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Erich Fromm: social critic, radical humanist and clinician

Three Friday afternoons, a short course

Feb. 2, 9, 23, 2018 1-4PM

(note the date change for the third session)

Michael Maccoby, PhD

Mauricio Cortina, MD

Continuing Education Credits:



Regular $200
WSP Current Members $150
WSP Current Students $75

At the Washington School of Psychiatry, 5028 Wisconsin Ave. NW #400, Washington DC 20016.

The Relevance of Erich Fromm

At this time of profound social change, the work of Erich Fromm can equip us to better understand the causes of change, its impact on our psyches, and how to respond in a way that sparks hope.

Fromm shows us that mental health is not the absence of symptoms but rather the development of our human powers to love and create. In this time of anxious social and political conflict, his work helps us understand social pathology and shows the way toward a sane society where policy is evaluated according to whether it facilitates or impedes human development.

As clinicians, we can learn from his understanding of the unconscious and its social as well as individual determinants. Through interpretation of dreams, he shows that we do not only repress negative impulses, but also the creative insights and energy essential for full mental health.

The Context

Global markets, the information technology revolution, and the urgent need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies within the next few decades are creating a tidal wave of change and causing an explosive mix. There are winners and losers in this brave new world. Global markets and new technologies have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in countries like China and India while at the same time creating brutal economic disparities and enormous dislocations all over the world. In the United States and to some extent in Europe, the working class is seeing their livelihoods threatened and communities disintegrate through the combined effects of automatization and the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs that are being exported to countries with cheap labor. Their collective sense of powerlessness, anger and wounded pride has been channeled by Trump, finding scapegoats in immigrants, minorities and government regulations, while inflaming racial tensions and hatred. The rise of populist, right-wing movements are exacerbating tribal instincts and turning them into fanatical and racist crusades.

The middle class that has been the engine of economic growth has been falling behind. But even those who have prospered economically suffer the anxiety and lack of meaning that Fromm described in his concept of the marketing character. Both the winners and losers are trying to escape from themselves and their feelings.

Fromm the social critic

Erich Fromm witnessed a similar rise of a populist right-wing virulently racist and genocidal movement as a young man in Germany at the time he was being trained as a sociologist and a psychoanalyst. Throughout the decades of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s he developed a brilliant Freud-Marx synthesis he called social character theory, and other socio-psychoanalytic concepts: the pathology of normalcy and the related concepts of social filters and the social unconscious. He used these concepts to understand and analyze the rise of Nazism and the triumph of capitalism, with its dual potential to create greater freedoms and innovations as well as alienation and greed.


Fromm the radical, existential humanist

Fromm merged his critical view of society with a radical humanistic vision that he developed from many sources: his Jewish teachers and mentors, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Aristotle, Spinoza, Goethe, Marx, and mystics such a Meister Eckert and Buddhist masters, among others, to affirm the unity of humankind.
Two ideas are central to Fromm’s radical humanism. He thought humans had basically two existential “solutions” to the anxieties and fears caused our uprootedness from nature (i) we could either relate to the world productively, developing our capacity for love, autonomy and creativity, or we can escape from our fears and existential anxieties through consumerism, automaton conformity to social norms and institutions, idolatry to religious, political and cultural dogmas, group narcissism and lust for power and destruction (ii) the most developed and challenging expression of our humanity was through the biblical command to “love the stranger”, have empathy for those who are not like us and not part of our tribe. Fromm’s radical humanism can inspire and guide in creating an inclusive humanistic vision for the 21st century.

Fromm the clinician

Though there are many clinical examples and case studies scattered through his 20 books, Fromm never wrote a book on clinical psychoanalysis. It is fair to say that he anticipated by several decades the relational and intersubjective turn of psychoanalysis. He believed that the main problem in psychology was not the discharge of drives for individual satisfaction, but how to relate actively and humanly to others. Early in his career gave up the use of the couch to develop a more direct and authentic relation with patients that he called a “center to center relatedness” We will examine some of the strengths and some of his weaknesses of this approach.
Through these three seminars we will be examining these concepts using selected readings from Fromm and some of our own writings.

1. Selections from Escape for Freedom (1941) and op eds by Cortina and Mclaughlin and Maccoby’s keynote address to the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis

  • the rise of Nazism and the authoritarian personality
  • relevance for today: right wing populism and the Trump phenomena

2. Selections from Man for Himself (1947)

  • humanist ethics and his concept of productivity
  • Fromm’s existential humanism
  • What makes Fromm’s humanism radical?

3. Selections from The Forgotten Language (1951) and recent articles (2017) on Fromm in the Psychoanalytic Review

  • Fromm’s experiential approach to dreams
  • Fromm’s clinical approach: center to center relatedness
  • Strengths and weaknesses




Select Appropriate Level


Cancellations and Refunds

Refunds will be made for cancellations received at the School office in writing at least 10 days before the seminar date and are subject to a non-refundable administrative fee of $50.

Who should attend?

The workshop is intended for psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, physicians, medical students, and other graduate students.


The Washington School of Psychiatry is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. The Washington School of Psychiatry maintains responsibility for this program and its content.

The School is approved by the Social Work Board of the State of Maryland as a provider of continuing education for social workers in DC, MD, VA and WV.

The Washington School of Psychiatry has been approved by NBCC as an Approved Continuing Education Provider, ACEP No. 6388. Programs that do not qualify for NBCC credit are clearly identified. The Washington School of Psychiatry is solely responsible for all aspects of the program.

The School is accredited by MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society to provide continuing medical education for physicians.

The School designates each session for a maximum of 9_ AMA PRA Category I Credit(s)™. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.

Disclosure of Commercial Support and the Unlabeled use of a commercial product. No member of the planning committee and no member of the faculty for this event have a financial interest or other relationship with any commercial product.