Erich Fromm: freedom and alienation, and loving and being in education

Erich Fromm: freedom and alienation, and loving and being in education. Erich Fromm was both a practicing psychoanalyst and a committed and insightful social theorist. We explore his continuing relevance to educational practice and focus on his deeply instructive appreciation of freedom, love and human flourishing.

Contents: introduction · erich fromm – his life · the fear of freedom · alientation · erich fromm and the art of loving · having and being · erich fromm on education · conclusion · further reading and references · links

To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient an active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities. Least of all it is passive as far as the growth and liberation of one’s own person are concerned….

The situation of mankind is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues – least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction – or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with – the love of life. Erich Fromm (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, page 438

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was both a practicing psychoanalyst and a committed social theorist. He had the ability to look, as Mills (1959) would have put it, to both individual troubles and public issues. He also brought to his work a strong religious understanding, a humanistic ethic and a vision of possibility. He had the ability to write for a popular audience, to develop a strong social critique, and to combine psychological insight with social theory (drawing on diverse sources such as Freud and Marx). These qualities did not endear him to a number of his colleagues who viewed his efforts with some suspicion and even alarm. Today, Erich Fromm’s work is not a major focus of academic attention – but it still repays study. His insights into the nature of society and human activity have a lot to say to educators – especially those committed to working for fairer and more convivial forms of living. In this article we will briefly review his life and contribution, and look to four areas of his work that directly impact upon the work of educators: freedom, alienation, love and being. We do not explore in any detail his contribution to psychoanalytical thinking and practice.

Erich Fromm – his life

Born in Frankfurt on March 23, 1900, Erich Fromm was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. Funk (1999) reports that he characterized his parents as “highly neurotic” and himself as “a probably rather unbearable, neurotic child”. Erich Fromm experienced a religious but cosmopolitan education. As Burston (1991) has noted, his adolescent role models were all scholarly Jews. Hermann Cohen was liberal and well known as an neo-Kantain thinker; Rabbi Nehemia Nobel was a celebrated Talmudist who was also versed in psychoanalytic literature; and Rabbi Salman Baruch Rabinkow was a student of Jewish mysticism with a strong sympathy for socialism. Given these early influences it is perhaps not surprising that Erich Fromm’s orientation was committed, open and critical. It is also not surprising that his initial vocation was rabbinic. However, the events of the First World War shook Fromm’s thinking.

When the war ended in 1918, I was a deeply troubled young man who was obsessed by the question of how war was possible, by the wish to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior, by a passionate desire for peace and international understanding. More, I had become deeply suspicious of all official ideologies and declarations, and filled with the conviction ‘of all one must doubt. (quoted by Funk 1999)

His studies took him to the University of Frankfurt where, in 1920, he helped to found the Freies Judisches Lehrhaus (directed by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig), Erich Fromm then went on to undertake a doctorate (in sociology) at Heidelberg (completed in 1922). In 1924 he began his studies in psychoanalysis (studying first in Frankfurt, then at the Berlin Institute of Psychoanalysis). He also began to turn away from religious observance. Fromm also got married (in 1926) to Frieda Reichman – but this was to be a short union. Reichman was ten years his senior – and had previously been his psychoanalyst. The marriage lasted four years, but Fromm and Freida Fromm Reichman continued to be friends and professional collaborators (Reichman made a notable contribution to the development of pyschoanalysis in relation to schizophrenia ).

On finishing his studies he helped to found the Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute, and was invited to join Frankfurt Institute for Social Research by Max Horheimerthen (and by so doing became a member of the so called ‘Frankfurt School’). From 1929 to 1932 he lectured at both the Psychoanalytic Institute, Frankfurt, and at the University of Frankfurt and worked on a study of the authoritarian character structure of German workers prior to Hitler’s coming to power (published many years later in 1984 as The Working Class in Weimar Germany).

Erich Fromm looked to bring together insights from psychoanalysis and an appreciation of the impact of social structure (influenced, in particular, by his reading of Marx):

I wanted to understand the laws that govern the life of the individual man, and the laws of society-that is, of men in their social existence. I tried to see the lasting truth in Freud’s concepts as against those assumptions which were in need of revision. I tried to do the same with Marx’s theory, and finally I tried to arrive at a synthesis which followed from the understanding and the criticism of both thinkers. (quoted by Funk 1999)

The Frankfurt Institute was forced out of Germany by the tightening grip of Nazism first to Geneva and then in 1934 to Columbia University. At the time Erich Fromm was suffering from tuberculosis. He stayed in Davos for a number of months before settling in the United States and lecturing at the New School of Social Research (1934–39), Columbia (1940-41), Yale (1949-50), and Bennington (1941-50). He began to publish papers that were critical of Freudian thinking (which both alienated him from some of his Frankfurt school colleagues, and many within US analytical circles). His focus, it can be argued, shifted from a Freudian concern with unconscious motivations, to a recognition that humans are social beings whose beliefs and motivations are deeply inscribed by the societies and cultures of which they are part.

In 1941, the first of Erich Fromm’s deeply influential books appeared: Escape From Freedom (published 1942 as The Fear of Freedom in the UK). It argued that ‘freedom from the traditional bonds of medieval society, though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity’ (Fromm 1942: 89). This alienation from place and community, and the insecurities and fears entailed, helps to explain how people seek the security and rewards of authoritarian social orders such as fascism. His critique of Freud led to him being suspended from supervising students by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1944. As Burston (1991) has noted Erich Fromm then joined with Clara Thompson, Harry Stack Sullivan, and ex-wife Frieda Fromm-Reichman (among others) to found the William Alanson White Institute (of which he was Clinical Director from 1946 to 1950).

Fromm married for a second time in 1944 (to Henny Gurland) and become and American citizen. In 1950 he relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, Mexico City (at which he taught until 1965). The move was spurred by his second wife’s illness – and physician’s advice that a favourable climate would benefit her. Sadly she soon died (in 1952). Erich Fromm still practiced as a psychoanalyst and after his wife’s death he was invited to found the Mexican Institute of Psychoanalysis in Mexico City, which he directed till 1976.

Erich Fromm’s writing continued with Man For Himself (1947) and The Sane Society (1956). ‘Life in twentieth century Democracy’, Fromm wrote, ‘constitutes in many ways another escape from freedom’ (1956: vii). The analysis of this ‘escape’ via the notion of alienation was particularly powerful. These books, as Kellner (undated) has noted, ‘popularized the neo-Marxian critiques of the media and consumer society, and promoted democratic socialist perspectives during an era when social repression made it difficult and dangerous to advocate radical positions’.

Fromm remarried in 1953 (to Annis Freeman) , and continued to pursue a punishing schedule. He taught for around three months a year in the USA until 1967 (becoming a Professor at New York in 1961/2) and still worked in Mexico. He was also active politically. He was involved in the civil rights movement, campaigns for nuclear disarmament, in anti-Vietnam war activities, and the ecology movement. Erich Fromm’s writing continued to be extremely popular through the 1950s and 1960s (although not with the psychoanalytical establishment). A number of ‘classic’ books appeared including The Art of Loving (1957) and Sigmund Freud’s Mission (1959). His continuing engagement with religious thinking (although he was himself a humanist) and notions such as ‘love’ was a source of irritation not just to orthodox Freudians – it was also to be the basis of a series of sharp disagreements with some on the left like Herbert Marcuse (with whom he conducted a series of exchanges on the subject).

In the 1960s Erich Fromm began to explore a further fundamental orientation present in western societies – a fascination with death and things (objects). This theme first appeared in The Heart of Man (1964) and grew into full realization in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). As before, Fromm believed that the central driving force was the desire to make up for a lack of authentic being and selfhood. Funk (1999) describes this thus, ‘One escape route from this malaise encountered ever more often is to identify with the lifeless, to find attraction in each and every thing as long as it is reified and devoid of life (or else can be reduced to this condition)’. To describe this orientation toward, or love of, death Erich Fromm used the notion of necrophilia. He was concerned to go beyond the popular usage of the term (to refer to sexual contact with the dead; and/or the desire to be near to corpses), and to look to necrophilia as a character-rooted passion – the passion to transform that which alive into something unalive (Fromm 1973: 332). Classically he set this passion to ‘tear apart living structures’ within a proper social and political context. ‘With the increasing production an division of labour, the formation of a large surplus, and the building of states with hierarchies and elites’, he wrote, ‘large-scale human destructiveness and cruelty came into existence and grew as civilization and the role of power grew’ (Fromm 1973: 435).

To Have or To Be (1976) was Erich Fromm’s last major work. In it he argues that two ways of existence were competing for ‘the spirit of mankind’ – having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. The being mode is rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. The dominance of the having mode (as he argued in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness) was bringing the world to the edge of disaster (ecological, social and psychological). Erich Fromm argued that only a fundamental change in human character ‘from a preponderance of the having mode to a preponderance of the being mode of existence can save us from a psychological and economic catastrophe’ (1976: 165) and set out some ways forward.

Erich Fromm retired to Locarno, Switerzerland, in 1976. He died of a heart attack at Muralto, Switzerland on March 18, 1980. Fromm was survived by his third wife, Annis Freeman Fromm. She died in September 1985.

To be completed

Further reading and references

Fromm, E. (1942) The Fear of Freedom, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 257 + xi pages. A classic study of the submission to authority and totalitarism. Chapters explore freedom as a psychological problem; freedom in the age of the reformation; two aspects of freedom for modern man; mechanisms of escape; the psychology of nazism; and freedom and democracy. An appendix explores character and the social problem.

Fromm, E. (1947) Man For Himself. An inquiry into the psychology of ethics, 1969 edn. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Premier. 256 + x pages. Discusses the problem of ethics, ‘of norms and values leading to the realization of man’s self and of his potentialities’ (v). Part one examines the problem; part two, humanistic ethics (the applied science of the art of living); part three, human nature and character; and part four, problems of humanistic ethics.

Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 370 + ix pages. Described by Fromm as a continuation of Fear of Freedom and, to some extent, Man for Himself, Fromm tries to show that ‘life in twentieth century Democracy constitutes in many ways another escape from freedom, and the analysis of this particular escape, centered around the concept of alienation constitutes a good part of this book’ (vii). The central part of the book deals with human being’s social character and the structure of capitalism. Erich Fromm goes on to argue for a third way between totalitarianism and capitalist managerialism – humanistic communitarianism: ‘Man’s use by man must end, and economy must become the servant for the development of man’ (361).

Fromm, E. (1957) The Art of Loving 1995 edn. London: Thorsons. 104 + viii pages. Now marketed as a ‘classic of personal development’, this book is very different from most of the other books that inhabit the personal growth shelves in bookshops. Erich Fromm’s exploration of love is an exercise in social theory. He asks ‘is love an art?’, goes on to examine the theory of love, and then explores love and its disintegration in contemporary western society. A final chapter examines the practice of love. While written from his distinctive humanistic perspective, the book looks to various religious sources to help make sense of love.

Fromm, E. (1961) May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy Fromm’s exploration of fears of Russian aggression via an analysis, amongst other things of Communist social structure.

Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil A study of the polarity of possible orientations on the basis of character and the first major statement Erich Fromm’s attempts to dissect what he saw as a further fundamental orientation present in western societies – a fascination with death and things (objects).

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 520 + xvi pages. This book brings develops Erich Fromm’s thinking around aggression and necrophilia – passion to ‘tear apart living structures’. Part one deals with instincivism, behaviorism, and psychoanalysis; part two with the evidence against the instinctivist theses; an part three with the varieties of aggression and destructiveness and their respective conditions. An appendix deals with Freud’s theory of agressiveness and destructiveness.

Fromm, E. (1976) To Have or to Be, 1979 edn. London: Abacus. 224 pages. In this book Erich Fromm argues that two ways of existence are competing for ‘the spirit of mankind’ – having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. The being mode is rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. Part one deals with understanding the difference between having and being; part two with analyzing the fundamental differences between the two modes; and part three with the new man and the new society.


Burston, D. (1991) The Legacy of Erich Fromm, Harvard University Press. See also his web page – ‘Erich Fromm: The forgotten prophet’,

Fromm, E. (1950) Psychoanalysis and Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fromm, E. (1958) Sigmund Freud’s Mission. An Analysis of His Personality and Influence

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man, New York: Frederick Ungar.

Fromm, E. (1966) You Shall Be Gods, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Fromm, E. (1970) The Crisis of Psychoanalysis. Essays on Freud, Marx, and Social Psychology, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Fromm, E. and Maccoby, M. (1970) Social Character in a Mexican Village, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall.

Fromm, E., Suzuki, D. T., and de Martino, R. (1960) Zen Buddism and Psychoanalysis, New York: Harper and Row.

Fromm, E. (1984) The Working Class in Weimar Germany. A Psychological and Sociological Study, London: Berg Publishers.

Funk, R. (1999) ‘Erich Fromm’s Life and Work’,,

Funk, R. (2000) ‘The Continuing Relevance of Erich Fromm’,,

Kellner, D. (undated) ‘Erich Fromm’, Illuminations,

Macoby, M. (1994) ‘The Two Voices of Erich Fromm: The Prophetic and the Analytic’, Society,

Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.


The International Erich Fromm Society. This is the English version of an excellent collection of material, reviews, etc. It includes a useful introduction to Erich Fromm by Rainer Funk. The first place to go for Fromm. See, also, Erich Fromm’s humanist credo.

Erich Fromm Papers: Details of the materials held in the New York Public Library plus a useful outline of his career.

Personality Theories: Erich Fromm. A helpful page from C. George Boeree’s site on personality theorists that outlines Fromm’s life and his theories in this area.

Illuminations: Douglas Kellner’s and others contributions on Fromm and critical theory.

The picture of Erich Fromm (in 1975) is by Müller-May, © Deutsche Verlagsanstalt. The copyright holder of this image allows anyone to use it for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification. Creative Commons

Acknowledgements: The picture of Erich Fromm (1974) is by Rainer Funk. Used here under a Wikimedia ccbysa3 licence.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002, 2012). ‘Erich Fromm: alienation, being and education’ The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. Retrieved: enter date].

© Mark K. Smith 2002, 2012

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