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 two of the interview, Friedman discusses how Fromm’s ideas can be applied to modern political problems.
Question: Fromm led efforts to revitalize American democracy. What did he feel was wrong with our system?
Lawrence Friedman: Fromm was the principal funder and platform architect for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s bid to win the White House in 1968. McCarthy ran as a peace candidate determined to extract America from the Vietnam War. This fit with Fromm’s antimilitarism. On a deeper level, he felt that pointless wars like Vietnam might be avoided if American democracy were restored. Invoking the old New England town meeting as his point of departure, Fromm tried to promote a small, community-based government structure with all officials directly and personally responsible to the local citizenry. Fromm continued to promote this view of democracy throughout his life even as, in his opinion, a Big Brother–like national-security state thrived under less democratic presidencies such as Nixon’s.
Fromm would have seen the possibility of democracy restored in the 2008 Obama campaign, with Obama’s appeal to racial minorities, women, and students and his ability to spark excitement about the political process. But he would have been less enthusiastic for the Obama of 2012 because the president sent additional troops to Afghanistan and essentially ordered the assassination of Bin Laden. But he would have voted for Obama a second time because he was somewhat more democratic and less elitist than Romney. Fromm had strong ideals and democracy was one of them. But he was also a pragmatist, willing to take half a loaf as a first installment on any basic goal. He would have supported Obama with this perspective.
Q: While Fromm was a strong advocate for democracy around the globe, he was also critical of how bureaucratic state socialism (such as obtained in the Soviet Union) and corporate capitalism (such as in the United States) both alienated modern man. He envisioned a “Third Way”: a humanist society that valued the happiness of the individual in a democratic polity. Can this type of government ever truly exist and function?
LF: Fromm saw both the alienating capitalism and consumer culture of the West (especially the United States) and the bureaucratic socialist societies of the Eastern bloc as anathema to the human condition. Western societies for the most part offered only the façade of democracy while covering selfhood in a plethora of estranged consumerism. The Russians were more dictatorial, Fromm argued, and the Russian leadership promoted inhumane and inefficient bureaucracy.
Fromm cooperated with intellectuals and activists in “Third Way” countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland that were trying to break from the Soviet sphere of influence while distancing themselves from Western “democracies.” They were relatively small countries and the citizenry passionately sought small community-based democratic socialism free of both Soviet bureaucracy and Western alienation. In our contemporary world where there is no longer a Soviet Union and the United States can no longer impose its will abroad. Fromm would see continuing potential for a “Third Way,” especially in small countries like Finland, Denmark, and even Tunisia.
Q: Fromm challenged the dominant Freudian model of psychoanalysis and paid a professional price for doing so. His approach encourages “central relatedness,” where confidentiality breaches may sometimes occur and the clinician is personally involved with the patient rather than distanced by therapeutic neutrality. What is his legacy in the psychiatric world and has his approach been embraced or rejected by modern psychoanalysis?
LF: Orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis involved a seemingly neutral and distant analyst. The patient projected his repressed concerns on the analyst so these concerns could be studied. Fromm’s “central relatedness” was markedly different. The analyst was not neutral but opened himself to his deepest personal issues and encouraged the patient to similarly open his “center” to the analyst.
Traditional Freudian analysis is essentially gone. Given Fromm’s and other clinicians’ affairs and other professional breaches with their patients, rooted in the temptations of “central relatedness”, it, too, has a problematic legacy. But Fromm, like his friend Harry Stack Sullivan, emphasized the clinical relationship as an interpersonal one– the connectedness between people as the way to understand what troubled patients. Because the interpersonal is perhaps the dominant clinical approach today within psychoanalytically informed therapy, Fromm and Sullivan have reemerged as significant figures. From a therapeutic perspective, Fromm has finally come of age.
Q: You write that mental health and illness are heavily social constructs. If Fromm were living today, current clinicians might have labeled him as bipolar. Yet there were “stabilizers” in his life that pushed away bipolarity and let Fromm be very productive. What can we learn from Fromm’s approach to dealing with the effects of mental illness?
LF: Contemporary psychiatrists and other mental health experts are too quick to label their patients “bipolar” and “schizophrenic.” Both tend to be seen as genetically rooted organic maladies; psychotropic drugs are the remedies or alleviants of choice. Coming from the social misery of a deeply depressed mother and a manic father and trying somehow to keep the family together, Fromm adapted. By his own admission, he would have been called manic depressive or bipolar. However, considering the way he led his life, “manic depressive” is diagnostically far off the mark even if he was genetically or temperamentally disposed.
Fromm developed an array of daily habits that “stabilized“ or fine-tuned his existence. He wrote regularly, meditated, conversed with a small circle of convivial friends, cultivated a love for political activism, and corresponded regularly and caringly with those close to him. Succinctly, Fromm’s life and the social emphasis behind his therapeutic approach suggest that our daily social arrangements may keep us healthy and happy without recourse to drugs. At least these arrangements should precede drug trials that may be unnecessary. Fromm thought so and always emphasized social circumstances in caring for his patients even as he never dismissed the possibility of drugs as periodic supplements down the line.