Erich Fromm and social character: A reply to Iain Ferguson

Issue: 151

Sabby Sagall

Iain Ferguson’s article on Erich Fromm provides a welcome opportunity for readers of International Socialism to engage in a debate not only on the work of this popular but controversial writer but also on the wider issue of the relationship between Marxism and psychoanalysis.1 Like the other Marxist psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich, Fromm was attacked by the left for being a psychoanalyst, and by psychoanalysts for being a leftist.

Iain develops a general critique of Fromm’s work, and takes issue with my approach to Fromm in my recent book on genocide, Final Solutions: Capitalism, Human Nature and Genocide. In particular, he criticises Fromm’s notion of “social character” and my use of this concept in my own analysis.

However, Iain first criticises Fromm’s analysis of the concept of human nature. Fromm argued for a theory of human nature rooted not in libido, as for Sigmund Freud, but in what he called “the conditions of existence” or “the human situation”.2 Fromm is referring to a situation where human beings have lost the original unity with nature and “[man’s]…inner contradictions drive him to seek…for a new harmony”.3 Iain correctly argues that for Fromm, these “inner contradictions” arise “from the problem of the meaning of human existence rather than having their origins in social production”.4

Fromm outlines five sets of needs or passions: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, a sense of identity and a frame of orientation. Failure on the part of society to fulfil these needs will lead to mental ill health. Moreover, “the criterion of mental health is not one of individual adjustment to a given social order, but a universal one…of giving a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence”.5

Iain is right to stress that a Marxist approach to human nature must start from the role of labour in social production and derive from that, the nature of humankind as a social being. In other words, we begin with human beings’ capacity for collective self-creation through the process of labour whereby we harness nature to our practical needs: “Through his movement he [man] acts upon external nature and changes it and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature”.6 Social labour defines us as inherently social beings: “Human nature is constituted by, and is to be found in, the links we forge with each other through the process of transforming nature, both external nature and our own human nature, and of expressing our human selves”.7 However, in one respect Fromm’s notion of human nature is not a million miles from that of Karl Marx. Where Fromm talks about human beings’ need for relatedness, he surely comes close to Marx’s concept of a social being, though, of course, he doesn’t root this in collective labour.

Iain goes on to criticise Fromm’s key concept of “social character”, the notion that forms the heart of his analysis of human behaviour in different social formations. For Fromm, character is the human equivalent of animal instincts, that is an “enduring or historically relative system of feelings, needs and drives that conditions us to deal in certain ways with our natural and social worlds, but which doesn’t determine our behaviour in the manner of instincts,” as Freud argued.8 In The Fear of Freedom and Man For Himself Fromm described “social character” as “the essential nucleus shared by members of a group which has developed as a result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group”. It is the “specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society”.9

In his critique of Fromm, Iain Ferguson puts forward the three elements that make up the notion of “social character”. Firstly, it is a wider concept than “ideology” as it stretches beyond conscious ideas to include conscious and unconscious feelings and behaviour. Secondly, it is a concept that applies to groups or social classes, not to individuals. For example, the rise of Nazism among sections of the German middle classes was in part due to their developing a sado-masochistic social character. Thirdly, for Fromm social character plays an important role in the smooth functioning of capitalist society through the inculcation into the minds of individual workers of the discipline and key values and ideas fostered by the system.10 Iain quotes E P Thompson’s analysis of the role of Methodism in shaping working class conformism in the late 18th century, its ability to impose industrial discipline on the new class of workers.11

Moreover, Iain takes me to task for “reifying social character, of treating class consciousness (and presumably also the ‘social unconscious’) as fixed and unchanging, unaffected by external factors”.12 However, I would argue that my position regarding “social character” was, in fact, nuanced. On the one hand, I believe “social character” can form the kernel of a useful analysis of a particular historical collective consciousness; on the other, I was rather more critical of Fromm’s notion than Iain allows:

Quite often, Fromm and [Michael] Maccoby slip into mechanistic or dualistic formulations, writing as though the mode of production and social character are external to each other, the one determining the other, like cause and effect. One can agree that social character is part of the mode of production… Arising out of this problem is the second criticism: Fromm doesn’t make clear the class origins and class nature of social character, its roots in the self-activity of a rising class or of one that resists oppression.13

I also discuss the relationship between social character and class struggle. “In order to guarantee their supremacy, new social classes [the early industrial bourgeoisie] instil into the new or existing subordinate classes not only a specific ideology but also a new set of emotional features, that of a new social character. This is necessary if they are to preserve and consolidate their rule.” In addition:

subordinate classes fight back, and part of that resistance involves the creation of an alternative or opposing ideology and social character…the modern Western working classes organised themselves…into trade unions, at the heart of which lay the values of solidarity and collective endeavour…through its struggle, the early working class developed a more “other-directed”, social character than that ­possessed by their capitalist masters.14

I also argued that in the Russian Revolution the working class transformed themselves emotionally in significant ways, as attested by Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge.15

Moreover, Iain doesn’t consider Fromm’s later work, Social Character in a Mexican Village, written in collaboration with Michael Maccoby where “social character” is given a far more materialist grounding.16 The authors describe social character as “a syndrome of character traits which has developed as an adaptation to the social, economic and cultural conditions common to that group”.17 Fromm and Maccoby are surely arguing here that “the most important conditioning factor in the creation of social character, the context in which it is shaped, is the mode of production”.18 “A serf, a free peasant, an industrial worker…an independent entrepreneur of the 19th century and an industrial manager of the 20th century have different functions to fulfil…the industrial worker has to be disciplined and punctual, the 19th century bourgeois had to be parsimonious, individualistic and self-reliant”.19

But Iain is right to criticise Fromm for lacking a clear vision of the role and potential of the working class. I argue a similar point: “Fromm’s vision is essentially that of a workers’ socialist democracy, despite his naivety and haziness about the means of achieving it”.20 This was certainly a problem with all members of the Frankfurt School: the victory of fascism and the failure or defeat of working class revolution in the 1920s and early 1930s resulted in a pessimistic view of the working class. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were all guilty of abandoning the working class. Iain is also right to describe Fromm’s vision of socialism as closer to the utopian socialists than to Marx. In The Sane Society he sets out a programme, or perhaps blueprint, of a socialist world very much along the lines of thinkers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Charles Fourier without linking it to a political agency.

Regarding the Holocaust, could it have occurred elsewhere than in Germany? I argued that two preconditions were necessary: firstly, an authoritarian social character, and secondly, precipitating conditions such as defeat in the First World War, economic collapse, the rise of Nazism and the failure of the left to unite and fight:

It seems there may be a link between an authoritarian social character and the failure of some middle classes to carry out the bourgeois revolution… So the Holocaust could have occurred in…Poland, Italy or Japan…but was unlikely to have occurred, for example, in Britain or France which did witness successful bourgeois revolutions after which the urban and rural middle classes enjoyed a long period of economic success. Not impossible but unlikely.21

Iain argues that “the key factor…in shaping the consciousness of the German middle class in the late 1920s and early 1930s was not a social character forged in infancy (though this may, of course, have played a role) but rather the state of the class struggle and, above all, the extent to which the working class (and its political organisations) could point a way out of crisis”.22 I’m not sure how much disagreement there is between us on this. Regarding the role of middle class social character, I do put more stress on this than Iain, though he does agree that “social character…played a role”. For me, it is one link, albeit an important one, in the overall chain of explanation of Nazism and the Holocaust. In my book I, of course, agree that “the disastrous failure of the left to unite against Hitler abandoned Germany to the Nazis”.23

The problem with Iain’s critique of Fromm’s analysis of the Holocaust is that he underplays the question of motivation. But we need a subjective, mediating factor linking the objective crisis of world and German capitalism, and Nazi hatred of the Jews. The Nazi vision of the Jews as all-powerful, as rulers of the world threatening Germany, as responsible for the stab in the back of the Russian Revolution and as capitalist controllers of the world economy was clearly pathological. This was especially so given that the Nazis embarked on the Holocaust, devoting huge economic and military resources to the process—rounding up European Jews, building concentration camps, allocating personnel to run them—precisely at a time, late 1941 and 1942, when the war was turning against Germany. Nor can one explain such pathology simply in terms of objective factors—the Great Depression, the 1930s crisis of German capitalism—crucial as these were in setting the wider socio-economic context of war and the Holocaust.

Iain quotes analytic philosopher G E Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy”, according to which one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, a value-judgement from a descriptive or analytical statement, or mixing what is with what ought to be.24 Much more useful for Marxists is Lucien Goldmann’s approach describing Marx’s dialectical method as developed in his discussion of religion: “Marx condemns simultaneously the social order and the religion which is a part of it. He does not ‘blend’ a judgement with an objective analysis, but, as throughout his work, makes a dialectical analysis in which understanding, explanation and evaluation are strictly inseparable”.25

I make a similar point with regard to Fromm’s notion of “the productive orientation”: “It is perfectly legitimate to imagine or create social conditions which would facilitate the emergence of such a character, and then to seek verification of its existence in history or through social experiment or political innovation”.26

Members of the Frankfurt School embarked on a crucial task, the attempt to analyse the way in which the external structures of exploitation and oppression are internalised in the mind of the individual. It is not enough to speak of the ruling ideology, important though this is. We have to understand how capitalist society penetrates to the very depths of our psyches, how we are shaped emotionally as well as ideologically by the system, how it reaches down into our deepest unconscious thoughts and feelings. And these are factors that are surely shared by members of a class with a common relationship to the means of production and a common history of struggle. Fromm (and Reich with his concept of “character structure”) may not have got it completely right. But the concept itself is a useful one. By developing that notion, Fromm made a vital contribution to our understanding of the process whereby for long stretches of time, despite heroic struggles, the working class accepts the capitalist system. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Sabby Sagall is chair of Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign and author of Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide.


1 Ferguson, 2016.

2 Ferguson, 2016, p159.

3 Fromm, 1991, p27, quoted in Ferguson, 2016, p159.

4 Ferguson, 2016, p159.

5 Fromm, 1991, p14, quoted in Sagall, 2013, p23.

6 Marx, 1976, p283. See also Sagall, 2013, p30.

7 Sagall, 2013, p30.

8 Sagall, 2013, p67.

9 Fromm, 1942, p239, quoted in Sagall, 2013, p67. See also Fromm, 1949.

10 Ferguson, 2016, p162.

11 Thompson, 1968.

12 Ferguson, 2016, p166.

13 Sagall, 2013, p69.

14 Sagall, 2013, pp82-84.

15 Sagall, 2013, p84.

16 Fromm and Maccoby, 1970.

17 Fromm and Maccoby, 1970, p16.

18 Sagall, 2013, p69.

19 Fromm and Maccoby, 1970, pp17-18, quoted in Sagall, 2013, p82.

20 Sagall, 2013, p88.

21 Sagall, 2013, p221.

22 Ferguson, 2016, p167.

23 Sagall, 2013, p200.

24 Ferguson, 2016, p157.

25 Goldmann, 1968.

26 Sagall, 2013, p85.


Ferguson, Iain, 2016, “Between Marx and Freud: Erich Fromm Revisited”, International Socialism 149 (winter),

Fromm, Erich, 1991 [1956], The Sane Society, 2nd edition (Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Fromm, Erich, 1942, The Fear of Freedom (Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Fromm, Erich, 1949, Man For Himself: An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Fromm, Erich, and Michael Maccoby, 1970, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Prentice-Hall).

Goldmann, Lucien, 1968, “Is There a Marxist Sociology?” International Socialism (1st series) number 34 (autumn),

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital, Volume 1 (Pelican).

Sagall, Sabby, 2013, Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide (Pluto Press).

Thompson, E P, 1968, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books).