Chapter 10: Fromm – Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Part 2: Our Relationship to Society

Fromm was a prolific writer whose interests included psychoanalysis, economics, religion, ethics, culture, and societal systems. He evaluated both Freud the man and Freud’s theories in Sigmund Freud’s Mission (Fromm, 1978) and Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (Fromm, 1980). His religious works include such provocative titles as The Dogma of Christ (Fromm, 1955b) and You Shall Be as Gods (Fromm, 1966). He addressed the person’s place within society in books such as The Sane Society (1955a) and The Revolution of Hope (1968). And a collection of his works on gender psychology, Love, Sexuality, and Matriarchy, was edited by Rainer Funk (1977). The unifying theme throughout Fromm’s writings is each person’s relationship to society, which he addressed most directly in Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941).

Fromm interpreted Freud’s theories on the satisfaction of drives as necessarily involving other people, but for Freud, those relationships are only a means to an end. Although hunger, thirst, and sex may be common needs, Fromm suggested that the needs that lead to differences in people’s character, such as love and hatred, lusting for power or yearning to submit, or the enjoyment of sensuous pleasure as well as the fear of it, are all the result of social processes. One’s very nature is a product of the interaction between the individual and their cultural setting. We are the creation and achievement of human history, and at the same time, we influence the course of that history and culture. In modern times, particularly in the Western world, our pursuit of individuality has alienated us from others, and from the very social structure that is inherent to our nature. Consequently, our freedom has become a psychological problem; it has isolated us from the connections necessary for our survival and development (Fromm, 1941). The danger with this situation, according to Fromm, is that when an entire society is suffering from feelings of isolation and disconnection with the natural order (from nature itself, in Fromm’s view), the members of that society may seek connection with a societal structure that destroys their freedom and, thus, integrates their self into the whole (albeit in a dysfunctional way). The three ways in which individuals escape from freedom are authoritarianism, or giving oneself up to some authority in order to gain the strength that the individual lacks, destructiveness, in which the individual tries to destroy the object causing anxiety (e.g., society), and automaton conformity, in which the person renounces their individual integrity. Fromm believed that these phenomena provided an explanation for the development of dictatorships, such as the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. For the leaders of these societies, these processes are such a deeply ingrained aspect of their character that Fromm actually described Adolf Hitler’s destructiveness as evidence of a necrophilous character (a necrophiliac is someone sexually attracted to the dead; Fromm, 1973).

In order to approach a solution for this problem, Fromm pursued an overall integration of the person and society. He believed that psychology cannot be divorced from philosophy, sociology, economics, or ethics. The moral problem facing people in the modern world is their indifference to themselves. Although democracy and individuality seem to offer freedom, it is only a promise of freedom. When our insecurities and anxieties lead us to submit to some source of power, be it a political party, church, club, whatever, we surrender our personal power (Fromm, 1947). Consequently, we become subject to the undue influence of others (and in extreme situations, to a Hitler or a Stalin). The solution may be as simple as love, but Fromm suggests that love is by no means an easy task, and it is not simply a relationship between two people:

…love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It [Fromm’s book] wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. (pg. xxi; Fromm, 1956)

An individual’s capacity for love is a reflection of the extent to which their culture encourages the development of the capacity for love as part of the character of each person. Capitalist societies, according to Fromm, emphasize individual freedom and economic relations. Thus, a capitalist society values economic gain (amassed wealth) over labor (the power of people). And yet, such an economy needs large groups of people working together (the labor force). As individuals become anxious in their pursuit of life, they become psychologically invested in the capitalist system, they surrender themselves to capitalism, and become the labor force that leads to the wealth of those who own the company. Fromm believed this alienated us from ourselves, from others, and from nature (or, the natural order). In order to regain our connection to others in a healthy way, we need to practice the art of love; love both for ourselves and for others. Doing so requires discipline, concentration, and patience, personal strengths that are all taught in the practice of Zen. Indeed, Fromm recommends one of Horney’s favorite books: Zen in the Art of Archery (Herrigel, 1953). We will examine the relationship between Zen and the approaches of Horney and Fromm to solving society’s problems in more detail in “Personality Theory in Real Life.” But first, Fromm chose to examine whether the principles of psychoanalysis could be used to examine the relationship between individuals and society.

Fromm believed that in addition to individual’s having a certain character structure, there is also social character. Social character is common to groups or classes within a society, and provides a framework within which psychic energy, in general, is transformed into the specific psychic energy of each person within the group. From 1957 to 1963, Fromm, Michael Maccoby, and numerous colleagues interviewed every adult member of a Mexican village and about half the children, with a focus on applying psychodynamic theory in order to understand the social character of the village and its role in determining the personality of each person. The village was chosen as representative of many small villages (this village had approximately 800 residents) in Mexico that underwent substantial changes in socioeconomic structure following the Mexican revolution. The primary, and most controversial, purpose of this study was to determine whether a society could be “psychoanalyzed” in order to understand the character of individuals within that society. Fromm & Maccoby also hoped that their study would provide information to help predict and plan social change during times of dramatic socioeconomic change, such as the transition from a non-democratic to a democratic society (Fromm & Maccoby, 1970).

While it took an entire book for Fromm and Maccoby to report their results, a few key findings can be summarized. First, although they began their study with a questionnaire that had been developed for a previous study, the level of interpretation needed for psychoanalytic theorizing required additional information. This was obtained by also having the participants take the Rorschach inkblot test. Second, the theory of social character, as an adaptation to the socioeconomic conditions of a society that serves to stabilize and maintain that society, was confirmed. Of particular interest were those individuals whose character was typically viewed as deviant because they seek change and opportunity. When external socioeconomic conditions force changes upon a society, the previously “deviant” individuals are among those who flourish under this new opportunity for change. In other words, their so-called deviance now becomes advantageous, and they lead others towards new adaptive changes in social character (though this may occur slowly for most members of the society). In a manner similar to natural selection in evolution, Fromm and Maccoby referred to this type of change in a society as social selection. Unfortunately, if the individuals leading these changes are dysfunctional or cruel individuals, such as the leaders of the fascist groups in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, the consequences can be tragic. It was for this very reason that Fromm sought to understand how people are drawn into groups following their alienation and anxiety due to changes in the course of society.

Fromm viewed societies as forces that lead to alienation from a more natural, primitive way of life. As a result, freedom and individuality actually create psychological problems as we become disconnected from our immediate social groups (such as the family or local community). This often leads to unfortunate consequences, such as seeking fellowship within a society at the expense of one’s regard for self and others, providing a framework within which dictatorships can develop (as individuals completely surrender their freedom).

Fromm believed that the freedom we have in modern, Western societies actually separates and alienates us from others, becoming a source of great anxiety. Can you agree that freedom can become a problem? Can you agree that people within an entire society could become so anxious that they support the rise of a dictator?

Supplemental Materials

Theories of Personality Karen Horney & Erich Fromm

This video [39:03] summarizes some of Fromm’s basic theoretical concepts, including three mechanisms to escape (authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automation conformity), basic needs, character orientations, and his research conducted at a Mexican village.



Text: Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Prof. Kevin Volkan. (2019, March 14). Theories of personality Karen Horney & Erich Fromm-Terror management part II. [Video File] Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.