The Sexual Revolution – Maurice Brinton

This is an important and yet a disappointing book[1]. Written by a psychotherapist deeply versed in Marx and Reich, its main theme is that to be effective “the sexual revolution must be aware of its radicalism” and that “we must differentiate between permissiveness and a revolution in fundamental sexual attitudes”. According to these yardsticks the current sexual revolution is diagnosed as having failed. “Sexual liberation was intended to be a catalyst for social change that would go to the roots of authoritarian society and transform it. But the sexual revolution has got stuck in an advocacy of permissiveness and has not touched the deep structure of society; it has only produced attitudes of defiance and rebelliousness which emphasize a negative dependence upon the superego establishment. Liberation from pleasure-anxiety has been transformed into a worship of alienated sexuality in the form of a commodity. The superego is managing quite nicely to use the superficial aspirations of permissiveness for its own purpose by making a business of it, and our ‘revolutionaries’ are falling for the deception”.

The author starts with a devastating critique of “the scene” today. “The uncompromising and critical evaluation of all that exists, the urge to understand reality in order to change it according to consciously-held values is being replaced by petty rebellions and revolutionary posturings”. What we have is a worship of naked slogans, raw emotionalism, “the illusion in the omnipotence of impulses, the belief that through acts of violence the establishment will disappear or that by negating it in fantasy it will crumple up and vanish”. Today “the search for a revolutionary alternative takes the form of a flight from reason in the service of the technological establishment”. In all this there from reason and in their search for surreal experience the pseudo-revolutionaries weaken human autonomy and leave real decision-making to others”. In all this there is little i would disagree with, although i don’t necessarily endorse the author’s attempt, in later chapters, to provide a psychoanalytical interpretation of these phenomena.

The book contains important sections on the sadism that pervades so much “liberated” literature (interpreted in terms of people living out “their perverse secondary drives”), striking examples being drawn from the now defunct journal OZ. The pages dealing with women’s liberation are all well worth reading. Discussing “sex as a commodity” the author claims that “now that the sexual revolution has released us from the compulsions of secrecy, sexual commodities are flooding the market and are becoming the most profitable area of capitalism next to the market of agression”. Perhaps the theoreticians of International Socialism should now start talking about “the permanent sex economy”?

Of particular interest to the reviewer was the author’s attempt at psychoanalytic analysis of the phenomenon of alienation. Social authority is seen as the “institutionalization of the superego”. “Alienation is only possible if economic forces can utilize a psychic readiness in men to be estranged from themselves and from the products of their labour”. It is argued that “conversion of man’s creative ability into a commodity is based upon compulsion of making a gift-offering of himself and his product to his superego, to God and the social authority”. The whole attempt at a synthesis of Marx and Freud is taken further than has been attempted hitherto.

Scattered among heavier stuff are a number of interesting and amusing insights, often described in telling phrases. I particularly enjoyed the author’s account of man as a “purpose-following animal”, of the twentieth century as the “graveyard of revolutionary hopes”, of the contemporary trend towards mysticism as “a great rummaging in the historical lumber-room of dead cultures”, of the supermarket as the modern temple: “…where cathedrals once stood and men gathered to worship the visible or invisible God, now the shops are places of worshp and the commodities displayed take the place of the Altar and the Cross. Communion is now through the cash nexus and buying and selling the ritual of salvation”. There are also intellectually stimulating explorations of “patriarchal paranoia”, of the significance of drama and ritual in various cultures, of the significance of circumcision, of romanticism in literature and of the growth of Madonna worship in the twelth century. Few would disagree with conclusions to the effect that “commercial and pseudo-revolutionary sexual liberation promotes a depersonalized and regressive sexuality, leaving the fundamental unconcious repressions intact”.

Yet despite these insights the author seems trapped, in my opinion, in Marxist and Reichian ideas and formulations which repeatedly strike a jarring note. His political outlook is at times quite naive. He speaks of the Popular Front regime in Spain as the “Spanish Socialist Republic” and of the emergence of Stalinism in Russia as “a betrayal of communism” (rather than as the perfectly legitimate and totally coherent ideology of a new rulling class). The alienation of modern workers in production is described as “not confined to capitalism” – thereby implying that there exist in the world of today societies that are other than capitalist ones. Lenin is stated to have advocated a “semi-authoritarian centralism”. We are told that there is nothing to indicate that Marx predicted the future world revolution “on the ground of its presumed inevitability”. (Has the author never heard of the famous passage in Capital where we are informed that “with the inevitability of a law of nature, capitalist production begets its own negation”?).

The author’s uncritical endorsement of Reich also strikes a jarring note. We are told that “Reich drew attention to the sympathetoconic [sic, twice] processes of the musculature” but not that (as was well known even in Reich’s day) the sympathetic nervous system exerts no influence on striated muscle. We are told (and it is true) that sexual disturbances can create somatic disturbances – but also (and it is meaningless) that the “respiratory, gastric and urethral organs – including the kidney and gall bladder – can become sick if the libido connected with them is disturbed”. Some of the author’s other ventures into the medical field are equally bizarre. We are informed that Byron, who “had to key up his life to a high state of tension”, was found at post-mortem (at the age of 36) to have had “sutures of the brain” that were “entirely obliterated”. Now there are no sutures in the brain (only in the skull) and if skull sutures are not fused by the age of 36 there is something profoundly the matter with the person concerned (probably hydrocephalus). We are also told that, before Freud, “neurotic symptoms” were considered (as neurological pathologies, to be trated electrically or chemically”. Chronologically, this is nonsense. ECT was only popularized by Cerletti and Bini in Rome in 1938. It was first used in the USA in 1940.

Two final criticisms are of a more substantial nature. When it comes down to practical prescriptions the author calls for the “abolition of the Oedipus complex” and the “creation of a new culture”. This is to be done through education, through the inculcation in parents of healthier attitudes to child upbringing (in particular towards the manifestations of the infant’s “polymorphous erotic sensations” and the later more explicit demands of the child’s genital sexuality). Fair enough. But surely this is not sufficient. To confine oneself to such and attitude would be to restrict oneself to the role of a sort of SPGBer of the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution is not just a question of education. It is also a question of struggle, of the struggle to transform all aspects of social reality.

Finally, and this to my mind is its most serious defect, the book as a whole seems to lack balance in its assessment of contemporary changes in sexual mores. Only the negative aspects of the current state of play are dealt with in any detail. On this score there are few grounds to dispute the author’s conclusions. But the author fails to stress many of the positive aspects of the breaking up of the old taboos. He lacks patience and empathy with the young, while correctly taking issue with many exaggerated claims. His somewhat strident condemnation of certain aspects of today’s sexual practices sounds, at times, almost puritanical. Is he echoing here some of the later writings of Reich who towards the end of his life, not only repudiated (as is well known) his earlier political writings but also (which is less well known, even to “Reichians”) some of his earlier sexological writings, fearing they would invoked to unleash, in Reich’s own words, “a free-for-all fucking epidemic”. Frankl is also deafeningly silent on the whole issue of homosexuality and of “gay liberation”. Is he here too being a faithful disciple of Reich at the expense of neglecting an important dimension of the current sexual revolution[2]?

Solidarity, VII, 12 (November, 1974)

[1] George Frankl, The Failure of the Sexual Revolution (London: Kahn and Averill, 1974).

[2] According to Charles Rycroft, Reich (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1971), Wilhelm Reich, when asked to accept a homosexual for treatment, stated “Ich will mit solchen Schweinereien nichts zu tun haben” (“I don’t want to have anything to do with such disguting matters”).