Book review: Erich Fromm and Critical Criminology

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a review in Contemporary Sociology 30(4), 2001. Also as PDF.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2001. Review of Erich Fromm and Critical Criminology: Beyond the Punitive Society, edited by Kevin Anderson and Richard Quinney. Contemporary Sociology 30(4):400-401.

This book provides a small collection of criminological papers on and by the Freudo-Marxist Erich Fromm. Though Fromm’s work is well-known across the social sciences, his contributions to criminological thought are neglected. This is no surprise to the extent that Fromm published only few short articles explicitly dealing with matters of crime and criminal justice. Yet, given the prominence of Fromm in the history of modern social thought, the intention of this volume to further theorize on and apply the criminology of Fromm cannot be dismissed. The results of this endeavor in this book, however, are not intellectually satisfying.

The volume starts of with a rather detailed introduction, written by Fromm expert Rainer Funk, into Fromm’s life and work. The chapter is interesting but not integrated with the central theme of the book, providing merely an excursion with marginal appeal to historians of selected aspects of social thought. The following five chapters deal with theoretical and empirical issues that relate Fromm’s Freudo-Marxism with a variety of criminological themes. Of these, the chapters by Lynn Chancer, John Wozniak, and Polly Radosh transcend the theoretical and meta-theoretical to connect with empirically attuned themes that should move any serious criminologist.

Unfortunately, all but one of these applications offer materials much too underdeveloped and esoteric to be fruitful for a better understanding of the value and limitations of Fromm’s thought for criminological sociology. Chancer’s effort to connect Fromm’s perspective of sadomasochism with violent crime is simply too thin to offer any valuable insights and remains too superficial in narrating elements of how Fromm’s ideas might be “potentially applicable” in the area of criminology (p. 41). Wozniak’s attempt to apply Fromm’s concept of alienation to criminal behavior, likewise, provides at best some casually illustrated fragments of an application, offering mere strings of quotations from the primary and secondary relevant literature instead of a serious and sustained criminological treatment thereof.

Proving that a deeper and more useful criminological analysis of Fromm’s work is possible, Radosh offers a helpful discussion of gender differences in crime and criminal justice from the viewpoint of Fromm’s perspective of social character and gendered socialization. The chapter is refreshingly enlightening in estimating how Fromm’s ideas may work in criminology, especially inasmuch as the analysis is both empirically grounded as well as theoretically astute.

The two remaining applied chapters are more theoretical and/or meta-theoretical in orientation, but they likewise offer little to further a Frommian criminology. Richard Quinney’s effort to theoretically hook up Fromm’s thought with peacemaking criminology is simply unworthy of one of the most respected figures in the history of critical criminology in the United States. In a mere nine pages, Quinney sprinkles an utopian vision and nihilist epistemology that just cursorily refers to Fromm, alongside of Ghandi and others purportedly interested in developing responses to crime “generated by love” (p. 28). If this chapter, written by one of the key architects of peacemaking criminology, is any indication of the strength of the theoretical foundations of that perspective, its adherent may soon find themselves out on the street.

The final applied chapter in this book, Kevin Anderson’s paper on the place of Fromm’s work in the history of German criminology and the Frankfurt School, is mostly a summary of Fromm’s papers on crime, interspersed with excursions into the works of criminologists of Fromm’s time or assumed ilk. These various themes are presented in very disconnected manner and fail to provide anything of substance beyond a textbook-level exercise in the history of disjointed snippets of social thought.

Fortunately, this book also contains two (of the three) papers written by Fromm in which he explicitly dealt with criminological themes. Offering the most interesting contribution of this volume, the papers provide a first-hand look into Fromm’s thinking on crime and criminal justice. Though these papers are relatively brief and not particularly original for their time, their appearance in English for the first time is a contribution to contemporary sociology, if only and minimally to inform us how an author as well-known as Fromm already dealt with social issues as relevant to society —and occasionally still as underestimated in sociology— as crime and criminal justice. However, what Fromm’s ideas can mean for the practice of contemporary criminological sociology cannot be gathered from this volume.

See other writings on social control and criminal justice.