A recent article published in the Journal of Psychosocial Studies chronicles the “rise, fall, and revival” of psychosocial thinker Erich Fromm. The author, sociologist Neil McLaughlin, argues that Fromm’s thinking—which fell out of academic favor as the disciplines of sociology and psychology became more interested in quantification than the “big picture”—is useful for understanding contemporary issues such as the rise of Donald Trump and extremist nationalism.
“The dominant paradigms in the social sciences are in crisis, as they did not predict and have trouble explaining the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the global rise of extremist nationalism and conspiracy theories that we are seeing around the world. Social media is a key element of all this, obviously, but the issues go deeper,” McLaughlin writes.
“After Donald Trump, is it really possible to argue that we need to look at politics exclusively through rational choice theories and ignore the importance of character and individual personality?”
Erich Fromm was a 20th century psychoanalytic Marxist who believed that psychological problems could not be divorced from social and economic issues. Although he eventually fell out of favor in both psychology and sociology, some believe that his thinking still offers essential insight on authoritarian political personalities and how we might produce the kind of “sane society,” which is conducive to human flourishing.
His analyses of the relationships between society and the person may be especially critical at this juncture in history, as we face psychosocial and existential issues such as the psychological effects of sociocultural inequality, the rise of extremist political movements, and the potential for catastrophic climate change.
The current article chronicles the rise and fall of Fromm’s popularity as a social thinker and suggests a new route for “psychosocial” studies that can speak to contemporary issues, from the rise of political figures like Donald Trump to increasing extremist nationalism across the globe.
McLaughlin suggests that scholars pay attention to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s recent rise in fame, particularly as Peterson advocates for a “depth psychological” perspective that addresses current experiences of existential malaise.
The author is careful to acknowledge that scholarly study should be more rigorous than Peterson’s political rhetoric. Still, he suggests that now is the opportune moment for a revival of ways of thinking that incorporate both socio-economic analysis and in-depth psychological analysis.
As an example of this way of thinking, he points to Erich Fromm’s work in books such as Escape from Freedom, where the cultural critic argued that we could not simply understand Adolph Hitler and other political fascists as “madmen,” and we also cannot ignore “Marx’s attention to the historical class-based origins of political movements and perspectives.”
Instead, Fromm analyzed these political and psychological movements from a psychosocial perspective, describing the “narcissism” of authoritarian figures as well as, for example, the alienating effects of modern individualism that may lead people to support such figures.
McLaughlin argues that Fromm’s influence, and the influence of psychosocial thinking more broadly, ultimately fell victim to academic turf wars, as sociologists and psychologists found it increasingly important to legitimize their disciplines in comparison to the rigor of the natural sciences. This led to a retreat from the kind of “‘big picture’ social science criticism practiced by Fromm.”
On another front, the author believes that Fromm’s willingness to address the public, in books such as The Art of Love, also hurt his academic standing. Professional scholars may have judged Fromm harshly because of prejudices “rooted in our own sometimes narrowly professional commitments to peer-reviewed work.”
According to McLaughlin, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in psychoanalytic/psychosocial research, for example around issues of “malignant narcissism among authoritarian political leaders” in light of the rise of anti-democratic extremism.
McLaughlin believes that this is an important opportunity for those with psychosocial interests. However, he cautions scholars not to engage in some of the same practices that led to Fromm’s fall in status as a thinker. In particular, he argues that both psychoanalysis and Marxism are “intellectual, social movements, which, shaped by a sect-like culture, tend to lead to denunciations, purges, and excessive concern with intellectual purity.”
Moving forward, he believes that psychosocial forms of study and analysis of current political events must be less sectarian and less dogmatic if the holistic psychosocial perspective is to reclaim ground.
“The need for this perspective in the world is more obvious than ever. Alongside existing powerful economic, political, and historical forces, psychosocial dynamics will play their role in helping to reproduce social problems, inequality, hatreds, wars, and climate disaster in the world outside our universities unless governments, policymakers, business leaders, social movements, and citizens of the world directly address the psychosocial issues. Our scholarly work has the potential to contribute greatly to this larger set of social and political issues.”
McLaughlin, N. (2019). The coming triumph of the psychosocial perspective: Lessons from the rise, fall, and revival of Erich Fromm. Journal of Psychosocial Studies, 12(1), 9-22. (Link)