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Reply to Mussachia's Critique of "Social and Sexual Revolution" < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Reply to Mussachia's Critique
of "Social and Sexual Revolution"

By Bertell Ollman

I agree with Mussachia that sexual repression is one kind of repression among many; that sexual repression is not peculiar to capitalism; that poor people put a greater value on food, clothing, and decent housing than they do on a sexual revolution; that interest in a sexual revolution has come chiefly from materially satisfied members of the middle class whose erotic fun and wisdom have not proven too difficult for capitalism to co-opt; that those involved in making a socialist revolution or in building socialism in a country which has had its revolution need a lot of self-discipline and that in certain conditions this may require restrictions in their sexual lives. I believe that Reich the Marxist would have agreed as well.

Where Mussachia and I disagree is on the social function of sexual repression in capitalism and, it would appear, on whether it even pays to look for it. According to Mussachia, capitalism has inherited the authoritarian family, like religion, from "the past" and simply uses it to "support its main mechanisms of social control." But religion in capitalism is significantly different, both in character and function, from religion in feudalism (I am thinking of the reforms in Catholicism and Judaism as well as the development of Protestantism): and the same applies to the authoritarian family. Though possessing certain trans-historical qualities, family and religion do not stand already completed, somehow outside capitalism, with a simple instrumental relationship to the mode of production. Rather, they exist as interacting and overlapping dimensions of capitalist life, helping to shape the same mode of production, which in the last analysis determines their particular forms and functions. In his Introduction to The Critique of Political Economy, Marx declares: "The conditions which generally govern production must be differentiated in order that the essential points of difference be not lost sight of, in view of the general uniformity which is due to the fact that the subject, mankind, and the object, nature, remain the same."1 Without dismissing those aspects of human activities, which different periods have in common, Marx's analysis invariably focuses on the forms of these activities that are peculiar to each period.

Reich sees sexual repression at the core of authoritarian family relations and, while recognizing its existence in pre-capitalist societies; he is most concerned to uncover its unique character and role in capitalism. In particular, he wants to know how and to what extent it contributes to the inability of the mass of the workers in advanced capitalist societies to attain class-consciousness. This is the main question to which Reich addresses himself and as such provides the relevant context in which to examine and assess all his efforts during his Marxist period. In the past century, a half dozen major crises have come and gone in the capitalist world without producing the degree of proletarian class consciousness Marx had anticipated. Among his followers, three kinds of answers are generally given to account for this failure. One emphasizes some inadequacy in Marx's analysis of capitalist conditions: "Marx did not (could not) see (foresee)..." A second answer focuses on the mistakes of earlier leaders and organizations of the working class. The third answer points to some failing in the workers themselves, not in their "human nature" but in their conditioned nature. Though usually treated as mutually exclusive, there is probably some truth in each of these explanations, but the work, which succeeds in weaving them together, has not been written. In my opinion, Reich's is the most successful attempt to examine that part of the problem of class-consciousness, which lies within the workers themselves, but I don't by any means believe that what he has done is wholly adequate.2

Reich's special contribution to this subject derives from his (and Freud's) discovery of the importance of early conditioning and especially of sexual repression in the formation of character structure. At the start of his letter, Mussachia seems to grant that character structure is a product of early conditioning; but he then insists that it is competition in the market place for jobs and goods—in short, adult life—that gives people both their bourgeois ideology and their equally bourgeois "emotional syndrome." I certainly don't want to deny that adult life in capitalism produces such results, but the real question is, to what extent does it mainly intensify and give final form to ways of thinking and feeling that are already present in the growing child and adolescent. Having already presented family and church as ahistorical phenomena, it is not surprising that Mussachia minimizes their contribution in capitalism to the formation of character. He is obviously and unfortunately the kind of Marxist Sartre criticizes for treating people as if they are born as the time they apply for their first job.3

What of the special importance Reich attributes to sexual repression? As a practicing therapist, Reich found that sexual repression was at the core of most of his patients' neurotic conflicts. As a doctor interested in youth, he saw that young people spend the greater part of their time thinking about and trying to establish a sexual life (something most people tend to forget when they become adults). As a Freudian theorist, he recognized how sexual feelings could be transformed by experiences and conditioning to appear as their very opposite. It can be argued that consistently repressing any strong impulse contributes to the formation of an authoritarian character. The relatively greater strength of sexual impulses and the equally intense repression, which it calls forth, the almost unique sense of guilt and morbid anxiety connected with inadequate sexuality, all led Reich—as it did Freud—to give priority to sexual repression. Moreover, Reich found that the undischarged energies resulting from sexual repression are used to control a variety of impulses, sexual as well as non-sexual, and serve in this way to underpin the whole of character structure.

Does this mean that workers who have not been sexually repressed or—more to the point—have been less repressed will necessarily become class conscious? No. If Reich is correct, all that will happen is that a major impediment which interferes with workers' rationally coming to grips with their condition will be weakened or removed. It is a matter of forestalling the development of a characterological predisposition to misconstrue and accept the conditions of their life. The crucial role of these conditions, and of socialists in educating workers about them, remains, as we have always understood them. Hence, whatever sexual liberation occurs (not in talk but in practice, not on middle-class university campuses but in working-class high schools) cannot be said to produce class-consciousness but only to permit it to arise in connection with later life experiences.

Finally, it may be useful to speculate on why Reich's work on the social function of sexual repression in capitalism raises so much irrelevant criticism from committed comrades, for the exchange printed here is only too typical. Without pointing to particular individuals, I believe it is mainly due to the conceptual problem of integrating mass psychology into the socio-economic framework of Marxism, the political difficulty of developing a strategy that takes account of Reich's analysis, the unacceptable long-term perspective that this strategy seems to assume, the bad name given to sexual revolutionaries by hippies, etc.; and the criticism Reich's analysis implies of existing organizations and strategies for ignoring mass psychology. There is no doubt that these are, or mask real problems. It is unfortunate, indeed tragic, that they keep so many Marxists from learning what Reich has to teach about their solutions.

  1. Karl Marx, Introduction, Critique of Political Economy, trans. By N.I. Stone (Chicago, 1904), p. 269.

  2. For a fuller discussion of the topic, see my article, "Marx and the Working Class: Toward Class Consciousness Next Time," reprinted as chapter I in this book.

  3. J.P. Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris, 1960), p. 47.