Wilhelm Reich: The Psychology of Fascism

(Last Updated On May 30, 2022)

A few weeks ago my friend Chris recommended Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. I didn’t know of the book but Reich’s name sounded familiar. I looked on my bookshelf and found Reich’s Character Analysis that I had inherited from another friend who had passed. I had not read the book yet, but once I started, I became fascinated by his work. Reich’s psychology challenges the trends in culture which deny the wholeness of the person; mind, heart and body. Friedrich Nietzsche recognized the modern asceticism when he wrote, “To the despisers of the body will I speak my word. I wish them neither to learn afresh, nor teach anew, but only to bid farewell to their own bodies,—and thus be dumb.”

Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) was an Austrian-born student of Sigmund Freud’s. He was one of the most radical and controversial figures in the history of psychiatry. He coined the term “sexual revolution” and it seems his writings were at the height of popularity during the 1960s. Reich used Freud’s framework for the development of his theories. However, Reich did not accept Freud’s assumption that a child’s impulses were primarily anti-social which were in need of repression in order to maintain social stability. Reich came to the conclusion from his treatment of his patients that the mechanized organization of civilization was the main cause of the psychic disturbance in modern society.


Burning The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Reich worked in Germany in the early 1930s as the Nazis came to power. Although Reich was active in socialist organizations in Germany, he thought Marxist analysis was not adequate to account for the rise of Fascism. I believe Reich’s understanding of fascism is his most important contribution. Fascism should not be regarded as a political party which had formed authoritarian states in Germany and Italy, rather fascism is the manifestation of the irrational attitude of the suppressed individual in machine civilization. What is of great interest, is the cause of the neurotic fascist character. Reich was certain that the sexual repression of the child destroyed the individual’s ability to resist authoritarianism. Reich wrote:

When the patriarchal organization of society began to replace the matriarchal organization, suppression and repression of genital sexuality in children and adolescents were the principal mechanisms used to adapt the human structure of the authoritarian order. The suppression of nature, of “the animal” in the child, was and has remained the principal tool in the production of mechanical subjects. Society’s socio-economic development has continued its mechanical course until today in an independent way. The basis of all ideological and cultural formations developed and branched out hand in hand with the socio-economic development: “Away from geniality” and “away from the animal.”

I felt the need to bring attention to Reich’s work to the Pigtails community, without being aware of it, Pigtails has challenged the collective superego of fascism. The psychodynamic mechanism of repression caused the Nazis to project their self-hatred onto the Jews. The projections of the contemporary corporate culture are more directly related to the source of its repression, since the neurotic culture projects its hatred onto the new shadow monster: the pedophile.

Reich’s view of sexuality was not the only radical position he held. He also thought that cancer was caused by the neurotic repression of libido energy he called “orgone”. In 1940 he began to build “orgone accumulators,” for his patients to sit in which he claimed were “definitely able to destroy cancerous growth.” The FDA did not agree, Reich was accused by the government of being a medical fraud. His orgone accumulators were seized and destroyed and six tons of his books, journals and papers were burned. Reich died in a prison cell in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania in 1957. In his will, he established the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust to safeguard his legacy and ensure access to his work.

William Steig – illustration for Listen, Little Man! (page 80) 1948

William Steig – illustration for Listen, Little Man! (page 60) 1948

Before I was able to find a copy of the The Mass Psychology of Fascism, I checked out Listen, Little Man! from the library. Reich wrote the text in the summer of 1946 to express his grief over the state of the “little man” but had no intention to publish it. However, his supporters recognized the value of Listen, Little Man! for the understanding of Reich’s philosophy. Below is a passage from the book, such frankness today is regarded as simply politically incorrect:

Little woman, if without any particular vocation you drifted into teaching merely because you had no children of your own, you’re doing unconscionable harm. You’re supposed to be bringing up children. The rearing of children, if taken seriously, implies the correct handling of their sexuality. In order to handle a child’s sexuality correctly, one must know from one’s own experience what love is. But you’re built like a tub, you’re awkward and physically repulsive. That alone is enough to give you a bitter, deep-seated hatred for every attractive, living body. Naturally I don’t blame you for being built like a tub, or for never having experienced love (no healthy man could have loved you), or for failing to understand love in children. But I do blame you for making a virtue of your affliction, of your wrecked, tublike body, of your lack of beauty and grace and your incapacity for love, and for stifling love in children. That, you ugly little woman, is a crime. Your existence is harmful because you turn healthy children against their healthy fathers, because you treat healthy childlike love as a symptom of a disease, because, ugly little woman, not content with looking like a tub, you think and teach like a tub; because instead of withdrawing modestly into a quiet corner of life, you do your best to imprint all life with your ugliness, your tub-like ungainliness, your hypocrisy, and with the bitter hatred that you hide behind your phony smile.

I’d love to read the above passage in a feminist studies program but if I dared to, I would certainty need to wear full riot gear! Reich’s idea of education seems to reflect the view of Plato and Rousseau, they thought that education should flow through the sense, the limbs and muscles, and not primarily through the faculty of abstraction. As Sir Herbert Read put it,”education must be through arts, through gymnastics, through creative play of all kinds; it must be under the patronage of Dionysus rather than Apollo.”

Reich recognized that children should be allowed to express their innocent sexuality, otherwise the repression would likely be distructive to their ego. Today, the alienation from human nature has progressed to the point that a 9-year-old boy may face sexual harassment charges for passing a love note in class. I believe Reich hit on the neurosis of many postmodern feminists, since many of the troubled souls have never experienced genuine romantic love, they take vengeance in political and aesthetic forms of sadism. The little women ban Valentine’s Day in school but claim it was done in respect to political correctness. They remove a painting of nymphs from a museum and claim it was done to “prompt conversation”. Estranged from their biological core, the little women certainly hate pigtails.

Wilhelm Reich – Children

I wish Reich had not used the term “sex” so much in his writing since it led to a vulgar misunderstanding of his intentions. I believe Reich was endorsing an environment for children to nurture a love of life in which sexuality would be included since it is a part of life. Reich did some painting as a hobby, his picture Children reflects a reverence for life.

I was writing an article on the artist Mary Cassatt when my friend recommended Reich’s book to me. The cold academic indifference to Cassatt’s warm paintings of mothers and children prompted me to apply Alice Miller’s insights in child rearing and alienation. Miller was a Swiss psychologist who had a profound understanding of the “soul murder” of the child in the authoritarian state, her account of the psychology of fascism parallels the work of Reich. My article “Mary Cassatt: Nurturing the Soul” can be found here.

Although I appreciate Susan for bringing this philosopher-psychologist to the readers’ attention, I feel it important to inform readers that Pigtails in Paint does not espouse the ideas of Reich in full.  Reich, like many of us at Pigtails, trusted his instincts that there is something neurotic about society and that one of the keys to that is the bizarre way we indoctrinate children regarding their sexuality.  The flaw in Reich’s pedagogy, apart from his lack of tact and oversimplification, is how strongly he adhered to Freudian theory.  Freud is a problematic character; on the one hand, he was a kind of genius, but in his rational explanation of his ideas, he comes off as a kind of crackpot.  He did not realize, as Carl Jung did, that the subconscious mind does not conform to rational explanation.  What we should be advocating is a balance between our animal spirits and our reasoning mind.  The two should work in accord to mitigate the pressures that lead to neurosis and psychosis, both individually and in civilized society as a whole.  Healthy men and women both need a way to express their humanity that is not dependent on their presumed reproductive imperatives.  -Ron

8 thoughts on “Wilhelm Reich: The Psychology of Fascism

  1. As for that “tub” diatribe:
    Political correctness aside, there still WOULD be something morally wrong in directing such contempt against a woman because of her lack of physical beauty.

    • I suppose many are not familiar with Reich’s Listen, Little Man.
      The passage with the “tub” reference reflects the whole tone of the book. Most of the book is actually critical of men, very few passages refer to women. Reich was disturbed by the level of ignorance he found in society. He wrote the book in the heat of irritation, it was really never intended to be published,
      For example here’s another passage from the book:

      “It’s all the fault of the Jews,” you say
      “What’s a Jew?” I ask.
      “People with Jewish blood,” you say.
      “How do you distinguish Jewish blood from other blood?”
      The question baffles you. You hesitate
      Then you say, “I mean the Jewish race.” “What’s race?” I ask.
      “Race? That’s obvious. Just as there’s a Germanic race, there’s a Jewish race.”
      “What are the characteristics of the Jewish race?”
      “A Jew has black hair, a long nose, and sharp eyes.
      The Jews are greedy and capitalistic.”
      Can you distinguish between them?” “No not really…”
      That’s the kind of rubbish you talk little man
      and with such rubbish you set up arm gangs and kill six million people for being Jews, though you can’t even tell me what a Jew is.That’s why you’re laughed at, why anybody would anything serious to do steers clear of you. That’s why you’re up to your neck in muck. It makes you feel superior to call someone a Jew. It makes you feel superior because you feel inferior. You feel inferior because you yourself are exactly what you want to kill off in the people you called Jews. That’s a sampling of the truth about you, little man.”

      At the end of this passage Reich is describing the psychodynamic mechanisms of splitting off in projection. This quote, as is the other quote with the “tub” reference are really depth psychology.
      Erich Fromm described the same character structure of the embittered teacher in his Revolution of Hope:

      “Another outcome of the shattering hope is the hardening of the heart. We seen many people from juvenile delinquents to hard-boiled but effective adults who who at one point in their lives, maybe at five, maybe at twelve, maybe at twenty, cannot stand to be hurt any more. Some of them, as in a sudden vision or conversion, decide that they have had enough; they will will not feel anything anymore; that nobody will ever be able to hurt them, but they will be able to hurt others. They may complain about their bad luck and not finding any friends or anyone who loves them but it was not their bad luck it is their fate. Having lost compassion and empathy they do not touch anybody nor can they be touched. Their triumph in life is not to need anybody. They take pride in their untouchability and pleasure in being able to hurt. Whether this is done in criminal or legitimate ways depends much more in social factors then on psychological ones.”

    • It’s quite politically correct, as Marx himself did sometimes express his contempt for “ugly women”. 🙂

      “Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included.”
      -Karl Marx

  2. Little doubt that Reich had a depth of insight on this matter.

    Rereading the excellent post by Susan I would first like to respond to Ron and his observation about Reich, that he accepted Freud’s theory about how sexuality is predominantly innate in children, and that then adults exhibit their indoctrination about their bodies in proportion to how they first became aware of genital differences of male and female and all that follows in close relation to what they were taught and how they were told.

    To quote Ron, to wit:

    “…Freud is a problematic character; on the one hand, he was a kind of genius, but in his rational explanation of his ideas, he comes off as a kind of crackpot….”

    Ron seems to be saying that a major flaw in imbibing Reich’s views on suppressed sexuality in children, and his extrapolations about how this instills the latent desire for an authoritarian form of government is due to his accepting Freud’s views at face value; and that Reich therefore partook of the same pattern of appearing to be a crackpot because he also spoke in rational and sometimes quite clinical language about things that were irrational, unconscious, and observably abnormal, plainly perverse, and even quite insane.

    I would first point out that Freud’s views of the Oedipus complex in male children, as mirrored in the Electra complex in girls, is not taken as a crackpot idea; but has been verified in clinical trials and research in proving that boys have their first sexual desires awakened by the mother, and that girls also follow this pattern with their fathers. This is really quite beyond dispute.

    That Freud went farther in then theorizing that true sexual differentiation came about when the children, in going through adolescence; became aware that the true object of their desire were to be members of the opposite sex that were not their mothers and fathers but those who perhaps reminded them of their first love; whether a maternal figure or a paternal one.

    Freud wrote about this in fairly clear and precise terms, and; although facing a truly horrific round of persecution and ostracism from his peers; was finally seen to have uncovered something quite real in human sexuality as expressed in the term “Oedipus Complex” and it’s other permutation in girls.

    What Reich actually did was to take the ideas Freud laid out and then continue what Freud had started by taking these germinal touchstones of child behavior to their logical conclusions…

    This got him in very deep waters indeed.

    I therefore have to politely disagree with Ron in at least two particulars; first in his statement of the “animal spirits” and their mitigation by our “reasoning mind”; and second in the inherent dismissal of those like Susan, who talk of irrationality as manifest in the mass psychosis that is plainly evident in our amoral culture and industrialized post-patriarchal world, which was plainly laid to rest with the irrational adoption of a coming nuclear apocalypse as an historic inevitability. This hideous fact of modern life began the mental breakdown and depression that was manifest in millions of people.

    The youth of the nations became heroically nihilistic; which is a completely psychotic resignation to fatalism by betraying the life principle; but which was in reality brought about by the Bomb and then the other shoe dropping as seen in the Pill, which liberated women from automatic motherhood heretofore coexistent with an active sex life, and allowed them to be as sexually predatory as their now equal partners in the male population in all their societally sanctioned roles in male conquest, male seduction, male promiscuity, and all the rest of the condoned and perverse masculine behaviors, once solely claimed by the men’s prerogatives in the sexually partitioned world of supposedly inherent and societally sanctioned acceptance as the price being paid for eternal Male Dominance.

    In a stroke, our biology was now no longer our destiny … rather every individual could now make their own personality as passive or aggressive as they wanted; passivity having been the feminine lot in bodily identity, and aggression the male one, as the two archetypically defining characteristics in the sexual roles…

    That was now over…but now we were faced with universal annihilation and the prospect of total global extinction…alive to yet live to only await death…Outwardly Living yet Inwardly Dying…the dichotomy of our being defined as now existing on the eve of destruction as our daily bread of a coming guaranteed non-existence….

    Reich understood more of this juxtaposed and paradoxical arrangement than many ever even imagined….because we are now living in a Post-Rational and Ex-Life Affirming World.

    What do I offer as the antidote ???

    Let me answer that question and end this comment before I address Susan’s post: this is from the book Love’s Body, with a quote from author Norman O. Brown, to wit:

    “…Psychoanalysis began as a further advance of civilized (scientific) objectivity; to expose remnants of primitive participation, to eliminate them, studying the world of dreams, of primitive magic, of madness, but not participating in dreams or magic, or madness.

    But the outcome of psychoanalysis is the discovery that magic and madness are everywhere, and dreams is what we are made of.”

    • Dear Christopher,
      First, I wish to thank you for your considered and detailed comment.
      It was not my intention to open a can of worms by adding the addendum to Susan’s post. As editor-in-chief, it is my responsibility to set the tone and agenda of Pigtails in Paint. Because this post featured the contribution of one particular philosopher/analyst, I felt readers would interpret that as an endorsement of Reich’s views in full and that we were somehow using that to elucidate and legitimate Pigtails’ own position. I wanted readers to be clear that this article is simply an offering to provoke debate on one aspect of child sexuality. Also, I should have made more clear that neither we nor Reich were advocating a wholesale and unrestricted expression of sexuality in children and their possible interactions with adults.
      On the one hand, I may have failed to communicate clearly; but on the other, I cannot help but wonder why you felt it necessary to refute so specifically something that was not the main body of the article. I was not expressing an opinion or argument per se but a position. I admit that I have not read the complete works of Freud and am only interpreting Reich from what I have read in this article, which is exactly what most readers would be doing. I had to infer from the tone of Reich’s rhetoric what his point was. That inference included the assumption that, except where he explicitly disagreed with Freud, he would have used Freud’s model to fill in the rest of his big picture.
      That being said, I don’t think we really disagree as much as it seems; I urge readers to take care to grasp the full sense of what a writer might be trying to express. I thank you for expanding on ideas about the particular anxieties informed human beings must now deal with and how new innovations have impacted traditional gender roles. But I would also caution you on accepting at face value biased interpretations of so-called objective clinical trials! -Ron

  3. I enjoyed this article from my perspective as an psychoanalytically based therapist who has had experience with neo-Reichian bodywork. There are many somatically based schools of therapy, most of which trace their roots back to Reich whose main contribution was to the field was to instruct us to anchor the mind in the body and the cultural surround. Most of his ideas were crackpot notions (orgone machines?… cloudbusters?) and his ideas about sexual freedom for children and adolescents sure scared hell out of cultural gatekeepers in Europe and America.

    Ron, I have to ask you to rethink your idea that Freud did not appreciate that the unconscious cannot be grasped by the rational intellect. If the mind could not find a framework outside the unconscious with which to survey it, neither Jung nor Freud would have ever found the language to describe it. In fact the unconscious can be decoded, untangled and understood to “make sense.” Otherwise a lot of therapy would go nowhere.

    Reich’s genius was to see that it manifests in the body as well as the mind.

    • Dear Lee,
      Thank you for sharing your perspective from a psychoanalytical point of view and I am pleased to see that there are therapists taking seriously the issue of a mind-within-a-body (neo-Reichian?) approach to the holistic wellness of the patient/subject. I know Freud was no slouch and it would be wrong for me to have implied that he did not grasp the problem of communicating the vagaries of the subconscious. I guess what I was saying is that he was not altogether effective at communicating that to the layman but, not to worry, that work was and will be done by his successors. The effectiveness of psychotherapy is not in question here, only a coherent explanation of what is happening to the mind from a psychological perspective. Please see also my reply to Christopher for further clarification. -Ron

  4. The book-burning is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
    Even in that decade, were they legally able to seize those books and burn them?

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