The Mass Psychology of Fascism
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980)
It is obvious to all that the United States is a country in trouble. In order for us to develop our individual and collective sense of well-being, the predicament we are in requires us to have a sober analysis of our problems and how we got here, the ability to recognize and celebrate the things that bring joy to our lives, and a vision of a path forward for our communities and for our country that we are able to enact.
Over the last years, I have asked family, friends, and colleagues to explain the most visible publicized symbol of our national challenge: the Trump phenomenon, i.e. the support of tens of millions of people in this country for an administration that has been deceitful, corrupt, divisive, cruel, and has championed policies which undermine or threaten the quality of life for so many. This is the first time since the Civil War where, as a result of an administration’s program or lack thereof, the number of deaths of its own citizens surpasses the number of people killed as a result of military aggression in other countries. These conversations have largely left us mutually unsatisfied. Trump is a serious problem but not the problem to be explained.
While there has been jubilation in the streets after his defeat at the ballot box, the forces that have given us this government remain and will attempt to find ways to recapture political dominance. Because of the clearly autocratic style of leadership displayed over the last years, there have been frequent references to fascism and the threat of an emergent fascism in the United States. In examining historical parallels, I recently reread Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. Arguments over whether the United States is a fascist society or not are less important than understanding the conditions that have given rise to the form of authoritarian government, with a representative democratic face, we experience. 21st-century society is not a reproduction of 1930s Europe. But we can learn from previous historical eras.
Reich regarded fascism as a problem of the masses and not a problem of Hitler as a person or the politics of the National Socialist Party:
the champion of an idea, can be successful … only if his personal point of view, his ideology, or his program bears a resemblance to the average structure of a broad category of individuals. … it is precisely a question of understanding why the masses proved to be accessible to deception, befogging, and a psychotic situation. … Here is a contradiction that can be explained only by mass psychology and not by politics or economics. The masses had every possibility of evaluating the propaganda of the various parties. … Why didn’t they see that, while promising the workers that the owners of the means of production would be disappropriated, Hitler promised the capitalists that their rights would be protected.
Contemporary vows to the public to drain the swamp, and to capitalists to minimize taxes and remove government regulations, are rough equivalents.
The psychologist Robert Coles, in The Political Life of Children, a book in his larger Inner Lives of Children Trilogy, examines the stories and myths that a nation uses to socialize generations of people in order to establish the consent of the governed. In a society structured, in both a psychological and material sense, fundamentally on issues of race and class, our experiences as children form the basis for our political attitudes. Reich posits that the authoritarian ideology that prevailed in Nazi Germany was rooted in the patriarchal family—that the identification with state power is analogous to subservience to the supreme authority exercised by the father in patriarchal society and internalized in childhood. With economic dependency of the wife and children on the husband and father, the family served as the precursor and institutional structure for maintaining authoritarian rule.
Reich also believed that sexual repression was a co-determining factor. “The wife must not figure as a sexual being, but solely as a child-bearer. … Sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean a complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology.” Reich did not equate sexual freedom with licentiousness; on the contrary. He favored removing compulsory and hypocritical morality from sexual relationships. Men, rather than declining responsibility for their impulses and acts, would no longer see morality as a burden and develop norms of self-regulation. In this, Reich’s thinking was highly influenced by his relationship with Sigmund Freud and the fledgling psychoanalytic movement in Europe in the early 20th century.
As a young practicing psychoanalyst, Reich had been a follower of Freud, with whom he corresponded regarding the clinical application of the concepts of the id, ego, and superego, and subsequently became Freud’s assistant at his psychoanalytic clinic in Vienna. They posited that the conflict between sexual needs and socially enforced inhibitions were the underlying cause of neuroses. Because of the consistent pattern of symptoms observed in his practice, Reich believed that the problem did not lie primarily with individuals but was a manufactured condition inflicted on people through the institutions of capitalism.
In his clinical work, Reich found that a significant percentage of society engaged in conduct contrary to espoused traditional morality: virginity until marriage, monogamy, conjugal fidelity, and chastity if single. Preceding today’s anti-choice factions by nearly a century, acceptance of abortion would have required implicit acknowledgement of sex and pregnancy outside the confines of marriage—a violation of conservative religious sensibilities. Reich had come to believe that there was no hope of sexual reform and reduction of mental disorders in a capitalist world where the paradigm of the patriarchal family and religious values continued to create the internal contradictions leading to sexual misery. The solution could only be found in the destruction of the established authoritarian social structures.
After witnessing a police massacre of workers in Vienna during the July Revolt of 1927, Reich joined the Communist Party. Having already attained a degree of renown in intellectual circles, he was a prize. The party arranged lectures for explaining psychoanalytic principles to student and worker organizations which met with little success. That changed dramatically when one day he veered off course and began to share his account of the concrete sexual conditions of the day. He then worked with colleagues to establish sex information and hygiene centers in Vienna. Here are examples of questions Reich was asked:
Do you allow your children to masturbate?
If your sixteen year old daughter brought her boyfriend home so they could make love, would you allow them to?
My husband does not satisfy me during intercourse because he comes too quickly. What should we do?
If sexual liberty were enforced, wouldn’t it lead to chaos? I have the impression that my husband would leave me.
As Reich’s popularity grew, it attracted the attention of the Communist Party leaders in Moscow who demanded that his publications be revised to meet the more conservative, prudish ideas of the party. Party functionaries came to frustrate his projects. Reich became increasingly disenchanted and left the party in 1933.
In the 1930s Reich challenged Freud and conventional psychoanalysts regarding their attribution of neuroses to sexual repression in individuals. Were they willing to recognize the part played by conventional morality and the anti-sexual legislation of the day in the consequent incidence of neurotic behavior he observed in the Viennese population? Reich’s work with youth led him to believe that the field failed to confront the fundamental root of the problem. He found that more and more young people between the age of 14 and 18 had sexual intercourse (today, according to the Center for Disease Control, more than half of teenagers have had sex before the age of 18) and the reformers of the day did not address the greater disconnect between espoused morality and reality.
Around the same time, he began to question and ultimately reject Freud’s death instinct hypothesis. He became increasingly disillusioned with psychoanalysis as its proponents concentrated more on the development of theory rather than clinical practice and treatment of disorders. The pursuit of human freedom, for Reich, lies in what he termed “Work-Democracy.” It included a rejection of politics and the totalitarian state and rested on assuming direct social responsibility for the practical functions of life. “This democracy is borne by the functions of love, work, and knowledge and is developed organically.”
The Mass Psychology of Fascism was written in 1933 in the early days of Hitler and the Nazi Party’s rise to power. The 1920s were an incubation period for what was to infect Germany for a generation, supply the grist for Reich’s analysis, and torment the world for three decades. Reich’s work was an attempted integration of two of the most powerful intellectual currents of his day: Marxism and psychoanalysis. In his later work, he began to go off the rails. His pursuit of a deep understanding of the libido, of sexual energy, led him to believe that it was not just a psychological state, but also a physical force that could be measured. He created a contraption intended to harness and measure this energy, the orgone box made famous in popular culture by Woody Allen’s orgasmatron in the film Sleeper (1973).
Reich became increasingly ostracized in both the psychoanalytic and socialist movements and moved to the United States. He taught at the New School for Social Research from 1939 to 1941 and corresponded directly in the early 1940s with Einstein who must have considered him cook crazy. An institute was established in Rangeley, Maine (which exists today as a museum), and he continued to attack the family institution. As orgone accumulators became more widespread, the US government, through the Food and Drug Administration, prohibited their sale and the sale of all of Reich’s books including the Mass Psychology. His descent into madness and ignominy ended with his death in 1957 in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where he had been imprisoned.
The examination of history provides points of reference that may allow insights into our current dilemmas. The problem we have inherited requires explanation of both psychological and socio-economic factors. Reich identified fascism as a movement of the lower middle class: private and public officials, shopkeepers, merchants, and farmers who exist in a tenuous relationship between proletarianization and aspirations of upward economic mobility. Rather than recognizing power relationships and the dynamic of society, the middle classes aspire to be like their rulers. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”1 In our day, the corporate media triumvirate of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC form the capitalist class’s megaphone for the constant dissemination of these ideas to the public. The voting bloc with the largest percentage of Trump voters, according to New York Times exit polls, were those with family incomes over $100,000.
The seeds of authoritarianism have long been present in US society. There is a historical adoration of a Lone Ranger. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the Republican Party’s submission to the most retrograde policies of our time has unleashed the forces of racism and the pursuit, not of happiness, but for power and wealth at all costs. The voter restrictions of the last decade harken back to the day when founders of the republic feared the consequences of universal suffrage and inserted barricades into law. In the first Presidential election only white male property owners who constituted 10–15 percent of the recognized population were “qualified” to vote. Three percent of the total population voted for president in 1789, four percent in 1824, 11 percent in 1828, 17 percent in 1840. Neither are Supreme Court rulings to enforce discrimination new. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Court ruled that African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States.
One of the current factors for Trump support is the transparency of the disparity of wealth and power between the one percent (or the 10 percent) and the 99 percent (or 90 percent). In March 2020, in a continuation of the 21st-century expansion of wealth to the already super-rich to the detriment of the vast majority of citizens, the Federal Reserve provided gigantic loans to big business. The historical antecedent was the 2009 handout by Ben Bernanke and the Obama Administration of $7.7 trillion to the banks “too big to fail” and reinflating a financial bubble while ignoring foreclosures on millions of working class home owners. The initial Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security Act (CARES) allocation by Congress was for $500 billion; $454 billion to be determined at the whim of political authorities. But this was simply the beginning of the handout to the rich and powerful.
The CARES Act prompted the Fed to expand the total allocation underwritten to Big Business to a total of $6.286 trillion. Contrary to public perception, only a small percentage of this went to us commoners: payments to individuals and families, $300 billion; extra unemployment insurance, $260 billion; student loans, $43 billion; for a total of $603 billion. While 30 percent of the country feared they would not be able to make next month’s rent, no mortgage or rent relief was passed. This money was intended to keep us buying goods and services which would continue to pad the pockets of elite capitalists. While lines for food pantries stretch around our blocks in New York City, more than $4.5 trillion (that’s trillion folks) were directed to support Big Business. This handout, accompanying the loss of millions of jobs and without the production of a single commodity, increased annual corporate profits by 250 percent.2 These people love what Obama and (especially) Trump have done for them.
The public was largely hoodwinked by the corporate media to think that the public good was what motivated this tremendous act of corporate welfare. Both parties of capitalism, the Democrats as well as the Republicans, whole-heartedly supported the bailouts. In the Senate, only Bernie Sanders voiced great concern over the act and, in the end, voted in favor. The Senate approved 96–0. The House of Representatives approved the bill through a voice vote, and only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had the courage to speak out publicly calling it “crumbs for our families.” She has since been castigated repeatedly by Democrat party leaders and demonized by Republicans and media pundits.
Democrats are seen as the party of the bankers and financial elite which has led to rampant mistrust of the party by 70 million voters. Trump, with his psychopathic behaviors, is considered a preferred alternative, someone who will mess with a system that needs to be disrupted. The history of Biden-Harris leadership would indicate that without a mass political movement, they will continue to serve the rich and powerful. Biden’s disgraceful role in criminal injustice policies, mass deportation of undocumented workers, drone technology warfare from the bunkers of the Southwest, and Harris’s identification as a successful child of immigrant parents—as opposed to identifying with the legacy of the Black Panther Party’s community organizing movement in her neighboring city, Oakland—are worth paying attention to. They have moved politically because the Black Lives Matter movement, Dreamers, and supporters of Bernie Sanders and “the Squad” forced them to in order to be elected. But to argue that all elections are insignificant would be asinine. We have the noxious Trump experience to draw on. Consider what the impact of an Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez administration would have on public policy for the working class. Look at what Jacinda Ardern’s approach to climate change, immigration, and COVID has done for New Zealand.
These last days I am listening and learning from my wife and step-daughter regarding the significance of electing a Black Jamaican/Indian woman as Vice President of the United States. My knee-jerk reaction, reflecting on our experience with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Hillary Clinton, et. al. is that this reveals the possibility of equal opportunity appointments of exploiters. I was narrow-minded about this. They pointed out that legislation has historically been done on women without a woman in the room. Now a woman will be in all rooms.
Missing from our 21st-century public discourse is the impact of the fundamental logic of capitalism as a system, i.e. what the inexorable drive to maximize profit and the competition embedded in the accompanying ideology does to the social relationships of human beings. How do the material conditions of our existence influence how we think, how we understand ourselves, how we envision a better world for all of us to live in? Socialism has become redefined in our era to make it innocuous to the overthrow of capitalism. It is defined with features of 1950s Eisenhower warnings (against the military-industrial complex), 1970s Nixonian social policy (universal basic income), and the post-World War II Scandinavian welfare state. The neoliberal era ushered in by the Reagan-Thatcher administrations has relegated these to the dustbin of history. There will be no going backward. We have no indication that those who occupy privileged positions will hand over wealth and power to the rest of us. We must take it from them by organizing our communities into alternative structures for exercising political and economic power. There is no blueprint for this.
“[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”3 Nero fiddles while Rome burns. Trump golfs while COVID kills. Transformative change requires a grand vision for a better world and the development of alternative organizations and institutions for decision-making and exerting collective power.
Over the last 100 years, we have made progress as a society in areas of race, gender identity, and family relationships. This came about as a result of great struggle by trade unions, Black nationalists, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, and organizations such as ACT UP. But we still live in a patriarchal society characterized by white privilege. An unquestioning respect for authority is built into our institutional norms. In our public schools, students continue to be taught the mythological version of American exceptionalism. The most common reason given for school suspensions is insubordination and inflicted on Black and brown students disproportionately. Our imagination for what is possible has been colonized by schooling and the corporate media. Socialism as an alternative is demonized, and our ability to create a comprehensive vision for a better world is formally stymied. A society where millions are not able to distinguish fact from fiction is ripe for authoritarian rule.
One of the most inspiring actions I’ve experienced in the last years was a demonstration that was organized in early June at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. It took place in the context of the larger Black Lives Matter movement so prominent in the streets in the spring. Four young Black men had announced the demonstration two days earlier, and thousands of people of all ages and ethnicities showed up. The impromptu speeches given by the four young men were particularly moving. They appeared to be in their late teens, and each addressed the crowd. One asked us to look around, to see how many people came out on short notice, and to pay attention to the diversity of the protesters. None of them were official organizational leaders, and each of them had a sophisticated understanding, not just of the police mistreatment and violence against African American communities, but also of the oppressive nature of capitalism as a system. They emphasized the principles of justice, equality, and unity as organizing features of a movement. If we are to effectively take power from the leaders vested in the current institutions, we will need to get behind these young men and their Black Lives Matter comrades; and move beyond the hyper-focus on electoral politics.
With millions of people on the streets in the spring and early summer, the goal was primarily to disrupt the system. But disruption is not enough. And expecting existing institutions to work in our favor will not do. Yet we are not powerless. Transformation will require some institutions to be abolished (e.g., ICE), some to be modified (e.g., our city councils), and some to be created (e.g., workplace collectives). We will need to build new organizations, when possible, that move the ideas of justice, equality, and unity from theory to practice. In our daily lives we can commit to building healthy relationships with family, friends, work colleagues, and strangers. We are told that the construction of a better world is impossible, that there is no alternative. Perhaps we can take a lesson from the Argentinian escrache movement, which resulted in the imprisonment of government officials and military officers: impossible takes longer.
- Engels, Frederick and Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. Edited by C.J. Arthur. (New York: International Publishers, 2004).
- Brenner, Robert. “Escalating Plunder.” The New Left Review 123 (May/June 2020).
- Marx, Karl, and Daniel De Leon. 1898. The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Pub. Co.