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Erich Fromm on Karl Marx

by Carla Assmann Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 at 4:07 AM

The capitalist production method makes a few persons absurdly rich while the others hardly have enough to survive. Capitalism also makes people unfree and unhappy because their access to their true needs is blocked.


Must people be reeducated for socialism? Not at all, Erich Fromm says in his book on Marx. They only need to be free of their corrupting education.

By Carla Assmann

[This article (“Den Geist ruiniert”) published 12/24/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, Carla Assmann is an editor of Marx21 and does not despair over her compatriots since reading this classical author.]

[“Fromm is liberating and refreshing by overcoming distortions,” an enthusiastic reviewer wrote in DIE ZEIT. In the early 1960s, the well-known psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote a little book titled “Das Menschenbild bei Marx” (Marx’s View of the Person) that opened the eyes of many. At that time the Cold War was picking up speed.]

The distortion of Marxist thought” is carried out on two sides, we read there. On one side, the Soviet regime claims Marx for its political legitimation and distorts his ideas. On the other side, the anti-communist West joyfully believes this propaganda and reproaches Marx that his ideal of another society consisted of soulless robotic people under the thumb of a totalitarian bureaucracy. At the same time anti-communists do not grow weary of emphasizing that capitalism with its egoistic pursuit of profit corresponds to human nature and the idea of a socialist society is daydreaming out of touch with reality.


Has not history shown that no alternative to capitalism is possible and that socialism cannot function any different than in the DDR (East Germany)?

The arguments presented by Erich Fromm in “Marx’s View of the Person” are just as relevant and necessary today as at that time.


Fromm’s starting point is the fact that Marx’s criticism of capitalism goes far beyond the distribution of material goods. The capitalist production method makes a few persons absurdly rich while the others hardly have enough to survive. The capitalist production method also makes people unfree and unhappy because their access to their true needs is blocked.

At the same time Marx opposed every kind of biological or historical determinism. People create the social systems under which they live and can change them.

Work with a twofold function for people is central in Marx’s analysis. Firstly, the production of food is an absolutely necessary basis for survival and secondly is an expression of the human need to be in contact with nature and other people. “Only when he or she is productively active can a person live a meaningful life and be glad in that,” Fromm wrote.


As individuals, persons are marked by the circumstances they create as a society. In capitalism, work loses the character of a self-determined expression of human abilities through division of labor and private ownership of the means of production and becomes a compulsion that “turns the human psyche into a fortress and ruins his spirit.”

“Estrangement” from their own activity prevents people from seeing produced objects as their own work. Since they sacrifice their time and joy in life to the production of “things,” things seem to dominate them. Social and political circumstances also appear like the elements which people face powerlessly.


Marx warned against confusing the socialization of the means of production with their nationalization since people then wou9ld be merely subjected to the “abstract capitalists,” the state and bureaucracy. To breakthrough the estrangement of the world and fellow persons, each and every individual must be able to independently jointly determine the social processes.

“For Marx, socialism was never the fulfillment of life but rather the condition of such fulfillment,” Fromm explains. He also emphasized that demands limited to only more distributive justice ignore a basic problem. The rule relation remains and the possibility of cancelling material improvements at any time.


In socialism, the same dull mindless work is pursued, only voluntarily or as asceticism for love of community, according to Marx. On the other hand, all possibilities of self-realization are open to people in a socialist society since the social regulation of production liberates individuals from the constant worry about ensuring survival. Space arises for new desires and ideas. Democratic economies offer time and opportunity to realize this.

In the life of the working class, the oppression of people resulting from the capitalist production method appears very clearly and inexorably. However all social classes gradually suffer under the “enslavement of people by things and circumstances that they make themselves,” Fromm stresses. Therefore emancipation from these circumstances must assume the political form of worker emancipation because the liberation of all people is contained in the liberation of workers, not replacing the present capitalist rule with a new rule of one class over others.


In “Marx’s View of the Person,” Erich Fromm tries to show that the capitalist social order contradicts “human nature” and that human nature has the potential to liberate itself from the chains that it forged itself. While his philosophy of history is not entirely convincing, that does not diminish the overall impression. Fromm shows very beautifully that the core ideas from Marx’s early philosophical writings were also central for his later work. Besides many quotations in the text, there is an appendix with extensive quotations from Marx’s early writings.

“Marx experts may not notice that they are not new,” the book review in DIE ZEIT said. “These facts are very new for millions of people who read Marx everyday (and often curse his name every day).” Unfortunately that is still true today and is reason to read Fromm’s book.


Philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm never abandoned his vision of a humanist non-estranged society where persons were not commodified or mere goods producers but were emancipated and shared in social, cultural and economic freedom. He wrote "Having or Being" at age 76. His first book "Escape from Freedom" explains why people fall for totalitarian leaders.

to read "Erich Fromm and His Proposal for a Basic Income" published in May 2010, click on

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