An incredibly important, but seemingly forgotten book--and one that is of pressing importance to a world in which what Reich would term "political irrationalism" is again getting out of hand, particularly with the rise of Trump in the U.S. and the far-right in Europe. To begin with, Reich starts with the premise that Fascism is not limited to one specific place or time in history, i.e. to Italy or Germany in the 20th century's first half; rather it is a natural though hideous outgrowth of the irrationality of any society, embedded in the mass character structure through the suppression of sexuality and the inherent father-dominated family in any patriarchal society. Repression of natural sexuality, Reich suggests, leads to a neurotic authoritarianism and a mystical, irrational way of thinking that opens the way for Fascism when the social fabric, or hierarchy, threatens to be torn apart. From this angle, one can see that Fascism is merely a radical expression of the dark elements of a preexisting social neurosis that has its roots in the development of patriarchy and the nation-state.
Religion and religious-based morality, of course, play large roles in the repression of sexuality and the maintenance of an authoritarian social structure, in that they teach people to regard their sexual impulses as sinful at the same time as they teach the worship of a grand father figure. This is replicated first in the family unit, where the father acts as the unquestioned authoritarian head of the household, secondly in the economic structure of capitalism, and thirdly in the hierarchical social structure. The sexual guilt feelings and the undermining of self-confidence, especially confidence in one's ability to govern oneself, lead to authority worship and irrational ideas such as duty, honor, courage, and self-control--which politicians use to justify all manner of destruction. The struggle to control one's sexual impulses in the face of this repression, Reich suggests, creates the reactionary psychological structure and obedience to authority. Mysticism, in the form of religion or nationalism (which many would say is a type of religion) or militarism or what have you, then becomes an outlet for the repressed sexual feelings. The passionate shouting of "Sieg Heil" (or "Trump! Trump! Trump!"), then, might be seen as a replacement for the orgasm, while imperialistic war could be seen as a replacement for a mass orgy.
In this authoritarian framework, the family is treated as a "nation in miniature," which leads to the identification of the nation with the family unit. This explains in large party why authoritarian political parties often praise "family values," in that the authoritarian family unit is the very basis for the authoritarian state--and the state's continued existence relies upon this microcosmic authoritarian unit. Hence why nationalists often refer to their home country as "motherland" or "fatherland." In terms of explaining the class structure, one can see this at work in the worship of and identification with the ruling classes by the lower classes--or else the identification with such abstractions as "the nation" or "God," as opposed to class consciousness. This infects the workplace as well, in that this neurosis teaches the worker to be obedient to his or her superiors out of a sense of duty, no matter how he or she may be exploited and mistreated. The formation of unions and other forms of workers' self-management is obviously a threat to such a model and completely at odds with the nature of capitalism and wage slavery.
Fascism, Reich argues, is the political expression of the authoritarian family unit. The Führer is a father figure, a sort of "savior" in the vein of Christ, while the nation-state (which is also identified with this Führer) becomes a sort of mother figure to be worshipped. In many ways, worship of the nation takes place of religion, though as Reich explains religion worked hand-in-hand with both Mussolini's Italy and the Third Reich as a means of controlling the masses and maintaining the rigid hierarchy. Reich shares a commonly held view that Fascism emerges when the petit-bourgeois class (or lower-middle class) finds itself slipping and becoming "proletarianized;" however, he goes a step further by explaining this as a middle-class revulsion at "proletarian values," which it equates with "filthy" natural sexuality. According to this psychoanalysis, Hitler himself is a prime example, himself having been born into a petit-bourgeois family with a strict father figure and then having lapsed into poverty. Ashamed at his poverty and of the proletarians he had to associate with because of his position, his natural reaction was, well, reactionary politics.
Reich goes on, too, to explain how the repression of sexuality leads to racism, by way of projection. The slave owner, for instance, justifies enslaving blacks because he believes them to be inherently childish but also intensely sexual creatures who would rape if freed--specifically rape white women. Sexual repression leads to a neurotic character structure that allows an in-group to ostracize and/or exterminate an out-group on the basis of projected sexual fears. Hence the Nazis' painting of Jews and Bolsheviks as corrupt and immoral sexual influences "poisoning" the nation's racial purity. The Fascist's own sexual perversions as a result of his upbringing are projected onto the racial other, and the Bolshevik or Jew is painted as a sexual threat, a rapist, a pervert. The national "body," equated with the female body, is seen as under threat by "outsiders."
The exploitation of these preexisting elements explains not only the swift rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany but also the failure of workers' self-management in the Soviet Union and its eventual perversion into Stalinism and totalitarian dictatorship. The problem, Reich explains, had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the mass character structure. He argues that the workers in the Soviet Union were not psychologically ready for the self-management and social responsibility implied by a stateless society, owing to the authoritarian social structure of Tzarist Russia to which they were accustomed. This set the stage for Stalin the politician to assume authority, and so the "dictatorship of the proletariat" never dissolved into a stateless society; instead, the masses succumbed to a personality cult and a nationalist fervor on par with Nazi Germany. The power of this analysis cannot be underestimated; it shows that the failure of communism in Soviet Union (and subsequently in China and elsewhere) had nothing to do with communism itself or its goals and everything to do with the reactionary character structure of the masses and the unreadiness for self-management. Thus began the slide into totalitarianism. This failure, as Reich states, should be no concession of defeat to reactionaries; rather, it simply shows how strong a hold reactionary forces have on the masses as a result of their upbringing; rather, it shows that this sickness must be addressed if any progress towards a more egalitarian society is to be made.
Although his thought is steeped in Marx and Freud, not to mention that he was a former member of the Communist Party in Austria (he was kicked out, incidentally, because of this very book), Reich veers away from the conclusions of both Freud and many of the communist parties of the day. Rather than embracing any ideology or party politics, Reich argues that the way to a more equitable and free society lies exactly outside of political activity and politicians, through what he terms "work-democracy." In essence, he begins with the same premises and aims for the same type of society as socialists and communists do: he sees capitalist societies as inherently repressive--capitalism being merely a more advanced type of feudalism--and he aims for a stateless, egalitarian society in which the class system and hierarchies cease to exist, in which the workers own and control the means of production, and in which an organic "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" system of organization prevails; where he differs, however, is that he believes this cannot be imposed through ideology or by force, which more often than not lead to dictatorship, but that it must rather develop organically through a greater sense of social responsibility in the masses and the eradication of what he sees as the "social sickness" of authoritarian society--namely that imposed through sexual repression and the patriarchal family unit, which leads the masses to neglect their own responsibility for their freedom and leave it up to politicians to decide the organization of their lives.
Reich's ideas are not without flaws. His theory of orgones, which is only briefly discussed in this book, has widely been discredited as pseudoscientific--and for good reason. Also, given the book's age, his theories on homosexuality leave much to be desired in the way of progressive thinking. One also wishes he were a little less vague with regards to his ideas on "work-democracy." That said, his superb dissection of Fascism and his theories of sexual repression a tool of political repression alone make this worth the read.
Although Reich's ideas on sexuality were major catalysts for the sexual revolution across the West in the 60s, we are still clearly a long way off from Reich's ideal of a "work-democracy." With the gutting out of the American Left by Reaganism and Neoliberalism and the turning of socialism into a scare-word, it will take time to reverse these damages. Watching the madness of the current presidential race and the rise of politicians like Trump, one can see that the forces of irrationalism are as strong as ever and that true democracy is a long way off yet. Still, as more and more people open their eyes to the repressive nature of capitalism and the state and to the failings of both, there is a great deal to be taken from this book, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.