Fromm, Mills, Berger, and Sociology

by David H. Kessel

Note: This is intended as a suggestive article, not a formal academic paper. Most footnotes and references (except for direct quotes) will be withheld to allow for flow...and until such time I decide to have it published.

One of the most astute humanist thinkers and prolific writers of the 20th century was Erich Fromm. Even today...20 years after his death...and...on the 100th anniversay of his birth...he is referenced by innumerable writers...both "for" and "against." His books and ideas have been disseminated throughout the world. Both academic and non-academic audiences have been influenced by his theories and observations...although his reception within the Academy is spotty, at best. Most often identified as a psychologist and psychoanalyst, Fromm's ideas transcend these disciplines. Sociologists, in particular, have made numerous comments concerning his broader "social lens" of observation and critique. Yet, neither Fromm nor anyone else ever fully established his "sociological credentials" nor ever fully systematized his sociological perspectives... AS sociology. At best, they have been utilized piecemeal...and at worse, have been ignored all together. Although there is a trend today to deal with Fromm...various articles and books have appeared recently...for the most part they assume this "psychologist/psychoanalyst" premise without going into depth about his possible status as a "sociologist." In this essay I want to begin at the beginning, so to speak, and put forth these credentials.

However, it is not my purpose to make a sociologist out of Fromm, although he is referred to as such here and there. He, himself, rejected such abstract labeling according to narrowly defined disciplines. Rather, my purpose is to elucidate a sociology IN Fromm's ideas...a sociological perspective which could inform Sociology in general as well as Critical and Humanistic Sociology in particular. In a book called The Sociology of Marx (1968), Henri Lefebvre said

For quite a number of reasons, then, we shall not make a sociologist out of Marx...Marx is not a sociologist, but there is a sociology in Marx (Emphasis added)
Although some might argue about the "not a sociologist" part, Lefebvre was making a valid point...a point I believe which can also be made about Fromm. As already mentioned, I will use this "point" as a departure from which to establish the sociological credentials of Fromm...he has a sociology within him which establishes these very credentials.

I believe it is well past time to bring Fromm into wider sociological discourse and use. However, this cannot be accomplished by merely declaring him "sociological," nor by jumping right into his many sociological conceptions and insights. Rather, we must first establish an "evaluative context" in which Fromm can be identified as having these sociological credentials. In order to do this, a type of "justification" for doing so must be made clear...and it must come from within the discipline of Sociology itself. He must be situated within a larger sociological orientation which sheds light on his approach and ideas. This "context" or "justification" must consist of ideas which find a common and broad-based acceptance in the discipline...while at the same time, not necessarily being held up as the standard by which to conclude someone is sociological or not. To call for an "evaluative context" is not the same as applying some kind of "litmus test". Rather, the point here is to situate Fromm within a framework of sociological inquiry and interest...whether or not that framework is accepted by everyone identified as sociologists.

As is commonly understood, the sociological "umbrella" is quite large and covers a wide-ranging number of approaches, interests, and paradigms. Others have been trying to delineate the boundaries of Sociology for some time. Discipline-related, theoretical, paradigmatic, methodological, epistemological, and political battles have raged for many years within and about Sociology...none of this is new. Yet, when one considers the discipline as a whole, certain commonalities emerge which might provide the evaluative context needed to consider and examine perspectives of various thinkers. It is to those commonalities which I now turn.

In retrospect, the source for this evaluative context became more and more apparent as I read Fromm himself. As this process went on, two sociological names kept coming to mind...the similarity between Fromm and these two sociological thinkers stood out. These two sociologist are C. Wright Mills and Peter L. Berger. As I read Fromm I kept "hearing" Mills and Berger. Based on my familiarity with both of them...and with Fromm...I believe that these generally known and accepted sociological figures provide the "context" by which Fromm's ideas might be understood as largely sociological. I'm not maintaining, however, that "sociological" is simply equal to thinking like Mills or Berger. There are, of course, numerous sociologists who pay little attention to them, as well as taking very different sociological approaches. Rather, what I am maintaining is that their names and works are very recognizable in sociological discourse and thus, they provide a common ground to, at least, identify ideas as sociological.

Their recognizability and utility in Sociology is no greater than in Introductory textbooks and readers. It is exceedingly difficult to pick up either type of book without finding at least some mention of them, especially in the initial chapters and articles. I would be hard pressed to think of a more familiar concept in the discipline of Sociology than the "sociological imagination." Likewise, Berger's Invitation to Sociology has been one of the most popular supplementary Introductory texts for decades. Textbooks of all sorts...written from multiple and some very different perspectives...at least mention their ideas when discussing the sociological endeavor. Nowadays, even the most conventional textbooks include some obligatory reference to either or both. Further, those texts written from a more overt critical and humanistic standpoint utilize either or both even more extensively. Thus, from within the discipline itself...even with its varied and sometimes contradictory diversity...the ideas of Mills and Berger emerge as a potential evaluative context of the sort needed for this essay's purpose.

As already noted, others have commented on the sociological emphasis of Fromm's work. Even a superficial acquaintance with his work reveals his lifelong concern with the social condition of man (as a generic, categorical term) and the need to utilize sociological principles to understand "man." The following statements by Fromm (which roughly cover the span of his mature life) indicate this concern and its relationship to Sociology:

The thesis that psychology only deals with the individual while sociology only deals with 'society' is false. For just as psychology always deals with a socialized individual, so sociology always deals with a group of individuals whose psychic structure and mechanisms must be taken into account ("The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology" 1932)

This book is part of a broad study concerning the character structure of modern man and the problems of the interaction between psychological and sociological factors which I have been working on for several years (Foreword to Escape from Freedom 1941)

This collection of essays, written at different times between 1932 and1969, is unified by the common theme of the interrelation between psychological and sociological factors...They are still the most complete and adequate presentation of the theoretical basis upon which my later work on the subject rests (Preface to The Crisis of Psychoanalysis 1970)

...this volume deals with an empirical psychological and social analysis of the two modes of existence (from To Have or To Be 1976)

Each of these quotes reveals a concern with sociological factors (but always in dialectical relation to psychological factors). Fromm clearly thought of his work as involving Sociology and while accepting Fromm's word on this may be sufficient superficially, these statements themselves are no guarantee of a definitive sociological perspective on his part. This is why an evaluative context is needed and why Mills and Berger are instructive. However, before turning directly to them, I want to state that I will be making no claim that Fromm's sociological content agrees with Mills or Berger point by point. My claim is that Fromm's perspectives are largely consistent with theirs and that a comparison of their overall approaches with Fromm's approach will result in a correspondence which will clearly situate Fromm in the critical, humanistic, radical, and prophetic tradition of Sociology.

Both Mills and Berger essentially refer to Sociology as an "approach" to social existence. Mills poses three questions he says have been traditionally asked by those possessing what he calls the "sociological imagination." In a somewhat similar vein, Berger organizes "sociological consciousness" around four "motifs." Both share a common concern about the importance of critical analysis. They clearly define Sociology AS critical investigation and I will maintain that Fromm does likewise. Also, both made observations about the relationship of the social sciences and psychoanalysis and this relationship was, quite obviously, one of Fromm's major emphases. I should also add that in presenting both of these thinkers, I am also claiming that either could suffice alone. However, both add to the evaluative context I seek to establish and thus, I will set forth each in turn, beginning with Mills, providing preliminary examples from Fromm which signify his attention to similar concerns.

In his book, The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills described the sociological imagination s a "quality of mind" which enables one "to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals," and "to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society." Further, he said it is "the capacity to shift from one perspective to another--from the political to the psychological," from the "most impersonal and remote transformations to the the most intimate features of the human self,"...that it is "the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness." While these are certainly insightful and helpful descriptions of the sociological imagination, Mills also provided a more specific guide by which to recognize and understand it. He said there are three questions which its possessors have consistently asked, no matter what specific problem or broad features of social reality they were concerned about. He also added that its possessors need not be "sociologists" per se. It is these questions, I believe, which enables us to locate Fromm within a sociological framework.

Mills' first question is:

What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential components and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Within it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and for its change?

I believe that Fromm's attention to the substance of Mills' first question is illustrated by the following:

These problems of happiness, ethical motivation, and destructiveness must be studied in the larger context of the character structure prevailing in any given culture and in sub-groups of this culture. They must be part of extensive studies of the character structure typical of various nations, of their national characters. It must be emphasized again that such studies must be not focused on childhood training but on the structure of the society as a whole, on the functions of the individual in this structure ("Psychoanalytic Characterology and Its Application to the Understanding of Culture" 1949)

Fromm is saying here that problems such as happiness, ethical motivation, and destructiveness are more than "individual" problems. They are not merely the responsibiity of each person, but rather, stem, as well, from the larger context of social structure in a given society. He clearly links the "problems" of individuals with the "issues" on a public level. In addition, he proposes, like Mills, to understand a given society by means of comparison/contrast with other societies, thereby relativizing the ideas and ways of the society under investigation. He also portrays a component like "childhood training" (i.e. family practices) as being related to a society's other components, implying that one cannot merely limit themselves to an understanding of such practices without taking into consideration the influences of other components such as employment patterns or requirements---the functions of individuals and the expectations those individuals will encounter.

Also, Fromm's emphasis on a society's "character structure" indicates his attention to its effect on its continuance or change. Elsewhere (in Beyond the Chains of Illusion), he clearly states his position that a society's social character (interchangeable with "character structure"), has a "predominantly stabilizing function" as long as the "objective conditions of the society and the culture remain stable." However, if these objective conditions change in a way inconsistent with the dominant social character, then that social character changes into "an element of disintegration instead of stabilization..."

Mills' second question is:

Where does this society stand in human history? What are the mechanisms by which it is changing? What is its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole? How does any particular feature we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the historical period in which it moves? And this period---what are its essential features? How does it differ from other periods? What are its characteristic ways of history-making?

The following statement by Fromm indicates his concern with the substance of this second question, even though not touching upon every point:

Man's character has been molded by the demands of the world he has built with his own hands. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the social character of the middle class showed strong exploitative and hoarding traits. This character was determined by the desire to exploit others and to save one's own earnings to make further profit from them. In the twentieth century, man's character orientation shows considerable passivity and an identification with the values of the market. Contemporary man is certainly passive in most of his leisure time. He is the eternal consumer; he 'takes in' drink, food, cigarettes, lectures, sights, books, movies; all are consumed, swallowed ("The Present Human Condition")

In this passage Fromm exhibits his attention to the larger flow of human history. He portrays a society's social character as the mechanism by which it changes and by which we can understand the processual development of humanity. He clearly identifies and distinquishes the essential features of a given historical period from previous ones; highlighting the different requirements for human survival in each period.

Finally, though Fromm begins this passage with a clear statement about the dialectical relationship between "man" and "the world he has built with his own hands," he ends it with a comment about the passivity of contemporary man---that is, the contemporary period's characteristic ways of history-making---a kind of history-making which isn't recognized as such. This is reminiscent of Mills' stance that individuals create society and history, however minutely, by the fact of their being alive. In other words, Fromm is saying here that the characteristic ways of history-making in the contemporary period consist of passive individuals who have lost their sense of being "active creators," but who nonetheless are still history-makers.

Mills' third question is:

What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of 'human nature' are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period? And what is the meaning for 'human nature' of each and every feature of the society we are examining?

The two following statements illustrate Fromm's attention to this third question:

If we are to discuss now the state of mental health in contemporary Western man, and if we are to consider what factors in his mode of life make for in-sanity and what others are conducive to sanity, we have to study the influence of the specific conditions of our mode of production and of our social and political organization on the nature of man; we have to arrive at a picture of the personality of the average man living and working under these conditions (The Sane Society)

Further:

What kind of man, then, does our society need in order to function smoothly? It needs men who co-operate easily in large groups, who want to consume more and more, and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle of conscience, yet are willing to be commanded, to do what is expected, to fit into the social machine without friction; men who can be guided without force, led without leaders, be prompted without an aim, except the aim to be on the move, to function, to go ahead. This kind of man, modern industrialism has succeeded in producing; he is the automaton, the alienated man ("The Present Human Condition")

It is certainly not difficult to recognize Fromm's concern with Mills' third question in these two quotations. His concern with the molding of "human nature" by the features of a society are apparent. He succinctly describes the type of individual needed by a given society if it is to function smoothly. He describes the prevailing kind of individual (and the variety coming to prevail) as the "automaton," the man who does not actively relate to life, but who adjusts to the needs of the "social machine. He indicates that the "mode of production" and the "social and political organizations" are the means by which individuals are selected and formed, liberated and repressed, and made sensitive and blunted. In many other places he theorizes that it is the "social character" of a society which serves as the "mediator" which drives man to want to do what he has to do in a given society.

While these are only a few samples of Fromm's thought, I believe that they...and my amplification of them, decidedly situates Fromm in the context of Mills' notion of the sociological imagination. Mills offered these three questions as an agenda for sociological analysis and I believe Fromm's concern with them as well as his answers to them makes it possible to evaluate his answers as being fundamentally sociological. I now turn to a similar treatment of Peter L. Berger's "motifs of sociological consciousness>."

Continued Here