Revolutionary Desire

Wilhelm Reich: Beyond the Mad Scientist Paradigm


If Fenichel strives to reconcile a basically Freudian view of the Oedipus complex with a basically Marxist understanding (or perhaps little Marxian reminders) of the actual reality of the family, Wilhelm Reich’s project is to explore and expand this connection. Reich, a psychoanalyst, did his early work along mostly orthodox psychoanalytic lines, producing the highly influential mostly-orthodox text Character Analysis, a work that would lead Reich to posit a material existence for ideology. Throughout his career as a psychoanalyst, Reich emphasized the economic viewpoint, leading him to find sexual potency as a key requirement for health because of what he saw as orgasm’s unique ability to discharge vast amounts of libido otherwise consumed by symptoms and repression. In an interesting parallel, Reich looked to capitalist economic reality as a determinant factor behind the creation and maintenance of neurosis. He finds in the actual reality of the family a sexually repressive institution that is the primary source of neurosis. And, as he moves away from a strictly psychoanalytic or Marxist angle, Reich attempts to form a new theory of the economics of the family. The family can only be, according to this line of thought, a mini economy of actual libidinal energy. The source of libidinal energy that Reich thought he had discovered he dubbed the “orgone”.

Reich’s theory of orgonomy is widely loathed and disregarded. Reich was imprisoned by the F.D.A. in connection with his sale of devices designed to harness this energy. Many credible scientists find nothing of merit in Reich’s orgone work. Marxists and psychoanalysts find something of value in his early work but distance themselves from his later work, seen as a degeneration or even a psychosis. Clearly, there is a certain amount of confusion inherent in Reich’s orgone period. The work on its own, from the perspective of synthesizing Marxism and psychoanalysis, is not particularly valuable. However, in context, this work makes plain some tendencies present not only in Reich’s earlier work but also latent in orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis.

Reich’s psychoanalytic work emphasizes the role of orgasm in sexual health because of its capacity to discharge great amounts of libidinal energy. A certain degree of genitality was already present in Freud’s basic opposition of genital sexuality to non-genital perversion. [1] Reich clings to this differentiation and blames perversion—which he sees as basically undesirable—on the existence of anti-sexual morality. Repressive attitudes in the family toward natural, genital sexuality lead to the widespread counter-moral phenomena of perversion, prostitution, and masturbation. None of these is a real expression of healthy, natural sexuality in Reich’s view. But these phenomena are deeply rooted; even Engels, of course, recognized the deep link between monogamy and prostitution.

At the same time, Reich has rightly been criticized by Herbert Marcuse for a “tyranny of genitality”. [2] Reich’s view, which correctly traces the existence of perversion to the repression of sexuality, still upholds Freud’s basically normative distinction between perverse and normal or neurotic sexuality. For Reich, perverse sexuality would basically fade away after communist revolution and the overthrow of sexual morality. Marcuse’s work speculates that the revolutionary upheaval—seen through the lens of an end to “surplus repression”—would act against the exclusivity enjoyed by genitality under capitalism. Rather, work itself would be restored of its erotic nature; the body would be re-sexualized, back toward a kind of polymorphous perversity. Work becomes play. [3] Marcuse’s vision is valuable insofar as it attacks this weakness in Reich’s theory and attempts to resolve psychoanalytically the issue of alienated labor after revolution. Reich’s theory, on the other hand, like Freud’s, offers a cogent and detailed analysis of conditions as they exist now—which certainly does not exempt it from being attacked for overstepping from describing to defending the status quo.

However, despite its reactionary tendencies, Reich’s project flows from the pressing need for revolution in order to resolve both social and individual problems. For a period, before being expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association for being a Marxist and from the Communist Party for being a psychoanalyst (perhaps both situations are more nuanced, but the point still stands), Reich produced a remarkable body of work attempting to merge the two fields of psychoanalytic and Marxist thought. The direction this work takes him is clear; Reich seeks to answer how the masses can come to desire fascism or their own repression. Mechanical Marxists expected a direct translation of economic interests and crisis situations to revolutionary consciousness. Instead, for many, the opposite seemed to be true. Reich thus moves from “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis,” an important and formative text in Freudo-Marxism, to The Mass Psychology of Fascism, a detailed application of his combinatory efforts, with its own points of departure and leadings-up to orgonomy. In this book is one of Reich’s points which seems to broadly exemplify his overall aims:

what religion calls freedom from the outside world really means fantasized substitute gratification for actual gratification. This fits in perfectly with the Marxist theory that religion is the opium of the people. This is more than just a metaphor. Vegetotherapy was able to prove that mystical experience actually sets the same process going in the autonomic living apparatus as a narcotic does. These processes are excitations in the sexual apparatus that cause narcoticlike conditions and that crave for orgastic gratification. [4]

Reich definitely understands his work as continuing and combining that of Marx and Freud. For the stretch of his Freudo-Marxist period, he offers valuable insight into the relations between sexuality, family, class struggle, and revolution. To begin with, Reich aims to extract the revolutionary core of psychoanalysis, one that he thought even Freud moved away from with the introduction of the death instinct. The great gain made by psychoanalysis is “withdrawing the discussion of morals from the sphere of philosophy.” [5] Morality is not metaphysical; it is rooted in education and parenting. By any interpretation, this is in line with the classical Marxist formulation of material base determining an ideological superstructure. Psychoanalysis, though, is a method which makes it possible to definitively reveal the link from an individual’s morality to family arrangement and education. Thus, Reich seizes upon it as a weapon against mysticism.

While Reich sees psychoanalysis as incredibly important in this struggle, this places it at something of a disadvantage. If, as Reich believes, psychoanalysis undermines the influence of mysticism, then it undermines the psychical basis for bourgeois class rule. If its practice becomes widespread and popular, then this can only come at the expense of the potency of its revolutionary critique:

And so the capitalist mode of existence of our time is strangling psychoanalysis from the outside and the inside. Freud is right: his science is being destroyed, but we add—in bourgeois society. If psychoanalysis refuses to adapt itself to that society, it will be destroyed for certain; if it does adapt itself, it will suffer the same fate as Marxism suffers at the hands of reformist socialists, that is to say death by exhaustion of meaning: in the case of psychoanalysis, above all neglect of the theory of the libido. [. . .]

Because psychoanalysis, unless it is watered down, undermines bourgeois ideology, and because, furthermore, only a socialist economy can provide a basis for the free development of intellect and sexuality alike, psychoanalysis has a future only under socialism. [6]

Psychoanalysis of Character

Reich’s book Character Analysis, which does contain some material disputed by orthodox analysts (in particular his denunciation of the death instinct theory) is also perhaps his most important psychoanalytic work. Readers of Reich’s work, typically Marxists or psychoanalysts or both, tend to view his writings as standalone products rather than mile-markers in a broader process. Contemporary editions of Character Analysis contain a section explaining the transition from character-analytic work to orgone therapy. Like it or not, as Juliet Mitchell points out, Reich’s work led him to the orgone and to radically rethink his entire platform. In Character Analysis, though, it is possible to observe the aspects of his more palatable moments which make possible his wide deviation from both Marxism and psychoanalysis.

This book, widely accepted in psychoanalytic circles, attempts to formulate a systematic method for attacking the patient’s ingrained resistances that appear as long-seated ways of living life but function in psychoanalysis to hinder the discoveries of the unconscious. The goal of the treatment remains the same: to interpret the analysand’s speech and render its unconscious meanings conscious. Yet these interpretations often fall to the spears of the defenses. The resistances of the patient, then, must be resolutely and systematically attacked in order to open up conditions favorable to interpretation. This is because the interpretations must be accepted for their own merit, while interpretation under conditions of defense will be accepted only “for reasons related to the transference,” that is, not for its correctness but by virtue simply of the nature of the analytic relationship. [7] This, of course, opens the treatment up to all the old vulnerabilities of hypnotherapy or any therapy which does not analyze the transference—the therapeutic motive force, perhaps, but also its cardinal resistance.

It is known in psychoanalytic pathology that the various forms neurosis takes can be categorized in part by the dominant fixation and regression that they activate. Reich applies this same methodology to the differentiation of the character neuroses, offering several categories including the hysterical character, the compulsive character, the phallic-narcissistic character, and the masochistic character, the latter providing details essential to Reich’s attack on the death instinct. While here Reich’s thought is perhaps not all that psychoanalytically controversial, the division between the genital character and the neurotic character is one that is contentious and highly necessary for understanding Reich and the direction his work took him. Mitchell heavily criticizes Reich for a kind of normative genitality:

Though his model at this time was still one of progressive evolution in his descriptions, Freud was aware that as these are re-expressed in adulthood the various ‘stages’ will be experienced simultaneously or in a new temporal sequence, a different structural arrangement. Reich’s alteration of Freud’s thesis amounts to what could be described as a moral assertion: genitality is unique and best. Given this supposition, all that detracted from genitality was perverse or disturbed. Freud’s careful diversification of sexuality into component parts, and various erotogenous zones and different sexual objects, was rejected in favor of a value judgement. [8]

Perhaps her judgment is right on some level. Freud is certainly to be praised for not assuming that sexuality is limited to genitality. Reich does not assume this either. Instead, his emphasis on genital sexuality is tied to his theory of the orgasm as the main mechanism for libidinal discharge. Perhaps because of the sheer amount of libido invested in the genitals, an inhibition of genital drives over-cathects other drives and makes them difficult to sublimate. This is because:

The genital apparatus, as opposed to all the other partial drives, is physiologically the most strongly equipped because it has the capacity for orgastic discharge; and in terms of libido economy, it is the most vital. Thus, we can assume that its impulses have a far greater similarity with hunger, as far as inflexibility and tenacity are concerned, than they have with impulses from other erogenous zones. This may well be a powerful  blow to certain ethical concepts—but that cannot be helped. Indeed, the resistance to these findings can also be explained: their recognition would have revolutionary consequences. [9]

Reich’s position on genitality is not at all isolated from the rest of his theory, despite how disturbing this could be to Marxists who find themselves initially attracted to his theory of fascism. His entire theory of neurosis revolves around this conception of the orgasm as the ultimate, and only satisfactory, discharge of the libido imbued into the genital zone. In his view, the process goes as such. First, an external prohibition is internalized, producing a “libido stasis,” or an actual neurosis. This actual neurosis creates a dammed-up state that “imparts its pathological energy to the experiences of the Oedipal stage and, perpetuated as a consequence of sexual repression, keeps the psychoneurosis constantly supplied with energy in a kind of cyclic motion.” [10] Clearly, then, the task of therapy is not simply the undoing of the psychoneurosis, but the elimination of the actual neurosis underlying it by making possible genital gratification through orgastic release. One has a sense that Reich is attempting to do to psychoanalysis something akin to what Marx did to the dialectic: concretizing an abstraction, attaching an idea to a material reality.

The question of material base also arises in connection to the death instinct. Reich takes extreme issue with postulating cellular dissimilation as a somatic source for the so-called death instinct. Freud’s positing the death instinct allows him to abandon the view—Reich’s view—that masochism is a secondary phenomenon, a turning of sadism inward. Reich says: no, no, no! Sadism is for Reich not a turning outward of a primary masochism or death drive but rather the “mixture between the sexual demand itself and the destructive impulse against the person responsible for its frustration”. [11] As the stakes of this disagreement, it is interesting to observe how Reich’s writing, defending sexuality and seeing aggression as resulting only from sexual repression, itself becomes most aggressive at the moments when he senses that sexuality—or the gravely monumental stakes of its repression—is under attack by theoretical interlocutors.

Reich’s position is quite similar to Fenichel’s. Both share the concern that the theory of the death instinct undermines the radical conception of neurosis as struggle between individual instinct and frustrating external world. [12] The danger is a political one: Reich senses a need to defend sexuality from repressive class society, and the new theory offers an instinctual basis for what Reich sees as the social force of repression. Michael Schneider criticizes Freud, calling the death instinct that of “a murderous and suicidal class, the imperialist bourgeoisie”. [13] Reich, it must be said, operates within the Freudian context of instincts as basically individual and biological. From a Marxist perspective, Schneider’s position is highly interesting, perhaps pointing the way toward a more socially oriented conception of instincts. For now, though, it is helpful to remain within the Reichian view in order to see how the theory of character analysis helps lead Reich toward the orgone, away from both Marxism and psychoanalysis.

⁃Thus, at the same time they are political, the stakes of the death instinct are also clinical. For sure, Reich shares with Fenichel a concern that the theory would oversimplify the analysis of some cases, particularly those of masochism. Reich maintains that masochistic characters do not, as Freud thought, go beyond the pleasure principle. Reich’s main problem here is that the so-called repetition compulsion has been asserted, but not demonstrated, to be a primary phenomenon in the human organism. “Insofar as the repetition compulsion was understood to mean the law that every instinct strives to establish the state of repose and, moreover, to reexperience pleasures once enjoyed, there was nothing to object to. [. . .] When conceived of in this way, the repetition compulsion lies wholly within the framework of the pleasure principle; indeed, the pleasure principle itself explains the compulsion to repeat.” [14] In Reich’s view, masochism does not undermine this theory at all. The masochist seeks pleasure like any other person, but this seeking is disturbed; thus, the masochist perceives “sensations, which are experienced as pleasurable by the normal person, as unpleasurable when they exceed a certain intensity.” [15]

In analyzing masochism, we see Reich bring in his finest elements of critique. He intimately understands that the problems in this seemingly simple or semantic debate have consequences far beyond their clinical potential.  The biologizing of a need for suffering or punishment, “The prevailing psychoanalytic assessment,” led to a misguided modification of the analytic theory of neurosis, had a negative effect upon the theory of therapy, obscured the problems of the prophylaxis of neurosis, and concealed the sexual and social etiology of the neurosis.” [16] Psychoanalysis, with all its radical findings, acts at times as a barrier to a revolutionary theory of psychology. Yet the division between work that advances such a cause and work that retards it is unclear. Even Fenichel allows for the possibility, in explaining variations in the phenomenon of a so-called latency period of sexual development in children, that social influences could cohere into biological changes in the organism. [17] Fenichel’s view seems to allow for the possibility of social development influencing more primordial forces of evolution (or rather hints at their fundamental inseparability). And, though Reich’s points are well taken on the dangers of accepting an inherent counter-Eros force, his own theory of the incapacity of the masses for freedom—which arise in particular in his theory of fascism—seem strangely in line with such a nearly evolutionary conception as the one Fenichel allows for as a possibility.

Reich, however, is certainly to be commended for his careful attention to social factors. So it is not particularly surprising that he draws from his direct clinical experience, contrary to other analysts, the realization that psychoanalysis has failed to deliver “a critique of patriarchal and familial upbringing” because it has underestimated the devastating power of “injuries inflicted upon the children by the parents.” [18] It is this perspective that draws Reich forth into creating some of the most jarring critiques of the family that had been yet formulated under class society. Certainly, Reich’s work on issues of compulsory morality and the family were far ahead of the work being done by communists or psychoanalysts alone. Yet he should not be free from criticism, particularly for not seriously handling the representation of family dynamics in the psyche. In some ways, Reich’s incredible work on the family is a prelude to his orgone work—both downplay the psychic impact of the Oedipus complex insofar as it is given (in psychoanalytic theory) a reality greater than the material reality of the family situation which engenders it. Reich’s focus on the family is very Marxist, yet it (partly) leads him to a new school of thought far removed from either psychoanalysis or Marxism, into the lonely realm of either genius or insanity or stupidity.

The Authoritarian Family and Sexual Morality

Reich’s position of hostility toward the patriarchal family flows from his views on sexual morality. Whereas for Freud, the main problem in neurosis is inadequate repression which can be overcome through conscious sublimation and renunciation of instincts, Reich sees sexual morality itself as the primary cause of symptomatic expressions of sexuality. The ruling class which arises early in society has a material interest in sexual morality against the natural sexual instinct, “by means of repression, nongratification, etc., [which] creates secondary, pathological, antisocial drives that must, of necessity, be inhibited.” [19] Reich’s view is that there is some truth behind the idea that these “antisocial” drives are undesirable. However, the repression of sexuality itself—which can be traced to the ruling class—creates these antisocial drives that society as a whole must then repress. Thus, Reich is against perversion, but extends this critique to sexual morality which he blames for the very existence of perverse drives.

Reich links sexual morality to the repressive nature of the family. He traces the development of the function of the family from an economic organization to one serving a basically political need. It exists, primarily, “to serve as the factory of authoritarian ideologies and conservative structures.” [20] Here the connection to Reich’s prior work on character is striking. Character is in many ways equatable with authoritarian ideology. Both result from development in the family. Here, plainly, is the connection between the Oedipus complex (a major factor in character structure) and ideology. Whereas Althusser (and others) see the Oedipus complex as “the dramatic structure, the ‘theatrical machine’ imposed by the Law of Culture on every involuntary and constrained candidate to humanity,” [21]—that is, as a theater—Reich sees the family itself as a factory of ideology.

Not only does the family produce “the authority-fearing, life-fearing vassal” which allows the ruling class to remain in power, it also reproduces the conditions of its own existence “by crippling people sexually.” [22] The family is seen as the only allowable expression for genital sexuality, according to Reich, giving rise to antisocial and pathological sexuality. Basically, the mechanisms of the Oedipus complex as outlined by Freud still operate in Reich’s schema; Reich, however, is not afraid to trace their cause to the reality of the family. Reich certainly agrees with Freud that the successful outcome of the Oedipus complex is symbolic castration and the accompanying repression; he simply does not think this state of affairs is in line with the material interests of the working masses. Because it serves to cloud workers’ consciousness with ideology, it must be attacked.

The Oedipus complex is to be seen as one aspect of this ideology. Reich certainly deserves praise for emphasizing the real nature of the family more strongly than other psychoanalysts, but there is also truth to Juliet Mitchell’s assertion that his theory is more like one of an “Oedipus simplex”: as Reich traces the Oedipus complex to the real, material family situation, he begins tracing it to an even deeper level, that of the instincts. [23] While Freud did not attempt to fully examine the mechanisms by which the family gives rise to the Oedipus complex, nor the mechanisms by which biology gives rise to drives, Reich attempts to bridge both gaps. In the end, the state of science will lead him to “discover”—or invent—the orgone as a material process underlying these epiphenomena.

Along the way, however, Reich’s theory allows him to criticize orthodox Communist ignorance of childhood development. Infantile masturbation serves as a key example. Whereas the question of whether or not to allow children to masturbate is a question mostly ignored by the Communists, “For the Church, infantile masturbation is politics.” [24] This is not to be left to individuals to address alone—after all, Reich can show beyond doubt that they are themselves previously conditioned by the same process of repression they will engage in with their children; rather, even something seemingly so private as the question of masturbation is for Reich a class question to be solved politically, not personally. Not only is Reich fighting for the communist revolution which can and must overthrow the patriarchal family; he is also proposing transitional positions for struggle toward that end.

Reich’s positions are derived intensely from both of his fields. It is not particularly surprising that Reich believes that, generally speaking, youth’s attachment to family ties is correlated to their political views—revolutionaries tend to break from the family, while reactionaries tend to embrace it. [25] With what is known about the family’s role in producing morality and the super-ego—essentially an alien class force for the proletarian—this makes sense. Particularly interesting, however, is Reich’s extrapolation of specifically psychoanalytic findings to support his Marxist arguments; here, he widely diverged from many other psychoanalysts. Psychoanalysis itself is a means by which to combat authoritarian ideology: “for the causal and comprehensive therapy of neuroses, the socially instilled morality of the parents had nearly always to be banished.” [26] Not only must one become conscious of the repressive and detrimental effects of sexual morality in order to free oneself of neurosis; one must also break with them entirely.

Women are of decisive importance in this process. Women are sexual beings, yet ideology denies this: “Sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology.” [27] Reich often tends to overstate his points, and this is no exception. Yet even here, Reich’s optimism demonstrates an underlying faithfulness to psychoanalytic (perhaps not Marxist) theory. After all, this conclusion certainly seems to flow from Freud’s view that female sexual development instills a weaker super-ego and identification with the father. Perhaps it is accurate, and not at all reactionary, to say that women’s oppression in the family holds them back from cultural development. Freud did not see women as oppressed, but the latter is essentially his position. Reich exploits this weakness in sexual development; he believes women’s situation actually makes them of utmost importance in the struggle against authoritarian morality. Ultimately, women are not reproductive tools but sexual beings. Authoritarian society needs them to fill this reproductive role at the expense of fulfilling their sexual needs. Women, thus, perform a service to society analogous to the production of the worker—women workers, doubly so.

Reich’s critique of the family is really part of a broader sex-economic critique which takes him into the relatively uncharted waters of exploring the interplay between ideology and economy. He argues, for example, that late capitalism’s vastly large reserve army of the unemployed no longer necessitates (to the same degree) the prohibition on abortion for purely economic reasons. Yet it is obvious that the reasons are in fact economic ones, that is, of the psychic economy.

Sex-Economy Against Fascism

“Sex-economy” is the term Reich uses to describe his usage of both Marxist and psychoanalytic categories in his illuminating critique, best exemplified in his work on Nazi ideology, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The book does not seek to explain, as might a similar book from a bourgeois perspective, why there are revolutions, but rather, why are revolutions unsuccessful? Reich’s question can be simply summed up: how can the masses, whose long-term objective interest lies in socialist revolution, side with the fascist counterrevolution? This very search put Reich at odds with orthodox Marxism, undergoing as it was the putrefying influence of Stalinization. In this light, it is helpful to see how Reich pits his theory of fascism against that of the Communist Party and other orthodox Marxist organs—whose failure, arguably, bears responsibility for the victory of the Nazis and the defeats of the revolutionary process in Germany and other countries. From the very beginning, Reich scorns the traditional view of a superstructure strictly determined by its material base:

Notwithstanding the the fact that vulgar Marxism now speaks of the “lagging behind of the subjective factor,” as Lenin understood it, it can do nothing about it in a practical way, for its former conception of ideology as the product of the economic situation was too rigid. It did not explore the contradictions of economy in ideology, and it did not comprehend ideology as a historical force. [28]

Ideology, in Reich’s view, is a force comparable—in terms of class consciousness—to the raw workings of the economy, the laws of motion of capital as outlined by Marx. Explaining these objective laws, as the Marxists had sought to do, speaks nothing to the ideology that acts to prevent the masses from reaching revolutionary consciousness. It counters the mysticism of bourgeois thought, to be sure, but it is not in itself necessarily convincing to workers who do not perceive the totality of capitalist economic relations in their daily work.

Reich’s work on character structure and the authoritarian patriarchal family is a logical lead-up to his attempt to solve this problem. If psychoanalysis must engage in character analysis to undo the character armoring that Reich traces to the family and educational apparatus of the state, then it is not far-fetched that Marxists should be doing the same. Before character analysis was systematically formulated by Reich, analysts were already attacking patients’ resistances. Reich shows in his work the futility of simply interpreting the unconscious of the patient directly at any and all forks in the analytic road. Viewed in this light, The Mass Psychology of Fascism is an attempt to attack the masses’ resistance to reaching revolutionary communist consciousness, that is, the consciousness of their own objective interests. Until Marxists are able to comprehend, explain, and attack these resistances and their sources, revolutionary propaganda falls on deaf ears. [29]

And yet the disparity between the workers’ interest and consciousness is not only a matter of thought. It is not so simple as to convince the workers that they are mistaken.

Since man, however, regardless of class, is not only the object of these influences [of “his material position” and the general ideology of society] but also reproduces them in his activities, his thinking and acting must be just as contradictory as the society from which they derive. But, inasmuch as a social ideology changes man’s psychic structure, it has not only reproduced itself in man but, what is more significant, has become an active force, a material power in man, who in turn has become concretely changed, and, as a consequence thereof, acts in a different and contradictory fashion. [30]

Ideology is quite insidious. Individuals, whose consciousness is necessarily contradictory and perhaps never fully aligned with their class interest, act to reproduce the ideology of the ruling class. Not even workers are immune to this, particularly insofar as they come to represent the interests of the state in carrying out the repression inherent in family organization. Ideology becomes a material force insofar as it influences the actions of its subjects, which in turn affect the material base through their participation in the production process. In 1934 Reich had described the ideology holding back workers’ class consciousness as “bourgeoisification” [31] which is seemingly a nod to Lenin’s theory of the “bourgeoisified” labor aristocracy [32] created by the scraps of imperialist super-profits—with all its economic emphasis on class and flows of surplus value. Coinciding with Reich’s removals from both the Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytical Association is an observable trend toward a “sex-economic” theory of ideology as fused dialectically with economy. Reich in 1936:

As soon as an ideology has taken hold of and molded human structure, it becomes a material, social power. [. . .] There is no ‘development of the productive forces per se,’ but only a development or an inhibition of the human structure, its feeling and thinking on the basis of economic and social processes.” [33]

Ideology is material, and Reich clearly considers his position materialist, but the real manifestation of economic development is human structural growth. By 1945, Reich writes that “authoritarian and progressive ideologies have nothing to do with economic class distinctions. [. . .] The emotional and mystical excitations of the masses must play at least as large a role in the social process as do purely economic interests.” [34] Ideology is now totally divorced from economic interest, which is only one factor next to mystical and emotional motivations (which are ideological).

In understanding mysticism, which boils down to an irrational divide between class interest and individual consciousness, ”The Freudian conception comes considerably closer [than vulgar Marxism] to the facts of the case, for it recognizes such behavior as the effect of infantile guilt-feelings toward the father figure.” [35] Vulgar, mechanistic Marxism—particularly of the Stalinist variety—simply ignores this irrationality and does not seek even to explain it. It is assumed out of existence. As Adorno points out, Freud’s “primal father” fits Hitler to a tee. Adorno, whose work will not be examined in great detail, explains quite similarly to Reich that since fascism’s goals are totally at odds with the interests of the masses it depends upon for support, there must be a psychological basis for its success. Fascism, unlike communist revolution, can exist purely on the repressive psychological configuration already ingrained in the masses. [36] Whereas Reich sees the masses as “biologically rigid and incapable of freedom” [37] and fascism as “manifest in every single individual of the world,” [38] Adorno’s Freudian examination of the unconscious mechanisms of fascism does not emphasize character structure as does Reich’s. Thus, fascism for Adorno is not caused by “psychological dispositions,” it is a “psychological area which can be successfully exploited by the forces which promote it for entirely nonpsychological reasons of self-interest.” [39] While Reich also agrees that economic interest gives rise to the phenomenon of fascism, for him it fails to fully explain why the masses support it. And here Reich comes ironically close to the fascists he criticizes for seeing “the incapacity for freedom of masses of people” as “an absolute biologic fact.” [40] For the fascists, the determinant is race; for Reich, it is orgastic potency (genital by definition).

On the other hand, Leon Trotsky’s explanation of fascism is framed primarily in class terms. Trotsky, who believed that petty-bourgeois psychology “flows from the social crisis” exacerbated by proletarian struggle, does not see fascism through the Oedipal lens informing Reich, Adorno, and Freud (whose work on group psychology Adorno applies to fascism). Yet the mechanism is similar:

The petty bourgeoisie is economically dependent and politically atomized. That is why it cannot conduct an independent policy. It needs a “leader” who inspires it with confidence. This individual or collective leadership, i.e., a personage or party, can be given to it by one or the other of the fundamental classes—either the big bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Fascism unites and arms the scattered masses. Out of human dust, it organizes combat detachments. It thus gives the petty bourgeoisie the illusion of being an independent force. It begins to imagine that it will really command the state. It is not surprising that these illusions and hopes turn the head of the petty bourgeoisie! [41]

For Reich, the petty bourgeoisie’s economic position is certainly responsible for its mass disillusionment with bourgeois society. On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie’s relative independence means that its family situation is of heightened importance. Because the middle class family “constitutes an economic enterprise on a small scale” [42], it is necessary for Marxists to examine this family arrangement—because in a certain sense, it is already a class division. The family, for Reich, is a repressive apparatus, and in this is explained why the lower middle classes flocked to fascism. To Trotsky, the fascist parties gained strength because of the void of a revolutionary party capable of seizing power. The German Communist Party misunderstood the nature of the situation and refused to commit fully to the united front against fascism (its so-called “social fascism” policy toward the also-proletarian Social Democrats, adopted under orders by the Comintern—but sustained by the Party masses’ lingering transference in 1917? Or in Lenin or Stalin?), and the fascists exploited the opportunity. There is thus in Trotsky a thread similar to the parties he criticized, an economistic view of politics. Reich, in his passionate appeals to communists to begin addressing daily and sexual concerns of the working masses as opposed to dry material on the mechanics of capitalism, indicates that perhaps there is more to the story than Trotsky sees. Trotsky’s account fails to explain why the German Communist Party did not become capable of seizing power through the revolutionary turmoil that provided the opportunity. Clearly, there are unanswered questions, and the strength of Reich’s account lies in its directly addressing the irrationality of fascism and the sources in the masses of this irrational desire.

At the same time, Reich’s focus tends to draw him away from the merits of the Trotskyist approach and its clear understanding of the tasks of a revolutionary party and the class dynamics that make the proletariat the revolutionary impetus. He correctly blames character structure for the masses’ complicity in fascism and oppression. Similarly, he is right to link this structure to the patriarchal family situation. But his focus on orgastic potency, already leaning away from psychoanalytic theory, implies that solution is possible under capitalism. It is simply a matter of increasing the masses’ genital-orgastic potency, and they will become free from interests alien to their class positions. This colors also his understanding of what defines a fascist state. Whereas Trotsky’s definition was relatively clear (a revolutionary void leads to the seizure of power by the petty-bourgeoisie), Reich’s gets quite a bit muddled up by the end of his book. Because the masses are essentially incapable of freedom:

the responsibility rests upon the state as well as upon masses of people, a responsibility in the good and not the bad sense of the word. It is the state’s duty not only to encourage the passionate yearning for freedom in working masses of people; it must also make every effort to make them capable of freedom. If it fails to do this, if it suppresses the intense longing for freedom or even misuses it and puts itself in the way of the tendency toward self-administration, then it shows clearly that it is a fascist state. Then it is to be called to account for the damages and dangers that it caused by its dereliction. [43]

Here Reich sharply diverges from Trotsky’s method. By this point, Reich not only robs fascism’s definition of its class character. He also implies that bourgeois states are capable of making the masses capable of freedom, and could therefore be supportable. The united front method, on the contrary, which defends the bourgeois state from the fascist takeover, is aimed exclusively at arming and training the workers for their own self-defense. This task is one that only the workers and oppressed can carry out. In every case of fascist takeover, the bourgeois state shows not only its essential helplessness against the irrational desire of the fascist masses, but its virulent hostility to the self-organization of the working class. Whereas Trotskyists are prepared to defend the bourgeois state from the fascists, this is to be seen as a grim necessity in preparation for the overthrow of this state and the revolutionary seizure of power. Reich, whose analysis of fascism’s irrational and unconscious characteristics is widely spot-on, fails to provide a clear alternative to the existing communist methods. And yet, Reich’s frustrations are reasonable in light of the opposition he encountered from all sides. Discussing the intense similarity in the sexual question of the Communist Party to various religious organizations, he says, “The fact that the Communist pastor Salkind, who was also a psychoanalyst, was an authority in the field of sexual negation in Soviet Russia, speaks for itself.” [44] Indeed, one Communist-pastor-psychoanalyst figure personifies well the reactionary overlap Reich discovered between religion, psychoanalysis, and even orthodox communism.

Social Implications of Schizophrenia

At the end of later editions of Character Analysis is a case-study with a schizophrenic patient Reich employing orgone theory and technique. [45] This is helpful to consider as an example of Reich’s inside-out explosion of psychoanalytic theory as well as a reminder that some of his critical insight remains, despite the insanity of his theory. Reich’s basic perspective, “that a living organism cannot experience anything unless there is some kind of reality behind it”, runs directly against the orthodox psychoanalytic view of psychotics as basically out of touch with reality and untreatable. [46] One is reminded of how radical it was for Freud to take his hysterical patients at their words describing symptoms lacking somatic origins.

There is more at stake with Reich, though, than simply accepting his patients’ reality; he thinks schizophrenics can make valuable contributions to a critique of society. This puts them at odds with “homo normalis”. Homo normalis is Reich’s answer to the basic congruity between normality and neurosis—the normal human is neurotic, is armored. The basic difference between homo normalis and the schizophrenic is:

Homo normalis blocks off entirely the perception of the basic orgonotic functioning by means of rigid armoring; in the schizophrenic, on the other hand, the armoring actually breaks down and thus the biosystem is flooded with deep experiences from the biophysical core with which it cannot cope. Understandably, therefore, armored homo normalis develops anxiety when he feels threatened by the findings of orgonomy, whereas the schizoid character understands them instantly and easily, and feels drawn to them. For the same reason, the mystic, who is structurally close to the schizoid character, usually comprehends orgonomic facts, although only as in a mirror, whereas the rigid mechanist looks with arrogant disdain on all scientific dealings in the realm of the emotions and calls them “unscientific.” [47]

Whereas in The Mass Psychology of Fascism Reich conceives of mysticism mostly in terms of its limiting influence on the capacity of the masses for freedom, now he finds that mystics do have some openness to orgonomy which makes them fundamentally similar to schizophrenics. What is tragic in Reich is his unshaken belief that his own theory is not mysticism: “We must seriously try to understand the mystical experience without becoming mystics ourselves.” [48] Perhaps a better modern question would be to understand Reich in terms of the very mysticism he criticized. His theory of orgonomy, no doubt, attempted to continue his wide sweeping critique of all forms of mysticism (orgonomy excluded!), though, so there is value in a reading of the orgone work as extending this critique to its very limit, perhaps to the very limit of its own anti-mysticism—that point at which his own theory becomes “abstruse mysticism”. [49]

To begin down this path, it is necessary to agree with Reich that schizophrenics pose a far lesser danger than that posed by class society. As he points out, even a violent schizophrenic, “if worse comes to worst, he kills himself or threatens to kill somebody else,” which contrasts starkly to the homo normalis nationalist leader who drives millions to their deaths and is followed nonetheless—the world over. [50] The schizophrenic’s broken-down armoring makes him or her a threat to the normal order of things—an order which is undeniably cruel, unjust, and fundamentally irrational. This difference is to blame for mental institutions’ function as “jails for psychotics”. [51] Not even psychoanalysis manages to treat or ‘cure’ the schizophrenic—only the mental institution remains.

If psychoanalysis fails to cure the schizophrenic, it is because it fails to perceive schizophrenia beyond the psychic level of functioning. Whereas psychoanalysis finds a present psychic reality for past experiences, Reich believes this can only be true if there has been a change in the biophysical functioning of the organism. Thus, in his case study Reich never even mentions the Oedipus complex, but rather focuses on the patient’s physical blocks.

All the psychic processes involved in character analysis, the resolution of resistances, the interpretation of the transference, ambivalence, etc., are no more than psychic descriptions of the bio-physical processes of the Orgone. These may be observed in the muscular tensions, in the movements of the diaphragm and in the vegetative phenomena and emotions which occur in the course of the analysis. [52]

The aim, then, is to reverse the biophysical modification of the patient-organism; this is precisely what psychoanalysis effects, limited as it is to the psychic level. Whereas psychoanalysis divides the psychic apparatus into the ego, super-ego, and id, Reich establishes a “biophysical arrangement of the functions of the total organism according to the functional realms of bio-energetic core (plasma system), periphery (skin surface), and orgone energy field beyond the body surface.” [53] The two arrangements link up in the id, a reservoir of libidinal energy which is basically derived from the field of orgone energy.

Figure 2: Reich's Diagram of the Schizophrenic Split [56]

Reich’s schizophrenic patient projects “forces” in the form of hallucinations (which she compares to the aurora borealis) onto walls and into the external world. “The psychoanalytic explanation of the projection mechanism in terms of repressed drives which are ascribed to other people or things outside oneself only relates the content of the projected idea to an inner entity, but it does not explain the function of projection itself, regardless of the projected idea.” [54] Since the mechanism itself can be generalized (and psychoanalysis does this), it becomes necessary to explain not the individual content projected but rather the cause of projection as opposed to other symptomatic forms of coping with the underlying drives. Reich’s patient’s “self-perception had appeared where her ‘forces’ usually appeared: at the walls of the room” when she projected forth part of herself into the external world. [55] To Reich this is fundamentally a split in the organism between self-perception (which is now outside her physical body) and her “objective biophysical process that ought to be perceived.” [56] In Reich’s “healthy organism,” these are fused; in the armored neurotic, “the biophysical organ sensations do not develop at all”. [57] The schizophrenic rather experiences a fundamental split between the sensations and the self-perception, putting him or her in a position midway between health and neurosis (normality). And yet, the schizophrenic is not wrong to assume that the “forces” seen are in fact something broader than simple delusions. They are indeed the streamings of the orgone.

Figure 3: Reich's Diagram of Compulsion Neurosis [56]

In Reich’s conception, the schizophrenic apparently has a much greater access to orgone energy yet still encounters a block. Both blocked and blocking excitation (in Freudian terms, the repressed representative of the drive and its repressing countercathexis) derive from orgone energy. Reich’s orgone fits, of course, much more neatly with Fenichel’s differing modes of operation for one erotic instinct than with Freud’s death instinct theory, which Reich rejects.

Reich’s theory, though, is clearly an attempt to unify the mind and body into one biological whole. Whereas Freud distanced himself from physiology by examining only its psychic manifestations, Reich wants to understand these as part of a complex whole. Perhaps he fails, subordinating them to the deeper (in his view, more materialistic) orgone level. Reich’s attempt, though, gets at a basic truth of the matter, that psychoanalysis fails miserably when it attempts to resolve the theoretical problems posed by schizophrenia in terms of the individual content of the disorder. Reich summarizes his basic differences and what makes this disease so fundamentally important for orgone theory:

The functions which appear in the schizophrenic, if only one learns to read them accurately, are COSMIC FUNCTIONS, that is, functions of the cosmic orgone energy within the organism in undisguised form. Not a single symptom in schizophrenia makes sense if one does not understand that the sharp borderlines which separate homo normalis from the cosmic orgone ocean have broken down in the schizophrenic; accordingly, some of his symptoms are due to the intellectual realization of this breakdown; others are direct manifestations of the merger between organismic and cosmic (atmospheric) orgone energy. [59]

For example, “withdrawal of libido from the world”, a defining symptom of schizophrenia in psychoanalytic theory, “is a result and not the cause of the disease.” [60] Reich’s theory, depending as it does on the unlikely existence of orgone energy, at least attempts to move beyond the formulation of schizophrenia in terms of symptoms (psychoanalysis at its best) or Oedipal neurotic conflicts (psychoanalysis at its worst).

Reich’s theory, therefore, positions him to be able to conceive of the disease in terms of the various specific blocks in which it manifests in the patient. At the same time, he sees individual cases of schizophrenia, and of cancer, as manifestations of a broader “emotional plague.” In the individual, the block or tumor is only a functional part of a much more insidious disease. The degeneration of a cancer victim—as opposed to that of a schizophrenic—does not put him or her into conflict with the social structure due to the resignation entailed. [61] Despite the schizophrenic’s forced opposition to society, though, a transcendence of individual incapacity for healthy emotional expression requires “thorough disarmoring of the human animal on a mass scale and, first of all, prevention of biopathic armoring in the newborn babies.” [62] Reich’s social critique shows its head again. Yet by now, society is seen not in terms of its divisions into classes (materialistically), but rather in terms of the flowings of orgone energy. Society is divided between those who are armored and those who are not. Herein can be found the explanation for Reich’s desperate search for orgone energy and ways to harness it.

In order to preserve one of his basic insights, that ideology does not necessarily line up with class interest, Reich invents orgone energy as a mystical explanation. Perhaps the theory can be explained in terms of his personal disappointments with psychoanalysis and communism; no doubt, his expulsions affected him dramatically. But essentially, the theory of the orgone can be explained as a mysticism against mysticism. In many ways, this is the legacy also of psychoanalysis. In Reich, the ridiculousness of the orgone serves to prevent many from taking it literally, whereas in psychoanalysis, Oedipus is to this day still historicized. There is no doubt that Reich’s critical insight into society falls apart, losing its class dimension and revolutionary implications. At the same time, his mystical flight is a warning for the cautious both of the inherent dangers in psychoanalytic theory and the reactionary potential of an attempt at linear synthesis between Marxism and psychoanalysis. It is in this vein that Reich’s work should be viewed: as a body, full of contradictions and lines of flight; the orgone, mystical as it is, is definitively Reich’s, as much as The Mass Psychology of Fascism.


1 Representing the orthodox tradition, Laplanche and Pontalis go so far as to define perversion as “Deviation from the ‘normal’ sexual act when this is defined as coitus with a person of the opposite sex directed towards the achievement of orgasm by means of genital penetration.” This is, quite simply, not a definition of sex that can be followed. Interestingly, it rests firmly on the theory of the genital orgasm, an issue most heavily theorized by Reich. The definition goes on more broadly: “Perversion is said to be present; where the orgasm is reached with other sexual objects (homosexuality, paedophilia, bestiality, etc.) or through other regions of the body (anal coitus, etc.); where the orgasm is subordinated absolutely to certain extrinsic conditions, which may even be sufficient in themselves to bring about sexual pleasure (fetishism, transvestitism, voyeurism and exhibitionism, sado-masochism).” — The Language of Psychoanalysis, 306-9.

2 Quoted in Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth, 103.

3 See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 215.

4 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 129-30.

5 Wilhelm Reich, “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis,” in Sex-Pol, 24.

6 Ibid, 56.

7 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 29.

8 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 163.

9 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 208-9.

10 Ibid, 15.

11 Ibid, 228.

12 Ibid, 231.

13 Michael Schneider, Neurosis and Civilization: A Marxist/Freudian Synthesis, 9.

14 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 234.

15 Ibid, 236.

16 Ibid, 256.

17 “Other authors have pointed out that since among some primitive tribes a latency period never appears, cultural restrictions must be responsible for the renunciation of sexual wishes. However, there is no clear-cut contradiction between “biologically” and “socially” determined phenomena. Biological changes may be brought about by former external influences. It may be that the latency period is a result of external influences that have been in effect long enough to have left permanent traces; perhaps at this point we are watching external influences becoming biological. At any rate, during this period the forces operative against instinctual impulses, such as shame, disgust, and so forth, develop at the price of instinctual energies.” — Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 62.

18 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 259.

19 Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, 22.

20 Ibid, 75.

21 Louis Althusser, Writings on Psychoanalysis, 29.

22 Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, 82.

23 Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 180.

24 Wilhelm Reich, “What Is Class Consciousness?” in Sex-Pol, 318.

25 Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, 75.

26 Wilhelm Reich, “The Imposition of Sexual Morality,” in Sex-Pol, 93.

27 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 105.

28 Ibid, 14.

29 One might also wonder how parallel the winning of workers’ trust is to the transference situation: if these transference resistances are not overcome, would masses accept the economic arguments purely on the basis of transference to the revolutionary party? Is it true, as Badiou argues, that “the communist masses must come to despise the party: liquidation of the transference”? See Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, 247. Indeed, there is a deep and potentially disturbing similarity between the democratic centralist party-form and the process of initiation into psychoanalytic institutes, likely worth exploration.

30 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 18.

31 Wilhelm Reich, “What Is Class Consciousness?” in Sex-Pol: Essays, 1929-1934, 295.

32 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 14.

33 Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, xxiv.

34 Ibid, xv.

35 The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 25.

36 “It may well be the secret of fascist propaganda that it simply takes men for what they are: the true children of today’s standardized mass culture, largely robbed of autonomy and spontaneity, instead of setting goals the realization of which would transcend the psychological status quo no less than the social one. Fascist propaganda has only to reproduce the existent mentality for its own purposes;—it need not induce a change—and the compulsive repetition which is one of its foremost characteristics will be at one with the necessity for this continuous reproduction. It relies absolutely on the total structure as well as on each particular trait of the authoritarian character which is itself the product of an internalization of the irrational aspects of modern society.” — Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” 134.

37 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 319.

38 Ibid, 320.

39 Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, 135.

40 Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, 323.

41 Leon Trotsky, “Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It.”

42 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 48.

43 Ibid, 283-4.

44 Ibid, 124.

45 Laplanche and Pontalis list these characteristics as indicative of schizophrenia: incoherence of thought, action and affectivity (denoted by the classical terms ‘discordance’, ‘dissociation’ and ‘disintegration’); detachment from reality accompanied by a turning in upon the self and the predominance of a mental life given over to the production of phantasies (autism); a delusional activity which may be marked in a greater or lesser degree, and which is always badly systematised. Lastly, the disease, which evolves at the most variable of paces towards an intellectual and affective ‘deterioration’, often ending up by presenting states of apparent dementia, is defined as chronic by most psychiatrists, who consider it inadmissible to diagnose schizophrenia in the absence of this major trait.” — The Language of Psychoanalysis, 408-10.

46 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 436.

47 Ibid, 402.

48 Ibid, 437.

49 Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 235.

50 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 417.

51 Ibid, 404.

52 Dieter Wyss, M.D., Psychoanalytic Schools from the Beginning to the Present, 235.

53 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, 403.

54 Ibid, 437.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid, 438. View full size images: (Figure 2) (Figure 3)

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid, 440-1.

59 Ibid, 448.

60 Ibid, 434.

61 Ibid, 433-4.

62 Ibid, 451.

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