The Mass Psychology of Fascism
By Wilhelm Reich (1933)
Free PDF: Mass Psychology of Fascism
In the the recent US election, Donald Trump successfully used false right wing populism to lure working people to vote against their own economic interests – as did Adolf Hitler during the 1930s. Writing in 1933, Reich foreshadows the present failure of the left to engage the working class. He also predicts the steady creep of western democracy towards greater authoritarianism and the recent rise of the populist New Right (via the Tea Party, Patriot and Alt-Right movement).
Why the Working Class Votes Against Their Own Economic Interest
Reich is the first major sociologist to offer a convincing analysis of the allure of fascism and reactionary politics for low income workers. Ever since the Reagan era, progressives have struggled to understand why blue collar workers are so easily persuaded to vote for politicians who go on to worsen the basic conditions of their lives. Reich pins the blame on authoritarian family structures most working people grow up in.
According to Reich, the strong allure of reactionary politics – and overt fascism – is based in mankind’s 6,000 year history of rigid patriarchal, authoritarian and hierarchical social organization.
He devotes a large portion of his book to the concept of sexual repression and the political, religious and economic institutions that deny women and adolescents full expression of their sexuality. These institutions support authoritarian family structures that enforce sexual repression. For millennia, this authoritarian control was exerted through political and religious mandates under which women literally became the property of men.
He contrasts modern society with early matriarchal societies in which children were free to “play doctor” with each other and both men and women were free to have sex with any other willing adults. These societies dealt with the potential for sexual excess or exploitation via self-regulation and group pressure. As Reich and many anthropologists have noted, murder, war, rape, prostitution and slavery were extremely rare in these societies.
Although women are no longer regarded as property in industrialized society, both women and adolescents continue to be denied full enjoyment of their sexuality under male-controlled political, economic and religious institutions.
Why the Working Class Craves Authority
As Reich convincingly argues, it’s not just women who suffer the adverse psychological effects of these structures. Being raised in excessively authoritarian family, educational and religious structures denies both men and women any experience of the natural capacity of self-regulation. Deeply fearful, anxious, guilty and confused about their perplexing inner drives, they have no confidence in their ability to conduct their lives without an external authority to guide and compel them.
The reactionary right knows exactly how to appeal to these unconscious fears and anxieties. First by creating even more rigid and authoritarian structures (eg outright bans on sex education, premarital sex, abortion, birth control and gay rights). These provide immediate (though temporary) relief by limiting choice. Secondly by promoting racist ideology that projects unhappiness and perceived loss of freedom away from ourselves onto an external “enemy) – Jews, Muslims, socialists, immigrants, terrorists, Hispanics, blacks, feminists, liberals, intellectuals and, increasingly, baby boomers.
Why Americans Don’t Vote
In the US only half of eligible adults register and a little over fifty percent of registered voters actually vote. Reich argues that it’s typical in highly authoritarian “democracies” for the passive, non-voting population to constitute the majority. He’s highly critical of the left for attempting to engage this demographic by addressing their appalling economic conditions – a strategy he insists is doomed to failure.
What the left needs to grasp, in his view, is that this politically inactive majority are too caught up in their own internal struggles to think in terms of their economic needs. To put it crudely, status-related needs, such as getting laid, fast cars and flat screen TVs will always be a much higher priority than wages or working conditions.
Instead of educating low income workers about economic and political injustice, Reich argues that leftists should directly address the emotional baggage the working poor carry from authoritarian family and school experiences. He proposes the best way to do this is through politically enlightened social reform activities, particularly directed towards youth and women.