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International Socialism, January 1973


Tirril Harris

WR: World Revolution or Wishful Revisionism?


From International Socialism, No.54, January 1973, pp.8-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Is sexual repression necessary for the maintenance of capitalism? Is sexual liberation crucial for the realisation of socialism? The man who put these questions on the map, and answered ‘yes’ to both, has become a prophet of the age [1], Wilhelm Reich, or WR to initiates. As with many prophets, the persecutions suffered during his life have only enhanced the posthumous appeal of his revelations.

1. The Man

A young psychoanalyst very close to Sigmund Freud in the 1920s, Reich joined the Communist party in 1927. In the next five years he produced theoretical work in which he tried to invigorate psychoanalysis with a Marxist historical perspective, and to broaden Marxism with detailed insights from individual psychology. Simultaneously he tried to put these ideas into practice in political activity in a movement called Sexpol. This worked mainly among working class youth with the dual purpose of providing sex education and clinics, and political education. Discussions on the class-nature of society followed naturally from discussions on the social and financial restrictions on sexual activity. By 1932 Reich was expelled from the German Communist Party, and his pamphlets withdrawn from circulation within the party. In 1934 he was expelled from the International Society for Psychoanalysis. By 1935 his pamphlets had also been banned by the Gestapo.

Driven from the Marxist and Freudian folds, he took up the study of sex from a more biological standpoint in Scandinavia. In 1939 he claimed to have discovered the specifically sexual force, orgone energy, but after emigrating to the United States, his research convinced him that this energy was not just in living creatures but was a ‘cosmic life-force’. He built orgone boxes to trap this energy in order to use it in the treatment not only of psychiatric ailments but also of cancer.

In 1956 the US Federal Food and Drug Administration claimed that this was a fraudulent device, and after disregarding their injunction against it, Reich was imprisoned. He died of a heart attack a year later (1957). During his period in the USA Reich undertook no politics except a public statement, during the McCarthy era, that he was proud to support Eisenhower not Stevenson, and that the Eastern bloc were ‘Red Fascists’. Much of his time was spent in rebutting a network of slanders about him which probably derived from the psychoanalytic movement. Today these persecutions contribute to the image of WR as a visionary reviled by philistines, but at the time all they could contribute to was his own bitterness. Listen Little Man (1948) is a tirade of abuse against almost all humankind, afflicted with an ‘emotional plague’ which he quite unselfconsciously relates to his own persecutions and failures. It is rare to find such a theoretically feeble and unpleasant piece of work – even as a source of spleenful quotes it is second-rate. After his death the Federal Administration ordered that all his books should be destroyed, a reaction curiously out of keeping with the size of his following at the time.

Were they right to fear him so much? Or, more importantly, does this mean that his message about sex and revolution is correct? To answer this we must examine first of all his contributions to the understanding of sex in individuals and in society; and second his views on class-consciousness and political struggle, and their relation to Marxism.

2. Psycho-Analysis

As a psychoanalyst, Reich was a radical. He was also an unusually sensitive therapist. Not only was he able to understand and describe aspects of his patients’ behaviour which other analysts often overlooked, things which psychologists wrote about in the 1960s as if no one had ever noticed them before like facial expressions, muscle tensions and gestures, but he was also self-aware; because he understood his own sensations he was able to teach his patients how to relax and become aware of similar sensations in themselves, with consequent benefit to them. While this side of his work is of marginal interest to all but the psychotherapist, it did mean that his radicalism could not be as easily dismissed by orthodox analysts as if he had not already made contributions that had been recommended by Freud himself. He was a radical because he did not believe, as many psychoanalysts did in the late 1920s, that human nature was innately aggressive. Aggression was for him only the result of frustration of the basic human drive, the libido or sex drive. Men were only sadistic because of the oppression of the present kind of society. Their innocent natural sexuality would emerge if society and the family were transformed and all restrictions removed. These were no more than the logical implications of Freud’s early work where the abolition of restraints on sexuality seemed to be required to reduce neurotic illness in society.

However, by the time Reich wrote, Freud had already renounced these implications. In Civilisation and its Discontents Freud argued that the repression of sexuality was essential for the preservation of culture. Without repression too much destructiveness would be released, and without the diversion, or sublimation, of sexual energy, there would be no simple affection between men, and no works of art. Freud had become pessimistic and conservative, opposed to any change in society which might release sexuality from its restrictions. Reich’s answer to Freud was that uninhibited sex enhanced artistic work:

‘The few bad poems which are occasionally created during abstinence are of no great interest’. [2]

Psychoanalytic theory today still maintains the same basic political position. The orthodox, led by Anna Freud, admit few qualifications, and the opposition, the Kleinians, see aggression as an even more fundamental primary instinct. The ranks of these conservatives are swelled by the colour supplement pundits who present the latest revived bourgeois fad: how apes and baboons keep others off their territory (cf. the ethologists Tinbergen, Lorenz, Ardrey, and Desmond Morris). If apes do it, men presumably have the same biological drive. Only the police can stop everyone killing each other to defend their patch of ground. Football matches are the controlled safety valve to prevent explosions. This argument does reach the average newspaper reader so that any challenge to psychoanalysis which answers it in the same terminology as Reich does – can be useful in the demystification of culture.

If sexual repression was essential for the maintenance of a peaceful and functioning community, Reich argued, no society could exist without it. Yet, the anthropologist, Malinowski, had portrayed a functioning society that seemed not to require sexual repression – that of the Trobriand islanders. In The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality, Reich examines Malinowski’s picture. Families were organised round the mother, not the father. Property and discipline were the responsibility of the mother’s brother, not her husband. As a result, the great European father figure was missing in such a system – the whole idea of an Oedipus complex needed changing. Indeed, the connection between birth and intercourse was not even publicly recognised. Reich guessed that Trobriand society was in transition to a father-dominated family system in which property would pass through the mother’s husband’s line. The drive of the change was the accumulation of property by the chief from popular tribute. This he would try to secure for his own descendants instead of allowing it all to pass to his wife’s family. By marrying his children to their cousins he ensured the return of his tribute which he had had to pay over to their uncle. Once this cross-cousin marriage became institutionalised the inheritance of property would give rise to the patriarchal family, and WR predicted a progressive degeneration of Trobriand emotional and social life as a result.

Though esoteric, this is one of Reich’s best works [3], but one least often cited. It is not only one of his most logically argued and factually supported books, but it has the merit for Marxists of talking about property and its impact on the family. In later works, especially in editions revised after 1935, his analysis of the family is not given the same detailed economic focus.

3. Marxism

Reich believed that his version of psychoanalysis was not only consistent with Marxism, but complemented it. In his pamphlet. Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis, he argues that psychoanalysis is materialist, in that the basic human drive, sexual libido, is material and not spiritual. It is also dialectical in that the development of human personality depends on a series of contradictions between instinct and reality, or the restrictions of the social environment. [4] Yet WR’s reconciliation of the two theories was not complete. A later commentator argues that:

‘Marx enumerates the three aspects or “moments” of human existence which determine the course of history as: the production of material means; the production of new needs; the reproduction of mankind. The first two relate to the life preservative needs or instincts and it is clear that they play the decisive role in history. The third, the sexual need or instinct, is given primary importance by Freud. Even eating and drinking are brought under the influence of the sexual instinct in the oral stage of infantile sexuality (the first two years of life – TH)’. [5]

The same emphasis dominated Reich’s thought. Other needs hardly figured at all. And what started in his early works as a matter of emphasis became, even while he still thought of himself as a Marxist, so fundamental to his approach that it can be counted ‘revisionist’.

This brings us to the other wing of his theoretical work: his claim that psychological factors were needed to supplement Marxist theory and that personality was important in political practice. In What is Class-Consciousness?, The Mass Psychology of Fascism and the last half of The Sexual Struggle of Youth he argues that sexual repression breeds a false-consciousness which underlies the need for authoritarian leadership. Conversely sexual liberation transforms the personality and so political consciousness.

This was not just a theoretical statement but also a tactical proposal. For young working class people were interested in sex and did come to Sexpol meetings in larger numbers than to ordinary political meetings. Even today one could expect the same result. But whether this would be useful as more than a short-term recruiting method depends on the validity of the theory. Lenin in an interview with Clara Zetkin ‘strongly criticized the debates and discussions on sexuality in the workers’ and youth groups, and said there were more important things to be done.’ [6] As Reich points out, Lenin thought it important that revolutionaries should have a fulfilling sexual life. So these remarks to Clara Zetkin imply, not that he was the Beethoven-shunning robot portrayed in the film The Mysteries of the Organism, but that he did not think sexuality of importance in developing political consciousness.

The first step in Reich’s argument he shares with Marxists. People do not necessarily see society according to their objective interests as Marxists define them – some workers may and do vote Tory. People’s minds are not determined mechanically by their economic position in society, by the relations of production. ‘Ideology’ is that fog of ideas that conceals from men their true interests.

Reich’s concern lay in why men accepted authority when it was clearly contrary to their interests. He identified a mystical ‘craving for authority’, which, he argued, arose – following the Freudian idea that we repress impulses we do not approve by driving them into our unconscious – from the repression of the sexual drive. Freud’s ‘unconscious’ and Marx’s ‘false consciousness’ seemed to belong in the same stable. But Reich is very far from seeing society in terms of class conflict and the relations of production and seeing men’s minds in this context Sometimes he does mention work and problems of status as also important – because government officials have lower wages but higher status than industrial workers, they may be more submissive towards authority. But his heart is clearly in explanations that derive from the family, not classes. He does not justify this choice. Of course, Freudians generally give greater weight to the formative influences of the family on people in the first six years of life (when neither school, church nor labour market have yet caught the child in their webs), rather than the family itself being shaped by external class forces.

Even then, Reich concentrates within the family on sexual repression rather than on any of the many other training procedures which might influence an attitude towards authority. Again it is not that he omits completely to mention-say-toilet training; he just does not allow it to deflect him from his obsession with parental punishment for masturbation and other sexual activity. It is the sad truth that the number of occasions on which children do other things which require parental reproof greatly exceeds the number on which they wish to masturbate. In any case punishment is probably less important in producing the anxiety Reich sees as underlying the submissive personality than a family atmosphere dominated by parental fears.

In discussing the failure of the Russian Revolution, Reich moves from distortion of emphasis to plain error. He argues that if the Soviet Union had only not reversed its early plans to change family organisation and liberate sexuality, the socialism of the October revolution would have been .preserved. Here consciousness is endowed with more power than economic relations! Even if one can accept that different family organisation could have mitigated the masses’ ‘craving for authority’, it would not have changed economic backwardness, the industrial losses arising from the Civil War, the numerical weakness of the working class, the agricultural crisis and the failure of the European revolution.

A similar problem arises over his insights into the ‘petty-bourgeois psyche’. The Mass Psychology of Fascism was one of the first works which attributed the success of fascism to the psychology of the lower middle classes. [7] But Reich did not devote much time or effort to supporting his thesis with historical examples. As the book progresses in fact his argument becomes more and more general: ‘Hitlerism was only the most highly developed form of a malady which had plagued mankind for centuries, namely mysticism.’ [8] The specific aspects of German fascism remain unexplained.

To sum up, he did pioneer the way for later research which has pointed out that there are limited connections between personality and ideology, and personality and child rearing patterns in the family. [9] These connections are not the main levers of social change but they may be useful to revolutionaries in political education.

4. Sex and Revolution

But even if it is agreed that issues other than straight economic exploitation are vital in revolutionary propaganda, this does not demonstrate that sex is among such issues. Reich tended to argue both that sexual repression was the fundamental brake upon the development of the revolution, and that it was one of the most irksome of the restrictions imposed upon the individual by capitalism and thus one of the most fruitful areas for practical propaganda. These two ideas are by no means necessarily related. Yet because he believed both Reich was spared the heart-searching assessment of how much time should be given to reformist demands. Since sexual repression was so crucial the demands of Sexpol were consistent with revolutionary fundamentalism and were neither a transitional programme nor a recruiting mechanism.

It has been claimed that the change in sexual customs in the last decade is a sign that Reich was wrong in maintaining that the bourgeoisie could not afford to relax any of the rigid codes surrounding premarital intercourse and life-long monogamy. The rise in illegitimate births, abortions and divorces is taken as a proof of the unimportance of sexual liberation in building a revolutionary movement. This argument against WR is too simple for the changes in sex habits are meagre compared with the restrictions which still remain in the world as a whole.

In any case the time lag means that such changes as there have been are only partly absorbed: the majority of adults were brought up before the mini-skirt. Reich’s reply would probably differ from this. Just before his death he bemoaned the loosening of American sex habits and warned against a ‘free-for-all fucking epidemic’. He would find no inconsistency between the lack of revolution and the current change in sexual attitude for he would count the second as a pornographic explosion rather than a liberation.

In distinguishing ‘true’ from ‘false’ liberation, Reich was hardly less authoritarian than his opponents. He lays down that removal of sexual repression will spell the end of dirty jokes; why socialism should banish the bawdy is not explained.

The logic probably was that Reich himself did not care for it and so felt it to be psychologically unhealthy; ergo it was caused by repression, and would disappear when sexuality was liberated. Even in his earliest Marxist writings his views on homosexuality were similarly inflexible; though patient in tone he is firm that it is a deviation. [10] He also lays down what sort of heterosexual sex is right – the ‘fully adequate orgasm’ in ‘natural’ monogamy (average duration of latter four years) Such sexual Zhdanovism is not peculiar to Reich. Traces of it can be found in Marcuse and his ‘repressive desublimation’. [11]

There too it is used to explain why changes in sexual habits have not produced political changes, the blossoming of socialism in some great pageant of love. But if the sexual motive is not regarded as the sole source of energy, it becomes possible to explain the level of working class militancy without accusing workers of indulging in the wrong kind of sex, or dogmatizing before the overthrow of capitalism on what will be the pleasures of post-capitalist man.

WR’s insights have helped many people, and his vision in its simplicity has a certain innocent beauty, especially for those who have found in eros the heart of a heartless world. But if the parliamentary road to socialism is revisionist, so is the road to Zabriskie Point.



1. cf. the spate of recent publications, including Listen Little Man, Souvenir Press, 1972; The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Souvenir Press, 1972; Reich Speaks of Freud, Souvenir Press. 1972; The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality, Souvenir Press, 1972; Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis, Socialist Reproduction, 1972; What is Class Consciousness?, Socialist Reproduction, 1972; The Sexual Struggle of Youth, Socialist Reproduction, 1972.

2. The Sexual Revolution, Noonday Press, New York, 1962, p.66. This is a slight oversimplification of Reich’s views on creative work for which he did feel some special sublimation was necessary.

3. His most ‘tightly argued’ work according to Paul Robinson in The Sexual Radicals, Paladin, 1972, p.40.

4. ‘Freud maintains that a neurotic symptom is created because the socially restrained ego at first resists and eventually represses an instinctual urge ... the repressed urge must break through the repression and reappear in disguised form. Thus according to Freud the symptom contains both the rejected urge and the rejection itself: the sympton allows for both diametrically opposed tendencies.’ Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis, p.33.

5. Robert Stiler, The New International, January 1947, p.26.

6. The Sexual Struggle of Youth, p.81.

7. Later ones were Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1942) and Theodor Adorno and others, The A uthoritqgian Personality (1950).

8. Paul Robinson, op. cit., pp.45-6.

9. While some of these are only good for laughs – cf. the powerful critique by Jim Higgins, reviews, IS 28 – there is a whole non-Freudian literature which contains some good work.

10. The Sexual Struggle of Youth, p.50.

11. Eros and Civilisation, Sphere, 1969, and One-Dimensional Man, Sphere, 1968. Anyone with enough sublimation could try Reimut Reiche, Sexuality and the Class Struggle, New Left Books, 1970.

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