by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 3
November 2022
Anniversary
15:00

The fate of Wilhelm Reich is a warning to us today

Persecuting intellectuals, however fringe, rarely ends well
by Peter Franklin
Wilhelm Reich

Exactly 65 years ago, Wilhelm Reich died in a US prison cell. It was a sad end to the life of a wayward genius. Born in 1897, Reich became a noted psychoanalyst, working with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. 

He was a communist intellectual, who tried to reconcile Marx with Freud (though he eventually fell out with his comrades). Keeping one step ahead of the Nazis, he moved to America in 1939. There, in what he thought was safety, he developed his ideas, which were bizarre even by the standards of 20th century Austrian shrinks. 


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It’s almost impossible to sum-up his thinking, but he’s best-known for the concept of ‘orgone’ —  a sort of orgasmic life energy that he believed to be a fundamental force of nature. It was analogous to older quasi-scientific ideas like phlogiston and aether.  

The attraction of orgone was that it supposedly held the key to physical and mental health. The associated theories of sexual liberation were an extra draw. Reich believed that orgone energy could be harnessed and used to the benefit of humanity. He ‘invented’ the orgone ‘accumulator’ (basically a Faraday cage), in which people could sit to ostensibly curative effect. Then there was the ‘cloudbuster’ — best described as an orgone cannon through which Reich hoped to induce rainfall (the only real achievement of the device was to inspire the Kate Bush hit ‘Cloudbusting’). 

Needless to say, it was all nonsense. But instead of allowing Reich to continue his work — just like thousands of other fringe therapists and eccentric inventors — the American authorities decided to persecute him instead. The US Food and Drink Administration led the crackdown. Reich and his colleagues were made to destroy their inventions and his publications were impounded and burned. For violating a court order, Reich was sentenced in 1956 to two years imprisonment, from which he never returned. 

It seems extraordinary that this should have happened in the ‘land of the free’. Indeed, it’s tempting to dismiss this episode as belonging to a vanished age — the bad old America of anti-communist witch-hunts, prudish censorship and racial segregation. 

And yet the story of Wilhelm Reich is a warning from history that is still relevant today. Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was forced to backdown after setting up Disinformation Governance Board to regulate public discourse. 

According to The Intercept, the DHS still plans to target what it deems to be misinformation, for instance by working with social media companies on issues like “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

There are controversial matters on which cranks, conspiracy theorists and bad actors spread unsubstantiated claims and deliberate lies. However, for the government to set itself up as an arbiter of truth risks doing a lot more harm to democracy. Even the ACLU, very much not part of the Trumpist Right, is alarmed.

65 years on from Wilhelm Reich’s lonely death, we need to think very carefully about where the modern-day misinformation scare is leading us. Truth is real and precious, but like most other good things it is something that must be freely accepted. People have a right to be wrong. Take that right away and it won’t just be fraudsters and propagandists who suffer, but misfits and dissidents. 

One needn’t believe a word that Reich wrote to see how dangerous that would be. 

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Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago

If he’d claimed his cloudbuster was a carbon capture device that would save the planet, he would have received a grant instead of a jail sentence.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

And a Nobel prize

David Silver
David Silver
1 month ago

Does anyone writing on this page check any of their “facts” ever? First, Reich never claimed a cancer cure. Quite the opposite. In his book The Cancer Biopathy, he is very clear that he experimented only with terminal cancer patients who signed waivers and that they all died. They did experience some temporary relief of pain, etc., which he documented. He did claim an understanding that a cancer tumor was likely evidence of a deeper biological resignation of the whole organism. Time has been quite supportive of such views, which were considered nutty at the time. Now, as to the FDA. They brought a complaint against him and Reich elected to not go to court to argue his case. The FDA’s requested injunction was granted by default. Reich went on about his business until a few years later when he was criminally charged with violating the injunction, which was extremely broad, likely violated his first amendment rights, and had never been adjudicated as to its legality. Surely, Reich didn’t expect to wind up in prison. He miscalculated. But he was clearly not engaging in any kind of charlatanism, he was simply focused on continuing his research. Incidentally, there exists a mountain of anecdotal evidence of positive benefits of using the orgone accumulator continuing to this day. And the FDA in their multi-million dollar, years long investigation found exactly ZERO dissatisfied users of orgone accumulators to “save” from a false “cancer cure.” This is the nonsensical part of the story. The sad part, besides Reich’s premature death 65 years ago today, is that everyone who has thus far posted on this page seems to believe the falsehoods they propagate so freely. So let’s review. Reich NEVER claimed a cancer cure. He postulated that cancer was a systemic disease which was quite difficult to cure, and counseled prevention of emotional resignation by raising children to be able to regulate and express their emotions freely. Ooh! Gotta save the world from this guy!

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 month ago
Reply to  David Silver

Thanks for the research. Has anyone ever analyzed the “orgone accumulator” to determine what it actually did?

David Silver
David Silver
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Wagner

There have been many experiments over the many decades since the accumulator was invented (1940s). Scientifically conclusive? Most people wouldn’t think so. I think the fact that the accumulator continues to attract interest is the best evidence that there may be something to it, whatever that may be. This relatively recent and very short youtube video comes from what appears to be an unbiased source. While not rigorously scientific, it is suggestive: https://youtu.be/XtqnYVtj1J0

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Wagner

Look up the “Reich-Einstein Affair”.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  David Silver

This is the claim of the author: “But instead of allowing Reich to continue his work — just like thousands of other fringe therapists and eccentric inventors — the American authorities decided to persecute him instead.”

My comment was designed to illuminate that the FDA did not arbitrarily decide to persecute him but decided in accordance with their mandate that he had violated the prohibition against pedalling cures for cancer. As you say he did treat cancer patients in the orgone accumulator but could probably have disputed the charge levelled against him but failed to do so. Had he employed a decent lawyer in the first instance he might have avoided his fate. Jogging back to make his case for him without seeing any countervailing arguments from the FDA does not affect the fact that the FDA were not persecuting him but attempting to do their job. I agree that he was not a fraudster but he failed to make his case out properly and the US court system is notoriously reluctant to revisit and overturn court judgements.

i was simply seeking to correct the superficial treatment of the matter by the author. I relied on my memory of the case from a time some decades ago when I was interested in the work of Reich but your presumably more recent research does not really affect my view that the FDA’s action was not the result of an arbitrary decision to persecute him.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

The story of Wilhelm Reich and the FDA is not I think properly explained in this article. Reich claimed his orgone accumulator could inter alia cure cancer. Such unsupported claims resulted in the FDA taking proceeding against Reich. He was forbidden from publicising and selling his accumulator but despite this one of his associates sold a part of the accumulator and he was imprisoned for breaching the court order. Unless the author wants to argue that fraudsters and the deluded should be entitled to peddle bogus cures for cancer unmolested the action of the US FDA was very much in line with what they were mandated to do. I am very much in favour of free speech when it comes to the subject of science but equally no one should be entitled to peddle unverified cures for cancer simply on the off chance that they might work, such an approach would certainly provide a fraudsters charter.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Sure – lock him up. Good riddance to bad rubbish. But wait – we have quite a few more ‘fraudsters and the deluded’ to lock up for the very same crime: “You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations” – Biden.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jim R
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

I agree Biden should certainly receive a visit from the FDA but I suppose he could plead mental incapacity to excuse his unfounded claim. That said Reich was not entirely sane and suffered various paranoid delusions.

Jonathan Reed
Jonathan Reed
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Biden! How about Fauci.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

“…or if you do it’ll be very mild” – you forgot that bit! At 72 with a weak immune system Covid would have killed me: guaranteed! In fact I had a very mild condition snd survived easily ..after 4 vaccinations!
ALL medicines have side effects, including aspirin and penicillin: in very rare cases this leads to very serious side effects, even death! The vast, vast majority benefit enormously for vaccines. Enough of your silly conspiracy theories!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
1 month ago

‘Lying’ and ‘Being Mistaken’ are not the same thing.

Leejon 0
Leejon 0
1 month ago

How can we laugh at people unless they tell us what they really think?

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 month ago
Reply to  Leejon 0

I find it quite easy. Unjustifiable, perhaps, but quite easy.

Greg Sparling
Greg Sparling
1 month ago
Reply to  Leejon 0

Lol. How can I interrupt you if you won’t say anything?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Leejon 0

“He who laughs last laughs longest!” Many is the supposed nut case who was later exonerated. Surely geniuses are allowed to be nut cases as much as anyone else? Indeed more! Remember, if you double your failure rate you also double your success rate! How many “silly” (?) experiments before a successful incandescent light bulb was developed? The line between fraud and experimental failure is narrow!

Leejon 0
Leejon 0
5 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Gosh! Is this the muttering of a genius?

chris s
chris s
1 month ago

I believe most people, like me, discovered Wilhelm Reich through the Hawkwind song “Orgone Accumulator” from the “Space Ritual” live album. I’ll side with Lemmy and the gang over any governmental agency.

james goater
james goater
1 month ago
Reply to  chris s

There’s an excellent documentary movie, “W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism”, released around 1970, I seem to remember, which featured Reich’s orgone accumulator and his various experiments. Well worth seeking out. Not certain, but this could have been the inspiration for the Hawkwind music.

David Silver
David Silver
1 month ago
Reply to  james goater

That film by Dusan Makavejev contains a priceless documentary section in which the filmmaker visits Reich’s former lab in Rangeley, ME, which had become a museum, and talks to some townspeople. He also talks to some of the therapists who studied with Reich. But a lot of the film is a kind of pornographic treatise on sexuality and society which is only loosely based on Makavejev’s interpretation of Reich’s social theory.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  james goater

Organism or Orgasm??

james goater
james goater
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Yes, having seen it a half-century ago, my memory was hazy on that one, but Wiki has “Organism”. Must be correct.

Andy White
Andy White
1 month ago

I read his Mass Psychology of Fascism years ago and thought he had interesting things to say about why so many people are attracted to authoritarian leader types and how a more healthy outlook might be encouraged. He wasn’t always just a crank, even if he ended up that way.

Reich was a Jew, a Communist, and a Freudian who thought Freud’s ideas about the centrality of the sex drive didn’t go far enough. He wanted out and out sexual liberation in the here and now – Free Love. You could see why the Nazis wouldn’t be too keen on him!!

David Silver
David Silver
1 month ago

Yesterday, the following vintage audio excerpt of Reich from 1950 was posted on the Wilhelm Reich Museum facebook page. It won’t shed light on any specifics of this discussion, but it might help clarify who it is you’re all talking about:
https://wilhelmreichmuseum.org/audio-mans-roots-in-nature

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago

Surely the only intelligent, moral, fair and acceptable way to combat misinformation os to…
1. Expose the fraud comprehensively
2. Expose the fraudsters fir what they are! and
3. Present the Truth with fully verified / proven evidence / data.

It stands to reason that censorship is a cowards way out, granting “real thruth” status to idiotic conspiracy theories.. just as executing/jailing nut cases makes them into martyrs and legends.