Wilhelm Reich Essay

Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), an Austrian American psychoanalyst, stands as one of the most controversial and groundbreaking figures in psychology. A collaborator with Sigmund Freud during the 1920s, Reich would later combine Freudian psychoanalysis and study of the individual personality with a Marxist sociopolitical analysis of social relations. His greatest contributions to political studies are his works The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1936).

For Reich, the character of child rearing was closely related to social organization and the political development of social institutions. His works, in particular The Mass Psychology of Fascism, linked authoritarian character structures to authoritarian institutions in society. Sexual repression was a key feature of authoritarian child rearing and instilled within the child not only an obedience to authority, but also an incapacity to freely express oneself against authority. The key task of education, as for psychotherapy, is sexual liberation and the abolition of the patriarchal family structure that represses sexuality. Reich argued for the economic self-determination of women and called for availability of contraceptives, abortion, and divorce.

For Reich, the solution to social and personal problems is something akin to anarchism. In his view, it is possible for people to overcome what he identifies as the irrationalism of government and institutional politics and establish what he calls “work-democracy.” This would usher in a society free of authoritarian institutions, including the state and the patriarchal family, as people establish self-regulating character structures. In his view, social relationships would develop from economic organizing in which workers create and control their workplaces and working relations. Thus, social relations would be built on a radical vision of workers’ democracy.

Reich was controversial within leftist circles for his assertion that authoritarian relations could even overtake socialist or communist projects where moral codes and child-rearing practices and education did not free people’s character structures. Thus, as Reich explains in The Sexual Revolution, the promise of the 1917 Russian Revolution’s early years was never realized, in part because of its failure to follow through on the revolutionary experiments in education and the radical revision of morality expressed initially. The result was an authoritarian system that maintained repressive practices in the context of Stalinism. Reich’s identification of soviet authoritarianism as “Red Fascism,” highlighting its shared repressive character with rightist fascism, led to his expulsion from Germany’s Communist Party.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich tries to answer why workers supported parties whose leadership opposed their interests as workers. The working-class support for fascism was found in working-class identification with the character structure of the middle classes (the farmers, bureaucrats, and small business people who initially supported and stood to gain from fascism) as changing work relations, such as shorter working hours and increased incomes, led to worker identification with the middle class and its typical family structures that were becoming the norm or ideal.

The emphasis on revolutionary social transformation in his work represents a significant break from, and repudiation of, the conservative acceptance of social relations in much of psychology. Strikes and protests were not expressions of irrationalism as some psychology suggested. The question of social psychology concerning why the majority of workers do not strike could contribute to Marxist analyses of social change.


  1. Reich, Wilhelm. The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-governing Character Structure. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1963.
  2. Character Analysis. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.
  3. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.
  4. Spring, Joel. A Primer in Libertarian Education. Montreal: Black Rose, 1998.

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