Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was a German-American social psychologist and psychoanalyst, who was associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. His work challenged the theories of Sigmund Freud, [1] and brought psychoanalysis to bear on sociological and political questions.

Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt to Jewish parents. He studied at the University of Heidelberg under sociologist Alfred Weber, psychiatrist Karl Jaspers and philosopher Heinrich Rickert. Following the conferral of his PhD in sociology in 1922, Fromm trained as a psychoanalyst at the Berlin Institute of Psychoanalysis. He began his own clinical practice in 1927, only to join the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1930. [2]

In 1934, after the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Fromm moved to New York to take up a position at Columbia University. In New York, he met Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Together they belong to a Neo-Freudian school of psychoanalytical thought that emphasizes the influence of social relationships and cultural and environmental factors on individual thought and action. Horney and Fromm had both an intellectual and romantic relationship that ended in the late 1930s.[3] He left Columbia in 1943 to set up the New York branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry. Later, in 1946, he co-founded the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology.

Fromm taught at Bennington College as a faculty member from 1941 to 1949. He also taught courses at the New School for Social Research from 1941 to 1959. In 1949, Fromm moved to Mexico City where he was offered a professorship at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He taught until his retirement in 1965. Fromm also taught at Michigan State University and New York University, maintained his own clinical practice, and published prolifically during this time.

Fromm’s work was notable as much for its social and political commentary as for its psychological underpinning. Indeed, Escape from Freedom, published in 1941, is considered a founding work of political psychology. In it, Fromm explored humanity’s changing relationship to the idea of (and desire for) freedom, with particular regard to the consequences of its absence for the individual. Though Fromm’s work was critical of Freud’s concepts, he engaged more favorably with the ideas of Karl Marx. One of his best-known books, The Sane Society (1955), argued in favor of a humanistic and democratic socialism. Building primarily upon Marx’s early works, Fromm sought to re-emphasise the ideal of freedom which he found missing in most Soviet Marxism.

The publication of The Sane Society coincided with a period of activity in American politics for Fromm. In the mid-1950s, he joined the Socialist Party of America and provided an alternative viewpoint to McCarthyism. This alternative viewpoint was best expressed in his May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy (1961). The Clara Mayer papers collection held by the New School Archives contains correspondence that evinces Fromm’s political commitments. One remarkable exchange was written by Fromm (originally to Clara Mayer, but responded to by New School President Hans Simons) concerning an internal committee appointed to investigate Dr. Bernard Stern, a professor who refused to testify before the United States Senate on allegations of Communist affiliation. In it, Fromm declares:

I do not know Dr. S. personally, but there is a matter of principle involved about which I want to express my opinion. […] I feel it is a serious threat to our democracy if teachers are dismissed for opinions that they once held and do not hold anymore.

A file of Fromm’s writings is in the New School faculty vertical files collection held by the New School Archives. It contains pieces written during Fromm’s long association with the School and, like much of his work, grappled with urgent questions of religion, social organization, and politics, and the place of the individual within them. For example, “Faith as a Character Trait” – published in Psychiatry: Journal of the Biology and Pathology of Interpersonal Relations in August 1942 – explored faith as an inner attitude, the specific object of which is of secondary importance. The file also contains “The Case for Unilateral Disarmament” – published in Daedalus in Fall 1960 – in which Fromm called for a radical change in America’s method of negotiating nuclear disarmament. He proposed the United States unilaterally take gradual steps toward disarmament in the expectation that the Soviet Union would reciprocate. Such a piece comes as no surprise given Fromm’s central role in SANE, an organization founded in 1957 to advocate for international peace and nuclear disarmament. The organization’s original name comes from Fromm’s book, The Sane Society (it is now called Peace Action).

The New School faculty vertical files collection also contains information about two lecture courses Fromm delivered at the School. The first, in Spring 1954, was titled “Mental Health in the Modern World”. It was a qualitative rather than quantitative discussion that asked:

How are the facts of mental health and sickness as we describe them related to the particular structure of our culture as of the year 1953? […] What in the procedure, what in the structure of our culture makes for elements which are conducive to health, and what in the structure makes for elements conducive to mental sickness?

The second series of lectures, offered in Spring 1957, was titled “Origin and Future of Psychoanalysis”. This course mapped the limitations of Freud’s psychoanalytical concepts and explored the future of the discipline. This course might be of interest to researchers interested in Fromm’s criticism of Freud – criticism that earlier saw him suspended by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute from supervising students. [4]

Fromm moved from Mexico City to Switzerland in 1974, where he lived until his death in 1980.


[1] Cherry, Kendra. 2018. “Bio of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm.” Verywell Mind (available online).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.



Erich Fromm (1900-1980) Liss Goldring / Erich Fromm Estate.