Reich, Wilhelm 1897–1957
Wilhelm Reich's ideas developed from an emphasis within Freudian circles on the central role of genital sexuality in mental health to an apotheosis of the orgasm (more precisely, the energy manifested in the orgasm) as the vital energy of the universe. His career began with a leading position in the early psychoanalytic community. When it ended he considered himself and was considered by his followers to be a misunderstood genius. But by then both the scientific and psychoanalytic communities considered him a crackpot.
As with his mentor Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Reich came from a German-speaking Jewish family in the Austrian Empire, in Reich's case from Galicia. After service in World War I, Reich studied medicine in Vienna where he was rapidly drawn into the young psychoanalytic movement. A rising star, Reich was named technical director at Freud's Vienna polyclinic in 1924 and in 1927 to the executive committee of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
Reich extended the master's teachings in two areas. The first, character analysis, gave priority to the patient's resistances and the ways in which they constituted a character type. The second concerned the centrality of what Reich called orgastic potency. More than climax the Reichian orgasm had to be infused with mutual tenderness and sensuality. It should be produced by slow continuous friction between penis and vagina, and the simultaneous mutual climax should result in a momentary loss of consciousness and be accompanied by involuntary muscular contractions throughout the body. Such orgasms were essential to mental health, were the goal of therapy, and marked the difference between genital and neurotic personalities.
In the early twenty-first century, Reich's embrace seems narrowly heteronormative (Sharaf is probably right to impute latent homophobia to Reich) (1994, pp. 390-391; cf Fascism, pp. 92-93, 138). Reich's positions shocked both psychoanalytic sensibilities and theories. Freud did trace neurosis to unresolved childhood sexual conflicts, but he also saw the sublimation of the sexual drive as the source of all culture and civilization. In Reich's system the sole primary instinct was life affirming whereas the master had recently added an independent, and contrary, death instinct. Theoretical and personal clashes effectively expelled Reich from the international psychoanalytic movement in 1934.
By then Reich had also been distinguishing himself from his fellow therapists by his sex-political work. This was information and propaganda in favor of birth control, abortion, and sexual freedom directed to working-class youth, in conjunction with the left wing of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party in Vienna, until his expulsion in 1930, and with the Communist Party in Berlin until Reich was expelled from that party in the moment of Hitler's rise to power in 1933.
Reich broke with Communists and other Marxists by concluding, as early as 1934, that the explanation of fascist success resided in personality dynamics, prefiguring the idea of the authoritarian personality. For Reich, Fascism, and especially Nazism, exploited and redirected the energy blocked by sexual repression. By the end of World War II Reich (citing German political philosopher and writer Friedrich Engels [1820–1895]) extended his argument backward to the origins of patriarchal society, whose inequalities were based on confiscated sexual energy.
Leaving Germany Reich found his way to Norway in 1934 and the United States in 1939. He also migrated toward natural science, first by studying what he considered the bionic energy of orgasm and then claiming to have discovered bions, inorganic particles that spontaneously changed into organic forms (scientists have never accepted his claims). Reich's most important innovation came with his discovery of the orgone (accepted only by his followers) in 1940. He first spotted orgone energy as a bluish light emitted by his bions, then in a darkened room without the bions. Eventually, seeing orgones between the stars at night, he concluded not that they were an illusion, but that they were a universal cosmic energy linking inanimate matter, organisms, and the world of sexuality (through the orgasm).
Between 1942 and 1949 Reich built a residential and scientific center in Maine, which he named Organon, and where he worked and taught as a kind of cult leader. Reich became convinced that orgone energy could be concentrated in specially designed boxes called orgone accumulators and that exposure to this energy had medical benefits, especially against cancer, which Reich described as "living putrefaction of the tissues due to the pleasure starvation of the organism" (Sharaf 1994, p. 306). A disastrous experimental combination of radium with orgone energy in 1950 convinced Reich of the existence of a negative orgone energy (or DOR for Deadly ORgone), which was now the cosmic evil to orgone's good biological energy, and which was associated with the dangers of nuclear war.
In 1954, after several years of investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) won a court injunction against the sale or promotion of orgone accumulators, considered bogus medical treatment. Reich's defenders insisted that the FDA's scientists had not tested the accumulators correctly. In 1956 Reich was convicted of violating the injunction by continuing to promote accumulators and was imprisoned in 1957. He died within the year, convinced that President Dwight Eisenhower (whom he supported in the Cold War) would come to his aid.
A few short years after Reich's death in disgrace, his name—and even more, his ideas—were revived in the hippie and sexual liberation movements in their association (make love not war) of authoritarianism, inequality, and militarism with sexual repression, as well as in the utopian dream that open sexuality could redeem humanity.
Reich, Wilhelm. 1970. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Vincent R. Carfagno, eds. Mary Higgins and Chester Raphael. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Reich, Wilhelm. 1973. Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Sharaf, Myron. 1994. Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: Da Capo Press.