Monday, December 26, 2011

Wilhelm Reich's Marxism

Marxism and Psychoanalysis - Notes on Wilhelm Reich's Life and Works


For a long period in his life Wilhelm Reich considered himself a Marxist. He applied the scientific method of Marxism to his research into Psychoanalysis and this led him to break with many of the theories of Freud. At one stage he came close to Trotsky, but then drifted away. Under intense persecution he eventually broke with Marxism and even revised some of his earlier brilliant insights. Alessandro D'Aloia looks at the rise and fall of Reich.

This article was first published in Italian on the web site of the journal FalceMartello. The original Italian version can be found at Marxismo e psicoanalisi (la figura di Wilhelm Reich).

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a Marxist, a psychologist and a scientist. His written works are invaluable resources in understanding the relationships existing between Marxism and psychoanalysis without requiring the special approach or knowledge of a student of psychology. His personal tragedies illustrate how a wide range of otherwise abstract issues can manifest and interconnect with one’s life.

His Education

Neither Reich’s historical role nor his works are recognized by most psychoanalysts, be they students, professionals or simple amateurs. This state of affairs enabled renowned intellectuals, such as those from the “Frankfurt School”, to easily pillage from his works (especially those from his most manifestly Marxist period) without ever giving a nod of acknowledgement to Reich and, moreover, without anyone ever realizing that fact.

As a result, today most people who have an interest in psychology learn little more than Freud’s classics. This leads to a lack of any knowledge of a number of major contributions made to psychology, such as Reich’s, which are essential reading in order to fully understand psychoanalysis, its current contradictions, and its current class standpoint. Were these contributions more widely known, the so-called “reformed” Freudian postulates would be completely undermined and their reactionary implications would be exposed.

Reich’s most well-known work is “The Sexual Revolution”, published in Vienna in 1930. His scientific products have a much broader scope than Freud’s, including important works such as: “The Function of Orgasm”, “The Irruption of Coercive Sexual Morale”, “The Individual and the State”, “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis”, and “Mass Psychology of Fascism”. Reich was an active member of the International Psychoanalytic Society (IPS), which had been founded by Freud. At the time of his first publishing (of “The Function of Orgasm”) he was widely acknowledged as the most gifted of all Freud’s disciples. But even within that very work were, in essence, all of those elements of thought which were to clash with Freud during his “second period”.

Reich agreed with Freud that sexual development was the fundamental origin of mental disorder. Together, they advocated the following positions: that most psychological activity was ruled by subconscious processes; that children quickly develop an active sexuality; that children’s sexual energy is the cause of most psychological developments; that infant sexuality is subsequently repressed and that this has major consequences for mental health; that morality does not derive from any supernatural being or set of rules, but that it is the product of imposed repressions against the sexuality of individuals as they progress in age from a child, to a teenager and finally to an adult.

Reich went on, seeking to develop these ideas and to cohere them with concrete findings. He explored and exposed the relationships between sexual life and bourgeois morality, then proceeded to address in the same fashion the connection between bourgeois morality itself and the social and economic structures that produced and influenced it. Reich wrote that bourgeois sexual repression and its subconscious influences were the main causes of neuroses. He advanced the idea that a sexual life that was free from feelings of guilt would be the best therapy to treat those neuroses. He concluded by stating that such a liberation from shame and repression could only be realized through a non-authoritarian morality, which in turn would only come from an economic system that had been able to overcome and abolish repression.

However, Freud was soon to alter the content of his thoughts, and in the process he would break with those ideas that Reich agreed with Freud upon and had taken as his starting point. In 1926, in the work, “The Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiousness”, Freud claimed that, “...[it is] anxiousness that produces repression and not, as I believed in the past, that repression produces anxiousness...” This was a turn of 180 degrees. Freud’s new theory claimed that anxiousness (sexual anxiety) was something endogenous, from within the individual psyche. Thus, Freud no longer considered it to be the by-product of external, social conditions. All external, objective, environmental factors were simply dropped from Freud’s analyses.

Freud’s new body of ideas became a vehicle for all those theories that maintain that all human “faults” are inherent within the physical being of men and women (for example, the idea that there is a gene that causes criminality). This is in stark contradiction to the materialist conception, which holds that it is mankind’s social conditions of existence that shape general and individual consciousness – not vice versa. From the moment that Freud rejected materialist philosophy, his theories were destined to become nothing more than an acceptance of society as it is, thus ruling out the possibility of creating real solutions to the medical problems he was seeking to address.

These changes in Freud’s position occurred at a very significant time – the final years of the 1920’s. At that time the general mood was that, with the seemingly unstoppable rise of Nazism, the fascists would surely disband the IPS if the body did not revise its theoretical foundations. As it turned out, threats of repression led to Nazism having an influence on the thinking of many bourgeois scientists, even those who were beyond any suspicion of having Nazi sympathies themselves. Freud was just one of many bourgeois scientists affected in this way.

His Work

Whilst Freud was practicing self-censorship, in 1928 Reich dared to join the Austrian