The Enigmatic Radicalism of Wilhelm Reich

Despite an enduring fascination with the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), there has yet to be published a satisfactory intellectual history of Reich’s wide-ranging ideas. In particular, scholars have failed to recognize the roots of his concepts in early 19th century Romanticism. I refer here primarily to German Naturphilosophie, which strongly appealed to those temperamentally opposed to Newton’s mechanistic-mathematical laws of physics. Having grown up on a large farm in rural Galicia, Reich no doubt found the Romantic attitude toward contact with Nature quite congenial.

For centuries, pastoral-agrarian sentiments about the land and its vitalistic forces had been central to Austro-German folk traditions. Rejecting Newton’s scientific discoveries, as well as the scientific method itself, Goethe had insisted that direct sensory perception (purged of preconceived abstractions), might reveal — to the sensitive, discerning observer — the hidden secrets of Nature. (In England, Wordsworth’s nostalgia for lost childhood perceptual innocence found its counterpart in William Blake’s exhortation to “cleanse the doors of perception” — so as to regain such innocence). But Reich was creatively inspired not only by Goethe’s Romantic attitude, but also by the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s insistence that immediacy of perception and intuition could discover natural processes otherwise inaccessible to scientific procedures. (Most conspicuously: a hypothetical “life-force” or elan vital, which Reich was to refashion as “orgone energy.”)

Reich was never much interested in scientific instrumentation (or for that matter, in the scientific method of controlled experimentation). But when he did make microscopic observations, he insisted that he had directly perceived what he called “bions”–moving, living particles which had emerged from inorganic matter (in reality, no doubt Brownian movement). Seeking to fuse Bergson’s vitalism with Freud’s hypotheses about libido, Reich insisted that this was an actual energy (which he first claimed was “bio-electricity” but eventually dubbed cosmic “orgone”). Reich himself would continue along this path into his later years, insisting that–unlike “armored” individuals–he could directly perceive this energy in the atmosphere (as well as in his crude apparatus, the “orgone box”).

As was typical of his approach, Reich early on had revived another discarded theory: the young Freud’s insistence that sexual repression was the primary cause of neurotic disorders. (Freud was soon to shift his focus to early family conflict and trauma.)  But Reich extended Freud’s idea much further: only total orgasm completely discharged “dammed-up” bio-energy, thereby preventing the neurotic anxieties which otherwise would cripple the ego’s confident adaptations to the outer world. While this became an idee-fixe in his thinking, Reich’s insistence on the primal importance of sexual satisfaction certainly seems intuitively true, at least (or especially) to the young. (Given his medical training in the 1920s, Reich was unaware of what we know today about sexual endocrinology.)

If neurotic disturbances stemmed primarily from sexual frustration, a “sex-affirmative” culture would provide the foundation for healthy emotional development. As a Marxist, Reich drew upon Friedrich Engels’ speculations about “primitive” promiscuity and communal “marriage” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884) — as well as upon pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s description of minimal sex-norms among the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia.  As I have written in my book Riddles of Eros (University Press of America, 1994), Reich’s bucolic vision of free love in “primitive” cultures was over-simplistic (see especially Chapter 4: “The Myth of the Insatiable Woman”).

Reich’s lifelong adherence to his Romantic naturalism was such that he continued to extol instinctual spontaneity — especially in sexual relations — as the basis for healthy human relations (ideally in loosely formed, egalitarian communities with minimal norms — a kind of “anarcho-primitivism”).  Herein is the main defect of his Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933): Reich over-emphasized the authoritarian family (and its sex-negative punishments) and almost entirely ignored the historical context of 1933 Germany: humiliated collective-narcissism (military defeat and the Versailles treaty), rampant inflation, hatred of “international bankers” (the Depression), and so forth.

Paradoxically, although Reich was a pioneer in describing the defense-mechanisms of the ego (denial, repression, projection, etc.), he was by temperament powerfully attracted to a regressive id-psychology. While mainstream psychoanalytic theory would emphasize how the maturing child modifies his spontaneous impulses through ego-growth, Reich was emotionally drawn to a vision of complete spontaneity in human relations, to an ideal of total sincerity and completely transparent contact. This, in my view, reveals Reich’s latent paranoia — his chronic suspicion of human motivations and his consequent desire to “break down” the supposed character-armor which defensively blocked such contact. (As a therapist, he could often be cruel, directly confronting “resistance” to emotional honesty in a manner that could degenerate into belligerent interrogation.) (In the context of historical parallels, one can find remarkable similarities in the tormented personality of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

Reich offered what amounts to a fantasized return to childhood (with the addition of free, adult sexuality). The instinctual core of the human being, if freely and spontaneously expressed, would be “naturally self-regulating.”  Drastically modifying Freud’s tripartite model of the psyche, Reich envisaged the ego developing within “primitive communism”  in a virtually conflict-free manner — without the internalization of a repressive, authoritarian superego.

Reich can be credited as an innovative thinker on pathological character structures — on the rigidly defensive maladaptations of what are now called “personality disorders” (narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, etc.). Still, in his Romantic quest, he tended to view the mature character (ego structure) of an adult as in itself primarily defensive (pathological) rather than rationally adaptive (to the limited degree, of course, possible under dehumanizing social conditions). Thus, in his enduring adherence to Romantic naturalism, his thinking became terribly flawed; the lifespan, a one-way path only traveled once, requires mature, rational coping and critical thinking to confront socio-political institutions and constraints.  A regression — to the child’s world of basic impulses and spontaneity — is no solution.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.