Erich Fromm was born on March 23, 1900, and died almost eighty years later, on March 18, 1980. In celebration of Fromm’s life, we have a two-part Q&A with Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, looking back at Fromm’s many intellectual contributions and accomplishments.
In part one of the interview, Friedman discusses Fromm’s views on love and politics, and how his works still have political impact today.
Question: Fromm was a believer in love or, as you call him, “love’s prophet.” How did his relationships with women influence his philosophy about the role of love in the world?
Lawrence Friedman: The Art of Loving (1956) sold over 25,000,000 copies and still sells well globally. The theme is easy to fathom. At a very deep level, one must simultaneously love oneself, the cherished other, and all of humankind. Love starts as a specific relationship and then becomes a global transformation of humankind into a peaceful and caring society.
Succinctly, a self in love with another is transformative. This was a perspective on love that connected to Fromm’s view of humanism and spirituality. The theme of love had an overwhelming dose of authenticity. It was rooted in Fromm’s own life. Fromm’s unhappy first marriage led to a divorce; in the second, his wife committed suicide; the third, with Annis Freeman, was love from the start. Sometimes Fromm would write six or seven love letters to Freeman every day, and she would reciprocate. The expressions of love through letters bound their lives together and energized Fromm’s spiritual crusade to humanize the world.
Q: Fromm was a founder and major funder of Amnesty International. How has Amnesty transformed our understanding of social justice and human rights?
LF: Fromm was a founder of Amnesty International in the early 1960s and was its principal funder for the next twenty years. He did much to make Amnesty perhaps the most vibrant and effective global agency for human rights and against government brutalities. To free incarcerated victims of harsh regimes, Fromm could play the part of global diplomat, shuttling among Washington, New York, London, and Moscow with remarkable skill and effectiveness. His money and his strategies to free people from governmental barbarities did much to make Amnesty International the most important human rights organization in the world today.
Question: Fromm believed that spirituality governed one’s entire orientation toward the world, shaping personal conduct and relationships. Yet for him, spirituality did not require that God exist. Did Fromm view organized religion as a positive influence in the world or as an agent of division and intolerance?
LF: Fromm viewed religion from the perspective of the Old Testament, in which he was a specialist. His earliest calling was as a Talmudic scholar, and he seriously considered becoming a rabbi. He embodied the Jewish prophetic tradition.
Fromm saw the heart of the Old Testament as a call for people to treat one another ethically and lovingly. Conduct on earth mattered but an external deity did not. Moreover, Fromm found it difficult to believe in God in light of Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, Fromm was able to get along with ethical reformers who did believe in God, and he saw the Jewish Hassidic tradition of warmness and joy to be exemplary of the good life even though the Hassidim looked to a God. It is impossible to understand Fromm and his sense of spirituality without understanding how much Judaism meant to him.
Question: What is “social character?”
LF: “Social character” was Fromm’s primary clinical concept and his major departure from Freud. Freud saw powerful inner drives come up against superego constraints that allowed society to hold itself together as a stable entity. But by repressing the drives, human unhappiness was a result.
Fromm was more upbeat and envisioned deep human happiness. For Fromm, a diversity of inner emotions and needs were shaped by external institutions. Society, not repression of inner drives, was central to his view, and he referenced how social institutions molded inner life as social character. Under loving and caring institutional arrangements, happiness was quite possible, and a productive social character could emerge.
Q: Fromm is credited with inspiring President Kennedy’s goals of nuclear disarmament and the de-escalation of war rhetoric with the Soviet Union. How might Fromm’s philosophy inspire and inform President Obama’s dealings with rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea and their potential to use nuclear weapons?
LF: Fromm advised JFK that the United States had to take a big unilateral step toward nuclear disarmament and pressure the Soviets, through global public opinion, to match that initiative until nuclear weapons were eradicated. He was a dove in Kennedy’s informal group of foreign-policy advisors and consistently warned JFK that it was easier to get into wars than avoid them.
Were Fromm alive, he would not be advising President Obama to attack “enemies” through drones or threaten Iran and North Korea with potential military attacks that preclude reasonable negotiation. As Fromm had advised JFK with the Soviets, he would advise Obama to take a big step toward disengagement and the easing of sanctions with Iran and North Korea while calling loudly and publicly for the North Koreans and Iranians to move toward the elimination of their nuclear capacities and the normalization of relationships with their professed enemies.
Fromm would almost certainly have voted for Obama. He would have been pleased that Obama was America’s first black president, was a fellow public intellectual, and had restored America’s global reputation after the Bush years. Yet he would have opposed the Obama national-security state much as he had tried to reverse Kennedy’s.
Q: Escape from Freedom (1941) is one of Fromm’s best-known books and was influential from the Hungarian revolt in 1956 through the recent Arab Spring in 2011. Why has this book proven so popular wherever dictators are challenged?
LF: Escape from Freedom may be Fromm’s most important book. Writing with Hitler and Stalin as points of reference, he argued that the dictator created a police state by invoking sadomasochism. One stepped on or crushed those below while heralding the dictator above as a godlike figure. This was the essence of an authoritarian personality. A democratic, humane, and loving community was the antithesis. Every time a dictator has been opposed, protestors have read Fromm’s Escape from Freedom. It has informed them about what dictatorial regimes had been doing to constrict their inner psyches and how democratic humanism was the obvious alternative. Until humanistic democracy pervades the globe, people will make use of the book.
Consider a recent, revealing, and concrete example. Revolt in Tunisia launched the Arab Spring in 2011. The major bookstore in Tunis, the capital, is across the street from the headquarters of the national police force. It had stocked none of Fromm’s books under the old regime. Days after the protest against dictatorship began, large stacks of Escape from Freedom appeared in the bookstore. The power of Fromm’s appeal against dictatorships is remarkable.