Erich Fromm’s Contribution to Critical Theory

Born in Frankfurt am Main in 1900, Erich Fromm completed a sociological dissertation with Alfred Weber at the University of Heidelberg in 1922 and then became acquainted with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis (for Fromm’s biography, see Funk 2000, pp. 78-103; 2019; Hardeck 2005, pp. 30-40; Friedman 2013, pp. 28-62). In 1930, he completed his therapeutic training as a psychoanalyst in Berlin. As early as 1929, he established close contact with the Institute for Social Research through his childhood friend Leo Loewenthal, resulting in Max Horkheimer inviting him to work at the Institute in 1930 and appointing him section head for questions of psychoanalysis and social psychology.

Artist: Drew Martin

Horkheimer himself had experienced, during a short period of psychoanalytical therapy with Karl Landauer, that his inability to speak freely stemmed from repressions. When these repressions were resolved, this inability disappeared, and Horkheimer realized for himself how powerful unconscious desires and aspirations can be in determining a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Thus, it comes as no surprise that psychoanalysis played a major role at the Institute for Social Research in the early 1930s. As Fromm was the only trained and practicing psychoanalyst at the Institute, he was commissioned to develop the methodological and theoretical significance of psychoanalysis as part of the Institute’s social science project. The fact that the historiography of the Institute for Social Research is mostly silent about this must be briefly addressed.

  1. The historiography of Fromm’s significance in the 1930s

As is well known, Fromm is not the only one whose contribution to the Institute for Social Research program and Critical Theory was later forgotten and denied. In Fromm’s case, however, the denial was particularly fierce and lasting. For example, Max Horkheimer (1969, p. 327) mentions Fromm in an interview as just one of a circle of psychoanalysts who were “only loosely connected [with the Institute].” In reality, however, Fromm was a permanent employee at the Institute between 1931 and 1939 with a lifetime contract. It was not until the research of Rolf Wiggershaus (1995) and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (2000; 2020) that Fromm’s being ignored was somewhat counteracted. Martin Jay (1973) simply ignored answers to the contrary that Fromm gave him in a letter in 1971 (reprinted in Funk & Kessler 1992, an important anthology on the subject of “Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School”). Why Fromm was disregarded will be discussed later.

With his work “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology” (Fromm 1932), Fromm did indeed combine sociological thinking (of Marxian provenance) and psychological thinking (of Freudian provenance) theoretically and methodologically and thus played a key role in shaping the interdisciplinary project of the Institute for Social Research and Critical Theory. Moreover, it was Fromm, with his concept of the authoritarian character, who played a decisive role in shaping the Institute’s program on authority and family in the early 1930s (cf. Horkheimer 1936).

Of even greater significance, it was Fromm who conducted the empirical study of authoritarian character among German workers and employees as early as 1930 (i.e., almost 20 years before The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno et al. 1950), which was fundamental to the development of Critical Theory. Horkheimer prevented its publication at the end of the 1930s, so it was not published until 1980 when Wolfgang Bonss edited it (Fromm 1984).

With this empirical study, Fromm showed how conscious thinking and conscious convictions can be at odds with what people unconsciously feel, think, and strive for. Fromm thus laid the socio-psychological foundation for a Critical Theory that critically confronts the prevailing social consciousness and questions the normality of social consciousness as alienated and alienating. Fromm, therefore, later spoke of the “pathology of normalcy” (Fromm 1955, pp. 12-21). — But let’s take a closer look at how Fromm developed his socio-psychological theory.

  1. The social psychological theory developed by Fromm

Even in his sociological dissertation (Fromm 1989 [1922]), Fromm explored the psychological question of the inner structure formations that lead many people to think, feel, and act similarly. The subject of the study was three groups of diaspora Jewry. The basic idea that a certain social, economic, and, in this case, religious practice of life leads to internalized strivings and behavioral patterns already determined Fromm’s thinking at a time when he was not yet familiar with Freud’s psychoanalysis.

Fromm became acquainted with psychoanalysis shortly after completing his dissertation. Freud’s insights into the power of the unconscious and the repressed also provided Fromm with an answer to two further questions that arose for him (for example, in view of the enthusiasm for war in 1914): “Why do many people behave irrationally and dysfunctionally?” and “Why are certain social groups not even aware of their irrational thinking, feeling, and acting?”

The answer that Freud gave with his drive theories fascinated Fromm at the time, especially because the repression of desires, strivings, and fantasies associated with libido is not removed from the world but returns in a modified form in irrational, inhibited, self-damaging strivings and behavioral patterns. Exploring this in relation to social groups motivated Fromm to become a psychoanalyst himself. From the outset, the main interest was to identify those influencing factors and internal structural formations that can explain what holds a social group together, even if the behavior of the many is irrational.

In the spring of 1929, Fromm was one of the co-founders of the Südwestdeutsche Psychoanalytische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Southwest German Psychoanalytic Association) and spoke at the opening ceremony on “Psychoanalysis and Sociology.” His lecture was published in condensed form in the same year (Fromm 1929). In it, he already indicates how he envisioned a methodological link between the study of society (sociology) and the study of the psyche of the individual (psychoanalysis). The starting point is the question: “What connections exist between the social, especially the economic-technical, development of humanity, and the development of the psychic apparatus, especially the ego-organization, of the human being?” (ibid., p. 39). Psychoanalysis had so far only posed this question for the individual but had not “extended this genetic inquiry to the psychic development of society” (ibid.). It is precisely this question, however, that psychoanalysis has to address, starting from the premise that psychoanalysis “interprets the human being as a socialized being, and the psychic apparatus as essentially developed and determined through the relationship of the individual to society” (ibid.).

Fromm then explained how the individual can be understood as “developed and determined” by their “relationship to society” in a “psychoanalytical study on the socio-psychological function of religion,” which was published in 1930 under the title Die Entwicklung des Christusdogmas (The Dogma of Christ, Fromm 1930). The study makes clear how sociology and psychology can be methodologically linked.

In this study, Fromm focused on the concrete life practice of many Christians and showed that the changes in the confessional formulas were always based on political and social changes among Christians. “The cause for the development lies in the change in the socioeconomic situation or in the retrogression of economic forces and their social consequences.” (Fromm 1930, p. 90.) The changing creed of Jesus and the altered forms of religious practice are therefore an expression of the changed inner impulses due to the changing economic, political, and social living conditions of Christians.

Two years later, Fromm presented his social psychological theory in the first volume of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in the article “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology” (Fromm 1932). In doing so, he used the ideas of Freud’s libido theory because the libido theory, based on drives, fit in with the Institute’s materialistic conception of science. A libidinal structure representing the social practice of life must be formed in each individual. This already begins in early childhood, with the parents acting as the “psychological agency of society” (Fromm 1932, p. 117).

The similar behaviors and reactions of social groups are therefore “to be understood as processes involving the active and passive adaptation of the instinctual apparatus to the socioeconomic situation. In certain fundamental respects, the instinctual apparatus itself is a biological given; but it is highly modifiable. The role of primary formative factors goes to the economic conditions. (Ibid., p. 121.)

A libidinal structure is thus formed in each individual, which ensures that many people passionately strive for what is expected for the economic success, the stability (“cement”) of a society, and the identity of a culture as a means of adaptation, in which a “libidinal structure of society” can then be recognized (ibid., p. 132).

The 1932 essay gave Freudo-Marxism a socio-psychological foundation, which is why Fromm linked his approach to Freud’s understanding of social psychology. However, the significant differences should not be overlooked (see also Silver 2017). While Freud focused on the inter-subjective and family relationships and assumed that the demands of society adapt to an intrinsic drive dynamic, which as such can only be modified to a limited extent, Fromm had been thinking in terms of the collective-social and socio-economic life practice since his dissertation. In that way, however, he sees the libidinal structure as being formed from the requirements of life practice and not merely as a modification of an innate drive dynamic.

3 Fromm’s revision of his own social psychological theory

It soon became clear to Fromm that his socio-psychological approach could not be reconciled with the libido theory favored by Freud to explain conscious and unconscious strivings. A whole series of findings made him doubt the validity of the libido theory: for example, Bachofen’s research on matricentric cultures or Margaret Mead’s and Ruth Benedict’s cultural anthropological findings (see Funk 2009; 2013; Frie 2014). They supported Fromm’s criticism of patriarchal aspects of Freud’s psychoanalysis and therapeutic practice. Fromm first wrote about this criticism of Freud in the article “The Social Determinants of Psychoanalytic Theory” (Fromm 1935), which was published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung but already provoked discussion at the Institute.

The decisive impetus to rethink his own socio-psychological approach undoubtedly came from conversations Fromm had with Harry Stack Sullivan after his emigration in 1934. The very fact that the most severe mental illnesses are psychotic distortions of relatedness to reality, to other people, and to oneself suggests that the question of relatedness is the basic psychological problem of the human being and not the question of the satisfaction or denial of the sexual drive and its offspring.

In the winter of 1936/37, Fromm took a break to make the change from a libido-theoretical to a relatedness-theoretical explanatory framework. To August Wittfogel from the Institute Fromm wrote on December 18, 1936: “I am trying to demonstrate that the drives which motivate social activities are not, as Freud supposes, sublimations of sexual instincts, rather products of social processes” (Letter at the Fromm Archive, Tübingen).

The 85-page manuscript, which was considered lost until I discovered it in Fromm’s estate at the New York Public Library in 1990 and which was published shortly afterward (for details, see Funk 2015), has the same title as his 1932 essay: “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology” (1992 [1937]). There are many psychoanalytical assumptions and interpretations that Fromm questions, from primary narcissism and the significance of the Oedipus complex, which cannot be confirmed in other cultures, to the role of the family and Freud’s psychology of women, to Freud’s concept of man and his mechanistic view of the world. The main criticism, however, is directed at the attribution of various psychological phenomena to the sexual drive and its derivations. Fromm exemplifies this in great detail with Freud’s explanation of the anal character (ibid., pp. 46-58). According to Fromm, this is not due to the “uniformity of a particular erogenous zone” but “to the uniformity of a certain way of life constellation” (ibid., p. 49).

Due to the rejection of the libido theory, the essay fell out of favor with his colleagues at the Institute (see Funk 2015). They refused to publish this revised social psychological theory in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung because only Freud’s libido theory could substantiate their concept of a materialistic social science. The refusal of publication by Fromm’s childhood friend Leo Loewenthal, who was editing the journal, but also by Horkheimer and Marcuse, led to a significant cooling of the relationship between Horkheimer and Fromm, which had been very cordial and cooperative until then—at least in the letters published in the German Horkheimer Collected Works. This prompted Adorno, who did not yet have a position at the Institute, to draw more attention to himself. Horkheimer let Adorno know in a letter dated June 18, 1937: “We absolutely need you to fulfill the task of advancing theory.”

Beneath the surface, Fromm’s revision of his social-psychological theory and Adorno’s entry into the Institute in the summer of 1937 had already set the course for Fromm’s departure from the Institute. The definitive break came in 1939, when the Institute’s funds became scarcer and Fromm was forced to leave the Institute (for details, see Funk 2000, pp. 90-101).

In 1941, in the appendix to his book Escape from Freedom (1941) under the title “Character and the Social Process” (cf. also Fromm 1949), Fromm summarized the conclusions that arose from the lost essay on Fromm’s understanding of social psychology. The antagonism between the individual and society, which has been typical of modern thought since Descartes (see Frie 2015) and which is not only articulated psychoanalytically by Freud but also in the social psychology of Adorno and Marcuse’s Critical Theory as a conflict between drive structure and society, becomes obsolete in Fromm’s work. Fromm not only considers man to be “primarily a social being” (Fromm 1941, p. 287) but also explains the uniform and similar thinking, feeling, and acting of a social group with a character formation that results from the necessary relationship of the individual to a social group. “Society is nothing but living, concrete individuals, and the individual can live only as a social human being”(Fromm 1992 [1937], p. 58).

The primary sociality of human beings is therefore reflected, according to Fromm, in a separate dimension of psychological structure formation, the “social-typical character” (ibid.) or “social character” (cf. Fromm 1962, pp. 71-87). However, this must be examined in each case to determine whether it leads to irrational behavior and psychological defects, as Fromm has shown in detail, especially in regard to the authoritarian character (Fromm 1936; 1941, pp. 141-179), but also in the social characters analyzed later, such as the marketing character (Fromm 1947, pp. 82-107; 1976, pp. 147-154) or the (group) narcissistic character (Fromm 1964, chapter 4; 1973, pp. 200-205).

For Fromm, the methodological question of combining sociology and psychoanalysis was essentially answered with the publication of Escape from Freedom (1941) and the concept of the social character. After Fromm’s expulsion, Marcuse was the only one to debate him directly, namely in connection with the publication of Eros and Civilization (Marcuse 1955) in the mid-1950s in the journal Dissent. Adorno attacked Karen Horney in 1946 but wanted to hit Fromm and turn him into a conformist with his concept of the social character (see Adorno 1962). The main weapon, however, was to keep Fromm silent and ignore his merits for a psychoanalytically based Critical Theory.

  1. Conclusion

The extent to which Fromm was correct in his paradigm shift from a libido-oriented psychoanalysis to a relational psychoanalysis is shown by the development of psychoanalysis, which since John Bowlby’s attachment research in the 1960s, and with the increasingly dominant object relations theory, has focused on relatedness as the motivating force behind the formation of psychological structures (Funk 2023).

In light of the threatening crises of the present time, only good can come from allowing the old trench warfare to fade and ending Fromm’s exclusion. The question of how the irrational behavior of many people can be scientifically researched with a socio-critical approach is highly topical. Fromm’s combination of sociology and psychology and his concept of social character remain relevant today for a socio-psychologically oriented Critical Theory.


Adorno, Theodor W., et al. (1950): The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Norton.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1962): Die revidierte Psychoanalyse, in: M. Horkheimer und Th. W. Adorno: Sociologica II. Reden und Vorträge, Frankfurt (Suhrkamp Verlag) 1962, pp. 119-138.

Frie, Roger (2014): What is Cultural Psychoanalysis? Psychoanalytic Anthropology and the Interpersonal Tradition, in: Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol. 50, pp. 371–394.

Frie, Roger (2015): Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis and the Sociocultural Turn: From Cultural Contexts to Hermeneutic Understanding, in: Psychoanalytic Inquiry, Vol. 35, pp. 597-608.

Friedman, Lawrence J. (2013): The Lives of Erich Fromm. Love’s Prophet, with assistance from Anke M. Schreiber, New York (Columbia University Press).

Fromm, Erich: E-Books with Open Road Media:

Fromm, Erich (1929): Psychoanalysis and Sociology, S. E. Bronner and D. M. Kellner (Eds.), Critical Theory and Society. A Reader, New York and London: Routledge 1989, pp. 37-39.

Fromm, Erich (1930): The Dogma of Christ, in: E. Fromm, The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays, New York (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) 1963, pp. 3-91.

Fromm, Erich (1932): The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology, in: E. Fromm, The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, New York (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) 1970, pp. 135-162.

Fromm, Erich (1935): The Social Determinants of Psychoanalytic Theory, in: International Forum of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 09 (No. 3-4, 2000) pp. 149-165.

Fromm, Erich (1936): Studies on Authority and the Family. Sociopsychological Dimensions, Fromm Forum(English Edition), Tübingen (Selbstverlag), Vol. 24 / 2020, pp. 8-58.

Fromm, Erich (1941): Escape from Freedom, New York: Farrar and Rinehart.

Fromm, Erich (1947): Man for Himself. An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, New York: Rinehart and Co.

Fromm, Erich (1949): Psychoanalytic Characterology and Its Application to the Understanding of Culture, in: S.S. Sargent and M.W. Smith (Eds.), Culture and Personality, New York: Viking Press, pp. 1-12.

Fromm, Erich (1955): The Sane Society, New York: Rinehart and Winston.

Fromm, Erich (1962): Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encounter with Marx and Freud, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fromm, Erich (1964): The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil, New York: Harper and Row.

Fromm, Erich (1973): The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Fromm, Erich (1976): To Have Or to Be?, New York: Harper and Row.

Fromm, Erich (1984): The Working Class in Weimar Germany. A Psychological and Sociological Study, edited and introduced by Wolfgang Bonss, London: Berg Publishers.

Fromm, Erich (1989 [1922]): The Jewish Law. A Contribution to the Sociology of the Jewish Diaspora. Dissertation 1922, ed. and with an afterword by Rainer Funk, Tübingen: Erich Fromm Stiftung, 2022.

Fromm, Erich (1992 [1937]): Man’s impulse structure and its relation to culture, in: E. Fromm, Beyond Freud: From Individual to Social Psychoanalysis, New York: American Mental Health Foundation, 2010.

Funk, Rainer (2000): Erich Fromm – His Life and Ideas. An Illustrated Biography, New York: Continuum International.

Funk, Rainer (2009): Das kulturelle und das soziale Unbewusste. Zur Aktualität des psychoanalytischen Ansatzes von Erich Fromm, in: Forum der Psychoanalyse, Band 25, S. 32-42.

Funk, Rainer (2013): Erich Fromm and the Intersubjective Tradition, in: International Forum of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 22, pp. 5-9.

Funk, Rainer (2015): Erich Fromm’s Legacy, in: R. Funk and N. McLaughlin (Eds.), Towards a Human Science. The Relevance of Erich Fromm for Today, Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag, pp. 99-110.

Funk, Rainer (2019): Life Itself Is an Art. The Life and Work of Erich Fromm, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Funk, Rainer (2023): Erich Fromm: Eine Soziale Objektbeziehungstheorie, in: Th. Abel (Ed.), Handbuch der Objektbeziehungspsychologie, Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag), pp. 321-336.

Funk, Rainer; Kessler, Michael (Eds.) (1992): Erich Fromm und die Frankfurter Schule. Akten des internationalen, interdisziplinären Symposions Stuttgart-Hohenheim vom 31. 5. bis 2. 6. 1991, Tübingen: Francke Verlag; Fromms letter (in English) on pages 234-243 and available via

Hardeck, Jürgen (2005): Erich Fromm. Leben und Werk, Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Horkheimer, Max (Ed.) (1936): Studien über Autorität und Familie Vol. V), Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan.

Horkheimer, Max (1969): Dokumente – Stationen. Ein Gespräch aus dem Jahre 1969 zwischen Otmar Hersche und dem Sozialphilosophen Max Horkheimer, in: Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 7: Vorträge und Aufzeichnungen 1949-1973, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1985, S. 317-344.

Jay, Martin (1973): The Dialectical Imagination. A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950, London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Marcuse, Herbert (1955): Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston: The Beacon Press.

Schmid Noerr, Gunzelin (2000): Zwischen Sozialpsychologie und Ethik – Erich Fromm und die “Frankfurter Schule”. In: Psyche, Stuttgart, Vol. 55 (No. 8, August 2001), pp. 803-834.

Schmid Noerr, Gunzelin (2020): Warum wir so handeln wollen, wie wir handeln müssen. Erich Fromm und das Institut für Sozialforschung, in: Fromm Forum, Tübingen: Selbstverlag, Band 24, S. 41-57. (

Silver, Catherine B. (2017): Erich Fromm and The Making and Unmaking of the Socio-cultural, in: Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 102 (No. 4), pp. 389-414.

Rolf Wiggershaus (1995): The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance, Cambridge: Polity Press.


  • Rainer Funk

    Rainer Funk (*1943) is a psychoanalyst in Tübingen, Germany, and Erich Fromm's Literary Executor. He wrote his dissertation on Erich Fromm’s social psychology and ethics and became 1974 Erich Fromm’s last assistant in Locarno, Switzerland. Funk is director of the Erich Fromm Institute in Tübingen and co-director of the Erich Fromm Study Center at the International Psychoanalytic University in Berlin. His own publications mostly refer to social psychological topics. His last book publication in English is an introduction into the life and work of Erich Fromm. It was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury under the title “Life Itself Is an Art”.

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