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Erich Fromm and His Proposal for a Basic Income

by Klaus Widerstrom
Philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm never abandoned his vision of a humanist non-estranged society where4 persons were not commodified or mere goods producers. His book "Having or Being" was written when he was 76. His book "Escape from Freedom" explains why people fall for totalitarian leaders.

By Klaus Widerstrom

[This essay published in May 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

1. Who was Erich Fromm?

1.1 Biography and Work

Erich Pinchas Fromm was born on March 23, 1900 in Frankfurt. He was the only child of the wine dealer Naphtali Fromm and his wife Rosa (born Krause) who both descended from orthodox Jewish families with a long rabbinic tradition.

In 1918 Fromm graduated and studied law for two semesters at the University of Frankfurt. From the summer of 1919, he went to Heidelberg, changed subjects and studied sociology (called “economics” at that time) with the brother of the famous sociologist Max Weber, Alfred Weber.

In 1922 Fromm was awarded a doctorate of philosophy. He met his first wife Frieda Reichmann in Heidelberg who introduced him to Freudian psychoanalysis and later became an important psychoanalyst herself. Fromm devoted himself completely to the study of psychoanalysis.

From 1930, Fromm was a member of the “Institute for Social Research” in Frankfurt where he was responsible for all questions of psychoanalysis and social psychology. In the following years, his conception of a materialist social psychology on a Freudian and Marxist background influenced the theory of the Institute.

In 1934 the Jew Fromm immigrated to the US where he first worked for the Institute for Social Research in New York. After he revised his psychoanalytical approach and the Freudian methodology, he broke with the Institute in 1939 whose leading members Horkheimer, Marcuse and Adorno rejected this new view,

In 1940 Fromm began his varied teaching activity at different American schools and universities. In 1941 he became known worldwide through his first book “Escape from Freedom.” In that book he described the authoritarian orientation and submission under a leader as an escape route taken when people have fear of the freedom empowering or expected of them.

In 1956 Fromm moved to Mexico City and became a professor at the University of Mexico. Here he began his activity over years as an instructor in psychoanalysis. In 1955 he published the book “Ways Out of a Sick Society” in which he proposed a basic income for the first time. The little book “The Art of Love” (1956) became a world bestseller and has reached an edition of over 25 million today.

From 1960 Fromm intensified his political engagement by joining the Socialist Party of the United States, writing its party program and pursuing an extensive lecture activity in the US. After his emeritus status in 1965, he became passionately engaged in peace policy and against the Vietnam War. In 1968 “Revolution of Hope” was published, a book in which he again mentioned the guaranteed minimum income as an important contribution to a humanist society.

In 1974 Erich Fromm and his wife moved to Locarno. His book “Having or Being” (1976) gained great attention. In the following years, Fromm became a leading figure of the alternative movement, above all in Germany and Italy. In this late work he took up again his proposal for a basic income. Erich Fromm died on March 18, 1980, a few days before his 80th birthday.

1.2 Significance

Creatively active in many different disciplines, Erich Fromm was one of the last broadly educated humanist scholars of the twentieth century. He wrote outstanding innovative articles overarching disciplines:

• As a social psychologist, he combined discoveries of psychoanalysis with discoveries from sociology and formulated a theory of society explaining social developments particularly in western industrial societies.

• Recalling his religious-humanist background, he can also be described as an important religious- and social philosopher. He showed an inquisitive active-productive life practice can promote mental health.

• As an engaged social critic, he intermeddled in politics and put his finger on the wound of many misuses from a socialist perspective.

• As a utopian in the best sense, he formulated ethical conditions for a humanist society and offered many practical proposals that could advance bio-philia, love for life. Erich Fromm was one of the great humanists of the last century. Grappling with his ideas can only stimulate current discourse in the discussion on the unconditional basic income.

2. Erich Fromm’s Main Ideas

After learning who Erich Fromm was, we will now focus on some of his main ideas. Let us briefly consider three terms that are essential in his thinking: humanism, estrangement and social character.

2.1 Humanism

Erich Fromm went back to the humanism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment important for the survival of modern society. For him, humanism is characterized by a belief in humankind – their ability to develop on ever higher stages… belief in the unity of the human race… belief in tolerance and peace and reason and love as forces enabling the person to realize him- or herself and become what he can be (1963).

Fromm’s humanist society is a society in which the person can be “mentally healthy” because he can develop his own strengths. The mental health of every individual is the goal. In Fromm’s eyes a person can only be mentally healthy when he is productively active and not estranged. To bring about such a society, a fundamental reorganization of the whole economic- and social system is an indispensable prerequisite without which the goals cannot be reached.

From saw the person in “modern society” as massively threatened and far from humanist principles. His diagnosis was: a high degree of estrangement.

2.2 Estrangement

Fromm takes up the alienation term from Hegel and Karl Marx and applies it to present societies. He says alienation means experiencing the world and himself passively and receptively as a subject separated from the object (1962).

In Fromm’s understanding, this form of estrangement also appears in the biblical picture of idolatry.

The person worships the work of his own hands and transfers the attributes of his own life to the objects he creates (1961). The idols change in the course of time. Once the idols were animals, trees, glory, flag, the state and many others (1966). The modern person has become an object of blind economic forms that govern his life. This modern estrangement has its roots in the present production method and can only be overcome through the complete change of the economic and social constellation, Fromm concluded (1962). The unconditional basic income aims at such an economic-social change that can counter an estrangement-dynamic

2.3 Social Character

Erich Fromm observed his fellow humans and asked early on why persons act in a certain way as individuals and as members of a society. What motivates them to their conduct, particularly when their behavior against better knowledge obviously has a harmful effect on their life? His analytical conclusions led him to the term “social character.”

According to his theory, the social character is the sum of characteristics typical for the people of a society (1932). “Character” is a system of strivings that define conduct (1947). The individual character is the totality of characteristics or features. The social character is a selection from this totality, namely those characteristics which he shares with the greater part of the members of his society (1941).

Permanent interrelations and interactions influenced by socio-economic, psychological and ideological factors exist between the character of the individual and the character of society.

The social character determines the thinking, feeling and acting of individual persons. A person develops those characteristics on the basis of which he can act as he must act. In this way the social character harnesses human energy for the tasks of a certain economic and social system (1941).

In other words, a social character with its given economic conditions makes special demands on the individual members of this society to ensure the functioning of society. On his side, the existentially dependent individual is forced to fulfill these demands and does this by internalizing them as “his desires.”

On the basis of these reflections, Fromm diagnoses different social character orientations. In western societies of the 20th century, he sees the principle of marketing as the dominant orientation. He speaks of the “marketing orientation.” Everything becomes a commodity and should be for sale, even the person and his labor power. There is a “market” for everything. Without the market, there is no value. The person experiences himself as a commodity or more exactly as a seller and as a good (1947). In the meantime this tendency has contaminated nearly all areas of life and corresponds to the principle of maximum consumption prevailing in developed industrial nations.


In summary Fromm’s three main ideas provide the basis for his diagnosis. Great effort is needed to bring about a fundamental change of direction to a humanist society. Everything depends on

• Making clear the increasing measure of estrangement in present societies,

• Motivating a sufficiently large number of people to changed thinking and acting to push back the marketing orientation dominating almost everything and instead make possible a productive-active life,

• Through progressive solutions and productive ideas appropriate for real human needs.

If these ideas are first manifest in the individual character of many possible individual persons, the chance exists that they will be gradually reflected as characteristics of the majority, the social character.

The idea of an unconditional basic income is such a progressive solution since it provides adequate answers to genuine human needs.

3. Erich Fromm’s Proposals for a Basic Income

Erich Fromm did not stop at descriptions of an ideal utopia. He drew up a catalog of practical proposals for a reorganization of economic, political and cultural society. One is the introduction of a guaranteed subsistence level. In other places, he called it a guaranteed annual income or described it as an annual minimum income.

Fromm spread this idea for the first time in his book “Ways Out of a Sick Society” in 1955. In the first half of the 20th century, there was hardly a public discussion about an unconditional basic income securing existence. Therefore Erich Fromm can be considered an important initiator of the basic income discussion.

How should Fromm’s proposal for a guaranteed subsistence level be evaluated in detail? He brings two different variants in the discussion, the offer of free consumer durables and services and the payment of an unconditional minimum income.

3.1 Free Consumption

Fromm mentioned the first variant of a free consumption in his essay on the psychological aspects. For him, it was very important to also consider free consumption of certain consumer durables in addition to the idea of a guaranteed income. One would receive everything free that is necessary for life - in the sense of a fixed minimum – instead of having to pay in cash (1966). The most important basic foods could first be given free of charge and then later all consumer articles belonging to the minimal material foundation. He saw this variant as a realistic possibility in an advanced social state. This proposal would be very rational (1968).

Fromm’s more detailed analyses refer to his second proposal of a standard payment.

3.2 Standard Payment

Several questions are helpful in considering the se4cond variant of a guaranteed subsistence level.

3.2.1 What were Erich Fromm’s main motives for a guaranteed subsistence level?

Fromm’s first main motive for his proposal was the principle that the person under all circumstances has the right to live. This right is an inborn right that cannot be restricted under any circumstances regardless whether the person “is of use” (1966). The first motive is the right to life.

The guaranteed subsistence level also means an increase in freedom. The second motive is growth in freedom.

As another motive, Fromm spoke of a structurally-conditioned unemployment intensifying the feeling of human insecurity that is very hard to bear for most (1941). The third motive is structurally-conditioned unemployment.

3.2.2 What are the recommendations for its introduction and organization?

Regarding the practical introduction, Fromm proposed a reform of the existing social security system which could be extended into the guarantee of a general subsistence level. This would go a step further than the existing insurance systems for unemployment, sickness and old age (1955). The first recommendation is: develop existing systems.

No one needs to “prove neediness” because the whole principle would be worthless if bureaucratic methods were introduced demanding evidence that the concerned really use his or her time well (1976). The second recommendation is its unconditional nature.

3.2.3 What does he say about the amount and duration of the benefit?

On its size, Fromm said: an income creating the basis for a dignified existence is necessary. The amount must be below the lowest work wage to not provoke resentment and indignation among workers. The current wage level must be (simultaneously) raised considerably to ensure a modest but sufficient material existence (1955). An adequate amount is indispensable.

In his book “Ways Out of a Sick Society,” Fromm also proposed a temporal limit of payment to avoid a neurotic attitude where the concerned elude all kinds of social obligations. In his later texts, he took up this point of temporal limitation (1955). A permanent payment would be guaranteed when necessary.

3.2.4 What is his assessment of the costs for society?

Fromm expected only a marginal group of people would make use of such a payment. Very few would not want to earn more than the subsistence level and prefer nothing to work…

With view to American conditions in the 1960s and 1970s, Fromm says the costs would be less than our current welfare spending. The expected reduction of costs for a social security bureaucracy and for the treatment of mental and psycho-somatic sicknesses and combating criminality will relativize the expenditures (1976). A simplified bureaucracy saves enormous costs.

3.2.5 What are the prerequisites and chances of its realization?

One prerequisite is moving a sufficiently large part of the population to encourage such changes or at least not resist them. In any case, these radical changes will take some time. For his proposals, Fromm speaks of system changes projected twenty years into the future (1968). His proposals are only realizable with massive support of the population.

The full effectiveness of the principle of a guaranteed income for all requires further social changes (1955). His proposals are only possible in connection with other extensive changes.

After discussing the concrete details of Erich Fromm’s guaranteed subsistence level, let us turn in conclusion to Fromm’s psychological assessment.

4. Erich Fromm’s Psychological Assessment

In his 1966 essay “Psychological Aspects of a Guaranteed Income for All,” the arising psychological aspects, risks and human problems were tackled (1966).

In Fromm’s eyes, the main problem in introducing an unconditional basic income is in its political and psychological ramifications, not in the economic and technical aspects of the problem because habits and ways of thinking do not change just like that.

Erich Fromm began his analysis with the expected positive effects of a guaranteed basic income: more freedom.

4.1 More Freedom

The dominant principle “Whoever does not work should not eat” (a sentence from the New Testament) was in effect for most of the past and present history of humanity. This threat characterizes a psychology of deficiency based on the principles of fear where the essentials of life are not controlled any more. On the other hand, a guaranteed income could make people today free and independent from economic threats. This would mark the transition from the psychology of deficiency to a psychology of abundance, one of the most important steps in human history. A psychology of deficiency produces fear, envy and egoism. A psychology of abundance produces initiative, faith in life and solidarity. (Abundance is understood in the sense of overflowing and exorbitant, not superfluous.)

Liberation from economic dependence through a guaranteed income will have considerable effects on many areas of life. For example, no one will be dependent any more on unfortunate working conditions because otherwise poverty or hunger threatens. Relations between people would no longer be dominated financially. With reduced working hours, free spaces will appear in which a person can intensively grapple with the basic questions of life, meaning and values. In this way the freedom of individuals would greatly expand. A person would experience freedom as genuine independence and not (as is often true today) merely as choosing among consumer articles. More freedom is a strong argument for an unconditional basic income.

Fromm tackles a frequent argument against the unconditional basic income: that work motivation would supposedly be lacking.

4.2 Work Motivation

No one will work any more if everyone has a claim to this subsistence level. That is the objection. Firstly, the argument emphasizing laziness as characteristic of human nature is false. Secondly, the material incentive is in no way the only motive for working and trying hard. Rather interest in work, pride in one’s achievement and striving for recognition are also important motives. Lastly, a person suffers under the consequences of inactivity.

This cliché that a person is lazy by nature is nothing but a slogan serving as rationalization to refrain from power over the weak and helpless. The cliché has no factual basis (1976).

According to Fromm, the argument of lacking work motivation has no real foundation.

4.3 The homo consumens

Fromm derives his own critical reflection from his discoveries on the estrangement of modern societies and their marketing-character orientation. He shows that the modern person has changed into a homo consumens marked by a boundless hunger for more and more consumption. He is insatiable and passive and tries to compensate for his inner emptiness with consumption. That was his diagnosis. Industrial society of the twentieth century has created this new psychological type for economic reasons first of all, that is for the sake of the necessary mass consumption which is stimulated and manipulated by advertising.

Since Fromm’s time, a certain development away from blatant consumer gullibility is clear among many. However the basic focus on ever new consumption remains dominant for large parts of society. This is also obviously true for people who fall – voluntarily or involuntarily – in the situation of a guaranteed minimum income. According to Fromm, those who feel frustrated and inferior could live on the level of the guaranteed income because they can no longer participate in their desired consumption because of inadequate funds.

Because this represented a very real danger, Fromm came to the following conclusion. “I believe the guaranteed income will only solve certain (economic and social) problems but will not have the desired radical effect if we do not simultaneously abandon the principle of maximum consumption.

For him, one basic prerequisite for success is transforming the dominant system of maximum consumption into a system of optimal consumption. How did he envision this transition?

In industry, the production of goods for industrial consumption must be superseded by production of goods for public consumption… Such a transition to optimal consumption would necessitate drastic changes in the patterns of consumption and a radical reduction of advertising.

Many powerful lobby-groups have a very real interest in maintaining and even accelerating the treadmill of our consumption. In all probability these forces will wage massive battles against such a plan.

4.4 Combining Simultaneous Measures

In these few reflections on consumption and advertising, we see that Erich Fromm regarded the success of a basic income as only possible in a combination of fundamental social changes. In summary, the success of a guaranteed income for all can only be expected, he says,

When coupled (1) with a change of our consumption habits, the transformation of the homo consumens into a productively-active person… (2) the formation of a new mental attitude of humanism (in theistic or non-theistic form) and (3) a renaissance of genuine democracy…

“Genuine democracy is meant in the sense that everyone concerned with social development can really cooperate productively.

A guaranteed unconditional basic income could play a key role in realizing these changes. It could also be the gate to a sustainable way of life!

5. Conclusion

New developments need new ideas – like the unconditional basic income. Fromm was an important pioneer of ideas. He never abandoned hope for a humanist society all his life. He would surely follow today’s discussion on the question of an unconditional basic income with great interest. I conclude with a quotation from Fromm that should give us indomitable courage.

“The power of ideas may be the most important factor among the prerequisites for a real possibility of change. When an idea touches a person inwardly, it becomes one of the most powerful weapons because it awakens enthusiasm and devotion, builds up human energy and guides in certain paths… The great chance for everyone who wants to go in a new direction is that they have ideas while their opponents have only worn out ideologies."

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