Wilhelm Reich wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1930-33 and revised and expanded it in 1942. He thus began it in an effort to explain the rise to power of the Nazis and other fascist parties of the interwar period, and developed it with a view to the likely demise of these particular governments and concern about what would succeed them. He also discussed the development of the Soviet system towards authoritarianism and away from its original socialist ideals. When I first read the book in the 1980s, it was fascinating as a piece of firsthand history, but my 2019 reread found me and contemporary society back in the position faced by Reich: the perplexing ascendancy of authoritarian governments throughout the “developed” world.
Reich is not a fan of “great man theories”–how could he be, when confronted with the “failed house painter” at the helm of Nazism? (How can we be, with our failed casino operator?) Nor does he attribute causal primacy to ideology or party programs; “National Socialism” was even more incoherent than the neoliberal capitalism of the Republican party. For Reich, the blame rests squarely with the mass population and their “character structure,” formed and reproduced through conditioning in the patriarchal home, the superstitious church, and the exploitative workplace. Such people possess a pervasive fear of freedom which is channeled into authoritarian politics. All other things being equal, then, fascism could be expected to regrow after the defeat of the Axis powers:
“Viewed with respect to man’s character, ‘fascism’ is the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life. It is the mechanistic-mystical character of modern man that produces fascist parties, and not vice versa.” (xiii, ital. in original)
Reich has an idiosyncratic use of the word translated here as “mysticism.” He seems to treat it as a synonym for metaphysical and superstitious thought, and rather than being a neighbor or subset of religion, it serves as a superset embracing various irrationalisms. At some points, though, he expressly defines it as sexual abstinence (140 e.g.). When using it in a more conventional sense, he scare-quotes the term:
“… religion’s attitude toward sexuality underwent a change in patriarchal society. Originally, it was a religion of sexuality; later it became an anti-sexual religion. The ‘mysticism’ of the primitives who were members of a sexually affirmative society is partially direct orgastic experience and partially animistic interpretation of natural processes.” (138)
“When sexual feelings and religious feelings became separated from one another, that which is sexual was forced to become the bad, the infernal, the diabolical.” (148)
Reich’s program for escaping the abiding hazard of totalitarianism is thus not focused on politics but pathology, what he calls the “emotional plague” of sexual self-revulsion that expresses itself in imperial projects of enslavement and war. In his own time, he endorsed and supported a campaign for “sex hygiene” that would affirm and protect the sexuality of children, believing that only a generation raised in this fashion could instigate the real social changes needed to transcend the cycle of internalized and projected hatreds. He found opposition to this effort in all established social factions, of course.
“‘Away from the animal; away from sexuality!’ are the guiding principles of the formation of all human ideology. This is the case whether it is the communist form of proletarian class honor, the Christian form of man’s ‘spiritual and ethical nature,’ or the liberal form of ‘higher human values.’ All these ideas harp on the same monotonous tune: ‘We are not animals; it was we who discovered the machine–not the animal! And we don’t have genitals like the animals!‘” (339) When Reich wrote that “Race ideology is the pure biopathic expression of the character structure of the orgastically impotent man” (xiv), he was discussing the racist social theories that “can have meaning only to a numbskull” (78). But the same ideological germ can be seen in mass monoculture farming, antibiotic abuse, and other blunders of our teetering civilization.
Reich’s social ideal is one that he insists is already extant in the fabric of everyday life, even though in some respects it seems as utopian as the anticipated socialism of Fourier or communist future of Marx. What Reich calls “work democracy” is the “voluntary association and self-government” that he claims to have been prevalent “in pagan society” (238) and persistent in practical work at the scale of the individual shop. He refuses to reduce it to a political ideology or an economic theory, instead asserting that it is nothing other than the proper organic social expression of humanity through meaningful participation.
“More than anything else it is a matter of changing the nature of work so that it ceases to be an onerous duty and becomes a gratifying fulfillment of a need.” (286, i.e. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)