1900 - 1980

Dr. C. George Boeree


Erich Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt, Germany. His father was a business man and, according to Erich, rather moody. His mother was frequently depressed. In other words, like quite a few of the people we've looked at, his childhood wasn't very happy.

Like Jung, Erich came from a very religious family, in his case orthodox Jews. Fromm himself later became what he called an atheistic mystic.

In his autobiography, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Fromm talks about two events in his early adolescence that started him along his path. The first involved a friend of the family's:

As you can imagine, this news hit the 12 year old Erich hard, and he found himself asking what many of us might ask: why? Later, he began finding some answers -- partial ones, admittedly -- in Freud.

The second event was even larger: World War I. At the tender age of 14, he saw the extremes that nationalism could go to. All around him, he heard the message: We (Germans, or more precisely, Christian Germans) are great; They (the English and their allies) are cheap mercenaries. The hatred, the "war hysteria," frightened him, as well it should.

So again he wanted to understand something irrational -- the irrationality of mass behavior -- and he found some answers, this time in the writings of Karl Marx.

To finish Fromm's story, he received his PhD from Heidelberg in 1922 and began a career as a psychotherapist. He moved to the U.S. in 1934 -- a popular time for leaving Germany! -- and settled in New York City, where he met many of the other great refugee thinkers that gathered there, including Karen Horney, with whom he had an affair.

Toward the end of his career, he moved to Mexico City to teach. He had done considerable research into the relationship between economic class and personality types there. He died in 1980 in Switzerland.


As his biography suggests, Fromm's theory is a rather unique blend of Freud and Marx. Freud, of course, emphasized the unconscious, biological drives, repression, and so on. In other words, Freud postulated that our characters were determined by biology. Marx, on the other hand, saw people as determined by their society, and most especially by their economic systems.

He added to this mix of two deterministic systems something quite foreign to them: The idea of freedom. He allows people to transcend the determinisms that Freud and Marx attribute to them. In fact, Fromm makes freedom the central characteristic of human nature!

There are, Fromm points out, examples where determinism alone operates. A good example of nearly pure biological determinism, ala Freud, is animals (at least simple ones). Animals don't worry about freedom -- their instincts take care of everything. Woodchucks, for example, don't need career counseling to decide what they are going to be when they grow up: They are going to be woodchucks!

A good example of socioeconomic determinism, ala Marx, is the traditional society of the Middle Ages. Just like woodchucks, few people in the Middle Ages needed career counseling: They had fate, the Great Chain of Being, to tell them what to do. Basically, if your father was a peasant, you'd be a peasant. If your father was a king, that's what you'd become. And if you were a woman, well, there was only one role for women.

Today, we might look at life in the Middle Ages, or life as an animal, and cringe. But the fact is that the lack of freedom represented by biological or social determinism is easy. Your life has structure, meaning, there are no doubts, no cause for soul-searching, you fit in and never suffered an identity crisis.

Historically speaking, this simple, if hard, life began to get shaken up with the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, people started to see humanity as the center of the universe, instead of God. In other words, we didn't just look to the church (and other traditional establishments) for the path we were to take. Then came the Reformation, which introduced the idea of each of us being individually responsible for our own soul's salvation. And then came democratic revolutions such as the American and the French revolutions. Now all of a sudden we were supposed to govern ourselves! And then came the industrial revolution, and instead of tilling the soil or making things with our hands, we had to sell our labor in exchange for money. All of a sudden, we became employees and consumers! Then came socialist revolutions such as the Russian and the Chinese, which introduced the idea of participatory economics. You were no longer responsible only for your own well-being, but for fellow workers as well!

So, over a mere 500 years, the idea of the individual, with individual thoughts, feelings, moral conscience, freedom, and responsibility, came into being. but with individuality came isolation, alienation, and bewilderment. Freedom is a difficult thing to have, and when we can we tend to flee from it.

Fromm describes three ways in which we escape from freedom:

1. Authoritarianism. We seek to avoid freedom by fusing ourselves with others, by becoming a part of an authoritarian system like the society of the Middle Ages. There are two ways to approach this. One is to submit to the power of others, becoming passive and compliant. The other is to become an authority yourself, a person who applies structure to others. Either way, you escape your separate identity.

Fromm referred to the extreme version of authoritarianism as masochism and sadism, and points out that both feel compelled to play their separate roles, so that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist, is not free to choose his actions. But milder versions of authoritarianism are everywhere. In many classes, for example, there is an implicit contract between students and professors: Students demand structure, and the professor sticks to his notes. It seems innocuous and even natural, but this way the students avoid taking any responsibility for their learning, and the professor can avoid taking on the real issues of his field.

2. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by, in a sense, eliminating themselves: If there is no me, how can anything hurt me? But others respond to pain by striking out against the world: If I destroy the world, how can it hurt me? It is this escape from freedom that accounts for much of the indiscriminate nastiness of life -- brutality, vandalism, humiliation, vandalism, crime, terrorism....

Fromm adds that, if a person's desire to destroy is blocked by circumstances, he or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of self-destructiveness is, of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses, drug addiction, alcoholism, even the joys of passive entertainment. He turns Freud's death instinct upside down: Self-destructiveness is frustrated destructiveness, not the other way around.

3. Automaton conformity. Authoritarians escape by hiding within an authoritarian hierarchy. But our society emphasizes equality! There is less hierarchy to hide in (though plenty remains for anyone who wants it, and some who don't). When we need to hide, we hide in our mass culture instead. When I get dressed in the morning, there are so many decisions! But I only need to look at what you are wearing, and my frustrations disappear. Or I can look at the television, which, like a horoscope, will tell me quickly and effectively what to do. If I look like, talk like, think like, feel like... everyone else in my society, then I disappear into the crowd, and I don't need to acknowledge my freedom or take responsibility. It is the horizontal counterpart to authoritarianism.

The person who uses automaton conformity is like a social chameleon: He takes on the coloring of his surroundings. Since he looks like a million other people, he no longer feels alone. He isn't alone, perhaps, but he's not himself either. The automaton conformist experiences a split between his genuine feelings and the colors he shows the world, very much along the lines of Horney's theory.

In fact, since humanity's "true nature" is freedom, any of these escapes from freedom alienates us from ourselves. Here's what Fromm had to say:

I should add here that freedom is in fact a complex idea, and that Fromm is talking about "true" personal freedom, rather than just political freedom (often called liberty):  Most of us, whether they are free or not, tend to like the idea of political freedom, because it means that we can do what we want.  A good example is the sexual sadist (or masochist) who has a psychological problem that drives his behavior.  He is not free in the personal sense, but he will welcome the politically free society that says that what consenting adults do among themselves is not the state's business!  Another example involves most of us today:  We may well fight for freedom (of the political sort), and yet when we have it, we tend to be conformist and often rather irresponsible.  We have the vote, but we fail to use it!  Fromm is very much for political freedom -- but he is especially eager that we make use of that freedom and take the responsibility that goes with it.


Which of the escapes from freedom you tend to use has a great deal to do with what kind of family you grew up in. Fromm outlines two kinds of unproductive families.

1. Symbiotic families. Symbiosis is the relationship two organisms have who cannot live without each other. In a symbiotic family, some members of the family are "swallowed up" by other members, so that they do not fully develop personalities of their own. The more obvious example is the case where the parent "swallows" the child, so that the child's personality is merely a reflection of the parent's wishes. In many traditional societies, this is the case with many children, especially girls.

The other example is the case where the child "swallows" the parent. In this case, the child dominates or manipulates the parent, who exists essentially to serve the child. If this sounds odd, let me assure you it is common, especially in traditional societies, especially in the relationship between a boy and his mother. Within the context of the particular culture, it is even necessary: How else does a boy learn the art of authority he will need to survive as an adult?

In reality, nearly everyone in a traditional society learns both how to dominate and how to be submissive, since nearly everyone has someone above them and below them in the social hierarchy. Obviously, the authoritarian escape from freedom is built-in to such a society. But note that, for all that it may offend our modern standards of equality, this is the way people lived for thousands of years. It is a very stable social system, it allows for a great deal of love and friendship, and billions of people live in it still.

2. Withdrawing families. In fact, the main alternative is most notable for its cool indifference, if not cold hatefulness. Although withdrawal as a family style has always been around, it has come to dominate some societies only in the last few hundred years, that is, since the bourgeoisie -- the merchant class -- arrive on the scene in force.

The "cold" version is the older of the two, found in northern Europe and parts of Asia, and wherever merchants are a formidable class. Parents are very demanding of their children, who are expected to live up to high, well-defined standards. Punishment is not a matter of a slap upside the head in full anger and in the middle of dinner; it is instead a formal affair, a full-fledged ritual, possibly involving cutting switches and meeting in the woodshed. Punishment is cold-blooded, done "for your own good." Alternatively, a culture may use guilt and withdrawal of affection as punishment. Either way, children in these cultures become rather strongly driven to succeed in whatever their culture defines as success.

This puritanical style of family encourages the destructive escape from freedom, which is internalized until circumstances (such as war) allow its release. I might add that this kind of family more immediately encourages perfectionism -- living by the rules -- which is also a way of avoiding freedom that Fromm does not discuss. When the rules are more important than people, destructiveness is inevitable.

The second withdrawing kind of family is the modern family, found in the most advanced parts of the world, most notably the USA. Changes in attitudes about child rearing have lead many people to shudder at the use of physical punishment and guilt in raising children. The newer idea is to raise your children as your equals. A father should be a boy's best buddy; a mother should be a daughter's soul mate. But, in the process of controlling their emotions, the parents become coolly indifferent. They are, in fact, no longer really parents, just cohabitants with their children. The children, now without any real adult guidance, turn to their peers and to the media for their values. This is the modern, shallow, television family!

The escape from freedom is particularly obvious here: It is automaton conformity. Although this is still very much a minority family in the world (except, of course, on TV!), this is the one Fromm worries about the most. It seems to portent the future.

What makes up a good, healthy, productive family? Fromm suggests it is a family where parents take the responsibility to teach their children reason in an atmosphere of love. Growing up in this sort of family, children learn to acknowledge their freedom and to take responsibility for themselves, and ultimately for society as a whole.

The social unconscious

But our families mostly just reflect our society and culture. Fromm emphasizes that we soak up our society with our mother's milk. It is so close to us that we usually forget that our society is just one of an infinite number of ways of dealing with the issues of life. We often think that our way of doing things is the only way, the natural way. We have learned so well that it has all become unconscious -- the social unconscious, to be precise. So, many times we believe that we are acting according to our own free will, but we are only following orders we are so used to we no longer notice them.

Fromm believes that our social unconscious is best understood by examining our economic systems. In fact, he defines, and even names, five personality types, which he calls orientations, in economic terms!  If you like, you can take a personality test made up of lists of adjectives Fromm used to describe his orientations.  Click here to see it!

1. The receptive orientation. These are people who expect to get what they need. if they don't get it immediately, they wait for it. They believe that all goods and satisfactions come from outside themselves. This type is most common among peasant populations. It is also found in cultures that have particularly abundant natural resources, so that one need not work hard for one's sustenance (although nature may also suddenly withdraw its bounty!). it is also found at the very bottom of any society: Slaves, serfs, welfare families, migrant workers... all are at the mercy of others.

This orientation is associated with symbiotic families, especially where children are "swallowed" by parents, and with the masochistic (passive) form of authoritarianism. It is similar to Freud's oral passive, Adler's leaning-getting, and Horney's compliant personality. In its extreme form, it can be characterized by adjectives such as submissive and wishful. In a more moderate form, adjectives such as accepting and optimistic are more descriptive.

2. The exploitative orientation. These people expect to have to take what they need. In fact, things increase in value to the extent that they are taken from others: Wealth is preferably stolen, ideas plagiarized, love achieved by coercion. This type is prevalent among history's aristocracies, and in the upper classes of colonial empires. Think of the English in India for example: Their position was based entirely on their power to take from the indigenous population. Among their characteristic qualities is the ability to be comfortable ordering others around! We can also see it in pastoral barbarians and populations who rely on raiding (such as the Vikings).

The exploitative orientation is associated with the "swallowing" side of the symbiotic family, and with the masochistic style of authoritarianism. They are Freud's oral aggressive, Adler's ruling-dominant, and Horney's aggressive types. In extremes, they are aggressive, conceited, and seducing. Mixed with healthier qualities, they are assertive, proud, captivating.

3. The hoarding orientation. hoarding people expect to keep. They see the world as possessions and potential possessions. Even loved ones are things to possess, to keep, or to buy. Fromm, drawing on Karl Marx, relates this type to the bourgeoisie, the merchant middle class, as well as richer peasants and crafts people. He associates it particularly with the Protestant work ethic and such groups as our own Puritans.

Hoarding is associated with the cold form of withdrawing family, and with destructiveness. I might add that there is a clear connection with perfectionism as well. Freud would call it the anal retentive type, Adler (to some extent) the avoiding type, and Horney (a little more clearly) the withdrawing type. In its pure form, it means you are stubborn, stingy, and unimaginative. If you are a milder version of hoarding, you might be steadfast, economical, and practical.

4. The marketing orientation. The marketing orientation expects to sell. Success is a matter of how well I can sell myself, package myself, advertise myself. My family, my schooling, my jobs, my clothes -- all are an advertisement, and must be "right." Even love is thought of as a transaction. Only the marketing orientation thinks up the marriage contract, wherein we agree that I shall provide such and such, and you in return shall provide this and that. If one of us fails to hold up our end of the arrangement, the marriage is null and void -- no hard feelings (perhaps we can still be best of friends!) This, according to Fromm, is the orientation of the modern industrial society. This is our orientation!

This modern type comes out of the cool withdrawing family, and tend to use automaton conformity as its escape from freedom. Adler and Horney don't have an equivalent, but Freud might: This is at least half of the vague phallic personality, the type that lives life as flirtation. In extreme, the marketing person is opportunistic, childish, tactless. Less extreme, and he or she is purposeful, youthful, social. Notice today's values as expressed to us by our mass media: Fashion, fitness, eternal youth, adventure, daring, novelty, sexuality... these are the concerns of the "yuppie," and his or her less-wealthy admirers. The surface is everything! Let's go bungee-jumping!

5. The productive orientation. There is a healthy personality as well, which Fromm occasionally refers to as the person without a mask. This is the person who, without disavowing his or her biological and social nature, nevertheless does not shirk away from freedom and responsibility. This person comes out of a family that loves without overwhelming the individual, that prefers reason to rules, and freedom to conformity.

The society that gives rise to the productive type (on more than a chance basis) doesn't exist yet, according to Fromm. He does, of course, have some ideas about what it will be like. He calls it humanistic communitarian socialism. That's quite a mouthful, and made up of words that aren't exactly popular in the USA, but let me explain: Humanistic means oriented towards human beings, and not towards some higher entity -- not the all-powerful State nor someone's conception of God. Communitarian means composed of small communities (Gemeinschaften, in German), as opposed to big government or corporations. Socialism means everyone is responsible for the welfare of everyone else. Thus understood, it's hard to argue with Fromm's idealism!

Fromm says that the first four orientations (which others might call neurotic) are living in the having mode. They focus on consuming, obtaining, possessing.... They are defined by what they have. Fromm says that "I have it" tends to become "it has me," and we become driven by our possessions! The productive orientation , on the other hand, lives in the being mode. What you are is defined by your actions in this world. You live without a mask, experiencing life, relating to people, being yourself.

He says that most people, being so used to the having mode, use the word have to describe their problems: "Doctor, I have a problem: I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful home, wonderful children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries." He is looking to the therapist to remove the bad things, and let him keep the good ones, a little like asking a surgeon to take out your gall bladder. What you should be saying is more like "I am troubled. I am happily married, yet I cannot sleep...." By saying you have a problem, you are avoiding facing the fact that you are the problem -- i.e. you avoid, once again, taking responsibility for your life.

Orientation Society Family Escape from Freedom
Receptive Peasant society Symbiotic (passive) Authoritarian (masochistic)
Exploitative Aristocratic society Symbiotic (active) Authoritarian (sadistic)
Hoarding Bourgeois society Withdrawing (puritanical) Perfectionist to destructive
Marketing Modern society Withdrawing (infantile) Automaton conformist
Productive Humanistic communitarian
Loving and reasoning Freedom and responsibility acknowledged and accepted


Fromm was always interested in trying to understand the really evil people of this world -- not just one's who were confused or mislead or stupid or sick, but the one's who, with full consciousness of the evil of their acts, performed them anyway: Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and so on, large and small.

All the orientations we've talked about, productive and non-productive, in the having mode or the being mode, have one thing in common: They are all efforts at life. Like Horney, Fromm believed that even the most miserable neurotic is at the least trying to cope with life. They are, to use his word, biophilous, life-loving.

But there is another type of person he calls necrophilous -- the lovers of death. They have the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion "to tear apart living structures."

If you think back to high school, you may remember a few misfits: They were real horror movie aficionados. They may have made models of torture devices and guillotines. They loved to play war games. They liked to blow things up with their chemistry sets. They got a kick out of torturing small animals. They treasured their guns. They were really into mechanical devices. The more sophisticated the technology, the happier they were. Beavis and Butthead are modeled after these kids.

I remember watching an interview on TV once, back during the little war in Nicaragua. There were plenty of American mercenaries among the Contras, and one in particular had caught the reporters eye. He was a munitions expert -- someone who blew up bridges, buildings, and, of course, the occasional enemy soldier. When asked how he got into this line of work, he smiled and told the reporter that he might not like the story. You see, when he was a kid, he liked to put firecrackers up the backside of little birds he had caught, light the fuses, let them go, and watch them blow up. This man was a necrophiliac.

Fromm makes a few guesses as to how such a person happens. He suggested that there may be some genetic flaw that prevents them from feeling or responding to affection. It may also be a matter of a life so full of frustration that the person spends the rest of their life in a rage. And finally, he suggests that it may be a matter of growing up with a necrophilous mother, so that the child has no one to learn love from. It is very possible that some combination of these factors is at work. And yet there is still the idea that these people know what they are doing, are conscious of their evil, and choose it. It is a subject that would bear more study!

Having Mode Receptive
Being Mode Productive

Human Needs

Erich Fromm, like many others, believed that we have needs that go far beyond the basic, physiological ones that some people, like Freud and many behaviorists, think explain all of our behavior.  He calls these human needs, in contrast to the more basic animal needs.  And he suggests that the human needs can be expressed in one simple statement:  The human being needs to find an answer to his existence.

Fromm says that helping us to answer this question is perhaps the major purpose of culture.  In a way, he says, all cultures are like religions, trying to explain the meaning of life.  Some, of course, do so better than others.

A more negative way of expressing this need is to say that we need to avoid insanity, and he defines neurosis as an effort to satisfy the need for answers that doesn't work for us.  He says that every neurosis is a sort of private religion, one we turn to when our culture no longer satisfies.

He lists five human needs:

1. Relatedness

As human beings, we are aware of our separateness from each other, and seek to overcome it.  Fromm calls this our need for relatedness, and views it as love in the broadest sense.  Love, he says, "is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one's own self." (p 37 of The Sane Society).  It allows us to transcend our separateness without denying us our uniqueness.

The need is so powerful that sometimes we seek it in unhealthy ways.  For example, some seek to eliminate their isolation by submitting themselves to another person, to a group, or to their conception of a God.  Others look to eliminate their isolation by dominating others.  Either way, these are not satisfying:  Your separateness is not overcome.

Another way some attempt to overcome this need is by denying it.  The opposite of relatedness is what Fromm calls narcissism.  Narcissism -- the love of self -- is natural in infants, in that they don't perceive themselves as separate from the world and others to begin with.  But in adults, it is a source of pathology.  Like the schizophrenic, the narcissist has only one reality:  the world of his own thoughts, feelings, and needs.  His world becomes what he wants it to be, and he loses contact with reality.

2. Creativity

Fromm believes that we all desire to overcome, to transcend, another fact of our being:  Our sense of being passive creatures.  We want to be creators.  There are many ways to be creative: We give birth, we plant seeds, we make pots, we paint pictures, we write books, we love each other.  Creativity is, in fact, an expression of love

Unfortunately, some don't find an avenue for creativity.  Frustrated, they attempt to transcend their passivity by becoming destroyers instead.  Destroying puts me "above" the things -- or people -- I destroy.  It makes me feel powerful.  We can hate as well as love.  But in the end, it fails to bring us that sense of transcendence we need.

3. Rootedness

We also need roots.  We need to feel at home in the universe, even though, as human beings, we are somewhat alienated from the natural world.

The simplest version is to maintain our ties to our mothers.  But to grow up means we have to leave the warmth of our mothers' love.  To stay would be what Fromm calls a kind of psychological incest.  In order to manage in the difficult world of adulthood, we need to find new, boader roots.  We need to discover our brotherhood (and sisterhood) with humanity.

This, too has its pathological side:  For example, the schhizophrenic tries to retreat into a womb-like existence, one where, you might say, the umbilical cord has never been cut.  There is also the neurotic who is afraid to leave his home, even to get the mail.  And there's the fanatic who sees his tribe, his country, his church... as the only good one, the only real one.  Everyone else is a dangerous outsider, to be avoided or even destroyed.

4.  A sense of identity

"Man may be defined as the animal that can say 'I.'" (p 62 of The Sane Society)  Fromm believes that we need to have a sense of identity, of individuality, in order to stay sane.

This need is so powerful that we are sometimes driven to find it, for example by doing anything for signs of status, or by trying desperately to conform.  We sometimes will even give up our lives in order to remain a part of our group.  But this is only pretend identity, an identity we take from others, instead of one we develop ourselves, and it fails to satisfy our need.

5. A frame of orientation

Finally, we need to understand the world and our place in it.  Again, our society -- and especially the religious aspects of our culture -- often attempts to provide us with this understanding.  Things like our myths, our philosophies, and our sciences provide us with structure.

Fromm says this is really two needs:  First, we need a frame of orientation -- almost anything will do.  Even a bad one is better than none!  And so people are generally quite gullible.  We want to believe, sometimes even desperately.  If we don't have an explanation handy, we will make one up, via rationalization.

The second aspect is that we want to have a good frame of orientation, one that is useful, accurate.  This is where reason comes in.  It is nice that our parents and others provide us with explanations for the world and our lives, but if they don't hold up, what good are they?  A frame of orientation needs to be rational.

Fromm adds one more thing:  He says we don't just want a cold philosophy or material science.  We want a frame of orientation that provides us with meaning.  We want understanding, but we want a warm, human understanding.


Fromm, in some ways, is a transition figure or, if you prefer, a theorist that brings other theories together. Most significantly for us, he draws together the Freudian and neo-Freudian theories we have been talking about (especially Adler's and Horney's) and the humanistic theories we will discuss later.  He is, in fact, so close to being an existentialist that it almost doesn't matter! I believe interest in his ideas will rise as the fortune of existential psychology does.

Another aspect of his theory is fairly unique to him: his interest in the economic and cultural roots of personality. No one before or since has put it so directly: Your personality is to a considerable extent a reflection of such issues as social class, minority status, education, vocation, religious and philosophical background, and so forth. This has been a very under-represented view, perhaps because of its association with Marxism. But it is, I think, inevitable that we begin to consider it more and more, especially as a counterbalance to the increasing influence of biological theories.


Fromm is an excellent and exciting writer.  You can find the basics of his theory in Escape from Freedom (1941) and Man for Himself (1947).  His interesting treatise on love in the modern world is called The Art of Loving (1956).  My favorite of his books is The Sane Society (1955), which perhaps should have been called "the insane society" because most of it is devoted to demonstrating how crazy our world is right now, and how that leads to our psychological difficulties.  He has also written "the" book on aggression, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), which includes his ideas on necrophilia. He has written many other great books, including ones on Christianity, Marxism, and Zen Buddhism!

Copyright 1997, 2006  C. George Boeree