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Book Review: Joan Braune and Kieran Durkin’s Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future

Maor Levitin

This book is a significant contribution to ongoing efforts to re-evaluate Fromm’s work. Featuring prominent Fromm experts, including Joan Braune, Kieran Durkin, Michael J. Thompson, Lauren Langman, and Neil McLaughlin, this edited collection approaches the writings and thought of Erich Fromm from multiple angles, offering incisive analyses of his innovations and contributions as a radical humanist and a critical theorist, all the while stressing the distinctiveness of his theories and concepts. The presentation of Fromm’s thought in this volume is compelling for many reasons, not least because of the implicit challenge mounted to poststructuralist and dated Marxist approaches to politics throughout. Unapologetically radical and humanistic, with a conspicuous activist slant, the contributions that make up this volume point to an alternative way of thinking about social issues, including class oppression, climate change, the authoritarian character structure, and of course fascism.

Kieran Durkin’s introductory chapter offers an insightful analysis of distinct moments in Fromm’s intellectual development, both during and after his work with the Institute for Social Research, all the while emphasizing continuities in Fromm’s thought throughout these different periods, especially his preoccupation with normativity and humanism. An introduction of such breadth, depth and sophistication could have perhaps made room for a few words about Fromm’s religious background and how it may have informed his intellectual trajectory, and perhaps also to help explain why Fromm’s thought diverged in key respects from that of his colleagues at the Institute, ultimately precipitating his decision to break with it. Among Durkin’s accomplishments in this surprisingly succinct chapter are identification of some of the factors that led to Fromm’s departure from the Institute’s framework, including a clearly articulated consideration of the points of contention and divergence between orthodox psychoanalysis and Fromm’s unique approach to psychology. Durkin simultaneously finds a way to place Fromm in conversation with trends in the contemporary academy, positioning him, for instance, as a potential critic of poststructuralism. Durkin certainly does not purport to be wholly unbiased in presenting the ideas and arguments he does throughout his introduction—it is clearly written by someone who self-identifies as a Frommian. Yet he manages to weave important criticisms of Fromm into his text, one example being a frank discussion of the elements of ethnocentrism in his thought. He does so in a way that invites genuine reflection on the shortcomings of Fromm’s thought while retaining a focus on the significance of his intellectual accomplishments as well as of his activist work. This introduction is required reading for anyone looking for a terse and compelling account of the central motifs in Fromm’s oeuvre. Durkin’s masterful treatment of the multidimensionality intrinsic to Fromm’s thought sets the stage for the consideration from different angles, throughout the volume, of Fromm’s sundry contributions to social and political thought.

One of the key strengths of this volume is its breadth. It manages to illuminate different facets of Fromm’s thought and situate them within broader traditions and problematics. Lynn S. Chancer’s chapter, for example, brings feminist concerns to bear on Fromm’s humanism. She underlines Fromm’s at times parochial and retrograde use of language, that is, his reliance on gendered words—and therefore implicitly the need to update Fromm’s terminology—as well as flirtation with an essentialist understanding of gender. At the same time, her discussion points up the anti-essentialist core of Fromm’s humanism, which she identifies as being potentially of service to contemporary debates about the social construction of gender, among other things. Reading Fromm against Fromm, Chancer pinpoints what is essential to Fromm’s thought and what is not, helping preserve the critical thrust of his humanism.

In a compelling work of historiography, David Norman Smith provides an account of the development of Fromm’s staunch opposition to authoritarian Marxism and reductive psychoanalysis. The mature Fromm was resolutely anti-doctrinaire, maintains Smith, and that is how he managed to preserve his intellectual independence and penchant for conceptual innovation. His proposed synthesis of Marx and Freud is a case in point, as is his important concept of social character. Very interesting and informative also is Smith’s discussion of the intellectual and political development of another neglected figure in the history of the Frankfurt School, Hilde Weiss. Weiss, Smith tells us, played a key role in the Institute for Social Research’s early work and in developing the workers’ survey that she collaborated on with Fromm in particular.

Charles Thorpe, for his part, demonstrates what role anxiety plays in the emergence of reactionary movements. He reminds us that it is not just one’s agency that is at stake in escapes from freedom, but the difference between a social character that is open to and invites progressive change and one that is amenable to and is preyed upon by far-right forces. Thorpe skillfully shows that “negative freedom” as such does not satisfy the fundamental human longing for meaning and that in the absence of a positive sense of meaning and community, “negative freedom” is tantamount to abandonment to overwhelming existential anxiety and the destructive and predatory forces of capitalism, both of which drive individuals into the arms of reactionary forces. Thorpe also demonstrates the naïveté of Anthony Giddens’ approach to the conditions required for the actualization of the self, positing that it overlooks the structural barriers to democratization and community, both of which are essential to human flourishing, under capitalism. In overlooking these structural factors, Giddens is in fact complicit in reproducing neoliberal understandings of individuality. Thorpe’s discussion of anxiety links up nicely with Roger Foster’s contention that capitalism harnesses progressive social tendencies to its own, conservative ends, for it is clear that anxiety is the lynchpin of this process, at least so far as the experiential, human pole of it is concerned. Foster argues that neoliberalism has managed to secure its foundations by coopting a social character that has been in the process of transformation as a response to sweeping social changes ushered in as part of postindustrialism and through the new comforts and stability afforded by the postwar welfare state as well as the upheavals of the 1960s. The process of cooptation has unfolded through technocratic modes of governance and a manufactured discourse of authenticity and personal well-being that has interpreted human flourishing as an asocial imperative.

Michael Löwy situates Fromm squarely in the radical romantic tradition of the Jews of central Europe who melded their anti-capitalist sensibilities with German romanticism and Jewish messianism. He then offers an intriguing discussion of Fromm’s early work, written when he still subscribed to orthodox Judaism, in which Fromm contrasted what he took to be the anti-capitalist ethics of Judaism with those of Protestantism, which he saw as being more favorable to capitalism. In his early work, Fromm also juxtaposed the more authentic manifestations of Judaism, such as the Hassidic movement, with more conformist strains, such as Reform Judaism. Löwy also mentions Fromm’s essay on the Sabbath, in which he opposed Jewish motifs to the capitalist imperative of work. Since Fromm’s early work, written by an observant Jew, foregrounds critiques of capitalism, it can be seen as prefigurative of his later work with the Institute for Social Research and beyond. At the same time, since, as is suggested in the introduction to this volume, messianic Jewish themes continued to surface in Fromm’s thought throughout his career, it is safe to assume that this is so because Fromm understood them to be inherently radical. One of the implications of Löwy’s discussion seems to be that Fromm settled into Marxism at least in part through his radical interpretation of Judaism. This should come as no surprise given Fromm’s original, radical re-reading of the Old Testament in You Shall be as Gods. And it is precisely such a radical religious sensibility that animates George Lundskow’s reflections on the necessity of prophetic messianism in contemporary social movements, a sensibility that links up with Joan Braune’s subtle valorization of prophetic interventions in a decaying, populism infused capitalist landscape. Intriguing is Lundskow’s suggestion that radical left strategy requires a new kind of faith, one that can offer the left unity, a transformative vision, a “transcendent purpose,” as well as counteract necrophilous impulses in contemporary society.[1] Interestingly, Lundskow’s discussion also implicitly raises an important question about the relationship between productiveness and faith. Can one be productive or a revolutionary—rather than merely rebellious—without hope and faith?[2] At any rate, Lundskow’s and Braune’s are the two most strategy-oriented contributions in the volume, putting the lie to the notion that radical strategy and religiosity are incompatible.

Neil McLaughlin and Michael Maccoby provide an important elaboration of the concept of social character through a discussion of Fromm’s study Social Character in A Mexican Village and a comparison with key Bourdieusian concepts, especially that of habitus. The authors’ discussion also illuminates why Fromm’s important study in Mexico was largely ignored in academic circles. McLaughlin and Maccoby point up the humanistic underpinnings of the concept of social character and note that it serves as a corrective to Marxist approaches that tend to occlude the importance of human agency for the transformation of society as well as reductive and mechanistic Freudian approaches to character and sexuality. Like Joan Braune, though with a slightly different accent, they stress that Fromm’s ideas point beyond simplistic structure-agency frameworks. Importantly, the authors also remind readers that a part of what distinguished Fromm’s scholarship, politics, and his activities as a public intellectual were his prophetic proclivities.

At the core of Michael Thompson’s discussion of Fromm is also an analysis of Fromm’s concept of social character, which Thompson situates within a broader Hegelian Marxist tradition wherein questions of ethics are bound up with social ontology. Highly original and provocative is the claim that underlying Fromm’s theorizing is a social ontology predicated on the priority of social relations over the self-development of individuals, as is his claim that Fromm’s implicit social ontology should at once be understood as the core of critical theory and serving as a diagnostic of social pathology. His arguments invite reflection on the dialectal quality of the link between “robust” social relations and individual flourishing.[3] Not only does Thompson boldly center questions of ontology and teleology when many contemporary philosophers refuse to do so, but his chapter makes an invaluable contribution to contemporary debates about ethics as he mounts a serious challenge to recognitive, or neo-idealist, paradigms in philosophy, raising questions about the effectiveness of approaches to ethics that overlook the role of ideology in shaping individuals’ self-understanding and desires.

Lauren Langman and George Lundskow help explicate Fromm’s complex notion of social character as a prelude to a discussion of what they see as a new, emergent character type, which is fluid, generally anti-hierarchical, and open to new experiences and sexualities. There is much sophistication and nuance in their contention that this emergent character structure could serve as a foundation for productiveness but that its traits are also to an extent reflective of, and may be serviceable to, neoliberal aims and agendas. They also observe that the new self’s mutability and absent core means that it could potentially be recruited by reactionary movements and enlisted for reactionary ends. Overall, the authors maintain a great degree of optimism throughout the chapter, as is evidenced by their claim that “as oppressive ideologies, hateful prejudices, and coercive normative controls weaken, the default human orientation emerges, which, as Fromm argued, is life-loving, socially committed, sharing, and egalitarian.”[4] Such optimism may be unjustified but is very much in line with the injunction coming out of Fromm’s “paradox of hope,” to treat every day as though it were the beginning of a radically transformed social existence while recognizing that realistically radical social change may not materialize in one’s lifetime.[5]

Echoes of the importance of such hope for defeating fascism are found in Joan Braune’s beautifully written conclusion. But despite foregrounding the question of how Fromm’s thought can be of use to anti-fascist activism, her concluding chapter is rife with important insights about the centrality of Fromm’s understanding of love and hope to struggles against oppression in general. Offering people love and compassion, she notes, can be an important tool in undermining fascism as this helps combat the authoritarian character structure. One of Braune’s most striking insights concerns the notion that hope, as conceived of by Fromm, points to a unique kind of agency, namely, a prefigurative one. Reflecting on and elaborating a theme hinted at by Durkin, and explicitly taken up by Lundskow, Braune insists that hope offers a unique vantage point for radical humanists and activists by encouraging and projecting a transformative vision. Such a vision is a necessary complement to the realism urged in Fromm’s conception of hope,[6] and Braune is often more attuned to the ways such a vision can energize an enervated and a struggling left than was Fromm himself. Her work on and explication of the principles and implications of prophetic messianism in the context of social justice movements are a case in point.[7] Such a vision, she affirms with great lucidity in her conclusion, is necessarily anchored in and illuminates a unique kind of prefigurative agency that serves as a bridge between the capitalist present and the socialist future and is therefore indispensable to socialist strategy.

Despite the book’s strengths, there are several areas it could have been more attentive to. First, perhaps the shortcomings of Fromm’s thought could have been discussed a little more throughout the volume, the important critiques offered by Chancer and Durkin notwithstanding. Second, and relatedly, perhaps the volume would have benefited from an additional chapter or two placing Fromm in dialogue with other social theorists, in the spirit of Thorpe’s and McLaughlin and Maccoby’s contributions. A comparative perspective of this sort is helpful in elucidating both the merits and shortcomings of key Frommian concepts such as social character and productiveness. Additionally, such a perspective would have pointed to future directions for research as well as further illuminated the contemporary import of Fromm’s ideas. Third, some of the contributions in this volume are ambivalent at times about Fromm’s status as a critical theorist; this has to do with the fact that aspects of Fromm’s thought are in tension with Critical Theory as “canonically understood.”[8] Despite the title’s affirmation of Fromm’s place in the Critical Theory canon, tackling the question of Fromm’s status as a Critical Theorist head on in this volume might have obviated this lingering ambivalence and helped Fromm scholars decide whether Fromm’s ideas are best pursued within a Critical Theory framework but to some degree in tension with it, outside of but parallel to it, or in complete isolation from it. After all, as Durkin notes in the introduction, “There are evident similarities of outlook that can be traced to a similar geographical and biographical connections, of course, but also definite differences that need to be more fully understood.”[9] Devoting a chapter or two to these similarities and differences here could have helped the Fromm world make serious headway with regards to the question of how we should understand Fromm’s relationship to the Frankfurt School and the implications of this for his thought.

Maor Levitin is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics at York University in Toronto. His dissertation advances a critique of horizontalism and offers an alternative by way of a theory of ethical Left leadership. He is the co-editor of a forthcoming edited volume on Erich Fromm and Left strategy and a recipient of the Marcuse Society PhD Research Fellowship.

[1] 56.

[2] Erich Fromm, “The Revolutionary Character,” in The Dogma of Christ: And Other Essays on Religion, Psychology, and Culture (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955), 150-151.

[3] 27.

[4] 204.

[5] Erich Fromm, You Shall be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 153-157.

[6] Fromm, You Shall be as Gods, 154.

[7] See Joan Braune, “Hope and Catastrophe: Messianism in Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse,” in The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements, ed. Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017).

[8] 5.

[9] 5.