Wilhelm Reich, Sex-Pol, and the Virtuous Circle of Marxism and Psychoanalysis
Wilhelm Reich's "Sex-Pol" helps us understand the ingrained obstacles to sexual and social revolution.
The Sex-Pol Agenda as a Political Program
Contemporary social behavior is shot through with ambivalence. We are descendants of the sexual revolution, as intimate as can be, but solidarity is often second to political bickering. One can’t say hello without a hug, but our social relations are determined by a constant and cutthroat competition over scraps. We can tolerate more diversity than ever, but we destroy nature and one another with increasing abandon. These contradictions are strange concatenations of love and hate, of progress and destructiveness. Is it possible that the form of listening that psychoanalysis pioneered might be able to illuminate these ambivalences and do more than merely soothe the damaged self?
The work of Wilhelm Reich remains one of the most coherent and impassioned attempts to develop a politics informed by psychoanalysis. The following is a summary of Reich’s lifelong critique of both orthodox Left politics and official psychoanalysis. He believed that the blind spots of both could be solved only if they informed each other, and that the combined efforts of Marxism and psychoanalysis were necessary for the success of a truly transformative political program. Many of the phenomena Reich analyzed—authoritarianism and irrationality of past political movements—are just as prevalent today, but his insights are still strikingly relevant. The contemporary Left is rampant with sectarian small-mindedness, thought policing, rigidity, conservative sexual moralism, and reactionary group tendencies. The contemporary Right has seen a resurgence of the deadly combination of xenophobic paranoia, fascist aggression, and stupidity that Reich set out to explain in the Mass Psychology of Fascism and Listen, Little Man!
Reich’s project of the late twenties and early thirties—what I shall call “the Sex-Pol Agenda”—is worth revisiting, even reconstituting, for a critique of these tendencies. The goal of Reich’s revolutionary alliance of psychoanalysis and Marxism was nothing less than to overthrow class society, exploitation, and needless misery. Sex-Pol is exceptional for the virtuous circle it sought to construct by connecting psychoanalysis directly with mass social organizations and with plans and demands for the radical reconstitution of society.
The movement was organized by a group called the German Federal Association for Proletarian Sexual Politics and was allied with the German Communist Party. The Sex-Political movement published a manifesto, a journal (Zeitschrift für Politische Psychologie und Sexualökonomie), and pamphlets like “The Sexual Struggle of Youth.” It also boasted a membership that reached 40,000.
Most importantly, it gave voice to a number of practical proposals for the socialist movement: abolition of laws against abortion, contraception, masturbation, and homosexuality; creation of no-contest divorce; public, affirmative sex education; full equality of partners in marriage; the elimination of any social privileges for the married; free birth control devices and contraceptives; free abortion on demand; full economic independence for women and their children; housing reform to eliminate overcrowding and create possibilities for privacy; sex-positive sexual advice centers and crèches in every factory. This agenda got Reich expelled from the Social Democrats, the Communist Party, and the IPA.
The Limits of Psychoanalysis and the Eruption of Fascism
The Sex-Pol agenda was motivated by three major dissatisfactions with established psychoanalysis. First, in his work with the proletariat in the 20s in the Vienna Free Clinic and the Viennese Sexual Information Centers, Reich came to understand that neurosis was not just an “individual” problem but followed from social facts. Lack of adequate housing, abusive marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and lack of time all contributed to the presence of neurotic symptoms. Second, he realized the limits of one-on-one therapy: the needs were so great, the personnel so few, and the treatments so long, complex and subtle. Without a prophylaxis of the neuroses, Reich concluded, the healing mission of psychoanalysis was impossible. Finally, like Freud, Reich lamented the impossible demands that a severe “civilized” morality places on us.
The political limits of psychoanalysis were exacerbated by the inconceivable birth of Nazism, a mass-based, arch-reactionary, murderous fascism that seemed impossible to account for without psychoanalytic theory. To anyone who watches Triumph of the Will it is clear that Hitler could have been easily assassinated many times over. Instead, what you see is Love. Love. Love. Nazism was the supreme form of political irrationalism, one which required an understanding of the tectonic plates shifting beneath contemporary civilized life.
Reich decided to agitate against a psychoanalytic milieu that was content to sit and sigh at the tragic character of culture. A revolutionary means to battle fascists was needed, and this in turn required an adequate theory of fascism.
Research into the Fear of Freedom
The fear of freedom is a foundational concept for the critique of ideologies of mass conservatism. Political sociology puzzled over fascism because it combined elements of rebellious sentiment with arch-conservative ideology, a wish for change, and a denial of its possibility. Racialist fascism promised everything to those who belonged to the in-group even as it destroyed the freedom of its members and victimized everyone else.
One of the fundamental insights of psychoanalysis is that in many ways we are much closer to the “primitivism within us” than we like to admit. Reich’s psychoanalytic training helped him recognize that one could not truly understand fascism without understanding both the libidinal excitements and psychological terrors that it represented, and what forms of material and sexual gratification fascism provided that liberal democracy did not. Indeed, all cultural forms and mass enthusiasms, as the Frankfurt School would elaborate, might be analyzed as compromise formations—from those that invoke our highest respect to those we can’t help but be attracted to. Reich analyzed fascist propaganda and organization as symptoms of these constitutive terrors and fantasies. Chaos, sexual bolshevism, racial contamination, and syphilis counterposed equally powerful fascist titillations: “the mass-psychological effect of militarism is essentially libidinous. The sexual effect of a uniform and of rhythmically perfect parades, of military exhibitionism in general, are obvious to the average servant girl, even though they may not be obvious to learned political scientists.”
Klaus Theweleit followed Reich in this fascist fantasy-analysis. He found that persistent convulsive fantasies about women—exploding, engulfing, a “bloody mass”—were typical of a certain genre of fascist writing.
Ideologiekritik-based studies of paperbacks written for the ‘masses’…don’t give any thought to the thrills that run through the body of a woman reading a hospital romance; they merely find the errors in her thinking. Yet what the masses (all of us, that is) suffer most from are ‘false’ feelings…The real problem is that our bodies cramp up when they try to feel pleasure; sweat breaks out where love should; our soft, erect members become unsatisfied bones; our desire to penetrate another person’s body becomes a lethal act; and contact between two sets of skin, two bodies, produces tension, dirt, and death, instead of release, purification, and rebirth.
Capitalism creates the possibility for mass plenty, stoking the desire for this-worldly happiness, and fascism capitalizes on the fear we have of losing our inhibitions. The fascists defeated the practical appeals of communists with a stronger political psychology that turned this ambivalence into a murderous reality. One explanation for that age old question of the Left (Why is social progress so difficult?) is that we are invested emotionally and psychologically in our own domination. By focusing on the ambivalence of freedom, Reich recognized that humans are afraid not only of failing to rebel but of successfully doing so. The prospect of being more free activates terrors of forbidden gratification instilled from a young age by authoritarian moralism and reinforced by social structures that always demand conformity over enjoyment. What has been repressed invokes anxiety when it comes too close. In response, we shrink, or we prop up the powerful.
Characterology of Fascism and the Diagnosis of the Authoritarian Personality
The virulence of fascism raised a new set of questions for a Left politics directed by analytic theory. Reich recognized that it was no longer adequate to consider only why the masses do not rebel. We also had to understand why we pursue the opposite with such vehemence and irrational enthusiasm; in other words, why people not only respect a law that is designed to keep them in their place but also give their life for the principles of a racist order. Who is the kind of person who makes such a sacrifice? “A mixture of sexual impotence, helplessness, longing for a Führer, fear of authority, fear of life, and mysticism” typify this person. “[He] is characterized by a devout loyalty and simultaneous rebellion. Fear of sexuality and sexual hypocrisy characterize the ‘Babbitt’ and his milieu. People with such a structure are incapable of democratic living…” Rigid, paranoid, sex-denying, compulsorily “moral”—he is inhibited from doing the sensible thing and resisting because he cannot relax his repressions without replacing them with fear and aggression.
The work on authoritarian personality types began with observations in the therapeutic context. Reich encountered certain resistances embodied in persistent and rigid character elements (stilted gait, facial expression, stance, manner of speech). These symptoms expressed an ego that was hardened by a kind of armor against both the world without and impulses within.
But for psychoanalysis to be politically relevant it had to do more than just describe individual character types. It had to provide a historical and dynamic account of their genesis within a social psychology that contrasts rigid and prejudiced depths with “a superficial layer of the average individual that is restrained, polite, compassionate and conscientious.” These tendencies are germinated and fortified by social institutions. Early prohibitions against instinctual gratification from the patriarchal Father—the agent of the state in every house—are reinforced by the institutions of church and school that further instill ascetic injunctions against honesty, self-expression, curiosity, and satisfaction.
Research into Urgent Needs
Reich was equally critical of what he took to be reactionary and regressive tendencies on the Left, and it was precisely the way that these organizations overlooked or stifled these impulses of creativity, satisfaction, curiosity and bodily drives that inspired his criticisms of communist orthodoxy.
Reich’s experiences in the Viennese and German Communist parties made him deeply concerned about their capacity to organize a movement that would achieve the dramatic social transformations they called for. He had, for instance, a particularly acute sense of the political significance of the psychological gap between party leaders and members. The people were terribly bored by party meetings, and communist leaders often lectured at the workers from dogmas about the economy and state that were alien to their daily experience of domination. Class consciousness was defined either in an authoritarian manner, as the capacity to repeat the official line on a given question, or in terms that were alienated from daily struggles and largely indistinguishable from the international and business affairs covered in the newspaper. For Reich, these organizations failed to make an integral connection between these forms of consciousness and action to overthrow the status quo.
Reich proposed an alternative technique imbued with questions raised by psychoanalysis. A correct mass politics had to begin with concrete needs and personal problems. Socialists and Communists must take as their first datum the troubles, complaints, dreams, and nightmares of the ordinary worker. The success of the sex-political groups offered an alternative model for considering the means by which the Communist movement would both determine its demands and convince workers that organization for radical transformation was the only way to achieve them.
Reich summarized his alternative approach to discovering and raising class-consciousness in a series of five points: Workers needed knowledge 1) of one’s vital necessities in all spheres; 2) of the ways and possibilities of satisfying those necessities; 3) of the obstacles that a social system based on private property puts in the way of their satisfaction; 4) of one’s own inhibitions and fears that prevent one from clearly realizing one’s needs and the obstacles to their satisfaction (“the enemy within” is a particularly true image of the psychical inhibitions of the oppressed individual); and 5) that mass unity makes an invincible force against the power of oppressors.
These seemingly uncontroversial propositions contained important theoretical insights. First, Reich suggested that the lesson of the Bolsheviks lay in their their closeness to the people, which allowed them to formulate slogans that organically inspired marches, protests, and actions. Unfortunately, this closeness had been insufficiently internalized by the Left. Second, Reich argued that an insufficient attention to needs of whatever kind as expressed by the people—needs that were first defined by their urgency and their centrality to the workers’ concerns—led to a kind of official culture disguising itself as a politics. Surreptitiously, the parties were asking if members of the oppressed spoke the right language rather than helping them articulate in their own terms the basic direction of their needs which could only be met in a more liberated society. Third, leftists, by neglecting to attend carefully to the concerns of workers, risked shoehorning the movement into middle-class, pet political projects that quashed the passions of the vast majority. In conclusion, Reich realized that the Left was not able to adequately listen to the working class, and because psychoanalysis was in a certain sense a science of listening, Reich was able to use its insights to recognize these inadequacies.
Needless to say, though Stalinism may be mostly a nightmare of the past, this kind of rigidity on the part of self-appointed leaders is alive and well. Speech codes, thought taboos, relentless focus on internal culture, and a difficulty in navigating the world of mass politics are issues of grave importance for the Left today. “Against the principle of self-denial preached by political reaction, we must set the principle of happiness and abundance on earth.”
Sexual Suppression and the Denial of Life
This brings us to what might be the most urgent contribution of Reich’s theory for the contemporary Left. The Sex-Pol Agenda claims that civilization, in order to secure the obedience of a population whose interest lay in overthrowing the powerful, has suppressed sex. This was evident in the conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle as theorized by Freud. In Reich’s words, “That the reality principle is itself relative and that it serves, and is determined by, today’s authoritarian society, is excluded from the discussion as mere politics… That this exclusion also constitutes politics is not recognized.” The prohibitions-cum-inhibitions are functional for maintaining societies that require so much unhappiness from their members. The grave mystery of asceticism is approached here. The family, the church, and the school (three “private sphere” institutions also discussed by Althusser) forbid and censor according to a social reality principle. But these institutions and their edicts are made by human beings and are therefore changeable. Sexuality yearns for release.
The theory of sexual repression is where Reich has been both most influential and most critiqued. The Frankfurt School, Reimut Reiche, Juliet Mitchell, and Michel Foucault all respond in their own way to the puzzle of how, if we are living after the sexual revolution, we are not yet free. This is a tremendous problem for Reich, who believed that sexual repression and class domination were of a part, and who often seemed to suggest that sexual rigidity was the most significant obstacle to social transformation.
But Reich’s emphasis was less on the immediate possibilities for therapy or for gratification—fucking your way to freedom—than the structural limits and constitutive damage visited upon persons having to live with those limits within their deepest recesses. The Sex-Pol agenda for analytic social psychology thus places special emphasis on the empirical investigation of sexual prohibitions and sexual fears and the measures that would be needed to overcome them. Sociologist Loic Wacquant in his Punishing the Poor points out that two of the “dangerous categories” of our period are the “welfare queen” and the “sex offender.” These characters are considered incorrigible, mollycoddled, and epidemic. The anti-feminist stereotype of the “welfare queen” is clear. As for sex offenders, the passage of the 1995 Megan’s Law effectively blacklisted them from employment and housing, denied their civil rights, and presumed them beyond recovery even as they were denied therapeutic services. Some are even subjected to virtual castration through hormonal injection or testicular removal. The same logic of fear and fantasy Reich used in his analysis of fascism reappears here, as those we treat as social outcasts reveal much about our own fears and needs.
Even as there is much to take from Reich in a critique of both the contemporary Left and Right, there is much that we ought to find untenable in his work today. We already mentioned his problematic teleology of sexuality and his convictions about the direct relationship between sexual and general social liberation. Reich may have clearly and plainly stood for the full legal rights of gays, but his insistence on the healthy orgastic potency of the genitally-satisfied heterosexual relies on a narrow account of development and a fair bit of prejudice. And, while Reich may well have been midwife to the “sexual revolution,” the more general revolution he believed it would augur—a society beyond exploitation, hunger, authoritarianism, and fear—is not the one we live in today. The sexual revolution and the general social revolution seem to have parted ways in a way that Reich didn’t believe possible, and that we are still seeking to comprehend. Moreover, our sex taboos have changed, as has the role of the father. We are still in need of a revised “sexual economy” that would take into account a detailed sociological understanding of contemporary class structure, contradictions, and family forms.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the social reality principle makes it very difficult to rebel. There is a rational aspect to fear that Reich seemed to have difficulty recognizing. Collective action in the situation of vulnerability that is characteristic of the life of the dominated is extremely difficult, and, if unsuccessful, can have grave consequences for those with the least cushion against loss. An investigation into the depredations that power visits upon the internal lives of the powerless must resolutely refuse to draw its attention away from where the predominant responsibility for keeping things as they are lies.
But consider the preponderance of fear, sometimes quite out of proportion to the situation in question, that every organizer knows must be first lessened in order to move ahead. Consider how mystical, conspiratorial, and moralistic thinking often drown out rational analysis of the social structure and the strategies needed for changing it. Consider the terror and misery of so much sex and love. There are no slick apps to assuage sexual misery, no walls keeping out the lurking predator we see everywhere but within our employment relations. And now a New Right is rising by flying the same banners of family, religion, and nation while the rest of us watch the planet go to pot.
Reich’s virtuous circle was motivated by his desire for a theoretical and practical unity of psychoanalysis and Marxism. Analysts working in free clinics and sex-positive advice centers would develop their theories through contact with populations sorely in need of their services, who wouldn’t otherwise walk into their rarified offices. This therapy would also put them into the position of being depth sociologists of the family. Then, through sex-political organizations devoted to the politicization of needs, their research would be put to the task of the prophylaxis of the neuroses and tied directly to political theory and the practical formulation of demands and initiatives around the everyday needs of the masses. These organizations would offer techniques for specific steps in combating the fears that often lie just beneath the surface of competitive or apathetic behaviors that block concrete challenges to the status quo. Analytic Social Psychology is here conceived, in theoretical and practical terms, as part of its object—a changing society—rather than a knowledge from without. No other agenda offers this theoretical and practical interpenetration of psychoanalysis and Marxism. In the age of climate change, Reich’s optimism about the combined efforts of Marxism and Psychoanalysis are worth remembering—“in the end man’s natural forces will prevail in the unity of nature and culture.”
Jeremy Cohan is a PhD candidate in Sociology at New York University and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.