Despite several worthy efforts, we have yet to grasp, adequately or sufficiently, how the politics of oppression are ideologically encoded in the bodymind of every participant in the collectivity or polis. This month I participated in the 16th Congress of the European Association for Body Psychotherapy in Berlin. Perhaps understandably, almost all the programs focused on promoting the crucial tenet that profound healing necessarily requires grounding in embodied experience (and they focused almost relentlessly on a preoccupation with the pros and cons of various specific techniques). The emphasis on the crafts of technē rather than the potentially more critical ramifications of theōría, as well as the general self-referentiality of these presentations, was no doubt expectable. But nevertheless one might have hoped for less parochialism, given the vital significance of bodymind approaches to our deeper thinking about the human condition. However, one plenary Panel, responding to an outstanding paper by Andreas Peglau, proved an interesting exception, raising more general and very exigent concerns.
Peglau’s paper addressed the contemporary rise of fascism throughout Europe (as well as, specifically, in the USA), drawing in a scholarly fashion on the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. The general argument was that, unless Reichian findings are fully considered, right-wing extremism will never be properly understood and thus the momentum of fascism will never be effectively opposed. The consensus motivating this Panel was that fascism is spreading rapidly throughout Europe. Today there are few, if any, countries in which this is not a matter of concern. What Alexander Ross termed “fascist creep” (i.e., a momentum endemic to all liberal and social-democratic contexts) now seems, in several countries, to be a “gallop.” The respondents to Peglau’s paper were eager to speak of the national conditions in which they live (Germany, England, Italy and Portugal); additionally, Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary Spain, Sweden (and, of course, the USA) were all specifically mentioned. Peglau addressed more or less squarely the fact that this “rightward shift” (Rechtsruck) is not some sort of anomalous eventuality. Rather, it is inherent to the structure and functioning of social-democratic societies — in a way that the advocates of liberal arrangements rarely, if ever, comprehend. Nevertheless, the Eurocentric, nation-focused and class-oriented, format of the Panel’s discussion must be noted and perhaps challenged. Working, as I do, in one of the largest metropolises of the southern hemisphere, in an African culture that is rife with class warfare, xenophobia and racialtribal violence, it appears to me — and I doubt that Reich or Peglau would disagree — that the source of what we might call “fascistic proclivities” is far more general than a focus on the crises of European cultures might suggest. Rather it inheres, to greater or lesser degree, to the politics of identity and group identification.
Writing The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933, Reich was justifiably dissatisfied with the simplistic quality of the communist party’s explanation that fascist movements merely seize power — by some unspecified mechanisms — from “the illusionary, misleading politics of social democracy.” In his words, this is because “it is precisely the function of social democracy to spread illusions as an objective support for capital.” Today it definitely remains the case that accounting for extreme rightward shifts in terms of social and economic conditions is valid but significantly lacking. Some of the critical questions that imply this shortcoming are, for example: Why does rising unemployment so often prompt support for a totalitarian regime, rather than action against those capitalist structures that fail to provide the means to a livelihood? Why does immigration so often spark chauvinism and xenophobia, rather than instigating solidarity and humanitarian responses? About to be expelled from the Communist Party, Reich argued — against the partyline — that “the fascist movement owes its success largely to psychological constellations that have been produced for generations … the confrontation with the capitalist economic order is not enough to eradicate fascism.” He turned instead to examine additional factors. As is well known, he expatiated against the authoritarianism originating from the ideologies of the family, schools and church (all so interestingly researched, after World War II by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues) … and then Reich also discussed the fundamental problem of patriarchy. However, central to his entire thesis is that the singularly crucial contributor to fascism is institutionally mandated morality that inhibits “natural sexuality.” Although I am strongly in agreement with the general tenet that sexual liberation is key to progressive political, social, economic and cultural change, here I will offer three critical and appreciative comments on Reich’s (and Peglau’s) presentation of this thesis.
First, even if the image is poetically and erotically enticing, invocation of the notion of “natural sexuality” — with its inevitably atavistic and romanticized connotations of a return to prelapsarian days — is problematic in several respects. Not only is the image mythematic, but it is seriously misleading, insofar as it suggests that sexual oppression/suppression/repression might be, or indeed should entirely be, undone (in a very different frame, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari present somewhat similar criticisms of Reich’s standpoint). Here the nuances of psychodynamic differences between the processes of oppression, suppression and repression are pressingly in need of careful elucidation (which is beyond what could possibly be accomplished in these notes). Reich’s focus on the notion of the “natural” undoubtedly stemmed from his pioneering interest in the reflexive arcs of orgasmicity and the obstructions to what might be called — following Jack Rosenberg, for example — “total orgasm.” Adumbrated early in his psychoanalytic career, this approach to healing in terms of releasing blockages to the flow of breathing and the movement of subtle energies throughout the bodymind is profoundly important. However, such an emphasis tends to obscure the extent to which, and the profundity with which, our sexuality is constituted by and within psychodynamic processes of erotic fantasy/phantasy (consciously accessible or descriptively unconscious). These are not merely the issues that socialconstructivists never tire of asserting and perhaps justifiably so (nor is it, pace the Lacanians, to be accomodated as a matter of the role of the imaginary register within the symbolic order). Rather, it concerns the complex dynamics of the contradictoriness between the subtle energies of desire (as Ilka Quindeau defines it) and the representationality of what is conventionally called our “mind” (as discussed extensively in my trilogy on psychoanalysis).
Sexuality — as an embodied process animated by fantasies/phantasies — is inherently, insuperably and ubiquitously, conflictual. In this sense, the oppression of sexual behaviors may be, and almost certainly (perhaps with some significant qualification) should be, undone. However, a measure of repression is integral to the possibility of humanity as such (that is, not able to be undone, nor should its wholesale undoing be an aspiration). A “repression-barrier” is inscribed within each of us and is necessarily, irrevocably and pervasively, established by the oedipality of psychic reality (lived-experience and our being-in-the-world). Here the notion of oedipality, as the universal creation of an irremediable rupture within us founded by the incest taboo, must be distinguished from the specificities of the enormous range of “oedipal complexes” (this distinction is discussed in my paper, “Oedipality and Oedipal Complexes Reconsidered”). The repressionbarrier is the intrapsychic inscription of the fundamental taboo against incest — as Freud himself intimated, although never with quite enough clarity or audacity. But the central point on which Freud was surely correct is that, without an incest taboo, any hope of civilized social arrangements collapses — and thus, the repression of incestuous thoughts and wishes must be established by the intrapsychic rupture of this “barrier” (Freud elaborates this point many times, but often in a somewhat indirect manner).
In his Character Analysis, published almost alongside his book on fascism, Reich writes about oedipal complexes, but seems to shy away from acknowledging the necessity of the erotically omnipresent taboo against incest and hence he fails to acknowledge the inevitability and necessity of repression (such was the task engaged by Herbert Marcuse in 1955, when he advanced the notion of “surplus repression”). Yet Reich was cognizant of the incest taboo. Indeed, without indulging in ad hominem speculation, one cannot help wondering about this blind-spot. As discussed by his biographers (by Robert Corrington, by Myron Sharaf and by Christopher Turner), Reich wrote an autobiographical paper in 1920 about the “case” of a patient who seemed to indulge his incestuous fantasies without undue stress and indeed contemplated manipulating an enactment of them. As a pubescent boy, he consciously knew he wanted sex with his mother as he watched her illicit liaisons with his tutor. He considered trying to blackmail her into having intercourse with him, but then decided instead to report her actitivies to his father — whereupon his mother suicided and thereafter the young Reich felt intensely guilty. Perhaps, in this context, it is less than surprising that the adult Reich might understand well enough the significance of oedipal complexes, but then overlook the necessity of oedipality as the intrapsychic expression of the incest taboo in terms of the formation and ongoing operation of the repression-barrier.
My second point concerns a frequent line of argument countering Reich’s advocacy of erotic freedom as the antidote to fascistic tendencies. It is suggested that, in the past five decades, cultures throughout the North Atlantic world have indeed become sexually “free” without much evident effect on the force of rightward shifts. In my opinion, this argument is sociologically debatable and psychoanalytically naive. As I suggested in 2005, the fact that sexuality, at least of a certain sort, is now far more visibly on the surface of post-1968 life (notably in North Atlantic cultures, but globally given the media impact of these cultures on the rest of the world) should not be taken to imply that it has become conflict-free. What I called the “sexification” of American culture (although there was little reason to geographically limit the notion in this manner) does not obviate the anxieties that surround our erotic life. While the fear of our erotic capabilities may often take the form of sex-phobia, it may also take the flipside form of sex-obsessiveness. This is not to discount how different our lived-experiences may be in these different environments, but merely to insist that an atmosphere that appears sexually “open” may shift the intrapsychic locus of conflict, but not erase it. Sexuality on the surface of cultural life may be just as anxiety-laden — even if more frantically and feverishly so — as sexuality that is suppressed into the dark recesses of clandestine fantasy or enactment.
Reich’s example is instructive. There was a “breakthrough” (Durchbruch, his word) into his consciousness of incestuous fantasies — even a seemingly anxiety-free or “ego syntonic” breakthrough, — indicating his wish to have intercourse with his mother, even as he watched her having sex with his tutor. But emphatically this must not be taken to mean the absence of the taboo. Reich, after all, decided not to blackmail his mother into having intercourse with him, but rather to inform his father of her extramarital infidelity (in response to which, she selfadministered the direst punishment). That is, incestuous sexual impulses are still conflictual, but the locus of the conflict may shift — especially under different cultural and historical conditions. Reich appears to have been “okay” with his forbidden fantasies, whereas many other individuals would have suppressed or repressed such wishes, been repulsed at the sight of the mother’s intercourse, and so on. Conflict is still operative even when there are the appearances of licentiousness.
Today, every known sex act can be watched via the internet, but it would be a serious error to imagine that these appearances of this sort of “anything goes” are equivalent to erotic freedom in terms of the intrapsychic life of the participants (as actors or as spectators). A culturally ordained shift in the intrapsychic locus of our erotic conflicts — a shift in the specificities of suppression and repression — does not really mean that we are “sexually free.” Nor should this be taken to imply that sexual oppression is any less a determining factor in today’s rightward momentum toward fascism and totalitarianism than it was in 1930’s Europe. This brings me to my third and final point.
Perhaps this most notable psychodynamic factor implicated in the rightward shift towards fascism is way in which each individual must manage what Freud called our “original bisexuality.” Freud couched this notion within a theory of the way in which polymorphism (think here of our infantile capacity to obtain bodily pleasure from any and all of the sensuous “zones” of our embodied experience) has to be gradually suppressed in favor of a more limited focus on sexual pleasure in partnered contexts that are either with a man or with a woman. Along with others, I believe I am responsible for having revived and expanded or — in a specific sense — corrected Freud’s notion (in my 2005 book and elsewhere). I have written about our “polysexual potential” as human beings. That is, we are born with the potential for any and all sorts of pleasure from our embodied experience and, although gender and gender role may be influenced by biological factors, there is no evidence that our orientation to erotic pleasures is thus determined. In short, we are inherently polysexual. If we emerge from childhood with a stably “straight” orientation, this has been achieved by the suppression of our homoerotic feelings and fantasies; if “gay,” our heteroerotic feelings and fantasies have been suppressed.
This is a Freudian standpoint — or more precisely the elaboration of a position strenuously argued by Freud in 1905 — that Reich seems to have missed almost completely, writing as he did in a heteronormative and even homophobic way about “natural sexuality.” His 1932 book on the Sexual Struggle of Youth is peppered with terms such as “defective sexual development” and “abnormal forms of sexual development,” as well as specifically referencing homosexuality as a “deviation” or “illness.” There seems to be little evidence that Reich ever retracted his endorsement of such rhetoric.
Across the street from Berlin’s implacable and heart-rending Holocaust Monument is the small and stark “Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism” (Homomahnmal). In 1935 the National Socialists made homosexual activities illegal, such that even a kiss could be cause for prosecution. Subsequently, over 50,000 men were tried and convicted. Many were jailed, tortured, castrated, or sent to the death camps. Although only in annexed Austria was female homosexuality actually illegal, lesbians were also persecuted and often made victims of targeted killings. My argument is that it must be acknowledged that this virulent oppression was integral to the rise of Nazism. The available scholarship documents, often in chilling detail, the homoerotically-charged yet viciously-homophobic climate pervading the Nazi Youth, the Stormtroopers, and similar organizations (e.g., the researches of Susan Bartoletti, Michael Kater, Hannsjoachim Koch, Brenda Lewis, Gerhard Rempel, and Daniel Siemens). The activities of these organizations could be immensely stimulating homoerotically, yet trenchantly censorious of any homosexual behaviours — this is surely a recipe for violence toward the external ‘other’ who engages in the very impulses that are internally forbidden. As is well known from the psychodynamic sciences, the force of strenuously suppressing inner impulses readily converts into a heinous commitment to attacking the “other” that outside the self. The most malicious homophobes are those who have difficulty managing their own homoerotic inclinations.
Surely these phenomena of internal conflict that is enacted upon those who are externally “other” must be factored into our account of the rise of fascistic propensities? Writing a dozen years after Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism seems strangely to ignore the lessons of the former text. In 1921 Freud wrote insightfully about the way in which authoritarianism, idealizations of “the leader,” and tempestuous antagonism toward those who are not aligned with the group ethos, are all fuelled by the conversion of libidinal energies that are suppressed and repressed. Intensely erotic but unconscious libidinal ties hold together each participant’s attachment both to the camaraderie of the group and to the figure of the leader. For these ties to be maintained — active but neither conscious nor ever enacted — the group must have an external adversary to which it is vehemently opposed. Suppression and repression of socially unacceptable desire is surely a major contributor to the politics of identity and of identification with a united (against the “other”) community.
It is facile to suggest that, because we are now well into the second decade of the 21st century, social conditions are nothing like they were in 1935 Germany, or that, because gay communities are now visible in all the metropolises of Europe and North America, the psychodynamics of homophobia are irrelevant. Such communities are visible, yes, and perhaps to a degree they are more tolerated. But outside these metropolises, in the hinterland, homophobia continues to be energetic and venomous. Generally speaking, the white millions that comprise Donald Trump’s populist base are not tolerant of homosexuality. They view it not only as depraved, but as part of the moral decadence of liberal and metropolitan culture.
Regrettably, this factor contributing to the contemporary rightward shift was not addressed by the Panel discussion of the 16th Congress. Yet is it not possible that, until every self-identified heterosexual is able to accept the bisexuality of his or her inner impulses, fascistic developments will exercise a repugnant but powerful allure? Until the desire underlying the politics of identity and the malignant dimensions of group identification are mitigated, today’s watchword should be: It could happen (again) here! Promoting not just the appreciation of our inherent polysexual potential, but perhaps also our pleasure in all that it offers, is — I submit — an essential step towards the prevention of fascistic recurrences.
Adorno, T. W., FrenkelBrunswick, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Barratt, B. B. (2005). Sexual health and erotic freedom. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris/Random House.
—– (2013). What is psychoanalysis? 100 years after Freud’s ‘Secret Committee.’ London, UK: Routledge.
—– (2016). Radical psychoanalysis: An essay on freeassociative praxis. London, UK: Routledge.
—– (2018). Beyond psychotherapy: On becoming a (radical) psychoanalyst. London, UK: Routledge, in press.
—– (2018). Oedipality and oedipal complexes reconsidered: On the incest taboo as key to the universality of the human condition. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 99(5), in press.
Bartoletti, S. C. (2005). Hitler youth: Growing up in Hitler’s shadow. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Corrington, Robert S. (2003). Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and radical naturalist. New York, NY: Straus & Giroux.
Dearn, A. (2006). The Hitler Youth 19331945. New York, NY: Osprey.
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia, volume 1 (translated by R. Hurley). London, UK: Penguin, 2009.
Freud, S. (1905). Drie Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie. Gesammelte Werke, 5, 29145. [Translated as:
Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Standard Edition, 7, 130243.]
Freud, S. (1912). Totem und Tabu. Gesammelte Werke, 9, 1205. [Translated as: Totem and taboo.
Standard Edition, 13, 1162.]
Freud, S. (1921). Massenpsychologie und IchAnalyse. Gesammelte Werke, 13, 71161. [Translated as:
Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Standard Edition, 18, 65143.]
Kater, M. H. (2006). The Hitler youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Koch, H. W. (2000). The Hitler youth: Origins and development 1922-1945. New York, NY: Cooper Square Press.
Lewis, B. R. (2000). Hitler Youth: The Hitlerjugend in war and peace, 1933-1945. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing.
Marcuse, H. (1955). Eros and civilization: A philosophical inquiry into Freud. London, UK: Allen Lane, 1969.
Peglau, A. (2018). The Rightward Shift in the 21st Century: Wilhelm Reich’s “Mass Psychology of Fascism” as an Explanation. Paper presented at the 16th Congress of the European Association for Body
Psychotherapy, Berlin, 7th September 2018. Original paper available at http://andreas-peglau-psychoanalyse.de/rechtsruck-im-21-jahrhundert-vortrag-von-andreas-peglau-7-9-2018-16-eabp-kongress-berlin (retrieved 8th September 2018). English translation by Martina Weitendorf at http://andreas-peglau-psychoanalyse.de/a-shift-to-the-right-in-the-21st-century-wilhelm-reichs-mass-psychology-of-fascism-as-an-approach-to-explanation.
Quindeau, I. (2013). Seduction and desire: The psychoanalytic theory of sexuality since Freud (translated by J. Bendix). London, UK: Karnac.
Reich, W. (1920). Über einen Fall von Durchbruch der Inzestschranke. Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft, 7.
—– (1932). Der Sexuelle Kampf der Jugend. Berlin, Germany: Sexpol Verlag. [Translated as: The sexual struggle of youth. London, UK: Socialist Reproduction Publishing.]
—– (1933). The mass psychology of fascism (translated by T. P. Wolfe). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.
—– (1933). Character analysis (translated by T. P. Wolfe). London, UK: Vision Press, 1950.
—– (1936). The sexual revolution (translated by T. P. Wolfe). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
Rempel, G. (1989). Hitler’s children: The Hitler youth and the SS. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North
Rosenberg, J. L. (1973). Total orgasm. New York, NY: Random House.
Ross, A. R. (2017). Against the fascist creep. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Sharaf, M. R. (1983). Fury on earth: A biography of Wilhelm Reich. London, UK: St. Martin’s Press.
Siemens, D. Stormtroopers: A new history of Hitler’s Brownshirts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Turner, C. (2011). Adventures in the orgasmatron. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.