Wilhelm Reich, standing third from left, with a group of communist sympathizers in Vienna (1927) a

The Marxism of Wilhelm Reich

Or, the social function
of sexual repression

Bertell Ollman
Social and Sexual
Revolution (1979)


“Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of man’s becoming conscious of the laws of economics and the exploitation of a majority by a minority, so psychoanalysis is the expression of man becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”1 How does sexual repression occur? What forms does it take? What are its effects on the individual? And, above all, what is its social function? Freud deserves credit for first raising these questions, but it is Wilhelm Reich who went furthest in supplying answers. In so doing, he not only developed Freud’s own insights but immeasurably enriched both the theory and practice of Marxism.

Reich’s writings fall into three main categories: 1) that of an analyst and co-worker of Freud’s, 2) that of a Marxist, and 3) that of a natural scientist. In this essay I am only concerned with Reich the Marxist, though excursions into these other fields will occasionally be necessary since the division between them is often uncertain both in time and conception. Reich’s Marxist period runs roughly from 1927, when he joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party, to 1936, when he finally despaired of affecting the strategy of working-class movements. From 1930 to 1933 he was a member of the German Communist Party.

Marx had said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”2 This formula has been hotly attacked and defended, but seldom explored. Marxists have generally been content to elaborate on aspects of social existence and to assume a sooner or later, somehow or other, connection of such developments with the mental life of the people involved. Reich is one of the few who took this formula as an invitation to research. How does everyday life become transformed into ideology, into types and degrees of consciousness? What works for such transformation and what against? Where do these negative influences come from, and how do they exert their effect?

Reich believed that psychoanalysis has a role to play in answering these questions. Marxists, however, have always had a particularly strong aversion to Freud’s science. On the practical level, psychoanalysis is carried on by rich doctors on richer patients. Conceptually, it starts out from the individual’s problems and tends to play down social conditions and constraints. It seems to say that early traumatic experiences, especially of a sexual nature, are responsible for unhappiness, and that individual solutions to such problems are possible. It also appears to view the individual’s conscious state as being in some sense dependent on his or her unconscious mental life, making all rational explanation — including Marxism — so much rationalization. In short, in both its analysis and attempts at cure, psychoanalysis takes capitalist society for granted. As if this weren’t enough to condemn it in the eyes of Marxists, psychoanalysis adds what seems to be a gratuitous insult in suggesting that Marxists in their great desire for radical change are neurotic. Continue reading

This threesome was brought to you by the letter A

Soviet-era erotic alphabet book from 1931 [Советская эротическая азбука 1931 года]


Image: This threesome brought
to you by the letter «А» (1931)


UPDATE: Apparently it was Giuliano Vivaldi behind the whole rumor that this collection was intended to “combat adult illiteracy,” as I put it here. He wrote: “I copied this from someone’s wall and added with a few exclamation marks that it was part of Stalin’s fight against illiteracy (joke intended). Since then my joke was cited as fact and traveled the internet.”

Consider me trolled! Still prefer to think of it having been conceived for that purpose.

Reproduced here are a bunch of scans from a fascinating erotic alphabet book printed in the Soviet Union circa 1931, made to combat adult illiteracy. By the sculptor and future People’s Artist of the USSR Sergei Merkurov [Сергей Меркуров], no less. For those of you who enjoyed my previous post on classic Soviet board-games from the 1920s, this should be right up your alley.

Ц, Ш

Ц, Ш

As my friend Jasmine Curcio points out, these images draw upon clear precedents in the phallic imagery of ancient Roman art. Throughout the ABC book one can find images of horny satyrs, indecent cupids, and flying disembodied cocks. Given Merkurov’s own fascination with ancient Greek and Roman art, this is hardly surprising. No doubt, all of these precedents were consciously invoked. Though it is admittedly somewhat interesting to see various dirty motifs cribbed from the style of Roman antiquity deployed for the purposes of a Soviet literacy campaign, which was itself such a distinctly modernizing project.

This should stand as definite challenge the false notion that the Soviet Union suppressed its citizens’ sexual desires, or was in the least conservative when it came to such matters. At least, not until Stalin achieved full control and instituted conservative policies. And, ironically, illustrated by the same man who’d later be commissioned by the Soviet government to sculpt a number of famous monuments to Stalin.

Ф, Ь

Ф, Ь

My friend Anna Khachiyan‘s reaction is worthy of inclusion here:

Thanks for sharing this — it is fantastic! All my years of tumblr trolling, and I’ve never seen anything nearly as good. And so artfully done, too. Alas, if only they had this much sex in real life.

But I must ask: What ever happened to the letter «Ж» in these drawings? This would be a difficult letter to navigate, sexually, but imagine the erotic possibilities!

Anyway, without further delay, some acknowledgments:

All of these great images are reposted from the brilliant Russian Livejournal account Isle of Crimea [Остров Крым]. I’d also like to thank Arya Moghadam for first bringing them to my attention. Credit is also due to Agata Pyzik, who first discovered them for the Anglophone world.

Needless to say, these are not safe for work. Enjoy. Continue reading