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Liberalism Radicalized: The Sexual Revolution, Multiculturalism, and the Rise of Identity Politics

Wilhelm Reich and Sexual Liberation. The father of the modern sexual revolution in the U.S. was dissident psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957). He participated in the sexual revolution of the 1920s, and his teachings inspired the counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s. Reich is ubiquitous among the works of the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs; acclaimed authors J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow; and even actor and director Jack Nicholson.

Most significant was his influence on Paul Goodman, whom Dan Rather called “the guru of the New Left.” Goodman, an openly bisexual liberationist who underwent “Reichian analysis,” was one of Reich’s earliest American supporters. He founded gestalt psychotherapy and offered Reich’s ideas to a popular audience as a cure for the sexual suppression of liberalism. He became one of the most influential writers for the student radicals of the 1960s. His works, among them Growing Up Absurd (1960), were the most widely read in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

Reich was a proud, forceful man, a medical doctor with an incredible eye for detail. As a young man, he saw death on the grisly Italian front in World War I; though he despised war, he claimed it had given him a sense of heroic destiny, and he returned home a committed socialist. Maturing in 1920s Vienna, where he attended his first psychoanalytic seminars and studied under Freud, he combined his socialism with its libertine culture. He chafed at the psychoanalysts’ sexual conservatism as the older generation frowned upon his sexual indiscretions. He frequently cheated on his wife, a psychoanalyst herself.

Reich reveled in satisfying his natural desires and wished to free others to enjoy a similar freedom. “Sexuality,” he wrote, “is the center around which the life of society as a whole as well as the inner intellectual world of the individual revolves.”[9] The enemy of natural freedom, he believed, was religious and political strictures that led to shame, guilt, and jealousy. In 1929, he founded the Socialist Association for Sex Hygiene and Sexological Research; riding around in a van, he procured illegal abortions for girls with unwanted pregnancies, gave out contraception, and encouraged premarital sex.

In 1933, he was expelled from both the International Psychoanalytic Association and the Communist Party. With the rise of Nazism in Europe, in 1939, Reich’s followers in the United States secured him a visa and a lectureship at the New School for Social Research in New York. Setting up psychotherapeutic practice, Reich continued to have a devoted following. An experimentalist, he believed that he had discovered a new physical energy, which he called orgone, the material correlate to Freud’s sexual energy of libido. Losing interest in psychotherapy, he created therapies to release the flow of this cosmic energy. He spent the remaining years of his life, often in isolation, performing experiments to better understand it.

Reich built great boxes, called accumulators, in which patients could reabsorb their expended orgone and cloud-busters to unclog pockets of orgone in the atmosphere. (Some blueberry farmers once paid him to induce rain.) Reich stressed the implications of his discovery for national defense against both “red fascists” and UFOs (not to mention its implications for energy independence), but the United States Food and Drug Administration was not enthusiastic. After high-profile articles in Harper’s and The New Republic about the “growing Reich cult” that surrounded his sexual theory and orgone experiments, the FDA indicted him for transporting orgone accumulators across state lines. A jury found him guilty of fraud, and the judge ordered that his accumulators be smashed and his books burnt. Convicted as a fraudulent quack, Reich died in 1957 in a federal penitentiary.

For this reason, later psychologists tended to caricature his ideas and distance themselves from his work. However, the core of Reich’s social theory was quite persuasive to many. Reich’s central idea, his rejection of genital repression and his proposal that sexual liberation destroys the morals underlying capitalism, was repeated by leading thinkers like Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown. In 1964, Time magazine recognized Reich’s influence:

Dr. Wilhelm Reich may have been a prophet. For now it sometimes seems that all America is one big orgone box…. From innumerable screens and stages, posters and pages, it flashes larger-than-life-sized images of sex…. Gradually, the belief spread that repression, not license, was the great evil, and that sexual matters belonged in the realm of science, not morals.[10]

Reich’s eccentricity was matched by a certain intellectual brilliance and a broad willingness to entertain unconventional opinions. He founded character analysis, an entirely new field of psychoanalytic study that analyzed neurotic characters, not neurotic symptoms, meaning that it viewed certain types of human beings as ill. He extended his practice beyond individual therapy, seeking answers in social organization for the pathologies that he witnessed in the clinic.

Among the ill character types, one most threatened society: “mass man,” whose character was the basis, he argued, of fascism. The fascist possessed “a sado-masochistic character” and, fearing his own political freedom—and pleasure—turned to dictatorial tyrants. The United States, he asserted, was not far behind Nazi Germany. The root of Americans’ self-denial lay in their capitalist society’s rejection of the true concept of human nature. Reich argued that sexual repression, formerly viewed as essential to all civilization, creates and exacerbates the very neuroses Freud had claimed to ameliorate; indeed, he claimed, the greatest human sickness is morality.

Reich and the Freudian revisionists argued that there were “laws of nature” and a natural right that could be discovered by human reason. A return to the study of this nature could reveal how to ameliorate human problems. Rejecting “the relativistic view,” revisionist Erich Fromm wrote: “It is the task of the ‘science of man’ to arrive eventually at a correct description of what deserves to be called human nature.”[11]

Beginning from the position that what is pleasing is natural while self-denial is educated by convention, Reich posited an innate biological growth in humans that had been repressed for political purposes. The naturally pleasing included food, drink, warmth, sex, and the seed of science—curiosity, or pleasure in knowing. Upon these basic needs, various higher activities naturally developed; technology, for one, develops in the service of these needs.

The pleasurable life was incompatible with the moral, which was “antithetical to nature.”[12] It was free from pangs of duty, which were internalized in the human conscience and in a sense of honor. In his writings, Reich provides an intense criticism of what he calls “compulsive morality” and the religions used by political regimes to inculcate it. For Reich, sadism—which included aggression focused back upon oneself or upon others—unfortunately had been the underpinning of all human relationships since the beginning of organized political societies.

The very habits of civilized males, who defer chivalrously to women, he regarded as inseparable from their unconscious belief that women are inferior. Hence, the moment when men feel they have acted most honorably is precisely when they have displayed their domineering desire and carved out a realm of the “masculine.” Reich realized that chivalry was not conscious; it was a habit educated first in the differentiation of the sexes—a moral distinction inculcated by the patriarchal family and supported by a political culture in which men and women are given sexual roles. A scientific psychology, he believed, would make patients conscious of the nonsense of morality and its internalized guilt.

But Reich found in his private practice that revealing to patients the logical and historical origins of their guilt did not work. Freud, he concluded, had falsely divided words and deeds: Patients in the clinic reflected upon their moral inhibitions without discarding their reserved habits. Reich believed that they used logic, words detached from emotion, as a defense mechanism for their still-ingrained morality. The patient might talk freely about sex and morality as if he possessed no guilt or shame, but in his physical behavior, he retained a “character armor” of the same moral inhibitions.[13] The disease of morality, like a virus, lay tucked away, obscured by philosophic jargon.

Because morality was embedded in habit, it would have to be removed by new habits. Hence, Reich constructed a revolutionary private therapy that focused on both acknowledging and acting out psychic tensions to remove, layer by layer, the armor of guilt and shame that had been established as part of the moral education. Reich focused on sex because it was the core of the entire character structure. When the process was completed, the successful patient would be “genitally potent,” meaning spontaneous and without inhibitions.

Reich was the first to combine Freud and Marx in a new revolutionary dialectic. He believed that conventional morality, as a “plague,” had become so dangerous politically in fascism and state capitalism that it threatened human existence. To protect those living the healthy pleasurable existence and to preserve humanity from the sadism of morality, he constructed a utopian political program called “natural work democracy” to attack morality at its core.[14] In this utopia, the patriarchal family, which represses sexuality, is replaced by the “natural family,” which liberates its members from sexual constraints and cultivates that which is pleasurable.[15]

These sexually liberated citizens would demand new “genital rights,” among which were the abolition of laws against abortion and homosexuality, the reform of marriage and divorce laws, free birth control advice and contraception, and the abolition of laws preventing sex education.[16]

To this Reich added other teachings, such as instruction in masturbation, the right to “extramarital sexual intercourse,” and the “right of the unmarried woman to have a partner.”[17] Reich mocked the hypocritical liberal who advocated sexual education for his daughter yet frowned on her sexual pursuits. He explained:

[T]he girl does not merely need to be free genitally; she also needs privacy, a means of contraception, a sexually potent friend who is capable of love…, understanding parents, and a sex-affirmative social atmosphere—all the more so if her financial means of breaking through the social barriers against adolescent sexual activity are minimal.[18]

The family, however, he viewed as the destructive institutional tool of a broader social and sadistic morality: the morality of capitalism. To destroy capitalism, Reich posited that the old socialists’ logical arguments about economic exploitation were insufficient; one must destroy the moral habits upon which capitalism is founded, such as self-restraint, industry, frugality, and punctuality. Hence the Reichian dialectic: Sexual repression was intertwined with economic exploitation, and sexual liberation would destroy the basis for capitalism.

The sexually liberated individual would never again work a demeaning job that bored him; he would seek the equivalent of the good orgasm in all aspects of life—for example, by creativity in labor. He would demand the redistributive goods that his conscience formerly prohibited him from demanding. Reich wrote of his patients:

Quite spontaneously, patients began to feel the moralistic attitudes of the environment as something alien and peculiar…. Their attitude toward their work changed. If, until then, they had worked mechanically…now they became discriminating [and] were stirred by a need to engage in some practical work in which they could take a personal interest. If the work which they performed was such that it was capable of absorbing their interests, they blossomed. If however, their work was of a mechanical nature as, for example, that of an office employee, businessman, or middle attorney, then it became an almost intolerable burden. In other cases, there was a complete breakdown in work when the patient became capable of genital gratification…. It turned out [they] were always patients who had, until then, performed their work on the basis of a compulsive sense of duty, at the expense of the inner desires they had repudiated.[19]

Reich did not believe that there could be an end to all repression, but he did believe that humans could eliminate much of it. Once human beings were freed from toil and able to indulge in what other Freudian revisionists called “polymorphous perversity”—a life of celebrating pleasure in all of its forms—they would refuse to return to the drudgery of their old jobs. They would demand the means to self-fulfillment as a privilege of citizenship.