Philosophy & Ideas

Erich Fromm and the Age of Anxiety


Erich Fromm was out. Max Horkheimer, the director of the neo-Marxist Institute of Social Research, had finally wilted under the pressure of Theodor Adorno’s relentless campaign of denigration, and had sacked his star theorist. Sensing trouble, Fromm had been to see Friedrich Pollock, the Marxist economist who served as the Institute’s financial director, who told him that they couldn’t pay his salary past October 1, 1939. When Fromm remarked that that sounded like a dismissal, Pollock replied simply, “Yes, if you choose to call it that!” And so, as Rolf Wiggershaus recounts in The Frankfurt School (1994), the Institute “parted with a member of staff who had for a considerable time been the most significant one for its theoretical work”, and who had been hired in 1930 to provide much-needed expertise in psychoanalysis and sociological research.

The Institute, known simply as “The Frankfurt School”, would go on to be the most important institutional source of “critical theory” of the twentieth century, but it would do so without Fromm, who pursued an often parallel intellectual path, developing an enervated form of Freudo-Marxism derived from the ultra-radical position pioneered by Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1936). Fromm achieved considerable fame and political influence with over thirty books, including Escape from Freedom (1941; published outside America as The Fear of Freedom), which was his most important book and one that played an influential role in the self-understanding of the Age of Anxiety during the early years of the Cold War.

The parting with the Institute had been a long time coming, as there were fundamental personal and theoretical differences involved. Although Fromm had been pivotal in the Institute’s early success, Horkheimer had made his dislike of Fromm clear to Pollock as early as 1934. Fromm, he complained, tried to stay on good terms with too many people. Adorno concurred, but he also coveted Fromm’s position, and wanted to take over Fromm’s massive social research project on the authoritarian nature of the working class, an area in which he later made his name with The Authoritarian Personality (1950). He ridiculed Fromm as a “professional Jew”.

Fromm was also a womaniser who left emotional debris behind him, attracting further Institute disapproval. He had left his first wife, the pioneering psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, in scandalous circumstances, and had had a long-term affair with feminist psychoanalyst Karen Horney, author of The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937). Fromm was particularly self-absorbed and in both cases he was explicitly looking for someone to “mother” him (Frieda was eleven years his senior, and Karen sixteen years), while he had made his refusal to start a family clear to Frieda, dismissing her pleas to have a child by remarking that there was nothing special about it and “even cows have children”.

In her candid autobiographical Self-Analysis (1942) Horney described her own insecurities, compulsions and promiscuity. Fromm, it seems, made affectionate gestures but also made it clear that he resented demands upon his time and fiercely defended his freedom to pursue his many projects. He also exhibited “a self-righteous messianic or prophetic quality that limited the degree of emotional sharing” he could manage, as Lawrence Friedman recounts in his new biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (2013), and it seems this reflected his early Rabbinical education and his close association with leading Jewish mystics of the twentieth century, including Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem.

Fromm’s refusal to marry Horney “rekindled her sense of inadequacy”, Friedman explains, and when the relationship finally collapsed in 1940 she responded “by sleeping with Paul Tillich, Erich Maria Remarque and others”, a pattern of behaviour that contributed to her exclusion from the New York Psychoanalytic Society in 1941. She responded by establishing the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, from which she duly expelled Fromm. For his part, Fromm gained much from Horney’s theory of anxiety, which fundamentally informed Escape from Freedom. Like her, he went on to further affairs and marriages, finding inspiration for The Art of Loving (1956), which has sold some 25 million copies and remains a popular gift for intimate occasions.


It was in the realm of theory, however, that Fromm’s principal problems lay. Adorno took a hard-line Marxist-Leninist view of psychoanalysis, viewing it as an ideological tool of the bourgeoisie designed to promote conformism and alleviate psycho-sociological tensions that might otherwise lead to revolutionary consciousness. He therefore ridiculed Fromm’s suggestion that the therapist should offer kindness and consideration to the patient, insisting instead that the therapeutic posture should be confrontational, forcing the patient to face what Freudians called “the reality principle”, and the bleak hopelessness of their situation under capitalism—propelling them deeper into psychological despair where they would recognise that their only hope for salvation was revolutionary action.

As a strict philosophical materialist, Adorno also denounced Fromm’s idealist abandonment of the core Freudian emphasis on the instincts and the determinative role they play in mental life and behaviour. Fromm preferred the idea that psychology is culturally determined, and that people develop different character structures in different historical contexts and that different societies produce different types of personality, cultivating some at certain times and suppressing others. He even came to view the unconscious itself as a product of modernity, culturally created to manage the “fear of freedom” that characterises modern industrial society.

Fromm shared this cultural determinism with Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, Erik Erikson and a growing circle of psychoanalytical revisionists who became known as the neo-Freudians. They were close allies of the Culture and Personality school of anthropology, which included Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, whose notorious book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) served as the school’s manifesto, pointedly distinguishing between permissive traditional and restrictive modern cultures, contrasting the allegedly relaxed sexual customs and the smooth transition to adulthood of young Samoan women, with the purported anxiety, psychological distress, emotional confusion and identity crises of American girls.

The advantage of this culturalist theory, especially in an American context, was that it removed any theoretical limits to the pursuit of psychological perfection imposed by Freud’s insistence on the intractability of the instincts. It provided instead that this goal could be pursued by modifying and regulating social relationships, especially within the family and between mother and child. While this fundamental theoretical shift appalled Adorno, who saw it as the worst sort of bourgeois utopianism, it entranced the meliorists, and endeared the neo-Freudians to the powerful statist forces on the American Left born out of the New Deal. These were energised by the experience of total social mobilisation achieved in the Second World War, and they sought to further transform society through wide-ranging mental health and social welfare programs and other forms of state interventionism, spearheaded by psycho­analysis, which became a regulated medical specialty, as Eli Zaretsky explains in Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004).

The postwar period thus proved very receptive for Fromm. As Erich Heller observed in Literature and Psychoanalysis (1983), it was a time when psychoanalysis came close “to being the systematic consciousness that [an] epoch has of the nature and character of its soul”. And central to that soul was a profound sense of anxiety. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed in The Vital Centre: The Politics of Freedom (1949), “anxiety is the official emotion of our time”, arising from the corrosive impact of modernisation on the traditional structures and values of society, an analysis that echoed Fromm’s assessment in Escape from Freedom.

It was however, a multifaceted anxiety, operating at several levels. Most obviously, there was the general, rationally-based anxiety that arose from the Soviet threat and the real possibility of nuclear annihilation. However, there was also a widespread but ill-defined form of anxiety associated with the culture of modernity and the rapid and vertiginous transformation of postwar society, a psycho-sociological phenomenon with which Fromm and the neo-Freudians were particularly interested.

At the former level the threat was an unimaginably stark existential menace. Less than a year after the end of the bloodiest conflict in human history, the Cold War broke out, with the United States and the Soviet Union quickly slipping into ever-deepening confrontation. A pivotal moment occurred in February 1946, when the “Long Tele­gram”, prepared by George F. Kennan at the US embassy in Moscow, arrived in Washington. This described the full scale of the Soviet threat and the need to meet it with force, and it later appeared in Foreign Affairs in July 1947 as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. In March, Winston Churchill pointed out that an Iron Curtain of communist oppression had been drawn across Europe, and a year later the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) was established to allow Moscow to co-ordinate further communist expansion, as the Truman administration announced its policy of containment. In June 1948 Stalin blockaded West Berlin and Truman responded with the Berlin Airlift. NATO was established in April 1949 to provide a unitary military leadership for Western forces in Europe should war erupt. Elsewhere, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in October 1949, adding a quarter of the world’s population to the multitudes already under communist rule, while tensions continued to escalate towards war on the Korean peninsula.

Then, in August 1949, the threat of a nuclear holocaust became a reality when the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb, “Joe I”, after which the nuclear stockpiles grew until there were literally tens of thousands of warheads ready to be deployed, with bombers and missiles targeting hundreds of cities across the northern hemisphere. Once begun, development of nuclear weapons continued until it culminated in 1961 when the USSR tested the largest feasible hydrogen bomb, the “Tsar Bomb”, designed to produce an explosive yield of 100 megatons of TNT, 5000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This single bomb released twice the energy produced by the earthquake that caused the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.


In the permanent presence of this apocalyptic threat there began four decades of intense political rivalry, military tension and universal anxiety. This followed a wave-like rhythm, which fuelled and re-fuelled the general social trepidation, periodically building towards a cataclysmic climax only to recede, constrained always by the certainty of “mutually assured destruction” for the superpowers and their allies if they ever crossed the threshold into full-scale hostility. This seemingly endless, psychologically debilitating confrontation was played out in many arenas, involving massive defence spending, a relentless conventional and nuclear arms race, intense scientific research and development, proxy wars across the globe, diplomacy, espionage and subversion.

It also involved intense ideological conflict and endless struggle in the realm of culture. In the immediate postwar years this was centred on combating what George Orwell in 1946 called “the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos” on intellectual and cultural life, which suppressed and distorted facts about the Soviet Union to such an extent that it was “doubtful whether a true history of our times can ever be written”, as Peter Coleman recalls in The Liberal Conspiracy (1989). So powerful was this mythos that a regular series of Soviet-backed “peace conferences” were held in the face of only token resistance from a few courageous anti-communist intellectuals, while delirious crowds in their tens of thousands were delighted to applaud denunciations, not only of Western “imperialism” and military policy, but also of every aspect of allegedly decadent modern culture.

“If hyenas could type and jackals use a pen”, Cominform apparatchiks declared, then they would produce bourgeois rubbish like that of T.S. Eliot or André Malraux. Ilya Ehrenburg even declared there was no longer any such thing as “Western culture”, while George Lukacs lamented that the cultural richness of the Soviet Union was beyond the comprehension of mere bourgeois intelligence. The besieged Dmitri Shostakovich (who lived for years with his bags packed waiting to be taken away to the Gulag or worse) was required to denounce fellow contemporary composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Hindemith as modernist “lackeys of imperialism”.

Initially, some dissenting voices were tolerated at these propaganda fests, but the organisers quickly learned that these could be suppressed as they lacked political or institutional support and often couldn’t get their work published at a time when anti-communist views were very unfashionable. “An anti-communist is a rat,” declared Jean-Paul Sartre, while Thomas Mann, as Coleman recounts, condemned anti-communism as “the basic stupidity of the twentieth century”. In 1946, after Melvin Lasky rose at a writers’ conference in Berlin to denounce the persecution of writers and artists in the Soviet Union, the American authorities considered expelling him to appease the communists and their sympathisers. Meanwhile, classics like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism struggled initially to find publishers, receptive audiences, or fair reviewers.

Even the term “totalitarianism” was deemed suspect, as it was regarded by the Left as an ideological device designed to smear the Soviet Union by associating its form of tyrannical state power with Nazism and fascism. A revealing exception to this was the pro-totalitarianism of E.H. Carr, the British diplomat, historian and assistant editor and leader-writer at the Times, where he advocated socialism and an Anglo-Soviet alliance. Spellbound by the purported superiority of statist and collectivist regimes, Carr gave a series of lectures, published as The Soviet Impact on the Western World (1946), in which he applauded the “trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism [which] is everywhere unmistakable”, and insisted that industrial growth in the Soviet Union and its lead role in defeating Nazism demonstrated that Marxism-Leninism was the superior form of totalitarianism. Following Stalin, he denounced capitalism as the cause of the Second World War, declared liberal democracy a sham, and insisted that the future belonged to totalitarianism and that only the incurably blind could fail to see this.


Eventually, however, there was a partial shift away from the communist mythos, signalled not only by the testimony of the works mentioned above and Schlesinger’s The Vital Centre, but also by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Richard Crossman’s The God That Failed (1949). Friedrich Hayek’s classical liberal polemic on The Road to Serfdom (1944) and Richard Weaver’s conservative insistence that Ideas Have Consequences (1948) also affected elite opinion. Moreover, Kennan’s “Long Telegram” had had a profound effect, and the State Department recognised that the totalitarian threat he described demanded the ideological and cultural mobilisation of the non-communist Left that had previously been disregarded.

Consequently, in 1950 a conference was held to establish the Congress for Cultural Freedom, “a permanent organization of the democratic anti-communist Left [which] lasted for seventeen years and at its height had offices or representatives in thirty-five countries, employing a total of 280 staff members”, as Coleman relates, supporting a network of non-communist intellectuals and activists, and sponsoring many conferences and journals, including Quadrant, which stands, after fifty-seven years and 500 issues, as one of its most successful ventures.

Such robust responses effectively challenged Comintern propaganda. As detailed in Coleman’s The Liberal Conspiracy, the work of the Congress and its network of affiliates passed through three stages, successfully forming an “Atlanticist intellectual community” during the vital period 1950 to 1958; expanding its operations globally with mixed results between 1958 and 1964; before being successfully targeted by the Left during the Sixties over the “scandal” of its CIA funding. As Coleman recalls in The Last Intellectuals (2010), the work of the Congress was “an epic drama in dangerous times”, when vital issues of literature, art and other forms of culture were embedded in a bitter, hard-fought propaganda war. Nevertheless, the network provided vital support for “intellectuals from New York to New Delhi, from Madrid to Melbourne [who were] determined to save civilisation or go down fighting”.

That civilisation, however, had a crisis at its core, and it was this deep but obscure realm of anxiety that Fromm sought to identify and combat. Although he never fully comprehended the scale of Soviet mendacity, he nevertheless illuminated the debilitating cultural malaise that set in during the postwar years, and went onto metastasise, fertilise and nurture the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The malaise found expression in forms of anxiety, alienation, dissociation, marginalisation and other psychological phenomena that often proved to have significant political implications. This was noted by many leading intellectuals at the time. W.H. Auden provided the name for the period with his book-length poem The Age of Anxiety, published in 1947, while Jacques Barzun confirmed in a review that the work’s “very title roots it in our generation”. It quickly became famous, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948, and inspired a symphony, a ballet and a play.

Auden had adopted a concept of anxiety that saw its origins in man’s unease with his existential freedom, a view popularised by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in The Nature and Destiny of Man (1943): “Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness in which man is involved. Anxiety is the internal precondition of sin. It is the inevitable spiritual state of man.” Behind Niebuhr, and even more important for Auden (and Fromm), was Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and founder of Christian existentialism, whose works had been published in English translations in the 1930s. Kierkegaard’s bleak diagnosis of the human predicament in The Concept of Dread and other works influenced a very diverse group of prominent figures apart from Fromm, including the anti-communist activist Whittaker Chambers, the management theorist Peter Drucker, the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, the novelist John Updike, and the theologian Paul Tillich, who also confirmed that “today it has become almost a truism to call our time an Age of Anxiety”.

In Europe, Kierkegaard’s radically decisionistic approach to religious faith had profoundly influenced the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, along with the French atheist existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, recast it in secular form. Sartre proclaimed that, in a godless universe, man is a useless passion, thrown into the world, condemned to be free, and solely responsible for achieving (or not achieving) an “authentic” existence. Freedom is therefore simultaneously the greatest gift and the heaviest burden for the individual, promising an utterly undetermined future while revealing the void that underlies a contingent world. Indeed, in Sartre’s existential novel La Nausée (1938; published in English as The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, 1949), the protagonist is often so appalled by the contingency of the world that it assumes a hallucinatory appearance with everyday objects unable to retain any fixed form but morphing instead into monstrous shapes and creatures.

Another fundamental theme of this influential school of thought was alienation and disengagement. In his play No Exit (1944), Sartre famously proclaimed that “Hell is other people”, while the theme of Camus’s nihilistic novel L’Etranger (1942; The Outsider, 1946), is signalled by its anti-hero’s casual musing: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.” Such themes were further explored in Richard Wright’s The Outsider in 1953, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1956, and Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963).

The posture promoted in such works is that of the marginalised onlooker who is profoundly introspective and disengaged from society, represented by the pathetic autodidact of Sartre’s La Nausée, or the “hole-in-the-wall man”, as Wilson depicted him in The Outsider. This voyeur appears in the novel L’Enfer (1908; Hell, 1918) by Henri Barbusse, who later became the Comintern agent who sent Egon Kisch to Australia in 1934 on a propaganda mission, provoking a political crisis. His anti-hero spends his days spying on the lives of others, silently witnessing various forms of sexual deviation, blasphemy, birth and death. A study in solipsism, he is obsessed with his self, from which he cannot escape: “I think about myself, about myself who can neither know myself well nor get rid of myself.” He experiences his self as “a heavy shadow between my heart and the sun”. “Nothing can prevail against the absolute statement that I exist and cannot emerge from myself,” he laments.

In The Outsider Wilson described his own “inner compulsion” that drove him to an isolated existence, “totally cut off from the rest of society”, identifying with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, and sleeping rough in Hampstead Heath while researching “The Outsider in Literature” in the Reading Room of the British Museum, inadvertently coming across the epoch-defining theme that would make him an overnight literary sensation and elevate him to the company of Britain’s “Angry Young Men”, the duffle-coated brigade who defined the anti-establishment cultural mood of the time.

This intense introspection and self-marginal­isation was accompanied by the conceit that the outsider occupied a privileged position, judging society, and that a fully authentic existence demanded a rebellion against the alleged complacency of “bourgeois”, middle-class existence. Accordingly, Camus published L’Homme révolté in 1951 (The Rebel, 1953), in which he presented an archetypal image of “the rebel” as a Nietzschean Übermensch, executing the revaluation of values through sheer force of will, seceding from the mundane tedium of everyday life with its contemptible conventions, norms and values, which he inhabits not as a participant but as a prisoner or a slave. Camus asked: “What is a rebel? A man who says no … A slave who has taken orders all his life, [and who] suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command.” The rebel’s refusal, Camus insisted, implies a decisionist affirmation of purely subjective values—“a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself … that he is willing to preserve … at all costs”.

Rebellion appeared as a higher state of being-in-the-world that should be pursued for its own sake, and The Rebel became one of the most influential books of the mid-twentieth century. In popular culture it found an echo in such iconic films as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and The Wild One (1953), which featured an epoch-defining exchange: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” asks the girl, both frightened and attracted to the muscular bikie terrorising her town. “Whaddaya got?” Johnny replies.

Similarly, Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger’s immensely influential novel Catcher in the Rye (1951), came to symbolise alienation and rebellion amongst affluent teenagers, fashionably struggling against “the conformity and spiritual numbness that modern life generates in the world imagined in the novel”, as Grace Hale observes in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (2011). In a “revolution of rising expectations”, affluence and privilege generated disaffection amongst those who most enjoyed their benefits, rather than loyalty to the system that produced them. Only a decade later, the New Left combined this concept of the outsider with the radical sociology of C. Wright Mills and the neo-Marxism of Marcuse “to offer a compelling vision of white middle-class college students as outsiders”, whose alleged powerlessness paralleled that of the blacks in the South, giving rise to the fatuous notion that the “white negro” could form the revolutionary vanguard in the 1960s—an idea that inspired the Weathermen terrorist group and especially its leader, Bill Ayers, who grew up as an affluent teenager in the Age of Anxiety and later became an early mentor of Barack Obama and the alleged ghost-writer of Obama’s autobiography.


Such developments lay in the future, but in the early postwar years there was already an emerging awareness that the need to combat communist propaganda had to be accompanied by an inquiry into the psycho-sociological dynamics that produced this pervasive anxiety, alienation, disengagement and cultural nihilism. Most significantly, there were also some, like Fromm, who sought also to explore its association with the totalitarian phenomenon that the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other liberal intellectuals were separately seeking to confront. In particular, they asked what it was that made totalitarianism so tempting, not only to vast masses of people in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Soviet Union, but also to intellectuals, politicians and others in democracies like America, Britain, France and Australia.

It was in this fashion that Fromm came to real prominence, as Escape from Freedom became one of the most influential analyses of the totalitarian temptation. In accordance with Fromm’s charac­teristic eclecticism, the book was an ambitious synthesis of theory and philosophy derived from Freud, Marx and Kierkegaard, combined with historical analysis derived from classic texts by Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905), R.H. Tawney (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 1926) and Jacob Burckhardt (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860). These books provided insights into the emergence of individualism in the Renaissance, and how particular types of character structure facilitated the emergence of capitalism and industrial society. Within this historical context, Fromm sought to explain Nazism as a pathological aspect of monopoly capitalism, as an attempted mass escape from an often intolerable burden imposed on people by the radical processes of individuation that Fromm saw as central to modernity in its capitalist form.

Fromm stated the argument of his book (which was originally to be titled “The Individual in the Authoritarian State”) quite explicitly:


It is the thesis of this book that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society … has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self … Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has [also] made him isolated, and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.


Fromm was especially concerned with the impact on societies of the shift from long-standing trad­itional to modern forms of social structure, given that “the structure of modern society affects man in two ways simultaneously: he becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical [but he also] becomes more isolated, alone, and afraid”. Totalitarianism triumphs where this tension becomes intolerable and the second tendency overwhelms the first on a mass scale, with the individual surrendering to the collective.

Central to this argument is Fromm’s adoption of the distinction between negative and positive freedom that goes back to Kant and was famously analysed by Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). Negative freedom is the absence of barriers or constraints on individual liberty; while positive freedom involves the individual or a defined collectivity being “empowered” by the state or some other external agency so that they realise their potentialities, however these are defined. Classical liberalism focuses on negative freedom, while statists embrace positive freedom, as it provides a rationale for large-scale state intervention, which also appeals to intellectuals.

Fromm argued that it is the negative freedom associated with the rise of capitalism and the onset of modernity that creates masses of atomised individuals who live in a state of anxiety, and who seek to escape this by submerging themselves in collectivist identities. As Schlesinger had pointed out in a 1967 article about the origins of the Cold War, the individual achieves “total assimilation” in the communist movement in an act of “consecration”. This sacralised collective identity is administered by an all-powerful state, a process promoted by the emergence of demagogues and intellectuals who provide an collectivist ideological rationale (for example, race-based as with Nazism or class-based as with communism), along with the necessary leadership, which is invariably authoritarianism or a dictatorship, as democracy only accentuates the sense of atomisation and lack of direction.

Totalitarianism is therefore revealed to be a previously unidentified tendency of capitalism and, in accordance with Fromm’s analysis, the solution is to not allow social progress to linger in the capitalist phase, which offers only negative freedom and can collapse into totalitarianism, but to facilitate its further development towards socialism, which offers positive freedom. In this fashion, Fromm augmented the traditional Marxist theory of history with a psycho-sociological argument for the necessary triumph of socialism.

He reiterated this socialist evangel in many best-selling books, including Man for Himself (1947), The Sane Society (1955), May Man Prevail? (1961), Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), Socialist Humanism (1965) and The Revolution of Hope (1968). For over two decades he was a highly prominent public intellectual who had the ear of prominent Democrats, including Adlai Stevenson, William Fulbright, John F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and he was able to influence a range of policies on the left of the Democratic Party, while also playing a major role in the anti-war movement, preaching unilateral disarmament.


Ironically, for all his socialist zeal, Fromm was swept aside by the rise of Left fascism. He was outflanked during the 1960s cultural revolution by the New Left, which demonstrated its own fear of freedom by adopting an authoritarian neo-Marxism and seeking to submerge itself in a suitable collectivity. Initially this was the Western working class, but this class was quickly judged too bourgeois and counter-revolutionary and so the focus shifted to identification with the “national liberation” movements of the Third World and various “subaltern” victim groups within Western society. This ideological capitulation to the totalitarian temptation ultimately wrecked liberal culture by institutionalising far-Left ideologies and enforcing radical intolerance throughout the cultural and educational institutions of the West. (I discuss the concerted attack on liberal intellectual culture in “The Tenacity of the Liberal Intellectuals”, Quadrant, September 2010.)

The New Left rejected Fromm’s reformist humanism in favour of the revolutionary anti-humanism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the bleak Kulturpessimismus of the Frankfurt School. The last derived more from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918, 1922) than from Marx, and was exemplified by Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), a paean to irrationalism and the Marquis de Sade, which resurfaced in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization (1955) and One Dimensional Man (1964), and Norman O. Brown, in Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959), promoted a sexual libertarianism that far surpassed anything Fromm envisaged. This was supplemented by Reich’s resurrected ultra-radicalism, and by the valorisation of madness as a higher state of being in the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience, 1967), Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness, 1961), and Foucault (Madness and Civilization, 1964). Second-wave feminists also took exception to Fromm’s treatment of Fromm-Reichmann and Horney. Consequently, he found himself condemned by the New Left as reformist, obsolete and sexist, and his star faded so quickly that by 1998 he was the subject of a sociological case-study in “how one becomes a forgotten intellectual”.

Fromm believed he had a prophetic role to play in history and that the rise of totalitarianism posed an intellectual challenge he was uniquely equipped to meet. As the Age of Anxiety unfolded in the early years of the Cold War, he believed he had diagnosed the origins of its cultural malaise, and had shown how it could be overcome through socialist reformism.

Although his legacy was submerged by the ideological tsunami of the 1960s, Fromm’s pioneering synthesis of contemporary insights from psychoanalysis, history and sociology still retains some relevance, especially for understanding the cultural and ideological response of those societies undergoing a shift from traditional to modern social structures, with all the psychological and social stress this entails. Consequently, Escape from Freedom remains in print, has been translated into twenty-eight languages, and has sold over five million copies, with sales accelerating during the Arab Spring of 2011, as reflective Muslims confronted the allure of Islamism, the latest incarnation of the totalitarian temptation that has disfigured modern history.

Mervyn F. Bendle wrote on “Heidegger and the Nazi Philosophers” in the July-August issue.



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