Libidinal economizing in the early Soviet Union.
“She had suffered an acute attack of ‘love’- the name given to a disease of ancient times when sexual energy, which should be rationally distributed over one’s entire lifetime, is suddenly concentrated into one inflammation lasting a week, leading to absurd and incredible behavior.” —Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug
In summer 1956, six tons of books were thrown by court order into the public incinerator on 25th Street in New York City. Those smouldering pages were written by Wilhelm Reich, who died in jail shortly thereafter, infamously denounced as the fraudulent peddler of “orgone,” a mystical cosmic life force. As a young communist psychoanalyst in interwar Vienna, Reich had argued that capitalism unhealthily restrains primal sexual instincts, and that a genuine political revolution would shatter the constraints of bourgeois sexual morality, unleashing sexual energies through a kind of wild orgasmic release.
In 1929, Reich visited the Soviet Union, where psychoanalysis would soon be outlawed, and was rather scathing of the psychologists he met there, including one of his hosts, Aron Zalkind, a leading figure in the psychological community in Moscow. Zalkind was the author of the influential treatise “12 Commandments for the Sexual Revolution of the Proletariat,” first published in 1925, which argued that the capitalist free market was incompatible with what he somewhat confusingly called “free love,” given that he meant something like the opposite of what it meant in the 1960s. Unlike Reich, whose prurient embrace of unrestrained lovemaking was to be enthusiastically championed during the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, Zalkind advocated sexual abstinence as the appropriate conduct for the revolutionary proletariat.
During the period of the New Economic Policy (1921–1928), which saw the reintroduction of certain forms of private enterprise into the Soviet economy, sexual relations were being renegotiated for both ideological and practical reasons. As the heroine of Feodor Gladkov’s 1925 novel Cementobserves: “Everything is broken up and changed and become confused. Somehow love will have to be arranged differently.” But how exactly love was to be arranged was unclear. Although the fledgling Soviet government had legalized divorce and abortion, secularized marriage, and decriminalized homosexuality, and although women’s roles in the home and workforce were being concretely transformed, Zalkind’s emphasis on sexual inhibition is characteristic of the ambivalence toward sex during the NEP period.
Zalkind’s commandments were as follows:
- Sexuality should not develop too early.
- Sex should not occur before marriage.
- Sex on the basis of pure physical attraction should be renounced.
- Sex should only result from “deep and complex feeling” between comrades.
- Sex should be infrequent.
- Sexual partners should not be changed too frequently.
- Sexual relationships should be monogamous.
- Every sex act should be committed with the awareness that it might lead to the birth of a child.
- Sexual partners should be selected on the basis of class. (“Sexual attraction to class antagonism, to a morally disgusting, dishonest object, is as perverse as the sexual desire of a human for a crocodile or an orangutan.”)
- There should be no jealousy.
- There should be no “sexual perversions.”
- In the interests of the revolution, it is the duty of the proletariat to intervene in the sex lives of others.
Zalkind relies on an economic, quantitative conception of psychic sexual energy or libido borrowed from Freud. In the interest of self-preservation, the fragile organism must protect itself from both external and internal excitations, and the constant tension between pleasure and unpleasure must be regulated through sublimation, repression, and cathexis. Or in Zalkind’s inelegant phrasing, “The body is stuffed with a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of internal stress and excitement, which erupts on the outside.”
In The Future of an Illusion — the last of Freud’s works to appear in Russian translation in 1930, with a hostile introduction by Zalkind — Freud is dismissive of those who would claim that “a reordering of human relations” might overcome the necessarily repressive character of society, stating that “every civilization must be built up on coercion and renunciation of instinct,” (though he explicitly declares that his conclusions are not intended as a comment on the “great experiment in civilization” occurring in Russia). Unlike Reich, Zalkind does not contradict Freud on this point. He may imagine repression and sublimation as conscious, voluntary, and collective, but he insists that communism cannot be built without forgoing immediate gratification. The oft-repeated Soviet injunction to make sacrifices in the present to reap the eventual benefits of the bright Communist future corresponds to Freud’s reality principle, defined inBeyond the Pleasure Principle as the “temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure.”
Freud argued that giving the instincts free rein would be dangerous. Civilization is a by-product of repressed instincts rather than the result of some immanent tendency toward progress or perfectibility. By assuming that renouncing pleasure will ultimately lead to a superior form of society, Zalkind’s argument is more explicitly value-laden: Sex too much, too soon, too often or with too many people diverts energy that could otherwise be used for building the new Communist society. For Zalkind, sexual desire does not originate in the seething depths of the primitive unconscious. Sex is morally rather than mortally dangerous; it is wasteful and frivolous rather than primal and destructive.
In Freud’s theory, the regulation of psychic energy remains largely metaphorical. But Zalkind insists that Freudian theory has a materialist essence; his more literal conception of energy thus has a closer relation to contemporary discussions of labor efficiency and industrial production. In tune with this infamously Taylor-obsessed period, Zalkind focuses on management, rationality, organization, and discipline.
But if under capitalism, energy expenditure is primarily concerned with maximized productivity and profitability in the workplace, in communism all human activity is up for grabs, including people’s most intimate encounters. Any unnecessary exertion might deviate resources that could otherwise be spent building the new classless society. Zalkind’s quantification of energy allows for the commensurability of action. As historian Anson Rabinbach puts it in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, “Energy is the universal equivalent of the natural world, as money is the universal equivalent of the world of exchange.”
Building barricades, constructing dams, designing factories, or fucking your comrades — all activity is reduced to the amount of energy they require to perform. Zalkind imagines a scenario in which a worker is insulted by his boss. Such an event, he claims, produces a fixed volume of anger, which will inevitably “break out”: The worker might erupt and throw a plate at his wife. But instead, the energy could be positively channelled into organizing a demonstration or distributing agitational pamphlets.
Zalkind’s vision recalls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, in which controlled copulation can be performed only during the alloted “sex hour,” when people are permitted to lower the curtains in their glass homes, and encounters must be tracked with a pink ration book of signed tokens. But these concerns were not confined to the pages of science fiction: Some married couples in the period actually attempted to organize their domestic chores and sex lives on the basis of the Scientific Organization of Labor.
Despite his likening of the libido to a flowing liquid, Freud’s conception of the unconscious knows no spatial constraints – quantity has no meaningful existence there. In bourgeois Vienna, there is no suggestion that a patient’s libidinal resources might simply run out; their sexual drives are understood in relation to their historical experiences rather than their physical well-being.
But in post-revolutionary Russia there was a genuine fear that people were literally running out of energy. Zalkind’s anxieties about squandering libidinal currency rely on a physiological understanding of energy developed amid acute privation. “Exhaustion” was rife among revolutionaries; Lenin’s death in 1924 from a brain hemorrhage was said to have been provoked by his excessive exertions on behalf of the global revolutionary proletariat. Hunger, often accompanied by energy-sapping cold, gnaws insistently in first-hand accounts of the period. Revolution and Youth, the book in which Zalkind’s proclamations were originally published, includes detailed nutritional charts to ensure revolutionaries retain optimal “brain fuel.” Victor Serge’sMemoirs of a Revolutionary constantly returns to the subject of food (or lack of it), its pages strewn with paltry, unappetizing morsels. Stoic revolutionaries survive on black bread, dried fish, coffee made from raw oats, rotten horsemeat, and the odd spoonful of sugar. This nutritional dearth had sexual implications: As a result of malnutrition, impotence was widespread.