Wilhelm Reich Essay - Critical Essays

Reich, Wilhelm


Wilhelm Reich 1897-1957

Austrian-born American psychoanalyst.

A major contributor to the early development of psychoanalysis, Reich is remembered primarily for his pioneering theories about human sexuality. Initially accepted as a legitimate theorist, Reich fell into disfavor with the scientific community as he advanced his later, more controversial, ideas and was for the most part dismissed at the time of his death as little more than a fraud with messianic delusions.

Biographical Information

Reich was born in Galicia and grew up in Bukowina, two provinces attached to Austria prior to the collapse of the Hapsburg empire in 1918. When Reich was fourteen his parents' turbulent relationship ended with the suicide of his mother after Reich informed his father of her affair with a tutor. Some scholars speculate that Reich was haunted by this incident for the remainder of his life, and that some of his psychosexual theories may have arisen from guilt over his mother's suicide. In 1916 Reich joined the Austrian army and served in Italy during World War I. After the war Reich went to Vienna to study medicine, becoming a practicing psychologist at the age of twenty-two. As a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, he encountered Freud's libido theory, which held that repressed sexual energy engendered most human neuroses. Reich accepted this idea and published his first major study of sexuality, Die Funktion des Orgas mus (The Function of the Orgasm), in 1927. He broke with Freud, however, over the role of society in the development of sexuality and neuroses. While Freud maintained that the sexual repression imposed by society was necessary to forestall anarchy, Reich argued that healthy sexual experiences would prevent both neuroses and social disintegration. In 1928 Reich joined the Austrian Communist Party and cofounded the Socialist Society for Sex Consultation and Sexological Research, setting up health and counseling clinics for the working classes. Two years later Reich moved to Berlin, where he helped establish a sex education program called Verlag fur Sexualpolitik. In the early 1930s he was expelled from both the Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytic Association because of his advocacy of sex-oriented politics. Reich left Germany in 1938 to escape the Nazis, settling first in Denmark, then in Norway. By this time Reich had severed his ties with most of his scientific and political associates. He was driven from Scandinavia by a massive newspaper campaign against his increasingly narrow focus on the importance of sexuality, and in 1939 he emigrated to the United States. There he claimed to have discovered "orgone energy," a cosmic life force that could be captured in boxes Reich called orgone accumulators and used to cleanse the body and cure disease. In the 1940s Reich moved to Oregon, Maine, and built a laboratory to further study orgone energy. Reportedly becoming delusional, he believed he was being persecuted and developed a strong identification with Jesus Christ. He also began experiments with weather control and believed himself to be an alien. In the 1950s, in what is now considered by many scholars to be the result of McCarthyist hysteria and gross misunderstanding of Reich's essentially harmless experiments, the Food and Drug Administration brought charges of fraud against Reich, stating that he alleged his orgone accumulators could cure cancer. Arguing that the court did not possess the scientific understanding to judge his work, Reich refused to comply with orders banning the use of all orgone accumulators and all references to orgone energy in his writings. He was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to two years in the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His orgone accumulators and most of his books were seized by authorities and burned in New York in 1956. Reich died in prison in 1957.

Major Works

Several of Reich's early works are considered standards of psychoanalytic study. The Function of the Orgasm is a Freudian examination in which Reich argued that healthy orgasm releases pent-up energy that, unreleased, will stagnate and cause neurosis. In Charakteranalyse (Character Analysis) Reich posited that individual character is an ego-defense mechanism, or "character armor," designed to protect people from threatening emotional situations. He maintained that the analyst's function was to break down character armor and thereby enable patients to undergo effective psychotherapy. Reich's reaction to nazism resulted in Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (The Mass Psychology of Fascism), which contends that fascism is an expression of sexual repression. Much of Reich's later work evidences his fear of persecution and his frustration over the dismissal of his ideas. Listen, Little Man!, for example, is an inflammatory condemnation of the "common man." Other later works focus on his study of orgone energy and its alleged ability to cure emotional and physical illness.

Critical Reception

A controversial figure from the start, Reich first incurred strong disapproval from his colleagues when he differed from Freud on the issue of sex and society. His assertion that children should be allowed freedom for sexual experimentation led to further ostracism, and by the end of his life Reich was fully discredited as a doctor. Today critics consider his early writings, particularly The Function of the Orgasm and Character Analysis, to be seminal works in the field of psychoanalysis. Most critics maintain that although The Mass Psychology of Fascism is simplistic in its reasoning and development, its fundamental argument is valid. The existence of orgone energy has never been proven, although some commentators believe Reich's theory to be the forerunner to what is now known as alternative medicine.

* Principal Works

Der triebhafte Charakter (nonfiction) 1925

Die Funktion des Orgasmus (nonfiction) 1927

[The Function of the Orgasm, 1948]

Der Einbruch der Sexualmoral (nonfiction) 1932

[The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality, 1971]

Der Sexuelle Kampfder Jugend (nonfiction) 1932

Charakteranalyse (nonfiction) 1933

[Character Analysis, 1945]

Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (nonfiction) 1933

[The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1946]

Dialektischer Materialismus und Psychoanalyse (nonfiction) 1934

Psychischer Kontakt und Vegetative Strömung (nonfiction) 1935

Die Sexualitdt im Kulturkampf (nonfiction) 1936

[The Sexual Revolution, 1945]

Experimentelle Ergebnisse iiber die Elektrische Funktion von Sexualitdt und Angst (nonfiction) 1937

Die Bione (nonfiction) 1938

The Cancer Biopathy (nonfiction) 1948

Listen, Little Manl (nonfiction) 1948

Cosmic Superimposition (nonfiction) 1951

Ether, God, and Devil (nonfiction) 1951

The Orgone Energy Accumulator (nonfiction) 1951

The Emotional Plague of Mankind. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1953

Sex-Pol: Essays 1929-1934 (essays) 1972

* Reich's early works were originally published in German, his later works in English.


Paul Goodman (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Dr. Reich's Banned Books," in Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, Random House, 1962, pp. 138-44.

[Goodman was an American writer and educator whose works include Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960) and People or Personnel: Decentralizing and the Mixed System (1965). In the following essay, which was first published in 1960, he defends Reich's books at a time when they were banned by the Food and Drug Administration.]

We are here concerned with the fate of Dr. Reich's books, banned by the Food and Drug Administration. The relation of theory and practice, of a scientific theory and its applications, is a thorny...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Walter Briehl (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Wilhelm Reich: Character Analysis," in Psychoanalytic Pioneers, Franz Alexander, Samuel Eisenstein, Martin Grotjahn, eds., Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1966, pp. 430-38.

[In the following essay, Briehl provides an overview of Reich's career as a psychoanalyst.]

Of the many psychoanalysts who have contributed to the theoretical and technical aspects of the science, Wilhelm Reich stands out because of his overwhelming preoccupation with the problems of technique.

Reich was born in 1897 in Austria, where his father was a farmer. He became interested in biology early in life and, prior to his military service during World War I, maintained...

(The entire section is 2845 words.)

Michel Cattier (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Irrational Mass Behavior," in The Life and Work of Wilhelm Reich, translated by Ghislaine Boulanger, Horizon Press, 1971, pp. 114-37.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in French in 1969, Cattier explains how Reich combined concepts from Marxism and psychoanalysis to create a "social psychology."]

Marx and Engels formulated a principle of sociological definition which contemporary social scientists still use—the way of assessing a group of people is determined by their living conditions. For example, the political attitudes, moral values, and artistic tastes of a social class reflect its material situation.


(The entire section is 5872 words.)

Bertell Ollman (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: An introduction to Sex-Pol: Essays 1929-1934 by Wilhelm Reich, edited by Lee Baxandall, translated by Anna Bostock, Tom DuBose, and Lee Baxandall, Vintage Books, 1972, pp. xi-xxviii.

[Ollman is an American writer and educator whose works include Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971) and Social and Sexual Revolution (1978). In the following essay, he discusses Marxist elements in Reich's writings.]

Marx claimed that from the sexual relationship "one can … judge man's whole level of development… the relationship of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent...

(The entire section is 5888 words.)

Charles Rycroft (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Energy, Character, and Orgasm," in Wilhelm Reich, The Viking Press, 1972, pp. 13-32.

[An English psychoanalyst, Rycroft is noted for his dream theory, which differs significantly from the dream theories of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Rycroft maintains that dreams are "the sleeping form of creative imagination," rather than expressions of latent desires. In the following essay, he examines the influence of Freud's psychoanalytic theory on Reich's concepts of energy, character, and orgasm.]

Reich's ideas about energy, character, and orgasm can only be understood in the light of their origin in the kind of psychoanalysis that he encountered in Vienna in the...

(The entire section is 4713 words.)

Paul Edwards (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Greatness of Wilhelm Reich," in The Humanist, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, March-April, 1974, pp. 32-5.

[Edwards is an Austrian-born American philosopher and educator. In the following essay, he addresses what he considers misconceptions about Reich's life and works.]

When I came to New York in the fall of 1947, Wilhelm Reich was the talk of the town. Reich had at that time a large and enthusiastic following, especially among young intellectuals and people whose sympathies were clearly on the left but who, like Reich himself, had become totally disenchanted with communism as it had developed in Russia.

The main source of Reich's attractiveness was...

(The entire section is 3744 words.)

Frederick Crews (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Anxious Energetics," in Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 145-64.

[Crews is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, which was originally published in Partisan Review in 1974, he surveys the writings of Reich's followers and questions the validity of orgonomy in the treatment of psychological disorders.]

Until fairly recently it seemed apparent that Wilhelm Reich, though a persistent presence in "left" or "advanced" circles since the 1940's, was fated eventually to be dismissed as a minor curiosity of American cultural history. The founder of character analysis and...

(The entire section is 6285 words.)

Ira H. Cohen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Character Structure, Ideology, and the Internalization of Social Relationships," in Ideology and Unconsciousness: Reich, Freud, and Marx, New York University Press, 1982, pp. 137-69.

[In the following essay, Cohen outlines the major social and psychological principles in Reich's works.]

Freud's great contribution was to develop the concepts and techniques which theorists have applied to try to reveal the influence of social forces on the individual psyche. Yet Freud himself failed to recognize the historical nature of the relationship between, on the one hand, the development of our civilization and, on the other, the repression and distortion of human needs...

(The entire section is 10708 words.)

Mark Shechner (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "From Socialism to Therapy, II: Wilhelm Reich," in After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish American Imagination, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Shechner examines the influence of Reich's works on Jewish American writers.]

The most affirmative of the doctrines to make headway among writers during and after the war were those of Wilhelm Reich, whose system of character analysis (or vegetotherapy or, as it grew metaphysical, orgonomy) pinpointed the source of recent political disaster in the armored character of Western Man and prescribed an arduous program of action therapy as the key to individual salvation...

(The entire section is 4702 words.)

Joel Kovel (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Why Freud or Reich?" in The Radical Spirit.: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Society, Free Association Books, 1988, pp. 251-69.

[An American psychoanalyst and writer, Kovel is the author of White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970), A Complete Guide to Therapy: From Psychoanalysis to Behavior Modification (1976), and The Age of Desire: Case Histories of a Radical Psychoanalyst (1981). In the following essay, he critiques conceptions about Reich advanced by Janine Chassequet-Smirgel and Bela Grunberger in their book Freud or Reich? (1986), and explicates the principal differences between Freudian and Reichian psychotherapy.]


(The entire section is 7272 words.)

Further Reading


Cattier, Michel. The Life and Work of Wilhelm Reich. Translated by Ghislaine Boulanger. New York: Horizon Press, 1971, 224 p.

Examines major milestones in Reich's career.

Placzek, Beverley R., ed. Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence between Wilhelm Reich and A. S. Neill, 1936-1957. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, 429 p.

Collects letters written between Reich and the noted child psychologist A. S. Neill.

Sharaf, Myron. Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press/Marek, 1983, 550 p.

Discussion of Reich's life and career by one of...

(The entire section is 458 words.)