November 24, 2011

Reich and Marcuse

Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse were contemporaries and each sought to understand the workings of humankind as sociologists and political theorists. Both men were Jewish and were born a year apart in Eastern Europe: Reich in 1897 in a Galician village, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Marcuse in 1898 in Berlin. Both came from affluent families. Both served in the First World War--in 1916 Reich joined the Austrian Army and ultimately became a lieutenant at the Italian front. Also in 1916 Marcuse was drafted into the German Army but did not see combat. When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, both men fled Germany, Marcuse coming to the United States in 1934, and Reich in 1939. 
Wilhelm Reich, in his lab 1944.
Although very different in their interests, approach and the scope of their work, Reich and Marcuse each, in their own way, felt sex was a key to human liberation and both advocated non-repressive societies. The ideas of Reich and Marcuse were embraced by young radicals in the 1960s. Both men have been maligned, heralded as saviors, dismissed as insignificant, and--even recently--blamed for the decline in modern America*. They share the distinction of having their complex ideas reduced to simple axioms by those who do not have the desire or patience to really read them, and both are remembered, in large part, for their discussions of human sexuality.                
In my last post, I wrote of an upcoming lecture by David Brahinsky, Ph.D. titled The Relevance of Wilhelm Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” to the Struggle Against Fascism, a Project Shared by Herbert Marcuse. The lecture was given at the 2011 conference of the International Marcuse Society. It is now my pleasure to publish this important document online, in its entirely. 
Herbert Marcuse
Marcuse was highly critical of Reich. In his preface to the 1998 edition of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Douglas Kellner says, during a 1978 interview, that Marcuse stated he and others within his intellectual circle believed Reich “moved too fast from subjective conditions to objective conditions” and “vastly oversimplified” fascism in claiming that sexual repression created personalities that were susceptible to fascism, and in explaining that fascism succeeds by manipulating repressed personalities and providing sexual surrogates. Indeed, in Eros and Civilization Marcuse states: “Reich’s notion of sexual repression remains undifferentiated; he neglects this historical dynamic of the sex instincts and of their fusion with the destructive impulses....Consequently, sexual liberation per se becomes for Reich a panacea for individual and social ills.”  
For Marcuse, the value of Reich’s work lies only in his early writings in so far as they are an attempt, as he puts it, to develop the critical social theory implicit in Freud. Even so, Marcuse feels this effort falls short because of Reich’s “sweeping primitivism” which he says foreshadows “the wild and fantastic hobbies of Reich’s later years.” (See Eros and Civilization.)
Like so many others, Marcuse diminishes and then dismisses Reich. Also, like others, he refuses to even entertain Reich’s idea that there exists a biologic energy that determines how humans function. But Brahinsky sets the record straight in his important paper. He begins by explaining that Reich and Marcuse had the shared goal of attempting to understand the roots and functioning of fascism. He goes on to state, “neither Marcuse himself nor Marcuse scholars, as far as I can tell, have shown that they understand or appreciate the full measure of Reich’s contribution to this important project.” Brahinsky then explains in stepwise fashion the development of Reich’s key ideas, correctly refutes Marcuse’s assertion that Reich saw sexual liberation as a panacea, and effectively demonstrates the importance of Reich’s later scientific work, namely that biological factors determine social and political conditions.
In addition to being of interest to Reich and Marcuse scholars, The Relevance of Wilhelm Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” to the Struggle Against Fascism, a Project Shared by Herbert Marcuse also serves as a splendid overview of Reich’s work. I consider it an excellent addition to today’s scholarship on Wilhelm Reich and the science of orgonomy.

*See Patrick J. Buchanan's New York Times bestseller "The Death of the West" (2002).


rich schulman said...

Dr. Schwartzman,

I was glad to read your new post. I didn't have any knowledge of Marcuse and his ideas on Dr. Reich.

I thought Dr.Reich though he knew he came from a Jewish heritage considered himself not Jewish. Are you suggesting Dr. Reich was still influenced culturally by his background or actually practiced the religion.

Thanks again,

Richard Schulman

Joel Carlinsky said...

In a letter sent in 1948 to a Dutch Anarchist group that had published a favorable article about him, Reich stated that they had made one mistake, they had refered to him as "Jewish", and this was simply not true. He told them he had nothing against anyone who was Jewish, but he happened not to be. He went on to say that he was aware of the common belief that anyone of Jewish ancestry was Jewish, but that the fact that something was commonly believed did not make it true. He said some of his immediate ancestors were indeed Jewish, but that he himself was not. He told them he was not angry at them for making this common mistake, but was only trying to set the record straight.

I have seen a copy of this letter by Reich, though it has not been published in English as yet. He says the same things in Listen, Little Man. Anyone who reads that book should have no doubt exactly where Reich stood on that issue.

Richard Schwartzman, D.O. said...

Who is or is not Jewish can be a complex question depending on what aspects of Jewishness are being considered. Religious belief, cultural identification and ethnicity are all factors that might lead one to call themselves Jewish, or to be called Jewish. My understanding based on the biography of Reich by Myron Sharaf is that Reich corrected those who referred to him as a Jew. Clearly, Reich did not adhere to the Jewish religion, did not feel culturally identified with the Jewish people, and did not self-identify as a Jew. Nevertheless, Reich was ethnically Jewish, having been born to Jewish parents. It is my feeling that given this circumstance, it is not incorrect to say that he was Jewish. Although Reich disliked the label, and it may have little or no bearing on his scientific work, it does become important when we speak of the circumstances of his life, as they were very much shaped by his Jewish ethnicity.

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.