Book Review: Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future

Kieran Durkin and Joan Braune (eds.),
Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020)

Reviewed by Matheus Capovilla Romanetto, University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

A sense of unity in theoretical pluralism

Erich Fromm once said that his “deepest intellectual and emotional impulse” had been one for “synthesis”: to “break down the walls between” the “apparently disparate elements” (1974, p. 107) of different theories and cultural stances. That this was so in ideal terms can be seen in Fromm’s particular way of bringing together as varied sources as Marxism, psychoanalysis, Weberianism, prophetic messianism, Buddhism, and many others. But it was certainly also true in what may be called an affective sense. Frommian sensitivity was born as the product of a delicate balance – not only between different doctrines, but also between their social, political, and personal intents. The end result – what he called “radical humanism” – was an ever-changing body of work: one which held together as a coherent whole in many respects, but also allowed for significant differences of color and shade within each of its new expressions.

It is thus much in the spirit of Fromm’s thought that Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory is able to display such a wealth of different perspectives on his works. Some chapters stick closer to Fromm’s vocabulary; others, perhaps, to his style. The final collection – coming from the efforts of twelve different authors – impresses us more by its inner variety than by any underlying commonalities. In terms of form, the reading experience resembles that of looking at a mosaic: it provides us with a particular selection of themes in Fromm’s works, which – without claiming to be exhaustive in any way – gradually composes a larger picture from the smaller juxtaposed segments. That many different voices and intellectual temperaments are here put side by side provides the reader both with an advantage and a challenge, which I would like to discuss now.

On the one hand, this ‘mosaic’ structure may make it difficult for those unfamiliar with Fromm’s works to have a deeper sense of the unity of his thinking. Reading this volume is definitely easier with some background on his ideas, and I figure the absolute beginner might feel a bit lost, as s/he successively finds out that Fromm had ties to social psychology, and to political research (chapters 6, 7 and 9); to the critique of capitalism, and that of patriarchy (chapters 1, 4 and 5); to messianism, and to existentialism (chapters 2, 3 and 8). In fact, this is part of the complexity of Fromm’s works themselves, and it is to the editors’ merit that they were able to bring together such seemingly disparate elements under a single volume. The book’s “Introduction” (Kieran Durkin) helps us situate ourselves better, as it presents a brief account of Fromm’s career and ideas. The reader may still bear in mind, however, that each chapter is written with much autonomy regarding its aims and point of view: so, as we gain in resolution and intensity within each separate argument, we also weaken the possibility of inferring a coherent, panoramic picture of Fromm’s thought from a comparison between the different texts.

The challenge in achiving a more global image of Fromm’s thought from this book alone may be regarded as the price we pay for its greatest quality. In fact, if theoretical compatibility is not the ultimate source for the volume’s unity, it is because its actual nucleus – the center towards which it gravitates – lies elsewhere. The “Conclusion” (Joan Braune) gives us a clue as to where we should look for this center: not in theory as such, indeed, but in practice – both scientific and political. The piece is focused on a defense of Fromm’s basic political and theoretical positions – but with an eye to their consequences for day-to-day activism, and the struggle against contemporary fascism. If studied sympathetically, it reads back all the previous chapters in the book, and makes it easier to see that – sometimes in explicitly political terms, sometimes in the more parsimonious guise of scientific discourse –, what really gives this volume its specificity is that the authors are mostly interested in taking Fromm as a point of departure for new research – and for acting upon contemporary phenomena, as opposed to merely commenting on the inner workings of his theory.

This is a fundamental difference in comparison to much of the previous literature on Fromm – and one we should praise for its freshness and sincerity. The book thus takes its own title seriously, and spends quite some time discussing – not only Fromm’s “humanism” as such, but also its contribution for our prospective “hopes” and evaluations regarding the “future” of society. This is carried in several forms. Chapter 9 (Lauren Langman and George Lundskow) presents an excellent account of “social character” – in Fromm’s definition, the nucleus of character traits common to a certain group – as a historically changing entity. It then proceeds to apply the concept to current political actors and youth, and tries to deduce the likelihood that a change in the direction of humanistic social values might happen. Chapter 8 (Charles Thorpe) fulfills a double aim: first, it presents a case for the compatibility between certain portions of Fromm’s works and those by sociologist Anthony Giddens, while also criticizing Giddens’ “Third Way” with the aid of Fromm’s proposals for a “democratic socialist” alternative. The resulting synthesis – absorbing what’s compatible between the two thinkers’ philosophical anthropologies, but insisting on Fromm’s more radical political stance against Giddens’ – is then employed as the basis for an interpretation of Trumpism in the US.

Both these chapters partake of the “Conclusion”’s intention of setting a preliminary diagnosis of the political problems of our times – such as authoritarianism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and nationalism. This is done mainly with the US in mind, and it remains for readers around the world (such as myself) to evaluate how much these efforts are also useful for understanding other social realities. Ethical and political guidelines for opposing those problematic trends are also discussed in those chapters, as well as in chapter 3 (George Lundskow), which presents us with an interpretation of the role such guidelines should have in the emergence of a progressive religious movement, facing the conservative and reactionary tendencies now supported by some forms of religiosity.

So much for the applications of Fromm’s concepts to contemporary politics. Changing our focus now: chapter 6 (Neil McLaughlin and Michael Maccoby) is written with a more prominently scientific interest in mind. Much as in one of the previously discussed texts, it attempts to synthesize Fromm’s ideas with those of another major sociologist – not Giddens anymore, but Pierre Bourdieu. The authors convincingly argue for the possibility of complementing Bourdieu’s dispositional and cognitive theory of habitus with Fromm’s notion of social character – which aims at apprehending a similar kind of phenomenon, but presents us with a richer set of categories for discussing the emotional and volitional aspects of psychic life: affects, attitudes, passions, and their articulation with other sorts of phenomena. Chapter 5 (Lynn Chancer), in its turn, paves the way for a feminist, critical appropriation of Fromm’s ideas. It weights the problematic aspects of Fromm’s way of handling gender, sexuality, and language – sometimes tinged by aspects of biologism and a male bias – against the potentialities of his relational psychoanalysis and critique of patriarchy, as ways of understanding the variability of those same phenomena across history. From a discussion of this contradiction, a consensus is tentatively achieved, regarding which aspects of Fromm’s theory should be taken as historically superseded, and which may not have been explored to their fullest explanatory potential yet.

Chapters 5 and 6 represent what is probably the most delicate balance between appraisal and criticism of Fromm in the whole book. Most of the other texts are more emphatically affirmative of the elements they discuss – sometimes perhaps unconvincingly for those not partaking of Fromm’s humanistic values, but mostly in a balanced way, and without fanaticism. This is well illustrated by the “Introduction”, which also recognizes a series of shortcomings in Fromm’s writings – without, however, giving up the idea that there is something unique and valuable about his critical theory, that should be retrieved. Generally speaking – as it should already be clear –, the volume puts forth a positive view of Fromm (a view I share in many respects, albeit not always for the same reasons), and tries to present the results of his normative humanism at their best.

What is the character of the pieces we’ve discussed so far, beyond their reaffirmation of Fromm’s intellectual heritage? Mostly, I would situate them as intermediary stages in a transition from a purely theoretical appreciation of Fromm’s works, toward their reincorporation into current scientific debates – be it in terms of his categories, or of his conduct as a researcher and political actor. Both the theoretical syntheses and the empirical applications I previously mentioned are not in the nature of fully carried-out ideas, but they have enough substance, and are sufficiently developed, for us to have an idea of what measuring Fromm’s insights against present-day issues looks like – as opposed to the risk, here happily avoided, of reducing our relationship to his ideas to an immediate acceptance or rejection of their premises, regardless of how well presented they could have been.

We can see, then, that the book’s central attempt – according to the “Introduction”, to give us a sense of the form and substance of Fromm’s critical theory – is fulfilled in a peculiar way. For his theory so far appears more as represented by the efforts to pursue its extension and continuation in a variety of directions, than in its crystallization under Fromm’s own authorship. This is true, in a certain way, also for most of the remaining chapters of the book – but they present us with a different approach, and develop elements for situating Fromm in terms, both of intellectual, and of political history.

Chapter 2 (Michael Löwy) discusses an oft forgotten portion of Fromm’s thought – the texts published from his 1922 doctoral dissertation on “Diaspora Judaism” to his 1930 essay on Die Entwicklung des Christusdogmas (The Dogma of Christ). The central aspects of these and other texts are discussed, and Fromm is situated in a more general classification of the radical Jewish intellectuals of his time. This discussion is well complemented by chapter 7 (David Norman Smith), which follows the story of Fromm’s participation in a pioneering study on the character and political attitudes of German workers during the 1930s. This is among the best documented chapters in the book: special emphasis is given to the centrality of Hilde Weiss – with whom Fromm then collaborated – for the organization and interpretation of the corresponding questionnaries, as well as for a series of other researches on the European working class and industry, which she carried through the 1920s and 1930s. Taken together, these are the strongest chapters in terms of historiography, and they center upon the earliest segment of Fromm’s career.

To these arguments, chapters 1 and 4 (Michael J. Thompson and Roger Foster, respectively) present complements of a more theoretical nature. The first of these focuses on Fromm’s notion of social relations and relatedness as having an “ontological” status and causative power in his account of psyche and society. Fromm is then presented as participating in a certain lineage of thinkers – leading back to Rousseau and Marx – who pose autonomy and self-determination as central elements for a progressive political development. Fromm is here portrayed as closer to historical materialism than to current intersubjective forms of critical theory, while still retaining a strong notion of mutual human relatedness and its psychic consequences. Chapter 4 also agrees with that – and it discusses other aspects of Fromm’s appropriation of Marx and humanism, developing them into an appreciation of the force his social theory would have for struggling against neoliberalism. Both chapters agree that we are facing the problem of a “depoliticization of social relations” (p. 88), to which a critical theory in Frommian lines should be able to respond, in providing elements for the “formation of a political subjectivity” (p. 37).

This was central to Fromm’s own activity as an intellectual and political agent, indeed. The intent of his synthetic efforts might well be understood in terms of his trying to find out new “ways of mobilizing human energy” (1961, p. 229) for a progressive politics – and the relationship theory, science, and language might have to that. To this end, I think all of the authors in this book are committed, each in her or his particular way. Mobilizing energy, for Fromm, depended on the capacity “to mobilize […] affective experience” (1989, p. 107); and experience was, for him, the product of our relatedness to the world – something to be valued over conceptual differences, as long as they were only variations of a similar ethical or political orientation. The chapters in this volume share enough of an enthusiasm for democratic, progressive change, for them to be truly concordant with one another, even where differences in interpretation are irreconcilable. The reader may expect to find theoretical inaccuracies here and there – ones I would like to discuss at more lenght in another occasion –; but s/he may also expect to find a fruitful attempt at updating Fromm’s thought in terms close to his own notion of “dialectical revision”: one that “revises the ‘classic’ formulations, with the aim of preserving their spirit” (1970, p. 26).


Fromm E (1961) May man prevail? An inquiry into the facts and fictions of foreign policy. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Fromm E (1970) “The crisis of psychoanalysis”. in: The crisis of psychoanalysis: essays on Freud, Marx, and Social Psychology. New York: Holt.

Fromm E ([1974]/1986) “In the name of life: a portrait through dialogue”. in: For the love of life. New York: The Free Press.

Fromm E ([1989]/1993) The art of being. London: Constable.

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