Book review – Reiche: Sexuality and Class Struggle

Book review – Reiche: Sexuality and Class Struggle

Several months ago, a few of us working around Marxism and sexuality discovered the publication, in 1970, of a book titled Sexuality and the Class Struggle, by Reimut Reiche. We were intrigued. Here was a book, apparently from the height of the radicalisation of the 1960s, which dealt with these issues from a Marxist perspective. Yet none of us had heard of it. Why had it vanished from view? This piece is an attempt to answer that question – if you like, a brief book review of a text published almost fifty years ago.

Reiche’s book was published in English, by Verso, in 1970. However, this text was translated from a German version written in the winter of 1967-68 (the image above shows the German mass-market paperback edition). How this fits with the chronology of the period is of key importance: the book essentially predates the development of the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements. For example, the protest at the Miss America beauty contest, which did much to raise awareness of women’s liberation in the US and internationally, took place in September 1968, while the Stonewall riots happened in June 1969. Now, these events didn’t come out of nothing. Drag queens/trans women had already fought the cops in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of August 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and activists were referring the same year to the notion of “gay power”. Initial organisation of women’s groups started in 1967– a publication from the spring of 1968 was entitled “Notes from the First Year”. The politics of both these movements reflected those of the much larger and better established movement for civil rights/black power. They took for granted that the fight against oppression was, centrally, the task of oppressed groups themselves – this, largely because of the sexism and homophobia of much of the American left at the time – and rooted their political practice in personal experience.

Reiche thus had the misfortune to write a book about sexuality just before some of the key events took place which have shaped left understanding of these issues since. He is also writing before the completely unexpected explosion of May 1968, when students raised barricades in the centre of Paris and a general strike caused the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to temporarily flee the country to Germany. The question facing the left became “revolution is on the agenda – how should we take it forward?” But before then, the question through the 1950s and 60s had been “workers aren’t fighting – they seem to have been bought off by the spread of consumer goods like fridges and washing machines – how should the left respond?”

This is the political context in which Reiche finds himself: a few student struggles have happened, but most young workers desire to be “respectable” and reject students as “layabouts”. He turns, for an account of sexuality and of society more generally, to the ideas of Herbert Marcuse, hugely influential in the 1960s. The Frankfurt School, to which Marcuse belonged, had initially developed in Germany between the wars, and had sought to explain why workers were not doing more to fight capitalism and in particular fascism. They developed an account of society which combined the ideas of Marx and Freud, and suggested that workers didn’t oppose the bosses or the Nazis because many of them found some subconscious gratification in acceptance of elements of capitalism or fascism. After the Nazi seizure of power members of the school were exiled to America, and here they developed a similar analysis of 1950s consumerism, which they found similar in some ways to German fascism. In this view, workers were getting enough satisfaction from American capitalism that they would not fight back. This is very much how Reiche talks of 1960s Germany – indeed, he describes the German ruling class as almost infinitely capable of manipulating workers’ thinking, via advertising and the media, to suit its own needs.

If there is little we can do to change the world, at least we can understand it, and describe how things could be better. Here Reiche relies on a Freudian account of the development of sexuality through oral, anal, phallic and genital stages. What Marx there is in the book comes mostly via Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, but there is a great deal more Freud. Socialism, Reiche suggests, will be characterised in Freudian terms by the disappearance of the superego as regards society in general, and the typically achievement of “full genitality” when it comes to sex. Homosexuality will be accepted, but perversions, however defined, will die out. What does this mean in practice in the Germany of 1968? Reiche opposes utopian attempts to institute communal living, where people try to free themselves from bourgeois ideas about sex while capitalism remains completely dominant – for example, by rejecting monogamy. Yet it’s unclear what practical alternative he proposes, and his method seems strangely abstract, compared to the approaches rooted in personal experience which we’re now used to.

None of this is to reject Sexuality and Class Struggle completely. Reiche repeatedly refers, for example, to Marcuse’s concept of “repressive desublimation” – rather than seeking to repress sexuality as they had earlier, in this view, the ruling class made certain commodified forms of sex more available so as to win workers’ acceptance of capitalism. It’s a view that it would be interesting to reassess in the light of the even greater commodification of sexuality we’ve seen in the last fifty years. But the basic problem of Reiche’s writing is that it was written before the world, quite unpredictably and dramatically, changed so that his book is now more of historical interest than anything else.