The Mass Psychology of Fascism  

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"The German freedom movement prior to Hitler was inspired by Karl Marx’s economic and social theory. Hence, an understanding of German fascism must proceed from an understanding of Marxism."--The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) by Wilhelm Reich

This page The Mass Psychology of Fascism is part of the fascism portal.Illustration: A Child at Gunpoint (1943) from the Stroop Report
This page The Mass Psychology of Fascism is part of the fascism portal.
Illustration: A Child at Gunpoint (1943) from the Stroop Report

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus) is a 1933 book by Wilhelm Reich. It explores how fascists come into power, and explains their rise as a symptom of sexual repression. In Anti-Œdipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari followed up Reich's problem: "why did the masses desire fascism?", which led them to a critique of Freudo-Marxism.



Reich, originally from Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and practicing psychoanalysis and psychiatry in Vienna, joined the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) in 1928. He joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) upon moving his psychoanalytic practice to Berlin in 1930. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, however, was seen as being so critical of the Nazi regime (as well as the Communist regime in the Soviet Union) that Reich was considered to be a liability to the KPD and was kicked out of the party upon the book's publication in 1933.


The question at the heart of Reich's book was this: Why did the masses turn to authoritarianism which is clearly against their interests? Reich set out to analyze "the economic and ideological structure of German society between 1928 and 1933" in this book. In it, he calls stalinism "red fascism" and groups it in the same category as Nazism, and this led to him being kicked out of the Communist Party.

Reich argued that the reason Nazism was chosen over fascism was sexual repression. As a child, a member of the proletariat had learned from his or her parents to suppress sexual desire. Hence, in the adult, rebellious and sexual impulses caused anxiety. Fear of revolt, as well as fear of sexuality, were thus "anchored" in the character of the masses. This influenced the irrationality of the people, Reich would argue.

As Reich put it:

Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.

Reich noted that the symbolism of the swastika, evoking the fantasy of the primal scene, showed in spectacular fashion how Nazism systematically manipulated the unconscious. A repressive family, a baneful religion, a sadistic educational system, the terrorism of the party, and economic violence all operated in and through individuals' unconscious psychology of emotions, traumatic experiences, fantasies, libidinal economies, and so on, and Nazi political ideology and practice exacerbated and exploited these tendencies.

For Reich, fighting fascism meant first of all studying it scientifically, which was to say, using the methods of psychoanalysis. Reason, alone able to check the forces of irrationality and loosen the grip of mysticism, is also capable of playing its own part in developing original modes of political action, building on a deep respect for life, and promoting a harmonious channeling of libido and orgastic potency. Reich proposed "work democracy," a self-managing form of social organization that would preserve the individual's freedom, independence, and responsibility and base itself on them.


As a result of writing the book, Reich was kicked out of the Communist Party of Germany . The book was banned by the Nazis when they came to power. He realized he was in danger and hurriedly left Germany disguised as a tourist on a ski trip to Austria. Reich was expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1934 for political militancy. The book was ordered to be burned on request of the FDA by a judge in Maine, USA in 1956, amongst other works by Reich.

The authoritarian family as the first cell of the fascist society

Chapter V contains the famous statement that the family is the first cell of the fascist society:

From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation. In this connection, the findings of Morgan and of Engels are still entirely correct.

Michel Foucault reprised this analogy in his History of Madness (1961), in which he assesses life in the psychiatric asylum as a symbolic recreation of an authoritarian society. He speaks first of family tribunals of 1790 as the "elementary cell of civil jurisdiction," and then of the madman-doctor couple, which he calls "the root cell of madness":

It is a curious paradox to see medical practice enter the uncertain domain of the quasi-miraculous at the very moment when the knowledge of mental illness was trying to assume a sense of positivity. On the one hand madness is placed at a distance in an objective field where the threats of unreason disappear; but at the same moment the madman and the doctor begin to form a strange sort of couple, an undivided unity where complicity is forged along very ancient lines. Life in the asylums, such as it was constituted by Tuke and Pinel, enabled the growth of this subtle structure that was like the root cell of madness - a structure forming a microcosm where all the great, massive structures of bourgeois society and its values had their own symbol: the relationship between Family and Children structured around the theme of paternal authority; the relationship between Fault and Punishment around the theme of immediate justice; and the links between Madness and Disorder around the theme of social and moral order.

Deleuze and Guattari reprised Reich arguments in their joint works Anti-Oedipus, and A Thousand Plateaus, in which they talk about the formation of fascism at the molecular level of society.

See also

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