“It is not the task of science to concoct systems and to chase after fantastic dreams of a ‘better future,’ but solely to comprehend development *as it really takes place,* to recognize its contradictions, and to help those forces that are progressive and revolutionary to achieve victory, to solve difficulties, and to make it possible for human society to become master of the conditions of its existence.”
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism
While on vacation last week I visited the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine. I first heard of Reich several decades ago. I knew that he had been active in the socialist/communist movement in Germany during the time that Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and I knew that he had written a book in the early 30’s, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which was reviewed favorably in the no longer published magazine, Liberation. I also remembered that he was a strong proponent of sexual liberation as an essential aspect of an overall freedom program.
Given the strength of the Christian right in the USA, as well as rightist Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world, I bought and read “Mass Psychology,” hoping that it would provide some insights into these dangerous political phenomena.
Over three decades before the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, Reich wrote in this book of “a patriarchal authoritarian civilization that goes back thousands of years. . . If one studies the history of sexual suppression and the etiology of sexual repression, one finds that. . . it was not until relatively late, with the establishment of an authoritarian patriarchy and the beginning of the division of the classes, that suppression of sexuality begins to make its appearance.”
Based upon his direct experiences organizing against National Socialism’s rise to power in Germany, as well as his work as a professional therapist who at one time worked closely with Sigmund Freud, Reich was convinced that the political Left was making a huge mistake by its refusal to support his and others’ efforts to integrate into the economic struggle the struggle against patriarchy and for informed, non-repressive, sexual education. Reich’s view was that the mass support for National Socialism, voted democratically into power in 1932, was certainly affected by Germany’s economic crisis, but it was also thoroughly wrapped up with the desire on the part of millions of emotionally and sexually stunted peasants, small-business people and workers for a strong, patriarchal “father figure,” which Hitler provided. These “mass-psychological” realities also provided fertile ground for the “master race,” genocidal racism of Nazism.
In Reich’s words, “When sexuality is prevented from attaining natural gratification, owing to the process of sexual repression, what happens is that it seeks various kinds of substitute gratifications. Thus, for instance, natural aggression is distorted into brutal sadism, which constitutes an essential part of the mass-psychological basis of those imperialistic wars that are instigated by a few. . . The sexual morality that inhibits the will to freedom, as well as those forces that comply with authoritarian interests, derive their energy from repressed sexuality. . . sexual inhibition changes the structure of economically suppressed man in such a way that he acts, feels and thinks contrary to his material interests.”
How does all of this relate to our situation today?
Clearly, there are many millions of U.S. Americans who have been socialized in the family and via conservative religious dogma to believe strongly in male domination and patriarchal authority. Many of these are working people whose “material interests” should lead them to support progressive politics but who instead are caught up in backwards views on questions of gay and lesbian equality, abortion rights, racial justice and other social and cultural issues. There is no question but that conservative religious evangelism and hierarchical, culturally-repressive Catholicism are two bastions of this large social grouping.
Just as clearly, there are many millions of U.S. Americans who have been affected positively by the work of the feminist, anti-racist and lgbt movements over the last several decades, who are militant in their opposition to efforts to turn back the clock on the social, economic and cultural progress that has been made. Our influence is such that even the Supreme Court last year, by a 6-3 vote, struck down homosexual sodomy laws as unconstitutional. These are very different realities than the reality of Germany in the 1930’s.
But the fact is that a key issue used successfully by the religious right and the Republicans in the 2004 elections was the issue of gay marriage. In the 11 states where referenda on this issue were on the ballot, Bush/Cheney won the popular vote for President, including the key state of Ohio. Polls indicated that this was an issue that helped to mobilize culturally conservative, white working and middle class people to come out and vote.
Our work to break down sexism, racism, homophobia and fear of natural sexuality is complicated by those who flaunt sex and sexual imagery to make money through the sale of newspapers, magazines, movies and website subscriptions. Sex is everywhere in this culture, and not just conservatives but many of us who are for gender and marriage equality, sexual education, birth control and reproductive rights do not see its commercialization as a positive thing.
As Reich wrote in “Mass Psychology,” we must “comprehend development *as it really takes place,* recognize its contradictions, and help those forces that are progressive and revolutionary to achieve victory. . .” Part of that process in this society, today, must involve our ability to criticize the commercialization and exploitation of sexuality while firmly upholding the principles of gender equality and healthy sexuality. In this way we can have some positive impact upon those currently under the sway of the political/cultural right wing, remain true to our principles, and build a strong progressive movement that, over time, will isolate and politically defeat the repressed and repressive religious right.