A Reply to Erich Fromm

A Reply to Erich Fromm

In trying to refute the argument of my article “The Social Implications of Freudian ‘Revisionism'” (DISSENT, Summer 1955), Erich Fromm has constructed a thesis which I did not state ( “The Human Implications of Instinctivistic ‘Radicalism'” by Erich Fromm, DISSENT, Fall 1955, pp. 342-349.). Although his misinterpretation may be to a great extent due to the fact that my book, Eros and Civilization, to which the article specifically referred, had not yet been published, I feel that a few corrections are in order.

1. Fromm attributes to Freud, or to my restatement of Freudian theory,
the following notions:

a) that happiness is satisfaction of the sexual instinct, “specifically of
the wish for free access to all available females”;

b) that love is in its “essence” or is “identical with” sexual desire; and
c) that man has an “inherent wish for unlimited sexual satisfaction,”

and that the “emancipation of man lies in the complete and unrestricted
satisfaction of his sexual desire.”

Far from identifying happiness with the “unrestricted satisfaction” of the sexual instinct, Freud held that “unrestricted sexual liberty from the beginning” results in lack of full satisfaction, and that the “value” of erotic needs “instantly sinks as satisfaction becomes readily obtainable.” He considered the “strange possibility” that “something in the nature of the sexual instinct is unfavorable to the achievement of absolute satisfaction” (Collected Papers, Vol. IV, p. 213; italics added).

Freud did not define the “essence” of love as sexual desire, but as the inhibition and sublimation of sexual desire by tenderness and affection, and he saw in this “fusion” one of the greatest achievements of civilization. Consequently, Freud could not have had the “idea” (and I did not) that “the emancipation of man lies in the complete and unrestricted satisfaction of his sexual desire” (although I do not agree with Fromm that this idea is part of the “cement which binds men together in the present phase of capitalism”).

2. Freud did recognize, however, that even the highest values of civilization, in so far as they contain inhibited and aim-diverted sexuality, inevitably pre-suppose and perpetuate un-freedom and suppression. Fromm concludes that Freud leaves no hope for “any fundamental improvement of society” and that Freud’s theory is not a “radical criticism of alienated society” because it regards “alienation” as necessary prerequisite of all civilization. Moreover, Fromm emphasizes that Freud did not offer a critique of the “socio-economic structure” of contemporary society. On this point, I agree, and I have not said it did. ...