Back in June, in a post featuring critiques Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács wrote on Freudian psychoanalysis, I announced that I’d shortly be posting a number of works by the Marxian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. A couple days earlier, of course, I’d posted an excellent piece by Bertell Ollman on Reich from his 1979 essay collection Social and Sexual Revolution. Needless to say, this post is long overdue.
Some brief remarks are therefore appropriate, in passing, to frame Reich’s relevance to the present moment.
First of all, Reich is relevant to contemporary discussions of fascism. His work on The Mass Psychology of Fascism remains one of the most innovative and profound Marxist efforts to understand ideology as a material force that has appeared to date.
Moreover, this forms a pivotal point of departure for a host of subsequent attempts to theorize revolutionary subjectivity — both in terms of consciousness and of desire. Tomorrow or the next day I hope to jot down some of my own thoughts on the matter, using Reich for reference.
Last but not least, Reich’s thoughts on sexual emancipation are considerably ahead of their time. Consider, for example, this excerpt from one of his journal entries dated 1939, while in Oslo:
The past few nights I wandered the streets of Oslo alone. At night a certain type of person awakes and plies her trade, one who these days must view each bit of love with great fear but who will someday hold sway over life. Today practically a criminal, tomorrow the proud bearer of life’s finest fruits. Whores, ostracized in our day, will in future times be beautiful women simply giving of their love. They will no longer be whores. Someday sensual pleasure will make old maids look so ridiculous that the power of social morality will slip out of their hands. I love love!
While some of his views on homosexuality might seem antiquated or backwards today — he saw it as a deviant behavior, linked to latent authoritarian tendencies — the fact remains that Reich favored decriminalization and protested adamantly against its recriminalization in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Incidentally, this is why I find it so absurd that leftists look to excuse Castro’s homophobic policies prior to 1980. Eduard Bernstein was promoting gay rights during the 1890s, and August Bebel advocated the repeal of laws against sodomy as early as 1898.
Regardless, here are the promised PDFs, along with some rare images and a translated article by the Italian Trotskyist Alessandro D’Aloia. I have taken the liberty of deleting some needless asides about the Big Bang, a peculiar hangup the International Marxist Tendency retains with respect to theoretical physics despite none of its members being qualified enough to judge the matter.
- Early Writings (1920-1925)
- The Function of the Orgasm: Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy (1928)
- The Passion of Youth, 1897-1922 (1928)
- Sex-Pol Essays (1929-1934)
- “The Sexual Misery of the Working Masses and the Difficulties of Reform” (1930)
- Character Analysis (1933)
- The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1934)
- Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals (1934-1939)
- The Bion Experiments (1938)
- Record of a Friendship: Correspondence with A. S. Neill (1936-1957)
- The Emotional Plague of Mankind, Vol. 2: People in Trouble (1927-1945)
- American Odyssey: Letters and Journals (1940-1947)
- Listen, Little Man! (1946)
- On Freud (1952)
- Selected Writings on Orgonomy (1951)
- Der triebhafte Charakter (1925)
- Die Funktion des Orgasmus (1927)
- Sexualerregung und Sexualbefriedigung (1929)
- Sexuelle Kampf der Jugend (1932)
- Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen für Studierende und praktizierende Analytiker (1933)
- Dialektischer Materialismus und Psychoanalyse (1934)
- Massenpsychologie des Faschismus. Zur Sexualökonomie der politischen Reaktion und zur proletarischen Sexualpolitik (1934)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band I Heft 2 (1934)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band I Heft 3/4 (1934)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band II Heft 1 (1935)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band II Heft 2 (1935)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band II Heft 3 (1935)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band III Heft 1/2 (1936)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band III Heft 3/4 (1936)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band IV Heft 1 (1937)
- Zeitschrift für politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie. Band V Heft 1 (1938)
- Einbruch der Sexualmoral. Zur Geschichte der sexuellen Ökonomie (1935)
- Masse und Staat. Zur Frage der Rolle der Massenstruktur in der revolutionären Bewegung (1935)
- Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf. Zur sozialistischen Umstrukturierung des Menschen (1936)
- Experimentelle Ergebnisse über die elektrische Funktion von Sexualität und Angst (1937)
- Die Bione. Zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens (1938)
- A Biopatia do Câncer
- As Origens da Moral Sexual
- Irrupção da moral sexual repressiva
- Psicologia de Massas do Fascismo
- O que é a consciência de classe
- Psicanálise e Educação
- A Revolução Sexual
- La función del orgasmo
- Analisis del Caracter
- Psicologia de Masas del Fascismo
- La Revolución Sexual
- Materialismo Dialectico y Psicoanalisis
- Reich Habla de Freud
- Psicoanálisis y Educación
- Ilse Ollendorff-Reich, Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography (1969)
- Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (1983)
- Jerome Greenfield, Wilhelm Reich vs. the USA (1974)
- Howard Press, The Marxism and Anti-Marxism of Wilhelm Reich (1971)
- Bertell Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich (1979)
- Russell Jacoby, Ideology and Unconsciousness – Reich, Freud, and Marx (1982)
- Norman Levine, “Wilhelm Reich: Culture as Power” (1984)
- Chris Cutrone, “The Mass Psychology of Capitalist Democracy” (2013)
Falce Martello № 179
(October 15, 2004)
For a long period in his life Wilhelm Reich considered himself a Marxist. He applied the scientific method of Marxism to his research into Psychoanalysis and this led him to break with many of the theories of Freud. At one stage he came close to Trotsky, but then drifted away. Under intense persecution he eventually broke with Marxism and even revised some of his earlier brilliant insights. Alessandro D’Aloia looks at the rise and fall of Reich.
This article was first published in Italian on the web site of the journal Falce Martello. The original Italian version can be found at Marxismo e psicoanalisi (la figura di Wilhelm Reich).
Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a Marxist, a psychologist, and a scientist. His written works are invaluable resources in understanding the relationships existing between Marxism and psychoanalysis without requiring the special approach or knowledge of a student of psychology. His personal tragedies illustrate how a wide range of otherwise abstract issues can manifest and interconnect with one’s life.
Neither Reich’s historical role nor his works are recognized by most psychoanalysts, be they students, professionals or simple amateurs. This state of affairs enabled renowned intellectuals, such as those from the “Frankfurt School,” to easily pillage from his works (especially those from his most manifestly Marxist period) without ever giving a nod of acknowledgement to Reich and, moreover, without anyone ever realizing that fact. [This is not, strictly speaking, true. Max Horkheimer readily acknowledged his agreement with Reich’s interpretation of the psychosexual roots of fascism, while disagreeing with his proposed solution. Herbert Marcuse discussed Reich’s work on several occasions. Finally, though he was a peripheral figure at odds with both the Adornian and Marcusean wings of Frankfurt School critical theory, Erich Fromm borrowed liberally from Reich (especially in his book, Escape from Freedom). — RW]
As a result, today most people who have an interest in psychology learn little more than Freud’s classics. This leads to a lack of any knowledge of a number of major contributions made to psychology, such as Reich’s, which are essential reading in order to fully understand psychoanalysis, its current contradictions, and its current class standpoint. Were these contributions more widely known, the so-called “reformed” Freudian postulates would be completely undermined and their reactionary implications would be exposed.
Reich’s most well-known work is The Sexual Revolution, published in Vienna in 1930. His scientific products have a much broader scope than Freud’s, including important works such as The Function of Orgasm, The Irruption of Coercive Sexual Morality, The Individual and the State, Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis, and Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich was an active member of the International Psychoanalytic Society (IPS), which had been founded by Freud. At the time of his first publishing (of The Function of Orgasm) he was widely acknowledged as the most gifted of all Freud’s disciples. But even within that very work were, in essence, all of those elements of thought which were to clash with Freud during his “second period.”
Reich agreed with Freud that sexual development was the fundamental origin of mental disorder. Together, they advocated the following positions: that most psychological activity was ruled by subconscious processes; that children quickly develop an active sexuality; that children’s sexual energy is the cause of most psychological developments; that infant sexuality is subsequently repressed and that this has major consequences for mental health; that morality does not derive from any supernatural being or set of rules, but that it is the product of imposed repressions against the sexuality of individuals as they progress in age from a child, to a teenager and finally to an adult.
Reich went on, seeking to develop these ideas and to cohere them with concrete findings. He explored and exposed the relationships between sexual life and bourgeois morality, then proceeded to address in the same fashion the connection between bourgeois morality itself and the social and economic structures that produced and influenced it. Reich wrote that bourgeois sexual repression and its subconscious influences were the main causes of neuroses. He advanced the idea that a sexual life that was free from feelings of guilt would be the best therapy to treat those neuroses. He concluded by stating that such a liberation from shame and repression could only be realized through a non-authoritarian morality, which in turn would only come from an economic system that had been able to overcome and abolish repression.
However, Freud was soon to alter the content of his thoughts, and in the process he would break with those ideas that Reich agreed with Freud upon and had taken as his starting point. In 1926, in the work, Inhibition, Symptom, and Anxiety, Freud claimed that, “…[it is] anxiety which produces repression and not, as I believed in the past, repression which produces anxiousness…” This was a 180 degree turn. Freud’s new theory claimed that anxiousness (sexual anxiety) was something endogenous, from within the individual psyche. Thus, Freud no longer considered it to be the byproduct of external, social conditions. All external, objective, environmental factors were simply dropped from Freud’s analyses.
Freud’s new body of ideas became a vehicle for all those theories that maintain that all human “faults” are inherent within the physical being of men and women (for example, the idea that there is a gene that causes criminality). This is in stark contradiction to the materialist conception, which holds that it is mankind’s social conditions of existence that shape general and individual consciousness — not vice versa. From the moment that Freud rejected materialist philosophy, his theories were destined to become nothing more than an acceptance of society as it is, thus ruling out the possibility of creating real solutions to the medical problems he was seeking to address.
These changes in Freud’s position occurred at a very significant time — the final years of the 1920s. At that time the general mood was that, with the seemingly unstoppable rise of Nazism, the fascists would surely disband the IPS if the body did not revise its theoretical foundations. As it turned out, threats of repression led to Nazism having an influence on the thinking of many bourgeois scientists, even those who were beyond any suspicion of having Nazi sympathies themselves. Freud was just one of many bourgeois scientists affected in this way.
While Freud was practicing self-censorship, in 1928 Reich dared to join the Austrian Communist Party (ACP). He quickly proved himself to be a very active militant. He was convinced, as a determined Marxist, that the only way to undertake effective action against the capitalist system was through political activity organized by the workers themselves on the shop floor. In the same year Reich, together with other left-wing doctors, had founded the Socialist Association for Sexual Counseling and Research. This new group was supported by the ACP, and it organized “centers for psychological counseling.” The goal was for these to be the first clinical centers to address the psychological issues of workers and to accept them as patients — rather than treat bored bourgeois, who were natural clients for the Freudians.
One must keep in mind that Reich did not take a utopian stance on the question of how to solve the masses’ psychological ailments. This is proven by his belief that neuroses and emotional disorders were produced by a given social structure that is capitalistic and authoritarian, as well as by his scientifically correct conclusion that by smashing capitalism and building a socialist society, thereby ridding society of these negative features, those psychological disorders would be rendered impossibilities.
Reich’s new research association enjoyed a lengthy patient roster, the size of which allowed for a wealth of thorough, consistent and frequent studies. Naturally, these provided some immediate benefits to the worker-patients. By handling a large number of clinical cases, much greater than what the Freudians encountered in their work, Reich provided exceptional statistical support for his research and his conclusions. His subsequent works were to include a number of observations and cases that was incomparably bigger than that of his “competitors.”
These experiences also provided Wilhelm Reich with an intimate understanding of many social problems. For example, the soaring number of unwanted pregnancies, which was increasing as a result of a period of forced “demographic development.” His experiences with workers also strengthened his opposition to the absurd idea of aseptic clinical work, which was the method that all other “professionals” supported at the time. They felt it unnecessary and worthless to consider the question of relationships between mental illness and its possible social causes.
Reich wrote the following on his experiences of that time:
In most cases, we hardly had any reason to provide people with a proper medical diagnosis. On the contrary, using such a tool, that is hiding behind it, meant closing your eyes in front of the principal problem. That would have been really stupid, other than criminal, for the mother and the child to be…those women, those girls were totally unable to love a child, taking care of him, help him to grow up and not destroying his life. All those women, with no exception, were extremely disordered from an emotional point of view. All of them, with no exception again, had a disturbed relationship (if any) with the man that put them into trouble. They were frigid, shattered by exploitation, sadist deep down in their conscience, or openly masochist … in most cases they had other three or six children or rather they were bringing up somebody else’s. They just hated their babies even before they were born. Quite often they were beaten up by alcoholic husbands. They hated the children around them. Talking about “holy motherly love” in front of such a criminal suffering would have sounded criminal, indeed.
Such appalling conditions moved Reich to produce a profound analysis of the affect of bourgeois morality on women’s psychological development. In this way Reich provided an important scientific contribution to the issue of the “liberation of women.” On this issue he openly polemicized against the contemporary “sexual hygiene specialists,” who explicitly preached feminine chastity before marriage. One of these “specialists” wrote, “We must ennoble and cultivate feminine chastity as the greatest national wealth; in fact it is just thanks to women chastity that we can have a safe guarantee that we really are our children’s fathers, and that we are working and toiling for our own blood. Without such a guarantee there is not any possibility of an intimate and safe family life, which in turn is the indispensable pillar for the nation and people’s prosperity…If women are not devoted to their men it is much more dangerous than if men are not devoted to their women…” (Max Von Guber, Hygiene des Geschlechtslebens dargestellt für Männer, Stuttgart 1930 — in English, Sexual Life Hygiene for Men). Though surely not intended by its author, this passage is actually a clear confirmation of a point that Engels argued in his classic, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State — a point which Reich expressed in his own words when he wrote that, “…the most immediate consequence of private property is the interest for chastity before marriage and marital fidelity to the husband.”
This consequence of private property causes the sexual relationship between men and women to cease existing as a matter involving only the sexual life and personal choices of individuals, and to subsequently become a construct in which women are doomed to suffer greater restrictions, pressures, and inequities. This was confirmed by clinical statistics. In fact, at that time, no less than 90% of women were held to have some variety of sexual disorder, compared with “just” 60% of men. These were tremendous and shocking figures, changing the definition of “normality” and causing sexual disorders to be considered a mass problem.
It goes without saying that such horrible conditions did not worry Nazi sexual hygienists, who put forward such theories as, “the female natural instinct for monogamy.” According to rubbish such as this, women were only capable of sexual satisfaction when 20 to 25 years old and only if their sexual intercourse was undertaken for the purpose of conceiving a child — and of course, according to these theories, all of this was due to “natural” reasons.
It is not surprising that there existed an extremely strong relationship between these sorts of theories and the church’s positions on related issues. The church had always been the leading producer of ideological tenets for the ruling classes throughout history. It had always played such a crucial role in the service of the state that at this time the state itself could not help but to march alongside of it in defense of one of the most fundamental institutions of bourgeois society: matrimony. The very existence of matrimony as an institution of bourgeois society prohibits any possibility of solving the consequences of a morality based on repression, whether those consequences are psychological (such as various neuroses and sexual disorders), or physical (for example, abortion). As a matter of fact, the end of bourgeois morality, which would be the only real solution to these problems, would necessarily undermine such “values” as “virginity before marriage” and marital fidelity. Consequently, marriage would be freed from its traditional role of enforcing the unfair respect and control enjoyed exclusively by men. Such a role is evidenced, for example, in the rationale behind the idea that if a woman is faithful she will never need to undergo an abortion — as if the only problem in the case of an abortion is marital fidelity alone.
If we found a way to sterilize women temporarily and with the possibility of repeating it, through internal means, it would be absolutely compelling to find a way to disseminate such techniques and make them affordable, so as to guarantee… a benefit… for hygiene, but also taking care of the horrible threat this would pose on sexual order and the morale, or even more on life and civilization in general. (Max Marcuse, Matrimony: Its Physiology, Psychology, Hygiene and Eugenics: A Biological Book on Marriage, Berlin/Koln, 1927).
The prohibition of abortion and contraceptives deprives women of control over their own lives and bodies, with their most personal sphere of life falling under the authority of bourgeois morality’s need to keep them subjugated to men. The ultimate purpose of such prohibitions is to preserve bourgeois institutions so as to defend and maintain capitalist private property. Even though the idea of a family based on “holy matrimony” is in deep crisis nowadays, the preceding lines still hold true today. The whole of bourgeois morality is in crisis. The precarious conditions of all spheres of life have been brought about by capitalism itself. Everything is subjected to sudden changes; the new “word of God” is “flexibility,” and the new god from whence this word issues is the god “Capital.” The issues of abortion and contraception have in turn given rise to a new issue: that both the biblical “word of God” and the bourgeoisie’s “new word of a new god” alike constitute theological contradictions in the ruling ideology.
Theoretical core and polemics with the Freudians
Earlier we explained how Freudian psychoanalysis lost itself in a blind alley after 1926, making an erroneous detour in order to justify the approach to social reality that Freud and the IPS society as a whole took at this time as they sought to disassociate themselves from social criticism. At this point however, we must return to the subject, as it is important to examine this process in greater detail. The Freudians’ refusal to connect social conditions with mental disorders as the “cause” and the “effect” forced them to adapt by producing a great number of incredibly reactionary postulates. Whereas this new outlook could not adequately explain any of the psychological problems that it had set out to solve, Freud was forced to invent the theory of the “death instinct” as a way to explain the origins of these problems. According to his new conception, the death instinct was a primitive and self-destructive impulse, taking the individual back to a primordial condition of inertia — a condition that all things tend to conclude in.
Because Freudian methods of therapy depended upon such mistaken theoretical postulates, when put into practice they did not have any significant positive affects on patients. The Freudians were consequently led to conclude that the “self-destruction principle,” which they maintained was innate in every human being, was an unconscious need for punishment struggling against the natural need for pleasure. Hence, for the Freudians, neuroses became a biological condition of human beings. On the basis of that logic, the lives of individuals were marked forever by a “primary masochism.” This was held to be the reason why patients “resisted” treatment, remaining ill. According to the Freudians, it was because the patients were biologically compelled to oppose recovery from their disorders! Reich continued to advocate the idea that patients were ill and unbalanced due to their fear of receiving punishment for acting on their natural sexual impulses. The believers in the “death instinct” were growing in number and prestige. All the while, the Freudians sought to divert psychological thought away from the original ideas of the necessity for social prevention of neuroses through a comprehensive reform of behavioral rules and practices and of the social institutions producing and influencing them.
In 1931, Freud published his work entitled, Civilization and Its Discontents. In this work he argued that civilization as a whole was built upon sexual repression and on the sublimation of sexual impulses. By this he meant that repression is necessary to the creation, maintenance and progress of civilization; that repression is a prerequisite for social structure that mankind must resign to, and that mankind must learn to sublimate its primitive impulses so as to divert attention and energy to socially acceptable goals. This line is a transparent and complete capitulation to bourgeois idealism and morality. It preaches nothing more than the same sort of meek and subservient life that organized religion had always preached in order to fool the masses and deliver them to subjugation and exploitation across the centuries. Reich commented on this work of Freud’s, criticizing him for having not taken into account the questions of “if” and “to what extent” the reality of social conditions were rational or not; if they were structured on the basis of serving mankind’s needs and advancing its happiness, rather than structured on the basis of maintaining the oppression and exploitation of man by man. As a Marxist, Reich was wholly aware that the “civilization” that Freud was referring to was nothing more than a particular period among many other epochs that collectively constituted human development through different stages of social organization. It was clear to Reich that Freud was trying to formulate general conclusions on the absolute nature of the human psyche from just a single, transitory, historically determined stage of serial civilization. And what’s worse, Freud was putting forward a pessimistic attitude, emphasizing the inertia of any given society.
A similar generalization is at the theoretical basis of Freud’s notorious “Oedipus complex.” The complex depends upon the existence of the family as organized on a particular monogamous basis — a phenomenon that was the result of specific social conditions and historical stages. The Oedipus complex attempts to explain the development of the sexual personality of the individual by referring to the sexual personalities of the parents (in a dialectical process where experience, not biology, is the determining factor) — but it does so with only a reference to the relative (and not to the absolute) nature of this particular family form. Thus, the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex cannot fully explain the issues involved. In fact, while within the theory there is a role played by children’s sexuality, this remains indeterminate throughout the course of the complex. That is to say, in the composition of the countervailing desires for the death of the same-sex parent and of the sexual attraction for the opposite-sex parent lies the entire psychological profile of the adult individual.
The impossibility of the child’s fulfillment of those desires is due to the social and cultural structure that imposes the repression of this behavior. The act of repression itself influences the development of the individual’s personality through the process Freud called “primitive impulse sublimation.” This repression is necessary in order to develop a civilized, balanced, healthy social life, in the actual conditions of society. But while this process of “sublimation” (which by the way is imposed on the child externally by the society that the child has been born into) allows Freud to explain the development of individuals’ psychological characteristics in a “civilized society” (that is, one organized around the monogamous family), it cannot be used to develop therapies to treat the neuroses with which authoritarian morality repeatedly inflicts adult individuals. This is because any therapeutic methods deriving from Freud’s outlook would have to be nothing more than palliatives to the repression of impulses, as they never dare to question the social necessity of repression. Instead, repression is continually accepted, even though it is the ultimate cause of neuroses.
Furthermore, the possibility in practical terms of sublimating one’s impulses through the means of one’s creative activity is a concept that could apply only to a tiny layer of society. Surely, it cannot apply to the vast majority of society, the alienated masses. These individuals have no way in which they can obtain any satisfaction through the activities that their occupations assign to them. The possibility to divert sexual energies towards creative activities, thus allowing one to “take out” sexual tensions, cannot be accomplished within any society that imposes repression. The effective sublimation of these impulses depends upon the freedom to choose one’s outlet for activity. But this is a privilege enjoyed by the tiny minority — the elite: those who have succeeded in accomplishing for themselves precisely the life that they want and those who simply do not have any cause to worry about material subsistence. For everyone else, the overwhelming majority of people, the word “sublimation” is absolutely devoid of any therapeutic value. Dealing with the subject of sublimation without making reference to social and economic issues is simply too abstracted from reality to be productive.
Expulsion from the IPS
By now it is clear that the fundamental nature of the differences dividing Reich from the esoteric ideologies that the IPS accepted could result in no other outcome than his inevitable expulsion from the Society, which came to pass in 1934. The “formal” reason for the expulsion given by the IPS was Reich’s political militancy. This was quite an ironic development as the now completely Stalinist ACP had expelled Reich as a “bourgeois psychologist” one year earlier! The ACP charged that in the course of the struggle for a “proletarian culture” there was no room for psychology, which they defined as “bourgeois living room fashion” (in the case of the Freudians they were correct!). The result of this logic was that a psychologist could not be a Marxist. But the actual reasons for Reich’s expulsion were to be found elsewhere, naturally.
The first reason was the publication of Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933. This book got Reich into trouble within the IPS as well, as the group was trying not to come into conflict with Nazi diktats. As for the ACP, the Stalinist leadership’s concern was that Reich had outlined and analyzed some particularities of the mass character of fascism, for example the cult of personality, and that even though Reich was referring to fascism, his criticisms could have been read as an attack on Stalinism and its comparable methods.
Reich and Trotsky
It was during this period that Reich grew closer to Trotsky’s ideas. Reich was convinced of the “fundamental correctness” of Trotsky’s writings on the rise of Nazism in Germany. The worst catastrophe in the history of German politics occurred in 1933, and it opened the eyes of Reich and many others to the anti-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Reich soon got in touch with refugee members of the Left Opposition, and then wrote a letter to Trotsky in which he proposed to him a long term collaboration. In that letter, written in October of 1933, Reich explained that, “I am convinced that your point of view has been fundamentally correct and I follow with much attention the work and activities of the Left Opposition” (M. Konitzer, Reich, Erre Emme, page 178 of the Italian edition).
Reich was aware that Trotsky had shown an interest in the achievements and development of psychological science. Trotsky thought that Freud’s early theories were entirely materialist — though Freud himself maintained an idealist philosophical outlook. Trotsky was convinced that the Russian psychologist Pavlov should have integrated and synthesized his theories with Freud’s findings. In a speech delivered in Copenhagen in 1932, Trotsky stated that, “owing to the genius of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis has lifted the lid of what is poetically defined as the human soul.” Trotsky’s answer to Reich’s proposal for collaboration was that it should be hoped for indeed, but he also confessed his personal lack of knowledge about psychoanalytic matters.
A discussion started by the beginning of 1936, but unfortunately this was not to be the “hoped for” starting point for collaborative work. By this time, Reich’s ideas were already beginning to degenerate. In 1936, Reich had already undertaken excessive efforts to widen the application of psychoanalytical rules to matters of politics and sociology. Even as Reich’s identification with Marxist ideas grew stronger, he always understated and underestimated the case for the building of the revolutionary party, and explicitly denied the need for an International. As he later wrote in his autobiography, “Trotsky’s project for a Fourth international was a completely useless search for failure.” (Wilhelm Reich, “The Individual and the State”).
This kind of ambiguity prevented Trotsky and Reich from achieving any meaningful collaboration. We cannot help but to notice what represents a fundamental contradiction in the Austrian scientist’s thought even in this period, when he was at his best. Though his “technical” arguments are consistent with a materialist perspective, his “political” ideas tend to reject and contradict the duty that every Marxist has: that of openly standing for truly revolutionary ideas inside the party, to defend them from any kind of degeneration at the hands of bureaucrats. Reich did not feel the need for a “political” criticism against Stalinism. This may have been due to his misconceived sense of loyalty to the party. Another possibility is that Reich lacked a real understanding of the party’s utter political degeneration. This latter hypothesis is supported by his own personal history, if we keep in mind that the process of “Stalinization” was well underway even at the time he had first joined the party.
Consideration of this fact is the best way in which we can try to fully understand Reich’s contradictory attitude. This is confirmed in his autobiography. Even though Reich firmly criticized such simplistic statements as “people are naturally reactionary” and counter-posed to it that “people are naturally revolutionary,” and even though he correctly expressed his analyses in dialectical terms in examining the relationships between human behavior and social and economic conditions, he failed in that he always limited his analyses to psychological terms and language. In fact, his explanation of fascism as a mass neurosis, presenting the fascist demagogues on one side and the nodding masses on the other, does not lead to any adequate understanding of the political aspects of Nazism as an extreme instrument of class repression against the proletariat and its political organizations. It seems that Reich felt that dialectical materialism could only apply to psychology and not to politics!
In Reich’s works on the disruption of the monogamous family in the soviet experience (which were the works that contributed most to his expulsions), he referred to Trotsky’s 1923 work “Problems of Everyday Life,” and hinted at ideas found in Engels’ Origin of the Family…. Reich focused on the more progressive aspects of that social experience, believing it to stand as an incomparable achievement even though it was faced with huge material difficulties:
…the beginning of a sexual revolution with the current dissolution of the family; the substitution of patriarchal family structure with the socialist collective; the growing involvement of either husband or wife into public functions; the access of sons and daughters to collectives and the subsequent competition of social relationships to family ones; the transferal of children’s responsibility from the parents to society and the collectivization of children cultivation.
Reich was able to realize that Stalinism meant disruption to those processes. In 1934, in fact, suddenly (as part of the so-called “new course”) the worship of the patriarchal family and the laws against homosexuality were reintroduced. These counter-reforms sharply contrasted with the laws that Lenin had sponsored dating back to December 1917, namely the “annulment of matrimony” and the “civil matrimony, children and civil register office” acts. Those laws stated that the husband was no longer the family’s leader and that women were to be given complete material and sexual self-determination including the right of the individual to choose her name, domicile and citizenship.
Migrations, paranoia, prison, and death
Even before his expulsion from the IPS, Reich was forced to move to Denmark due to open hostility against him in his working environment. But very soon afterwards he had to flee to Sweden, then to Norway and finally, in 1939, to the United States where, luckily, he was perfectly unknown. Unfortunately, while his initial years in the United States were relatively calm, his work soon led again to open hostility everywhere. It became impossible to carry on his studies and work The unbearable conditions drove him towards paranoia. It was not long before he was being denounced to the police by his bigoted neighbors who became agitated by his strange behavior. The police carried out inquiries regarding his past and soon “exposed” the “immoral” content of his writings. In the course of their investigations, the police eventually discovered the Marxist origin of his thought.
This process of intimidation lasted a few years, during which Reich dared to continue writing. Unfortunately, some aspects of his outlook deviated into semi-scientific theories, also known as his “orgonomic period theories.” Sadly these theories are much more known than those he had held previously. His excessive emphasis on sexual energy led him to believe that it could have been physically measured and even visible through some devices (the “orgonoscopes”). An absolute belief in the existence of a “positive energy” (the “orgon”) threw him into a theoretical framework that began to smack of mysticism. He abandoned any materialist standpoint and started believing in such things as origination of the universe from the orgons through a huge primordial orgasm reached between two primitive orgonic entities. Such a capitulation to idealism, all the more shocking when compared to his previous dialectical-materialist scientific principles, can be explained only as being due to his complete detachment from reality. This had, in turn, developed from his ever-worsening political and scientific isolation, which in the last years of his life reached the point of total personal persecution .
It is essential to clearly distinguish between his two periods. The first one was from 1919 to 1938, and the second was from 1938 to 1957. It is also important to consider the fact that he rewrote his previous works, making severe changes. In fact, in his second period, Reich revised and abridged his previous works. In some cases he altered definitions and secondary considerations, but in other cases he completely changed the content of his ideas.
A striking example is the 1946 foreword to the third edition of Mass Psychology of Fascism. In that edition, Reich completely contradicts what he had written years before. He now described fascism as the “politically organized expression of the average personality structure,” which is an organic component of the common man, according to the three layers scheme he had drafted years before. In that theory, Reich had divided the psychological life of men and women into a biological tier consisting of instincts, an unconscious tier where authoritarian morality engenders perversion by its repression of biological instincts, and finally a conscious tier where the byproducts of the morality that repressed those instincts produces neuroses and physical disorders. In his last analysis, fascism is no longer a political phenomenon, or even a “mass neurosis” — but something inherent to mankind! This idea was more unscientific and pessimistic than the Freudian “death instinct,” which Reich himself had bitterly fought against in previous years.
Only the editions dating back to his first period are to be considered consistent with a dialectical materialistic view. Reich’s ideas, like those of his mentor Freud, followed a descending path. The main cause seems to be the same in both of their cases — namely, the refusal to maintain political criticism. In Reich’s case it was the refusal to oppose Stalinism that first led him to revise his theories and then to abandon them.
The pronounced sexual content of the orgonomic theory gave him a reputation as a sexual pervert. In later trials, the charge of being part of a “communist plot” was added. Desperate, Reich attempted to defend himself by rejecting his communist past and by trying to appear even more anti-communist than his prosecutors. In the end, he was totally unable to successfully defend himself due to his suicidal plunge into the idealist ideology of the ruling class, which — both then and now — equates communism with Stalinism. He eventually became completely unhinged and paranoid. After years of court trials he was sent to prison. He died soon after, in 1957.