Thursday, February 07, 2013

Erich Fromm: Spiritual Humanist & Public Intellectual

Erich Fromm’s writings (academic and otherwise) reliably display his considerable personal and intellectual merits and powers as a clinician, social psychologist, and existential humanist. In the history of psychoanalysis, Fromm is aptly classified by Daniel Burston as among Freud’s “loyal opposition,” that is, “those analysts whose loyalties to Freud prompted them to stay within the organizational framework of psychoanalysis despite their disagreements with him on important issues and despite the diminished trust, esteem, and credibility they often suffered among their colleagues as a consequence.” This group is further divided by Burston into “independent analysts” (e.g., Sandor Ferenczi and Karen Horney), “object relations” theorists (e.g., W.D. Fairbairn and Harry Guntrip), and “Freudo-Marxists” like Wilhelm Reich, Otto Fenichel, and of course Fromm himself.

A remarkable new examination of Fromm’s life and work by Lawrence J. Friedman (assisted by Anke N. Schreiber), The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), is justly described as “riveting,” “entertaining,” “highly accessible,” “penetrating,” and “outstanding.” Here I want to highlight a snapshot from Fromm’s life as a public intellectual and political activist from the prologue to the book, a facet of his life about which I had known very little prior to Friedman’s study:

“In the fall of 1960, an article Fromm published in the journal Daedalus on arms control and disarmament commanded presidential Kennedy’s attention. In the article, Fromm advised that the United States pepper the Soviets with a stream of sequential weapons-reduction proposals culminating in the elimination of all nuclear weapons. He also called for a strong federal disarmament agency. Ten months into his presidency, Kennedy prompted Congress to create the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He also instructed his advisors to consider Fromm’s proposal for sequentially pressuring the Soviets. In response, Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, incorporated several of Fromm’s writings on Soviet and German politics in his Oval Office briefing materials. This pattern of indirect contact continued into the fall of 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly led to nuclear war.* There is reason to believe that Kennedy made a telephone call to Fromm soon after the crisis. Then, in June 1963, in a major address at American University, the president departed markedly from his often hawkish Cold War rhetoric and emphasized the need for peaceful coexistence with the Soviets, along with nuclear disarmament, as a means to avert global extinction. Many briefing documents and private conversations with ‘insiders’ obviously had shaped the address. But Kennedy’s reasoning, the ethical values he presented, and even some of the specific language of the speech approximated parts of Fromm’s own writings, especially the Daedalus article.”

Fromm’s exemplary and inspirational role as a public intellectual in this regard reminds one of Michael Harrington’s contemporaneous influence on President Kennedy’s administration and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s subsequent War on Poverty as a result of his book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962). And like C. Wright Mills, Fromm “remains a model for those who wish to become public and political intellectuals,” even if his impact on the New Left, and in particular the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was nowhere near that of Mills nor, for that matter, his Freudo-Marxist sparring partner, Herbert Marcuse.

Friedman continues:

“During the most dangerous days of the Cold War, when global nuclear annihilation was a real possibility, including the disastrous American presence in Vietnam, and amid the civil rights movement and global cries for human dignity, Fromm’s public lectures and books, coupled with his exceedingly generous donations, helped to mobilize peace and human rights activists to speak out for a world without war. Here, as in the other, less political of Fromm’s lives, he often spoke in prophetic language—a man with a global mission for humanity. To that end, he helped to found and fund the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and Amnesty International and was active in both groups.”

* As Friedman later writes, “During the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, [Michael] Macoby and [David] Riesman were determined that Bundy have access to Fromm’s ideas, particularly those based on important information and documents on the Germany situation that Fromm had but that were unavailable to the State Department. Fromm therefore sometimes came up in Bundy’s briefings of Kennedy. There is no way of telling how seriously Kennedy took Fromm’s perspectives. He enjoyed contact with intellectuals and scholars but often tended to dismiss doves as unrealistic. It is clear, though, that Bundy briefed Kennedy on some of Fromm’s positions on international affairs, and the president never sought to eliminate them from his briefings.” For a startling account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, at least for those of us who’ve not kept up with recent research, please see the chapter, “The Cuban Missile Crisis—Prestige, Credibility, Power,” in Joseph Gerson’s Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (London: Pluto Press, in association with American Friends Service Committee, New England Regional Office, 2007): 93-129.

Further Reading—The following titles help to situate Fromm historically, politically, and philosophically in the incipient “subjective science” of Freudian psychoanalytic psychology as well as the Freudo-Marxism and “critical theory” that emerged from the Frankfurt School:
  • Alford, C. Fred. Levinas, The Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
  • Balbus, Isaac D. Mourning and Modernity: Essays in the Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Society. New York: Other Press, 2005.
  • Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University, 1986.
  • Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
  • Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Cavell, Marcia. The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Cavell, Marcia. Becoming a Subject: Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Danto, Elizabeth Ann. Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Dilman, Ilham. Freud and Human Nature. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1983.
  • Dilman, Ilham. Freud and the Mind. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
  • Gardner, Sebastian. Irrationality and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Jacoby, Russell. Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
  • Jacoby, Russell. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York: Basic Books, 2000 ed.
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996 (1973).
  • Kellner, Douglas. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Kellner, Douglas. Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  • Lear, Jonathan. Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990.
  • Lichtman, Richard. The Production of Desire: The Integration of Psychoanalysis into Marxist Theory. New York: Free Press, 1982.
  • Lowenthal Leo. Critical Theory and Frankfurt Theorists: Lectures, Correspondence, Conversation. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989.
  • Robinson, Paul. The Freudian Left: Wilhelm Reich, Geza Roheim, Herbert Marcuse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990 ed.
  • Wallwork, Ernest. Psychoanalysis and Ethics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Wheatland, Thomas. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  • Whitebrook, Joel. Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
  • Wilde, Lawrence. Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork. London: Free Association Books, 1993.
  • Zaretsky, Eli. Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.


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