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Monday, March 12, 2018

The Mass Psychology of Fascism

The Mass Psychology of FASCISM

We have defeated communism but have we defeated fascism? Examining the transformation to fascist dictatorship experienced by Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, one finds no reason that it could not happen again. Sure, Hitler was crazy, but how did he recruit millions of accomplices?

One plausible idea that does not presume millions of people are "evil" is to try to understand humanity in terms of elemental forces that transcend the boundaries of their everyday, individualistic, rational levels of being.

A simple example is the herd and flocking instincts seen in many animal species. Each individual feels an elemental force to conform to a single group. Out of their multitudes a single agglomeration appears whose motions may not perfectly overlap with the interests of its individuals.

In human political groups, the leaders may undertake policies which are detrimental to the individual interests. For example, a "conservative" political party may use the powers of government to benefit a very powerful few at the expense of the multitudes. Yet the same party maintains popular support among the people most hurt by its policies. As Wilhelm Reich confirms, the means by which leaders maintain power in the light of such contradiction is the psychology of fascism.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism (MPF) starts by posing that very question: why do individuals lend their support to groups that hurt them? MPF is full of great insights and also a few screwy things I am not so sure about. To appreciate Reich's book, one must make allowance for how the world was when it was published, 60 years ago.

At the end of World War II, it was realized that a fascist dictatorship (Nazi Germany) had almost pulverized the communist revolution (Russia). Reich sought to understand in general how a significant fraction of the working peoples of the world (Germany) turn away from the communist propaganda which was geared toward the common man. Reich calls this disconnect between self interest and party loyalty "the cleavage."

Reich balances the scales in this case of irrational self-interest by invoking mysticism as a party policy. He ascribes mysticism as much a force in the motion of the people as is their self-interest. Reich says this is where the Marxists failed: they did not speak to the soul of the people, only their self-interest. The mysticism of the Nazis triumphed over Marxist economic theory. Reich would say that ideology is a material force.

To pose the question of why impoverished masses could become nationalistic, Reich considers the inexorable logic that would pertain in the absence of mysticism:

"The basic Marxist conception grasped the facts that labor was exploited as a commodity, that capital was concentrated in the hands of the few, and that the latter entailed the progressive pauperization of the majority of working humanity. It was from this process that Marx arrived at the necessity of "expropriating the expropriators."

According to this conception, the forces of production of capitalist society transcend the limits of the modes of production. The contradiction between social production and private appropriation of the products of capital can only be cleared up by the balancing of the modes of production with the level of the forces of production. Social production must be complemented by the social appropriation of the products. The first act of this assimilation is social revolution; this is the basic economic principle of Marxism. This assimilation can take place, it is said, only if the pauperized majority establishes the `dictatorship of the proletariat' as the dictatorship of the working majority over the minority of the now expropriated owners of the means of production."[p8]

Of course, the dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship of the few anyway. But in 1946, as now, the social question about devotion to a cause which is counter to material self interest still remains.

With idealogy or mysticism admitted as a material, economic force, Reich makes the self-evidently simple statement that "every social order produces in the masses of its members that structure which it needs to achieve its main aims... In every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas...The class which has the means of material production at its disposal also has the means of `ideological production' at its disposal.

Reich contends that "the contradictions of the economic structure of a society are also embedded in the psychological structure of the subjugated masses." Reich calls it "the mainstay of the state apparatus."

As he probes the roots of this psychological cleavage, Reich attributes much to Freudian sex-oriented psychology and a concept of sex economy. Evidently, sex economy is based on control through sexual repression and suppression. Reich finds a strong link between sexual suppression and economic exploitation.

Reich sees the roots of authoritarianism in the authoritarian family: "Man's authoritarian structure is ... produced by the embedding of sexual inhibitions and fear in the living substance of sexual impulses." Somehow sexual repression makes people submissive and impotent. The resulting conservatism and fear of freedom is what Reich calls "reactionary thinking."

Sexual repression, according to Reich, leads to substitute gratifications and the distortion of natural aggression into brutal sadism, which itself is part of a mass-psychological basis for imperial wars. Reich maintains that sexual repression can lead a man to act, feel, and think contrary to his own material interests. The sexual repression and its attendant effects is evidently achieved through ideology and mysticism.

Reich claims honor and duty are substitute gratifications for the sexual repression, and their ecstasy is genuine. Evidently Reich feels the sexual repression leads to mysticism, and that these feelings of honor and duty are part of mysticism. "All the elements of the reactionary man's structure are developed in this struggle [to resist the temptation to masturbate]." "Every form of mysticism derives its most active energy ... from this compulsory suppression of sexuality." Reich goes on and on about sexual repression, sexuality, and exploitation.

The authoritarian state is reflected in every family in the father. The family is an instrument of power of the state. As father is to family, fuhrer is to nation. "In their subjective emotional core the notions of homeland and nation are notions of mother and family." Although Reich tend to view the patriarchal family as more of a tool of authoritarianism than the matriarchal family.

"How it comes about that the psychic structures of the supporting strata of a society are so constructed that they fit the economic framework and serve the purposes of the ruling powers as precisely as the parts of a precision machine will long remain an unsolved riddle...What we describe as the structural reproductionn of a society's economic system in the psychology of the masses is the basic mechanism in the process of the formation of political ideas."[p54]

The Nazis characterized themselves as "an elementary movement, it cannot be gotten at with `arguments'." Their rally speeches were conspicuous for operating upon the emotions of the masses and avoiding relevant arguments as much as possible. Hitler claimed that true mass psychological tactics dispense with argumentation and keep the masses' attention fixed on the `great final goal' at all times.

Reich gives some discussion to the importance of the middle class to Nazism, and their role in the subjugation of the lower classes. He characterizes them with an "army sergeant" psychology. They are dependent on the upper class and on governmental authority for their position. Such a person begins to take on the attitudes of the ruling class and a corresponding cleavage between his economic situation and his ideology.

There is a tie between national and familial ties in the lower middle classes. The fuhrer arouses emotional family ties in the masses, and this makes him an authoritarian father figure. He attracts all the emotional attitudes that were meant at one time for the father. The masses had need for protection and were allowing the dictator to manage their needs.

The more helpless the mass-individual becomes, the more pronounced his identification with the fuhrer, and the childish need for protection is disguised in the form of feeling at one with the fuhrer. It is basically the self-confidence one may derive from greatness of the nation [Ed: or today, I would say sports teams].

Fascism is a problem of the masses, not of Hitler as a person or of the politics of the Nazi party. This is perhaps the main conclusion. Reich discusses symbology and racism, and provides more depth on the tie between sexual repression and mysticism, other aspects of sex economy.

Authoritarian society reproduces itself in the individual structures of the masses with the help of the authoritarian family. Therefore the authoritarian family is defended as the basis of the state. This propaganda mines deep emotional forces. Reich seems to think a sexual revolution would shatter authoritarianism when he says "sexually awakened women ... would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology." There may be a kernel of truth to this in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

"The man reared under and bound by authority has no knowledge of the natural law of self-regulation; he has no confidence in himself."

There is a "dictator's soil of mass psychology" which constitutes fascism's strength.

Mysticism diverts attention from daily misery, to prevent a revolt against the real causes of misery. To fight the mystical thinking on which fascism is built is a way to fight fascism. Education tends to eradicate mystical thinking.

"The reactionary man (fascist) assumes an intimate relation between family, nation, and religion."

"It is in the nature of a political party that it does not orient itself in terms of truth, but in terms of illusions, which usually correspond to the irrational structure of the masses."

"The word fascism is not a word of abuse any more than the word capitalism is. It is a concept denoting a very definite kind of mass leadership and mass influence: authoritarian, one-party system, hence totalitarianism, a system in which power takes priority over objective interests, and facts are distorted for political purposes."

Reich feels that the Russian revolution started as democracy, that Lenin and Marx were both bourgeois property owners advocating a new form of democracy, but that under Stalin it became nationalism. Reich correlates the deterioration into totalitarianism to the fact that the sexual revolution was suppressed. The failure of the Russian revolution was due to the irrationality of the masses, whereas the revolution appealed only to economic rationality. Marx never mentioned the state as a goal. "...the founders of the Russian revolution had no inkling of the biopathic nature of the masses." "As Lenin conceived it, the dictatorship of the proletariat was to become the authority that had to be created to abolish every kind of authority." Engels viewed the state, in fact, as a mere tool of oppression of the weaker class by the economically dominant class. Reich goes on with a compelling analysis of the failure of the Russian Revolution.

Contrary to the view that masses will always eventually liberate themselves, Reich feels they are doomed to enslavement. Instead, they can be shaped and molded to suit any ends. They are in fact incapable of freedom. The points in history where a new stage is reached, such as the American and Russian revolutions, are somewhat accidental coincidences of events. Yet Reich found room for hope. People can become capable of freedom. Since the incapability of freedom is rooted in "social suppression of gential sexuality", freedom could be realized if suppression were removed.

Reich differs with the analysis of Fromm, who tied totalitarianism to fear of freedom and craving of authority. The core reason of sexual suppression is "inaccessible to rational understanding." Social revolutions based on purely economic considerations could not compete. In modern times, Reich would say "its not just the economy, stupid."

Reich goes on to a detailed consideration of how the state and bureaucracy becomes instruments of oppression and totalitarianism.

In summary:

-the masses are irrational

-their mass organization will reflect this irrationality

-irrationality is as big a motive factor as any economic or rational consideration

-sexual suppression is a tool of oppression

-totalitarianism is a problem of the masses, not of the leaders

-freedom is a capability of the masses, not of the leaders

Book Review: The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946), by Wilhelm Reich
© 2007 L.L. Williams


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