Wilhelm Reich's Challenge to Classical Marxism

by Dr. Jan Garrett

last revised date: April 27, 2012

Having presented replies, sympathetic to Marx, to more than a dozen challenges, 1 I want now to consider a different type of challenge, one that addresses what appears to be gaps in previous Marxist thinking about the future.

The meaningfulness of Marx's view as a whole depends upon the possibility that working people can at some time in the future democratically and collectively manage or administer the economy.

Conservatives insist that this is impossible. One very common version of this view, defended by conservative Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century C.E. (A.D., if you like), is that human beings are inherently sinful and have been so ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and were appropriately expelled from the Garden. Somehow, as a result of Adam's and Eve's sin, human nature became corrupted, and all of their descendents—that is, all subsequent human beings—have received at birth an inability to avoid sinning. Self-centered vices like greed and lack of concern or respect for one's fellow human being are traced to this sort of original sin. Given original sin, it is claimed, human beings are unable consistently to cooperate and treat each other as equals. The political consequence of this view, already drawn by Augustine of Hippo, is that people must be ruled by an authoritarian state, i.e., a state of the political strict father type; they cannot rule themselves. With respect to the modern economy it means that most people cannot run the economy. Doing this must be left to the elect, who turn out to be those who own and control large amounts of capital, not members of the working class or, for that matter, members of a middle class who may have their retirement savings in funds partly invested in corporate stocks.

In case one wonders how those who own and control capital can be exempt from the general sinfulness of humankind, the conservative opponents of Marxism draw on Adam Smith: it is not generosity but the pursuit of self-interest that motivates the owners of business to engage in activities that, thanks to the invisible hand of the competitive marketplace, turn out to benefit everyone who participates in markets. (This is not the place to reply to that argument by demonstrating, as could easily be done and has been done elsewhere, that today's markets are not even close to the ideal situation imagined by Smith.)

Apparent indirect support for the conservative challenge comes from the discovery that many people are so handicapped psychologically that they cannot even manage well--that is to say, rationally--the most urgent aspects of their so-called private lives, and that this generalization applies to vast numbers of people from the working class as well as other social classes.

We do not have to explain this handicap in terms of original sin. There is another explanation: to understand it, we must turn to other inquirers into what makes people tick. Sigmund Freud's study of the mental disorders that were called neuroses suggested that large numbers of people were handicapped from living a fulfilling and rationally self-regulating life because of childhood experiences relating to their sexuality. Freud's focus on the importance of a healthy sexuality put him at odds at first with conservative forms of religion.

Work done by Wilhelm Reich, at one time a disciple of Freud, and his colleagues in the free sex clinics in central Europe during the early 1930's yielded results relevant to the Marxist aim of promoting human liberation by establishing a new form of economy administered by the working people themselves. (Reich himself was sympathetic to this aim.)

Reich's "character analysis" developed skills based on, but modified from, those practiced by Freudian psychoanalysis. Using it he tried to understand the problems of large numbers of people in Germany.

Reich discovered that:

1) as Freud suspected, before he was pressured by his own followers to state his views more conservatively, not only the misery of most people but also their lack of confidence in self-governing activity, is rooted in sexual repression imposed in intimate settings (families, classrooms, etc.) early in life and very rarely overcome.

2) This problem is a general one, affecting all social classes, although traditional elites compensate for lack of confidence by adopting the ideology of group superiority, such as class, male-gender, religious, national, ethnic superiority.

3) The social structure that first imposed sexual repression arose historically along with patriarchy and the subordination of women—about 4000-6000 years ago; it is far older than the capital system whose laws of motion Marx investigated. It operates especially, but not exclusively, through conservative religious institutions, and it often has state support. When the capital system replaced the feudal system in the early modern period (1500-1800 in Western Europe), it left patriarchy and sexual repression largely intact.2

4) Human motivation arises out of experiences grounded in the human body and its character structure acquired early in life. Often this is distorted by sexual repression beginning in the first years of life. Toddlers are spontaneously interested in love, work, and knowledge. If their love interests, which already have a sexual component, are not thwarted, they can develop at a fairly rapid pace as responsible knowers of the world and in their ability to interact creatively and productively with the material world, i.e., as workers.

5) But, as a matter of fact, their love interests are typically thwarted; they are taught early on that more than minimal touching of the sex organs is sinful and harmful to the person, and the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is bad (even if it harms nobody else). As a result, when young people reach puberty and begin to have adult sexual desires, they cooperate with their sex-negative culture to repress that part of themselves; they feel it as alien to themselves, and if they indulge in, say, self-gratification, an internal voice echoing conservative religion and nosy neighbors tells them they are succumbing to Satan's lures. The anxiety that they feel at this point undercuts and distorts their sexuality; yet the desires refuse to be silent. A war within the psyche is set up, and when this has happened no amount of "civilized" habit-formation can create inner peace without a general exhaustion of the life force. Faced by internal division, most human beings lack the confidence and the focus to function as fully responsible persons.

6) During the 1930's fascists on the right, and political allies of the emergent Soviet bureaucracy led by Stalin on the supposed left, took advantage of this structure in the human character in their countries to establish authoritarian movements. This enabled the fascists to seize power in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and the Stalinist "communists" in the Soviet Union to strangle the democratic impulse that arose in the Revolution of 1917.

Implicit in Reich's thinking is this: Marx's vision of a free, democratic, social order based on mutual respect and cooperation will be possible only if the friends of this vision succeed in overcoming the patterns of sexual repression that have been with us since the original imposition of patriarchy, social hierarchy, and "compulsory sex-morality" (to use Reich's phrase) some 4000-6000 years ago. This is possible only if we are able to foster a less repressive (and more sex-affirmative) way of relating to ourselves and to each other, beginning with the very young.3


1. See my Challenges to Marx.

2. Marx's close friend Friedrich Engels, using the historical materialist method he shared with Marx, published an important study of the rise of patriarchy and subordination of women in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. However, Engels did not fully understand, as Reich did later, how the sex-negative attitudes and social rules that accompanied this development produced psychological consequences unhealthy, and working against rational self-assertion, for members of all social classes and both genders.

3. For more on Wilhelm Reich, and a bibliography of works by and about his views and activities, see Taboo Science: The Story of Wilhelm Reich.