Revolutionary Desire

Wilhelm Reich: Gateway to Freudo-Marxism

Posted in Essays by deterritorialization on November 9, 2009
Reich's diagram of orgone energy in the schizophrenic split

Image: Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 441.

In the beginning, the Freudo-Marxist venture seemed fairly straightforward to me. Wilhelm Reich laid it all out: sexuality is repressed, the family is to blame! Seeming faithful to Freud, the focus on the libido settled well with my materialist ethos. Primarily, though, Reich got me thinking about the problem of fascism. After I read him, myself at the time a Trotskyist, a lingering problem stuck with me. If the masses desired fascism, why? Is it enough to blame the German Communist Party? Surely the CP bears complicity, but what factors stopped it from reaching its revolutionary potential? In short, why did the Communists not seize power before the Nazis? The questions Reich raised were very salient ones.

Still, the orgone dovetail threw me a loop, as if a psychotic shell of The Mass Psychology of Fascism was all that was left since Reich’s 1930s Freudo-Marxist glory days. Something is deeply unsettling about Reich. First, it is not so simple as to write him off as a lunatic and a fraud. There appears to be some experimental data confirming parts of his later theory. [See Myron Sharaf’s Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich, 308.] It would be much simpler if Reich’s evolution had not been so seemlessly connected from period to period. Instead, we see a historically dignified evolution from focusing on certain elements (the libido, the orgasm, biology, as opposed to the contents—in the Freudian sense—of the unconscious and the Oedipus complex) in his orthodox Marxist-psychoanalytic days to becoming the less-threatening orgone quack singing the praises of America over the Stalinist sexual nightmare in the U.S.S.R. Despite his turn to Americanism, Reich at least remained a critic of the reactionary process occurring in the Soviet Union. So Reich is not so easily dismissed, meaning he commands a certain temporal respect. It is essential for revolutionaries to study Reich and to follow the contours to their paranoiac conclusions.

The second great difficulty with Reich is that his loyalty to Freud’s concept of the libido, in combination with his own theory of the orgasm, leads him to display a “tyranny of genitality” (as Marcuse puts it) over and above that maintained by mainstream Freudian psychoanalysis. Reich’s critique of sexual morality—brilliant as it is—and his exposé of its deep connections to perversion, prostitution and all kinds of immorality, rather than simply serving as a potent weapon in the struggle for sexual revolution, acts to strangely support his genital centrism. After all, he can simply suggest that perversion will wither away with the abolition of sexual morality. An argument that appeals to everyone—except the pervert!

There will be no sexual revolution without homosexual revolution! [The Raspberry Reich]

Still, Reich’s character analytic method resonates strongly. There is appeal to his argument for attacking resistances in a systematic, planned way. After all, no psychoanalyst interprets every bit of unconscious material he or she suspects. There is always a choice to be made.

Lacan criticizes Reich’s approach. If the analyst’s attacks on the patient’s resistances are to be effective, they must rest upon the transference. At their root, the analyst’s interpretations will only carry weight in terms of a misrecognition of reality, the transference situation.

This use of suggestion does not become a veritable interpretation just because it is analyzed as such. Such an analysis merely traces out the relation of one ego to another ego. This can be seen in the usual formulation that the analyst must become an ally of the healthy part of the subject’s ego, when it is completed with the theory of the dissociation of the ego in psychoanalysis. If we thus proceed to make a series of bipartitions in the subject’s ego by doing this ad infinitum, it is clear that his ego is reduced, in the end, to the analyst’s ego. [Jacques Lacan, “Variations on the Standard Treatment,” in Écrits, 281.]

The analyst should correct this error by appearing to the patient as pure death. An empty ego. Lacan’s outlook is bleak, to say the least.

Reich was the first to raise the problem of the relationship between desire and the social field (and went further than Marcuse, who treats the problem lightly). He is the true founder of a materialist psychiatry. Situating the problem in terms of desire, he is the first to reject the explanations of a summary Marxism too quick to say the masses were fooled, mystified. But since he had not sufficiently formulated the concept of desiring-production, he did not succeed in determining the insertion of desire into the economic infrastructure itself, the insertion of the drives into social production. Consequently, revolutionary investment seemed to him such that the desire moving within it simply coincided with an economic rationality; as to the reactionary mass investments, they seemed to him to derive from ideology, so that psychoanalysis merely had the role of explaining the subjective, the negative, and the inhibited, without participating directly as psychoanalysis in the positivity of the revolutionary movement or in the desiring-creativity. (To a certain extent, didn’t this amount to a reintroduction of the error or the illusion?) The fact remains that Reich, in the name of desire, caused a song of life to pass into psychoanalysis. He denounced, in the final resignation of Freudianism, a fear of life, a resurgence of the ascetic ideal, a cultural broth of bad consciousness. Better to depart in search of the Orgone, he said to himself, in search of the vital and cosmic element of desire, than to continue being a psychoanalyst under those conditions. No one forgave him this, whereas Freud got full pardon. Reich was the first to attempt to make the analytic machine and the revolutionary machine function together. In the end, he only had his own desiring-machines, his paranoiac, miraculous, and celibate boxes, with metallic inner walls lined with cotton and wool. [Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 118-9.]

What Reich was doing was incredible. He was among the first grappling with the unsettling connection between desire and production. Marx had traced value back to abstract labor and ignored the question of desire. Freud found the connection but fell back on sublimation as an intermediary. Reich senses the inseparable connection between desire and production, but his focus on the form (a libido stasis or character armoring) as opposed to the content (Oedipus and castration) of psychoneurosis, combined with the appropriately decisive role he assigns to the family, lead him to “maintain a kind of diffuse oedipalism” since what is the content of the family but Oedipus? [Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 127.] And after all, character analysis may be designed to peel away the layers, as Lacan points out, but what can remain under capitalism save Oedipus, the territoriality of the subjugated, the immiserated, and the fascist? Deleuze and Guattari offer, I think, the only way to begin to find value in all of Reich’s work, without succumbing to the paranoid mystery of the orgone energy field. Reich’s work, from the beginning, sensed the pressing urgency of the desiring-production he studied but could not adequately conceptualize. His early character analytic work rests upon the economic assumption that the unbinding of energy from character armoring will free up productive libidinal energy. His Freudo-Marxist work polemicizes with orthodox psychoanalysis against its reactionary conception of an eternal, unconscious Oedipus complex. He always points to social repression as the primary cause of psychic repression. When Reich moves to the orgone and his theory mysticizes, the very possibility of this degeneration indicates a theoretical gap. Reich raised questions that orthodox psychoanalysis and Marxism were not prepared to handle. His sharp breaks from both the International Psychoanalytical Association and the Third International show clearly that, despite Reich’s and others’ valiant attempts to synthesize the two schools of thought, a simple 1+1 addition is not sufficient.


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane.

Jacques Lacan, “Variations on the Standard Treatment,” in Écrits (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), trans. Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink, and Russell Grigg, 269-302.

Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), eds. Mary Higgins and Chester M. Raphael, M.D., trans. Marry Boyd Higgins.

Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1983).


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