Student Notes on Wilhelm Reich
"I have become convinced that sexuality is the centre around which revolves the whole of social life as well as the inner life of the individual." Reich's diary March 1919.
Psychoanalysis and sexuality.
Distinctive feature of Reich is that he was a revolutionary theorist who thought we need a sexual and a political revolution.
Amber: Introduction and libido theory
Born: Austria Galieau 1897. Died: Donbury Federal Correctional Institution, Connecticut 1957
Whilst studying medicine in Vienna, in the early 1920s, Wilhelm Reich became a practising psychoanalyst, eventually becoming the Director of the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society in 1924.
Theory of the Orgasm
In conjunction with Freud's libido theory, Reich developed the theory of the orgasm. During his time in Vienna he observed a correlation between neuroticism in his patients and the amount of sexual satisfaction they were experiencing.
"My contention is that every individual who has managed to preserve a bit of naturalness knows that there is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients: the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction" (Reich 1940 pages 108-109)
Reich argued that in order to lead a healthy, psychic life, to avoid developing neurosis of any kind, one must be able to achieve "orgastic potency". Orgastic potency is complete surrender to sexual excitation and thereby achieving a natural, healthy, orgasm. The inability to achieve orgastic potency leads to "damned up sexual energy" (sexual energy that is blocked). According to Reich, it is this blocked flow of energy that causes the development of neurosis. He stressed the importance of frequent sexual energy release in the form of the orgasm.
Reich associated orgastic potency with sexual desire rather than love. He stated that, not only has the sexual act to take place, but there needs to be an enjoyment of this sensual act and
"the capacity for complete surrender to the flow of biological energy without any inhibition, the complete discharge of all damned up sexual excitation" (Reich 1940 page 114)
Therefore, although many individuals were able to achieve orgasm, including neurotics, not all are able to reach a satisfactory climax releasing all damned up energy.
Reich believed, at the time of writing The Function of the Orgasm, that the ideal environment for one to achieve orgastic potency did not exist due to social and economic ideologies culminating in sexual and thereby, individual suppression. Reich's sexual revolution is a change in ideology which would lead to the formulation of an ideal environment where one could easily achieve orgastic potency.
Reich appears to identify factors in childhood, youth and adulthood which are harmful and determine the inability to develop orgastic potency, it is important to note the elements of suppression and repression contained in each area:
strict house training which leads to obsessional behaviour regarding orderliness, money, self regulation and appropriateness.
parental punishment and forbidding of masturbation which leads to a fixation and unhealthy attachment to the family environment and home by not allowing the child to develop a sense of independence achieved through masturbation. The fixation leads to lack of spontaneity and/or impulsiveness and ultimately submissive behaviour.
The restraint of sexual activity for youths above 15 years which leads to much frustration and misery while producing "sexual stasis" (an unchanging, stable state) which reactivates underlying neurotic behaviour developed during childhood.
Marriage which is entered into for social and economic needs. Reich calls this compulsive marriage and the compulsive family (Reich 1940 pages 204- 205). He argues that sexual needs can only be satisfied with one sole partner for a limited period of time and marriage then creates a conflict between sexual and economic needs. This conflict leads to misery and the development of neurosis
In Reich's opinion, Freud had neglected to include social factors in his analysis. By identifying those areas of life where suppression occurs, Reich also identified what social factors and ideologies needed to be changed in order for sexual revolution to take place.
Reich and Marxist Theory
Reich joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party (communist party) and began to integrate his psychoanalytical findings with marxist theory with particular regard to the ruling classes and the theory of alienation. He wrote that:
"every social order creates those character forms which it needs for its preservation. In class society, the ruling class secures its position with the aid of education and the institution of the family, by making its ideology the ruling ideology of all members of society...it is not merely a matter of imposing ideologies, attitudes and concepts. Rather it is a matter of a deep reaching process in each new generation, of the formation of a psychic structure which corresponds to the existing social order in all strata of the population" (Reich 1933 page 31)
Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of man's becoming conscious of the laws of economics and the exploitation of a majority by a minority, so psychoanalysis is the expression of a man becoming conscious of the social repression of sex (Reich 1929 page 49)
Here Reich argues that the ruling ideology, imposed upon members of the society, seeks to perpetuate itself leading to suppression of those members. This suppression, according to Reich, encompasses sexual activity. While suppressing sexual satisfaction, the healthy psychic aspect of an individual is also suppressed and inhibits the individual from realising their full potential. An example can be seen with restrictions on sex for youths, which Reich believed to be due to the "older generation's fear of youth sexuality and fighting spirit".
Reich's Free Family
According to Reich, the social goal of compulsive marriage, and its lifetime commitment, forces our sexual energy into a fixed mould which inevitably limits sexual freedom. Combined with the patriarchal nature of marriage, Reich argued that the wife and children have little, if any, freedom of expression and this suppression causes the development of character armour - a physical, emotional blockage by an individual to suppress feelings. (See Reich 1940 page 147 following)
The authoritarian family paves the way for children to accept an extensive system of authoritarian male-dominant relationships in other institutions: schools, business, politics and religion. Patriarchal attitudes embedded in the compulsive family expand to ensure female inequality throughout society. However, Reich sees that the men too are armoured as a result of authoritarian religions and political systems causing suppression by means of fear and physical and psychological violence.
Reich argued that the institution of marriage should be optional and that those who do get married should be permitted to take vows for limited time periods making divorce cheap and easy if love, or sexual satisfaction, is no longer apparent. Within the liberated family envisioned by Reich, the children are reared in an atmosphere of freedom of expression. Individual differences are respected and neither parent dominates the children. Parents should love, teach and lead the children rather than imposing a superior power, knowledge or will. The ideal is a democratic family in which allowing each individual freedom to grow is the main concern. Basic to the successful family functioning is the practice of self regulation as opposed to acting in accordance with the wishes or orders of others.
Books referred to:
Reich 1929 (Preface and notes 1934) Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis. Page number from Socialist Reproduction edition 1972. In other editions the quote may be on page 41.
Reich 1933 Character Analysis. Berlin (Enlarged edition New York 1945. London Re-print 1969)
Reich 1940 (English 1942) The Function of the Orgasm. Sex-economic problems of biological energy. Page numbers from Panther edition 1968. In other editions the quotes may be pages 73 and 79.
Students who contributed to the initial document included Paul Baston, Pauline Lewis, Sarah Maltby, Amber Richards, Mark Rosario and John Wilson , (March 1996)
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Time Line 1942