Understanding left cults (SWP, SP, Spiked, WRP) - a reading list

Animal Farm

Selected reading on cultlike behaviour of left-wing parties in the UK.

Whatever happens to the Socialist Workers Party in the present crisis over rape allegations, non-party activists will be working with (and against) the SWP for some time to come.

Unfortunately, most outsider commentaries provide little information on how such Leninist parties actually work. The following writings, mostly by disillusioned ex-members, are the exception. They are a good starting point for understanding why so many decent revolutionaries end up in cults that reproduce many of the worst aspects of capitalist society.

'The SWP crisis: some reflections' - Sovietgoonboy

'Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left' - Dennis Tourish (ex-Militant Tendency / Socialist Party)

'Who Are They?' - Jenny Turner (on the Battle of Ideas / Spiked / Living Marxism)

‘The Break-up of the WRP – From the Horse’s Mouth’ - Simon Pirani

‘Suicide for socialism?’ – Maurice Brinton (ex-'WRP' and Solidarity compares the WRP to the Jonestown suicide cult)

'As Soon as this Pub Closes' - John Sullivan (ex-'WRP', Solidarity, 'SWP')

On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left - Dennis Tourish, Tim Wohlforth (ex-WRP)

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults - Janja Lalich (ex-US feminist/Marxist-Leninist group, the DWP)

'List of Left Criticism of Left-wing Parties in the United Kingdom' - Anarchopedia

And here's a couple of relevant psychoanalytic articles:

‘Only the Marlboro Man: A Psychological Study of a Political Agitator’, Martha Grace Duncan, Political Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1987)

‘Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective’ - Daniel Shaw

Do readers have any more good articles on political cults?

Posted By

lastrefuge
Feb 13 2013 22:46

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  • Political sects provide a refuge which many people need, either permanently or temporarily. They are the heart of a heartless world and will disappear only when that world begins to change'

    John Sullivan

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Comments

Entdinglichung
Feb 14 2013 10:43

- Wir warn die stärkste der Partein - 1977, in German, by former members of the Maoist groups KBW and KPD/AO

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aktionsanalytische_Organisation of the artist and pedophile Otto Muehl, Reichian commune/org (Wikipedia)

- unfortunately, there is nothing in English (there should be something in French) about the Zürcher Schule/Verein zur Förderung der Psychologischen Menschenkenntnis which evolved from a group around the psychoanalyst Friedrich Liebling (combining Adlerian psychology, Austro-Marxism and theories of Kropotkin and Ramus (from whom he got his ideas about advocating voluntary vasectomy)) into a rightwing cult after his death ... a guru-led group where the contradictions between an authoritarian structure and anti-authoritarian political ideas were resolved after the founders died by shifting to the far right

- there is some revealing stuff about the Sparts by former members on the IBT page

Spikymike
Feb 14 2013 11:42

Despite recomending one of their pamphlets elswhere and being aware of my own distant past history as a member of one group listed in John Sullivans contribution above, the ICC's critics in this area might deserve a mention so for instance this archive:

http://cbg.110mb.com/html/international_communist_curren.html

Not a comprehensive list of such texts which exist outside of the now defunct cbg though.

Whether or not the ICC have moved on since these were written I leave up to others to decide.

It is perhaps in the nature of any tiny pro-revolutionary political group battling against the odds for any legnth of time to succumb to dogmatic and defensive sect like behavior, but this shouldn't blind us to the possibillity that some of those groups will from time to time come up with useful insights into the nature of capitalism and our predicament.

We are none of us immune!

Entdinglichung
Feb 14 2013 12:10
Spikymike wrote:
We are none of us immune!

true

Devrim
Feb 14 2013 12:26

I find the tendency to characteise these sort of groups as insane or cults. I think plays to the idea that being a socialist today is like being mad. It doesn't mean that I think these organisations are alright, but I think the aproach taken in, for example the above piece about the CWI, doesn't in any way help us to understand what is going on.

Devrim

Entdinglichung
Feb 14 2013 17:02
Devrim wrote:
I find the tendency to characteise these sort of groups as insane or cults. I think plays to the idea that being a socialist today is like being mad. It doesn't mean that I think these organisations are alright, but I think the aproach taken in, for example the above piece about the CWI, doesn't in any way help us to understand what is going on.

Devrim

the stuff about the CWI is in my opinion e.g. the weakest part of the book by Tourish/Wohlforth, ... knowing quite a few former members of them in Germany, Britain and Sweden, most of them (like most former SWP or Linksruck members I know) are/were very critical of their former org but their experiences are very different from the experiences of people I know who were members of e.g. the BSA (Healyite clone in Germany), some Free Evangelical or Pentecostal churches, Sparts, the KBW or "Men-Radical-Therapy" groups ... being a member of e.g. the SWP or of a CWI section neither isolates you from the rest of the world, nor does it makes you financially bankrupt, robs you of all your free time or regulates your cultural consumption (unless you insist on it)

Jayman
Feb 15 2013 11:10

Thoughys on gegenstandpunkt?

Entdinglichung
Feb 15 2013 11:39
Jayman wrote:
Thoughys on gegenstandpunkt?

probably some cultish features like a long "initiation period" before it becoming a candidate and than a full member, or a distinct way of talking which was/is common for their members ... but I do not know any survivor stories or self-help groups of former members which are typically for cults of all kinds ... and the former members I know stated, that they still had a private life beside being an MG member ... being constantly annoying to other people like MG/Gegenstandpunkt doesn't automatically earn them the label "cult"

reloy
Feb 15 2013 20:56

I agree that we shouldn't dismiss party activists, or their ideas, as simply mad. After all, most of us do things - including identifying as anarchists or communists - for a combination of reasons, both rational and neurotic. And I certainly agree that the anarchist-communist scene is not immune from cult-like tendencies.

I also agree we need to remember that some political cults are far less cultish than others.

But we shouldn't forget that mildly cult-like organisations often degenerate into very cult-like groups.

For example, the forerunners of the SWP, the International Socialists, were certainly a much less cult-like group than the SWP. (According to ex-SWP member, Andy Wilson, members of Solidarity even sat on the editorial board of the journal, International Socialism.[1])

Another ex-SWPer, Jim Higgins, has pointed out that people joined the forerunner of Gerry Healy's WRP in the late 1950s precisely because it was "the least sectarian of the 57 varieties" of Trotskyism.[2] And look what happened to them!

We have no choice but to work in a comradely way with all sorts of left-cult members in various struggles. But we shouldn't make the mistake of underestimating the cult-like behaviour of most left wing parties - and, unfortunately, many non-party groups.

And we certainly don't want to end up like Ken Livingstone, whose work with the WRP in the 1980s led him to write a nauseating defence of serial rapist, Gerry Healy.[3]

1. Andy Wilson, ‘Imputed consciousness and left organisations’ (at Weekly Worker website no.884)

2. Jim Higgins, 'The Locusts – Cankerworms – Caterpillars and Palmerworms Will Get You if
You Don’t Watch Out'
. See also Jim Higgins very informative More Years for the Locust

3. Ken Livingstone's Foreword to Gerry Healy: a revolutionary life by Corinna Lotz and Paul Feldman

Rosa Lichtenstein
Feb 17 2013 00:42

It's bit odd quoting one set of cultish ideas (psychoanalysis) in order to criticise another alleged set of cultish ideas.

Moreover, the appearance of this material here looks a bit like comrades are throwing stones in glass houses.

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

trad
Feb 28 2013 11:49

Paul Mason, the ex-Trotskyist BBC journalist, has recently made a comment that is very relevant to this discussion on the decline of hierarchical ‘revolutionary’ parties.

In response to an interviewer’s question about the present crisis leading to a return to fascism and violence, he said:

“One of the things that impresses me about the generation that I am writing about is their intelligence, their emotional and political intelligence, about power ... I’ll give you an example:

It was a surprise to me when it was found out that one of the leaders of British Trotskyism was a paedophile. OK, whatever you thought about them, the WRP, he [Mason must mean Gerry Healy] was a rapist and a paedophile. It was a surprise. You will go: ‘Why would it be a surprise? You are running a hierarchical, semi-dictatorial, secret organisation and it turns out that bad stuff has gone on!’ But it was a surprise to our generation because we genuinely thought that the solution to one hierarchical problem, and I don’t mean just my generation born in the 1960s, I mean the 20th Century person ... the people who did in fact fight fascism in Germany before it triumphed. A lot of them thought (it was a bit like that child’s toy that hits the wall and flips the other way), they went: ‘Alright, well this hierarchical solution hasn’t worked, let’s adopt another one’.

Whereas this generation is very critical of power, bloodshed, hierarchy, needless violence, needless trauma, emotional and psychological, and therefore that they are prepared to try and find a soft route towards what they are trying to do that will mitigate having a series of violent clashes a la the 1930s. But, I think, who knows, you just can’t tell.”

Resonance FM interview with Paul Mason: 'Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere' (quote is at 32 mins).

Jayman
Mar 1 2013 06:25

look up calrb maupin. He used to sell papers for rcp in cleveland before he became the golden boy of workers world in nyc. He is on RT all the time now, but uts a rotating cast, people who jump from one left cult to another.

grod
Mar 12 2013 14:56

The SWP was never as cult-like as the Workers Revolutionary Party, but SWP resignation statements show that it is going in that direction.

Andy Lawson has said: 'This is not the behaviour of a revolutionary party, it is the behaviour of a cult. I have no intention of remaining in a cult.'

Meanwhile, Richard Seymour has compared some SWPers to 'Scientologists' and has even compared the recent SWP conference decision to 'Jonestown' (in that it was clearly suicidal for the party).

So, how can revolutionaries organise without creating cults?

Ex-WRP and Solidarity founder, Maurice Brinton raised this question many years ago in his classic article: 'Suicide for Socialism'. There he made credible comparisons between Jim Jones' socialist suicide cult and Gerry Healy's WRP. Later, of course, it was revealed that Healy had been even more abusive than Brinton suspected.

Feminism has to be at the centre of any genuinely cult-free revolutionary project, e.g. see http://libcom.org/history/‘feminism-dirty-word’-what-would-marx-engels-think-today-camilla-power-radical-anthropol

... but so does anti-authoritarianism. As Marlene Dixon's Democratic Workers Party showed, a 'Marxist' cult dominated by an authoritarian woman is no improvement over one dominated by men. See this interview with an ex-DWP member: 'The power of cults - How Janja Lalich went from cult member to author'

xslavearcx
Mar 13 2013 16:44
Rosa Lichtenstein wrote:
It's bit odd quoting one set of cultish ideas (psychoanalysis) in order to criticise another alleged set of cultish ideas.

Or it could be viewed as a meta/object language (ala analytic philosophy) distinction taking place wink

Arbeiten
Mar 13 2013 17:20
Rosa Lichtenstein wrote:

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

That is the KVlt-est looking website I have seen since I stopped browsing geocities.

petey
Mar 14 2013 18:35

for an american version of psychoanalytic leadership going into leftist politics and then mainstreaming itself while maybe being a cult all along, read and follow the links:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Newman_%28philosopher%29

Phigerinadon III
Mar 17 2013 18:41

Gahh! Revisionists!

eprit
Mar 17 2013 19:21

Mark Steel's comments on the SWP crisis are very insightful and honest, especially where he argues that the SWP is "edging towards becoming a cult" and, in the following quote, where it says:

"Cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.

.... The debate is ... about accepting that you do as you’re told, that the party is under attack at all times so you defend the leaders no matter what, that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong

... I can’t claim to be entirely innocent. I was in this party for 28 years. I must have accepted claims that didn’t make sense, and ignored accounts of appalling behaviour, or sighed and hoped the tricky issue I heard about would go away of its own accord. Somehow the critical faculties that led me to join a socialist group deserted me with regard to the group itself."

hguor
Apr 24 2013 14:27

Having left the SWP, China Mieville is now openly calling the party a cult:

ON CULT-LIKE THINKING

It's disarming to a socialist when a rote canard of the right, that the far Left - let alone the group to which that socialist until recently belonged - is 'like a cult', is persuasive.

That accusation has been regularly levelled against the SWP during its ongoing crisis. It's easy to see why: the CC's and loyalists' panicked and bullying responses to perceived heresy; the faith in an infallible leadership (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary); the argument by citation of holy (Cliffite) writ; the almost unbelievable refusal, even now, to admit to any mistakes; the growing sectarianism. But underlying all this, and perhaps the most damning and extraordinary component of such mentality, is a fervent idealism.

This idealism and its dogmas are self-perpetuating. They underpin many of the leadership’s appalling errors and dogged self-defence, and thus demand investigation. As the 'austerity' onslaught continues, there's an urgent need for serious far-left politics. The SWP remains a major player on the Left, its growing isolation notwithstanding. Its regime and fate will continue to have an effect. Getting right the story of what the SWP is getting so wrong is crucial for those of us who have left to ensure that it does not happen again - and for those still inside, to take stock.

Given the CC's lies about a perfidious 'witchhunt', and/or 'hostility to Leninism', it's worth recalling that this catastrophe unfolded when a large section of the SWP was aghast at the initial cover-up of, and subsequent shameful, sexist and indefensible 'investigation' into, allegations of rape and sexual harassment within the party. A scandal in its own right, this episode also illustrated a deep cultural rot, that shocked even those of us in the party who had long argued that there was a democratic and accountability deficit in the organisation. Things were, simply, much worse than we had thought.

But the truly extraordinary shift was from what one might decry as 'everyday' Machiavellianism - reprehensible but hardly unusual behaviour like packing meetings, lying about membership numbers and so on - to this cult-like idealism....

For the rest of the article go to the new International Socialists Network website

greay
May 3 2013 17:58

After well over 100 resignations from the SWP, it is very striking what ex-members are now saying about the party.

As well as China Mieville's comments above, Richard Seymour (Lenins Tomb blog) says that the SWP leadership “lie with impunity” and that “even now many of them are desperate to get the accused [Martin Smith] back into the leadership as soon as can conveniently be arranged.”

An even more famous ex-member, Mark Steel, has admitted that in his 28 years of membership he “ignored accounts of appalling behavior”. He also says that the attitude in the party is that “you defend the leaders no matter what, [and] that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong.”

A former Socialist Worker journalist, Tom Walker, has complained that “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters.

Another ex-member, 'Donny Mayo', has confirmed this, saying that, in the SWP, “feminism is a dirty word, used like it describes a disease ('creeping feminism') [and] autonomism is used as a swear word." He says "the tiniest criticism is treated as the greatest heresy" and he describes the SWP brand as “now utterly toxic”. He concludes that: “I think it would be truly disastrous if, after recent events, the SWP were to continue to to play a hegemonic role on the far left.”

A former SWP District Organiser, Andy Lawson, has written that: “The SWP is not a safe place for women. The revelations that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian indicate that repeatedly where women have come forward to report rapes by senior party members, their experience has been one of being horrifically mistreated."

He goes on to write that "I have been personally abused at every [every recent] branch meeting … I have been physically threatened. All of this because I stood in solidarity, first with the victims of rape and sexual harassment (who party members have happily lied about), and secondly with four comrades who were expelled on a trumped-up charge … This is not the behaviour of a revolutionary party, it is the behaviour of a cult.”

Referring to the heckling by young women of an SWP leader at the Glasgow Bedroom Tax demo, Andy Lawson has also said: "The SWP’s stewards on the demonstration responded by starting to rough up those people who were heckling. So you are now starting to see [the SWP loyalists] turn what they’ve done to those of us who were in the swp out on to everybody else and I think it gets worse from here". (See the video here)

Rosa Lichtenstein
May 13 2013 01:40

I'm sure you'll be only too happy to explain that gnomic comment, won't you?

Rosa Lichtenstein
May 13 2013 01:41

In what way is it connected to Black Metal?

lurdan
Nov 25 2013 07:27

Article in the Daily Telegraph today about the Brixton Slavery case which, while not naming the organization, is clearly alleging that the elderly couple arrested were the former leaders of the Brixton based Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

Interesting account of the group, which originated in a 1974 split from the Communist Party of England (M-L) here at marxists.org.

The Workers' Institute group have attracted press attention before as a fairly extreme example of political commune (notably at the time of the death of one of its participants, something referred to in the Telegraph article) and I'd imagine there will be more stories to come about them.

In 1978 Steve Rayner did his phd in cultural anthropology on 'The Classification and Dynamics of Sectarian Forms of Organisation: Grid/Group Perspectives on the Far-Left in Britain'. (Available here as a pdf). The Workers' Institute were used as one example. Another group he looked at was the SWP. Not overly impressed with the phd's theoretical underpinnings, but his accounts of the groups he studied are of interest. (It even includes the joke - common in the 70s amongst it's rivals - about the SWP practising the 'horizontal road to socialism').

Entdinglichung
Nov 25 2013 09:38
lurdan wrote:
It even includes the joke - common in the 70s amongst it's rivals - about the SWP practising the 'horizontal road to socialism'

during the 1970ies, members of a Northern German local branch of the MSB Spartakus (the German CP's student org) frequently used the phrase "jemanden in die Organisation bumsen" ("to fuck someone into the organization") describing their recruitment strategy

the Brixton Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was even by other Maoists considered to be completely mad

jonthom
Nov 29 2013 07:50

not quite the same topic but seems relevant - From Slogans to Mantras, a book detailing the way a number of 60s radicals came to embrace groups like Scientology, the Unification Church and various other authoritarian groups and gurus.