered a sense of humor the best indication of a positive
prognosis. Lack of it was an indication of "grave narcissism". Humor is the
emotional side of reason, the emotional sense of reality. Fromm himself had a
keen sense of humor with a taste for the sardonic. He loved good jokes.
Third, the capacity for insight is another indication of good or bad prognosis.
The analyst should make small tests, such as "You complain about your wife.
Perhaps you are afraid of her." It is a bad sign if the patient either denies an
interpretation too quickly or submissively agrees to everything the analyst
Fourth, what is the degree of vital energy? Is the patient capable of waking up?
A person can be quite crazy, yet have the vitality essential for transformation.
At this time, Fromm was no longer claiming that neurotics were healthier than
normal people. However, he did maintain that some patients with a severe
psychopathology had a better prognosis than those with milder pathology. The
key diagnostic factor was the patient's creative potential or ability to struggle
against the pathology.
Fifth, has the patient shown responsibility and activity during his or her life?
Fromm contrasted obsessive responsibility with the ability to respond to
challenges. If the patient always escapes with a magical, irresponsible flight,
analysis is not impossible, but extremely difficult.
Sixth, is there a sense of integrity? This refers to the difference between a
neurotic and psychopathic personality. Does the patient accept a truth once
experienced? Or is there a quality of bad faith, wiggling away from inconvenient
truths, a bad sign for prognosis.
Fromm advised using the first hour to ask why the patient had come and to ask
for a history, noting what was said, what was left out, and the feelings associated
with events. He suggested asking for two or three dreams, especially dreams that
are repeated and three memories of infancy (a technique first suggested by A.
Adler). In the second hour, he advised testing resistance and insight, then writing
out a summary of the diagnosis and a prediction of how long treatment should
In the middle 60s, Fromm began to send me his own patients for Rorschach tests
which he believed helped significantly in providing a better diagnosis, including
both psychopathology and the strength of biophilic tendencies. In the later 60s,
Fromm emphasized the need for the analyst to understand patients within their
particular cultural context. Our intensive study of Mexican social character
revealed the importance of culture, class, and mode of production on the
formation of emotional attitudes. (e.g. the role of the mother in Mexican culture).
Fromm came to believe that 50 percent of an individual's behavior resulted from
social character, 25 percent from constitutional or genetic factors and only 25
percent from early experiences. This implied different expectations and
approaches with different social character types. For example, middle class
Mexican patients tended to be in awe of authority and needed encouragement to
express critical views, while patients from the same class in the U.S. are skeptical
about authority in general. In Mexico, the analyst needs first to overcome the fear
of authority, while in the U.S., it may be necessary to demonstrate that rational
authority can exist.
Fromm was impressed by the evidence of psychological well being from the
orphanage, "Our Little Brothers and Sisters" (Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos),
founded by Father William Wasson in 1955 in Cuernavaca. In a study I directed
with a group of Mexican analysts, we found that orphans who had suffered
extreme psychic trauma became productive, remarkably happy children after an
average of two years in an environment which balanced security, taking
responsibility, sharing, and educational opportunity. Father Wasson guaranteed
that the children would never have to leave their new family. (Incidentally, he
made a rule that he would take all siblings from a family, but would not accept a
child if the mother was living, since in that case, the Mexican child would never
fully join the new family. This was not the case for the father.) He preached that
dwelling on one's misfortunes made one forever a self-pitying victim. Children
were encouraged to take advantage of their opportunities for learning and to help
each other. Everyone shared in the work, including farming. For Fromm, the
positive results achieved at the orphanage reinforced his view that a good
community can transform emotionally damaged people. He contrasted the
orphanage to psychotherapies which by focussing on childhood hurts and
traumas, strengthened narcissistic self preoccupation and resulted in a chronic
feeling of resentment and entitlement.
In our discussions together during the late 60s as we wrote Social Character in a
Mexican Village, we agreed that severe emotional disorders were not cured solely
by analysis. This is especially true if the patient comes from a culture of poverty
and hopelessness. Without a sense of possibility, the patient lacks the self
confidence and hope to face crippling feelings and impulses. Even for some
patients from more advantaged backgrounds, a strategy of psychoanalysis should
focus on understanding and encouraging the patient to strengthen creative
potentials before probing for pathology.
Fromm's contribution to psychoanalysis and social science remains to be
developed further. He provides us with theory and methods to understand health
and illness as concepts that do not refer to the individual alone, but also to the
relationships of the individual to others and to social institutions. "I am myself
and my circumstances," Fromm would quote Ortega y Gasset. "And if I do not
save my circumstances, I cannot save myself."
To take Fromm seriously, to enter into a dialogue with him is to accept the
challenge of taking responsibility of who I want to be as opposed to what I want
to have. But it also means examining his assumptions about human nature, what it
is possible for people to achieve, and what are the best ways to achieve our goals.
Both Fromm's sane society and psychoanalytic technique are founded on
questionable assumptions about human nature. Isaiah Berlin in The Crooked
Timber of Humanity has criticized utopian philosophers from Plato to Marx for
believing that 'virtue is knowledge', that to know what is truly good for oneself
and others is enough to cause rational behavior. Berlin points out that good values
such as equality and freedom, or Christian love and republican vigilance against
oppression, may be incompatible. Furthermore, different groups have different
ways of structuring human needs. He writes "Perhaps, the best that one can do is
to try to promote some kind of equilibrium, necessarily unstable, between the
different aspirations of differing groups of human beings - at the very least to
prevent them from attempting to exterminate each other, and, so far as possible,
to prevent them from hurting each other - and to promote the maximum practical
degree of sympathy and understanding, never likely to be complete, between
them." Berlin goes on to say that "Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from
irrationalism, once observed that 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no
straight thing was ever made.' And for that reason no perfect solution is, not
merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any
determined effort to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and
Speaking in his prophetic voice, Fromm underestimated the need for individuals
to adapt to a society before attempting to transform it. The work of Jean Piaget
describes the stages of moral development and the social interaction essential to
achieve them. It is through institutions such as family and schools, and
organizations (political, legal and economic) that we create health, wealth, and
good relationships. In an increasingly complex, technology based society,
improving these institutions and organizations requires expert knowledge
combined with pragmatic idealism and supportive colleagues. It can be slow and
arduous work. There will always be conflicts of different interests that must be
negotiated. There is no dramatic cultural transformation that will dissolve
psychopathology, create harmony, and make a society sane.
This is not a program to inspire the young who carry banners in parades. Nor
will it sell many books. I was once interviewed by a French journalist who said,
"Dr Maccoby, If I understand you correctly, you are saying that with great
dedication and courage, one can succeed in taking small steps to improve the
world. That view will appeal to no one, neither those on the left or the right."
Yet, in practice, productive hope is generated when people work together to
protect civilization and to push forward the envelope of their culture, even a little
bit. They are the responsible parents, dedicated teachers, community volunteers,
union organizers, idealistic researchers and environmental activists. Perhaps there
are no sane societies, but there are saner societies or sane enough societies that
allow individuals to join together to develop themselves and their culture.
To conclude these observations on Fromm's two voices, there are perhaps
relatively few discordant personalities, in James' sense, who like Fromm are
drawn to religious conversion and mystical unity. But there are many of the
would-be healthy minded who feel confused about life, who are not sick but who
seek happiness in the wrong places and yearn for deeper understanding of
themselves. The liberation of women, economic and emotional, from male
domination makes it essential that people learn to love, otherwise the family is
likely to disintegrate. For the children of the post modern world, especially those
who have already achieved the material goals of the 18th century Enlightenment,
Fromm can be a guide who integrates the humanistic lessons of religion,
literature, and philosophy with the discoveries of psychoanalysis. Even when he
speaks in his analytic voice, the prophetic demands are not silent. He directs us to
learn the language of the unconscious and at the same time evaluate our actions
and institutions in terms of whether or not they stimulate us to wake up and act
according to reason, whether or not they move us and our culture toward
community rather than tribalism. Even if one does not believe it is possible to
create utopia, it is possible for many of us to develop our productive capabilities
of love and reason. By engaging in a serious dialogue with Erich Fromm, we
expand our awareness of the choices, sharpen our concepts and deepen our sense
As a student of Fromm, I believe the task remains of integrating the analytic and
the prophetic voices, the understanding of what is and what can be with a
compelling vision of what ought to be in order to create a better life and a more
READING SUGGESTED BY THE AUTHOR
Fromm, Erich, Escape from Freedom.
New York: Rinehart: 1941.
Buy it Now
- The Sane Society. New York: Rinehart, 1955.
Buy it Now
- You Shall Be As Gods.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Buy it Now
- The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
Buy it Now
New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
- To Have Or To Be? New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
Buy it Now
Fromm, Erich, and Michael Maccoby,
Social Character in a Mexican Village.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 1970.
Maccoby, Michael, The Gamesman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
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