Some problems with Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Not long ago, I got through Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The author was a Communist, though not exactly the typical type.  He was what one might call a True Believer, but became disappointed in the way the early Soviet Union was going.  What happened to all the nice talk about democracy, and especially all the fun and games?

The book also is notable for marking an early divergence between orthodox Marxism and cultural Marxism.  The history of this early beginning is pretty well-known from the writings of William S. Lind and Pat Buchanan.  However, if you want to hear it from a friendly source, Wilhelm Reich was around to witness all that and described it in detail.

Throughout, the book does suffer from a couple of problems in its analysis, which are described below.

Overreliance on Marxist theory

No, not that kind of cleavage!

There is much discussion of what the author calls “cleavage.” It’s not as beautiful as it sounds. It’s about what other Marxists call “false consciousness.” Particularly, it’s the matter of why most of the working class rejects Communism, even though according to their theory it should be in the workers’ best interests. Why don’t proletarians want a Dictatorship of the Proletariat? (This is the opposite of the “champagne socialist” paradox; Reich correctly regarded wealthy leftists as having irrational motives.) The usual hasty conclusion is that the rubes don’t know what’s good for them, so the wise Marxists must call the shots on their behalf. The author does take the time to explore the matter in depth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand their motivations. It’s true that there’s a theoretical natural tendency for the rich to be rightists and the poor to be leftists, but there’s much more to the picture than economics alone.

I have some better answers. Some modesty regarding their claims to infallibility and the prophetic powers of Marx, as well as some honest introspection about how they’ve alienated the working class, could’ve spared them a lot of pointless theorizing. Since Communists can’t rely on generating popular support to attain power, and have to use subversion tactics, coups, and invasions instead, they should think about what they’re doing wrong. They need to get a clue that the proletariat doesn’t want their noses rubbed in degeneracy and “woke” nonsense.

What’s been missing throughout the book is sufficient understanding that there’s a lot more to politics than merely economics. The author certainly understood the limitations of dialectical materialism and its economite perspective, yet fell into the trap sometimes. Social policy matters a lot. There was some awareness of that, but it seems he determined that the proletariat needed “sexual liberation” (whether they liked it or not) and then everything would fall into place with the working class embracing Marxism. Did it ever occur to leftists to ask the public’s permission before rolling out social experiments or rearranging their culture?

Regarding the question of why the lower middle class isn’t more leftist, even though the rich shmucks in the ruling class don’t give a damn about them, the distinction he missed still exists. Garden-variety Republicans aren’t in it to suck up to the globalist billionaire exploiters who shipped their jobs overseas. Instead, they want to preserve their culture. That’s why they support the party that pretends to care.

In several places, the naïve nostalgia for wise Uncle Lenin’s reign is rather misplaced. Wilhelm Reich actually believed that the Soviet public had a say in their government at the time. Blaming the victims, he criticizes the masses for not guarding their liberty – as if they could elect their rulers freely, or even influence anything the Kremlin did. He lengthily describes how the workers’ councils of the Soviet system formed the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and he didn’t realize that the Party always called the shots. It seems he also mistook the Bolshevik coup for a popular uprising. Did he also think the Politburo began as the Russian version of Robin Hood’s Merry Men? One might wonder if he believed in fairies too, but he certainly wasn’t the only wonderfully enlightened thinker fooled by the “workers’ paradise” propaganda. He did get wise to the tyranny, but was mistaken to think it was ever different.

There’s much discussion about work-democracy, particularly in the last quarter of the book. That includes some scathing remarks about politicians who don’t even need a license to wreck a country. Still, much remains unclear about how things actually would work in the better society he envisions, particularly who calls the shots. From the name, work-democracy seems to be a flavor of syndicalism, though key details remain unexplained. He mentions a couple of Scandinavian monographs about it which made a modest splash back in the day; perhaps they contain the missing information.

Overreliance on Freudian theory

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a donut is just a donut

The new preface in the book’s third edition describes a tripartite model of the mind. These concepts further develop Freudian theories and fully merge the layers of the mind with the ego-superego-id concepts, though with a unique take on all that. (Similar ideas appeared much earlier in Plato’s Republic; either Freud reworked them or reached similar conclusions.) There actually is a neurobiological basis to the tripartite mind, though some of the details are different.

Is it really a good idea to put the biologic core (essentially the Freudian id) in the driver’s seat? Raw impulses from the limbic system tend to be pretty amoral, for one thing. The reptile brain is oriented toward self-preservation and is positive in that regard, but is poorly equipped to handle social settings unassisted by rational consciousness. Neither does it understand moderation. For example, obeying the bodily desires to the point that one weighs over seven hundred pounds would be a mistake. Other unfiltered hedonistic behavior can invite problems too; as the proverb goes, it’s better to think with the big head than the little one. Therefore, unqualifiedly declaring the biologic core to be inherently virtuous is a bit of a stretch.

Meanwhile, Freud’s understanding of the unconscious mind became outmoded. It’s indeed the soul’s dark basement, but for most people, there are fewer skeletons lying about than the Freudians assumed, and more treasure chests. It can be understood better as the background mental processes that happen without focused thought. The conscious mind can’t directly interrogate it or be aware of what it’s doing, which makes the unconscious sort of a “great unknown” in terms of psychology. Still, by itself, that’s not inherently so malevolent or scary.

By contrast, the conscious mind has a more favored place, associated with the power of reason. There’s something to this. Still, even the conscious mind isn’t impeccably virtuous by nature, since people deliberately can choose bad behavior and think up rationalizations for it.

There are good reasons for the unconscious mind to exist. Much of it is the mammalian brain, the seat of emotions; we wouldn’t be who we are without it. Language processing is another useful thing that the background circuitry in the unconscious mind does while we’re barely aware that it’s even happening. Having a conversation would be difficult if the conscious mind had to burn lots of CPU cycles to identify phonemes and parse them into words, and while replying, use focused effort to make the mouth and vocal cords form every single sound. You learned to talk as a young child; long ago, all that got imprinted into the brain’s background circuitry.

Is it really true that liberalism is a product entirely of the conscious mind, and Fascism is from the unconscious mind? Reich’s analysis is off here. The unconscious mind is the realm of settled habit, and this is so for any ideology to which someone is particularly committed. Leftists pride themselves on being rational, open-minded, nonconformist, and all the rest of it, but this is only advertising boilerplate that doesn’t matter in practice. (In fact, their ideology includes several “get out of logic free” cards. Still, pointing out their conformity drives them berserk.) Once their beliefs are imprinted on an unconscious level, they’re just as stubbornly committed to them as anyone else, and will just as readily tune out any arguments or inconvenient facts that don’t accord with The Narrative. Other than that, the assertion that Fascism doesn’t have a rational basis – easily refuted by reading Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism – is a perfect illustration of the power that fixed ideas have over leftists.

What about Freud’s “hydraulic” model of sexuality, in which repressed impulses will spill out elsewhere and cause neuroses? There’s something to that, but that’s not a good argument for “anything goes” libertinism. It’s better to encourage a healthy channel for sexuality that goes along with normal family formation. This requires promoting healthy moral standards and a healthy social environment. (These are the things Wilhelm Reich was complaining about bitterly.) The middle course between prudishness and libertinism is sensibility. Other than that, several religious traditions recognize that unreleased sexual energy can be sublimated to positive ends, such as extra vitality. Even Reich would agree that orgone is good for more than just orgasm. Thus, the Freudian idea on this matter is hardly unchallenged.

Wilhelm Reich did make some bold departures from Freudianism, but would’ve done better to diverge further still. Freud was a sharp cookie, but sometimes he really dropped the ball. Moreover, he wasn’t actually the Seal of the Prophets of psychology as his followers made him out to be. He did develop some important concepts, but his nearly cultish prominence – persisting for decades thereafter – held back the field somewhat during a time when knowledge otherwise was growing. (For example, perhaps traumatic experiences during potty training can cause future problems, but usually there are more plausible explanations for hang-ups.) Anyway, science marched on, so maybe I charitably should let the author take a mulligan on all that.

Some problems with Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism