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Ideological Intransigence, Democratic
Centralism, and Cultism: A Case Study from the Political Left
There is a
dearth of literature documenting the existence of cults in the
political sphere. This article suggests that some left-wing organizations
share a number of ideological underpinnings and organizational practices which inherently
incline these groups toward the adoption of cultic practices. In particular, it is argued
that the doctrines of "catastrophism" and democratic centralist modes of
organization normally found among Trotskyist groupings are implicated in such phenomenon.
A case history is offered of a comparatively influential Trotskyist grouping in Britain,
which split in 1992; and it is suggested that an analysis of the organization in terms of
cultic norms is particularly fruitful. This is not intended to imply that a radical
critique of society is necessarily inappropriate. Rather, it is to argue that political
movements frequently adopt organizational forms, coupled with "black and white"
political programs, that facilitate the exercise of undue social influence.
This stifles genuinely creative political thought. Also considered are issues suggested by
this analysis that are particularly pertinent for those involved in radical politics.
Cults embrace the fields of
self-help, business training--and politics (Hassan, 1988; Singer with Lalich, 1995). Thus
far, the latter area has attracted little attention. One reason may be that the frantic
activity and intense feelings of party loyalty which often characterize political life
make it difficult to differentiate between "normal" political involvement and
that which qualifies groups to be regarded as cultic. This is particularly true of fringe
political groupings, on the extreme left and right. This article argues that the
phenomenon of political cultism is more widespread than is normally assumed. In
particular, it focuses on the ideological and organizational dynamics of left-wing
groupings that fall within the Trotskyist tradition, and argues that these dynamics
predispose such groupings to cultic practices. Accordingly, those criteria which it is
authoritatively agreed constitute diagnostic criteria for the classification of groups as
cults are reviewed. This is
then refined into specific criteria that are particularly pertinent to the activities of
political groups. Flowing from this, a case study approach is adopted. A prominent British
Trotskyist grouping (variously known as the Committee for a Workers International,
Revolutionary Socialist League, and the Militant Tendency--and henceforth referred to as
CWI), which acquired significant political influence in the 1980s, is discussed. Sources
utilized in the study include interviews with ex-members, journalistic accounts, internal
documents, and open publications (that is, those meant to be read by the public).
Members of the CWI had a
long-standing tradition of working within the British Labor Party, a policy known as
"entrism." Also, beginning in the early 1970s, CWI built small groups of
supporters internationally, including the United States. By the late 1980s CWI controlled
the British Labour Partys youth wing (since dissolved), counted three Labor MPs
among its approximately 8,000 members, employed 200 full-time staff, had a national
headquarters in London, published a 16-page weekly newspaper, and led large movements on
specific issues, which at times dominated the domestic British political scene. In short,
the CWI could possibly be considered the most successful Trotskyist organization in the
world since the 1930s.
However, during 1991, a huge dispute erupted
within CWIs ranks over whether to remain inside the Labor Party. This led to a split
in early 1992, during which the organizations original founder and many others were
expelled. They instantly set up a new Trotskyist international, still committed to
entrism. The CWI reconstituted itself as a new "open" party named Militant
Labor, since relaunched in early 1997 as The Socialist Party. The evidence is that both
groups have since sharply declined, and that the remains of the CWI, in particular, may
now number no more than a few hundred members. CWIs theoretical beliefs, its
organizational practices, and the 1992 split are assessed in light of the extent to which
they match the criteria under discussion. The data are also reviewed from the standpoint
of Liftons (1961) suggested criteria for what he termed
totalism. Finally, the implications for the ideological underpinnings and
organizational cultures of political organizations (particularly those on the left) are
Defining Traits of Cults
Broad agreement exists in the literature on general characteristics
that delineate cult groupings. AFF (American Family Foundation) defines cults as:
A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or
dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or
coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and
family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience,
powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical
judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to
advance the goals of the groups leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of
members, their families or the community. (1986, pp. 119-120)
Langone (1988) further proposed that cults tend to share the following
- Members are expected to be excessively zealous and unquestioning in their commitment to
the identity and leadership of the group. They must replace their own beliefs and values
with those of the group.
- Members are manipulated and exploited, and may give up their education, careers and
families to work excessively long hours at group-directed tasks such as selling a quota of
candy or books, fund-raising, recruiting and proselytizing.
- Harm or the threat of harm may come to members, their families, and/or society due to
inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, psychological and physical abuse, sleep
deprivation, criminal activities, and so forth. (p. 1)
These conditions broadly match those which Singer (1987) suggested
characterize thought-reform programs--that is, attempts to reframe a persons sense
of individuality, core belief systems, and overall self-concept within a totalistic
ideology that "explains everything." Specific measures which might be employed
in such an effort include:
- Controlling an individuals social and psychological environment, especially the
- Placing an individual in a position of powerlessness within a high-control authoritarian
- Relying usually on a closed system of logic, which permits no feedback and refuses to be
modified except by executive order.
- Relying on the unsophistication of the person being manipulated (that is, the person is
unaware of the process), and pressing him or her to adapt to the environment in increments
that are sufficiently minor so that the person does not notice changes.
- Eroding the confidence of a persons perceptions.
- Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences to promote new learning
or inhibit undesired previous behavior. Punishments are usually social ones, for example,
shunning, social isolation, and humiliation (which are more effective in producing wanted
behavior than beatings and death threats, although these do occur). (p. 1470)
Extensive data are now available on the extent to which such methods
have been used in a variety of settings. However, this is limited in its application to
political cults in
general and left-wing cults in particular. The main case study material hitherto available
concerns a Marxist-Leninist party (the Democratic Workers Party, or DWP) based in
California from 1974 to 1985 (Lalich, 1992, 1993; Siegel, Strohl, Ingram, Roche, &
Taylor, 1987). A summary of these accounts will be helpful in identifying the specific
thought-reform techniques most widely used by left-wing cults, and which must therefore be
taken into account in any formal definition of political cults.
Fundamentally, the DWP ideology and organizational practice completely
dominated the lives and psyches of its members. Siegel et al. (1987), in an account
written by ex-members, testify that the DWP:
challenged its members to devote their lives to revolutionary struggles
as others were doing around the world, and to see themselves as part of a world movement;
to do less when one could do more was profoundly unserious. This was a compelling moral
imperative. (p. 62)
This "moral imperative" is a leitmotif in many accounts of
extreme left-wing politics, and historically has had the effect of extracting
extraordinary levels of commitment from people. For example, Valtin (1988), in a text
originally published during the 1940s, chronicled life within the Communist International
(Comintern) during the 1920s and 1930s, when it came increasingly under Stalins
control. Particularly with the rise of fascism, the organization could plausibly represent
itself as a last barrier to barbarism (thereby engendering a moral imperative in many
people), especially if it denied that anything untoward was occurring in Russia. The
effect was to generate what George Orwell described as a religious veneration of the
Russian experiment, and a sanctification of the personality of Stalin. This ensured a
frantic devotion to "building the party," slavish conformity to the partys
often contradictory nostrums, and a habit of responding to suspected dissent with a heresy
Within the DWP, indoctrination started at an early stage of membership.
Members went through an intensive new members program, which included
in-depth analysis of their class history and intensive criticism of their practice and
attitudes. The discipline demanded of a cadre member included 24 hour-a-day availability
and submission of all aspects of ones life to the needs of the party. In principle
ones personal life was ones own business; in practice the partys
discipline and control were total. A very unified but stratified community was developed
as party members were taught that we were preparing to be an elite, and we took pride in
our submission to criticism and discipline in the name of political commitment. The
ideology of the Leninist party as an instrument of the working class, and each member as
an instrument of the party, was the overriding justification for party functioning and
discipline (Siegel et al., 1987, p. 63).
This account also makes it plain that
whatever formal controls were supposed to operate, all power was concentrated at the top,
and in particular in the hands of the partys General Secretary. There were intensive
sessions of "group criticism," during which alleged mistakes would be picked out
and the individuals concerned denounced by the other members. Several effects flowed from
this regime. Members experienced enormous pressure to conform. Dissent led only to group
criticism sessions, which everyone was naturally anxious to avoid. To avert such an
eventuality all members eagerly denounced others. In turn, this display of devotion to the
party combined with a radical departure from the norms of decent everyday conduct
reinforced the belief systems of those involved, by creating an intense private world, cut
adrift from how everyone else thought, behaved, and handled difficult feelings.
Within this world, a peculiar paradox may have been that members came
to depend on the leaders precisely because of the abuse which was meted out to them.
Aronson (1997) reviewed research within the paradigm of cognitive dissonance theory, which
suggests that people prefer to maintain close involvements with those whose evaluations of
their abilities are in line with their own evaluations, even when these are negative. This
takes precedence over being with people who have a positive evaluation of the person, if
that is out of line with what the person believes. In this way, feelings of dissonance
(i.e., an unpleasant awareness of the gap between self-perception and that of others) are
avoided. The odd effect is that when cult leaders damage the self-concept of their
recruits, the dissonance-reducing process just described is activated, leaving the recruit
more dependent than ever on his or her relationship with the cult leader who demeans them.
More subtly, because it was assumed that the group leader had a special
insight into social problems above and beyond that of anyone else, members came to believe
that disagreements with her analysis, even before they had been clearly articulated, were
liable to be wrong. Thus, Lalich (1992) refers to "the intensity of the members
faith in the political model and the fact that unquestioning belief in that model led each
member to accept and contribute to a stern discipline and a harsh fate" (p. 21).
Doubt dared not speak its name. Such unquestioning belief has been a recurrent theme in
many accounts of extreme left-wing politics. For example, Valtins (1988) description
of his career as an agent of the Communist International between the wars makes it clear
that unquestioning obedience, veneration of the Soviet experience, and a feeling of living
under siege were vital factors in the ideological, organizational, and moral domination of
foreign Communist parties by Stalinism.
Conformity within the DWP was also reinforced by the fact that intense
activism prevented members from having a personal life outside their role as party
members. This high-speed political existence ensured that rival social networks atrophied
through neglect. The unrelenting pace induced exhaustion and depression, while making it
harder to "think your way out"-- too many commitments had been made, all bridges
back to sanity were long dynamited, and too little time was left over from party activity
for reflection. In a paradox far from unique to political cults, the more deeply ensnared
people were in the perfumed and all-consuming trap of activism, the harder it became to
escape. Members tended not to leave as the result of rational reflection and conscious
decision; but, more typically, dropped out in despair, exhaustion, and crisis.
Further reinforcements for conformity were institutionalized into the
partys modus operandi. Lalich (1992) reports that a buddy system of a
one-to-one helper assigned to new recruits was instituted, to "integrate" the
newcomer into party life. This confirmed the new recruits perception that
submission to the organization was the ruling principle. There was
intense pressure to conform. Any group meeting was one obvious place where this came into
play and the tone was set. For example, the leadership would give a presentation on a
change in the direction of some work or would open up a denunciation of a comrade for some
error. Once the leadership finished, each militant would be expected to say how much he or
she agreed with the presentation or the criticism. Ideally, each person was to say
something different from what had already been said; but more to the point each person was
expected to agree with ("unite with") whatever was going on. Questions, should
there be any, had to be couched within an overall agreement. After years of this kind of
participation, people were quite incapable of any kind of creative or critical thinking,
could only parrot each other, and had shrunken vocabularies riddled with arcane internal
phraseology. (Lalich, 1992, p. 47)
Underlying these practices were the cardinal assumptions that social,
economic, and political catastrophe lay on the immediate horizon, that a vanguard
revolutionary party was essential to lead the working class back from this abyss and
toward the conquest of power, and that the nucleus of such a party was at hand in the form
of the DWP. This encouraged illusions of correctness, unanimity, and total political
prescience. As Lalich (1992) explains it: "There was always a correct answer for
everything. It was a black and white world, even though at times black was white.
Nevertheless, the party had the answer and the party was always right" (p. 71).
These accounts, building on the
definitions of cults discussed above, suggest that political cults tend to be
characterized by the presence of the following traits.
1. A rigid belief system. In the case of left-wing
this suggests that all social, natural, scientific, political, economic, historical, and
philosophical issues can only be analyzed correctly from within the groups
theoretical paradigm--one which therefore claims a privileged and all-embracing insight.
The view that the groups belief system explains everything eliminates the need for
fresh or independent thought, precludes the possibility of critically appraising past
practice or acknowledging mistakes, and removes the need to seek intellectual sustenance
outside the groups own ideological fortress. All such thinking is dismissed as
contaminated by the impure ideology of bourgeois society.
2. The groups beliefs are immune to falsification. No test
can be devised or suggested which might have the effect of inducing a reappraisal. The
all-embracing quality of the dominant ideology rules out reevaluation, since it implies
both omniscience and infallibility. Methods of analysis that set themselves more modest
explanatory goals are viewed as intrinsically inferior. Those who question any aspect of
the groups analysis are branded as deviationists bending to the "pressures of
capitalism," and are driven from the ranks as heretics.
3. An authoritarian inner party regime is maintained. Decision
making is concentrated in elite hands and gradually dismantles or ignores all formal
controls on its activities. Members are excluded from participation in determining policy,
calling leaders to account, or expressing dissent. This is combined with persistent
assurances about the essentially democratic nature of the organization, and the existence
of exemplary democratic controls--on paper.
4. There is a growing tendency toward the abuse of power.
The leaders begin to act in arbitrary ways, accrue personal power, perhaps engage in
wealth accumulation from group members or in the procurement of sexual favors. Activities
that would provoke censure if engaged in by rank-and-file members (e.g., having a
reasonable standard of living, enjoying time off, using the organizations funds for
personal purposes) are tolerated when they apply to leaders.
5. Leader figures, alive or dead, are deified. In the first
place, this adulation tends to center on Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or other significant
historical figures. It also increasingly transfers to existing leaders, who represent
themselves as defending the historical continuity of the "great" ideas of
Marxist leaders. In effect, the new leaders are depicted, in their unbending devotion to
the founders ideals, as the reincarnation of Marx, Trotsky, or whomever. There is a
tendency to settle arguments by referring constantly to the sayings of the wise leaders
(past or present), rather than by developing an independent analysis. Even banal
observations are usually buttressed by the use of supporting quotations from sanctified
6. There is an intense level of activism, preventing outside
interests. Social life and personal "friendships" revolve exclusively around
the group, although such friendships are conditional on the maintenance of uncritical
enthusiasm for the party line. Members acquire a specialized vocabulary (e.g., they call
each other "comrade"), which reinforces a sense of distance and difference from
those outside their ranks. The group becomes central to the personal identity of members,
who find it more and more difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a life outside their
A number of features of extreme left-wing political organizations are
now considered, particularly as they apply to the CWI, with a view to identifying the most
salient features of its guiding ideology and organizational practice, and assessing the
extent to which they match the criteria suggested above.
Lenin at the turn of the century (Cliff,
1975; Deutscher, 1954), and justified by reference to the particular needs of a
revolutionary movement operating under an autocratic regime (Volkogonov, 1994). As
Milliband (1977) has pointed out, this was a departure (Leninists would describe it as an
extension) from the original ideas of Marx, who was much more inclined to argue that the
task of liberating the working class was the task of the working class itself. Ironically,
Trotsky himself initially resisted Lenins views (Poole, 1995). He argued that a
vanguard party would inevitably seek to substitute its own activity and insights for the
activity of the working class. "The party organization (the caucus) at first
substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself
for the organization; and finally a single dictator substitutes himself for
the Central Committee" (cited in Deutscher, 1954, p.90).
However, during 1917, Trotsky finally accepted the Bolshevik model of
organization and defended it with increasing insistence until his assassination in 1940
(Deutscher, 1963; Trotsky, 1975). In the last year of his life, he wrote that "in
order to realize the revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralized party is
indispensable" (Trotsky, 1973, p. 141).
From the perspective of this discussion, a number of important
consequences follow. First, the notion of a vanguard party inherently predisposes its
adherents to view themselves as the pivot on which world history is destined to turn.
Revolution is seen as the only route by which humanity can avoid annihilation, but
revolution is only possible if a mass party is built around a group of
"cadres"--that is, devotees of the party with a particularly deep insight into
its ideology. Thus, Trotskyists are possessed of a tremendous sense of urgency and a
powerful conviction of their groups unique role in bringing about the transformation
of the world: what could be described as delusions of historical grandeur. Trotsky himself
confided to his diary in 1935:
Now my work is "indispensable" in the full sense of the
word.... The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the
leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve.... There is now no one except
me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over
the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. (1958, p. 54)
This approach leads to the belief that the vanguard party has a level
of insight into societys problem unmatched by anyone else. The group under
consideration here, the CWI, provides many instances of such a conviction in its
publications. An internal document from 1977 averred:
What guarantees the superiority of our tendency ...from all others
inside and outside the labor movement is our understanding of all the myriad factors which
determine the attitudes and moods of the workers at each stage. Not only the objective but
the subjective ones too.
This conviction is combined with contempt for all other organizations
on the Left. The closer such organizations are to the groups own ideological lineage
the more likely they are to be the targets of abuse. A CWI International Bulletin in 1975
declaims: "We consider that our organizations are alone in upholding the banner of
Marxism... we repudiate every sectarian fragment appropriating the name of the Fourth
One interviewee (David) told me:
We were taught to absolutely hate every other political organization
that there was. Anybody on the Left who wasnt a Marxist was called left reformist,
and we were absolutely convinced that they didnt have a clue. We looked on them as
hopeless people. People outside left politics at all were dismissed as
"liberals," but we probably hated them more than extreme right-wingers--we used
the word liberal as a sort of political swear word. But other Trotskyist groupings
were the worst. We just laughed at them in internal meetings. We called them "the
sects" and took the view that they were incapable of any development at all. They
were good for a laugh at best, but really the attitude toward anybody else claiming to be
Trotskyist was that they were the complete enemy of everything we stood for. If we ever
had taken power, God knows what we would have done to them.
However, an additional feature of Lenins conception of a vanguard
party is that it was to be governed by the principles of what he termed democratic
centralism. It would not be a loose federation, but a tightly integrated fighting
force with a powerful central committee and a rule that all members publicly defend the
agreed-upon positions of the party, whatever opinions they might hold to the contrary in
private. Between conferences, the partys leading bodies would have extraordinary
authority to manage the partys affairs, arbitrate in internal disputes, update
doctrine, and decide the partys response to fresh political events.
As Lenin expressed it:
The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local party
organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize, so long as this does not
disturb the unity of a defined action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes
difficult unity of action decided upon by the party. (1977, p. 433)
Given what is now known of social influence,
this approach is almost certainly destined to prevent genuine internal discussion. First,
it is not at all clear when "full freedom to criticize" can actually be said to
disturb the unity of a defined action. The norms of democratic centralism confer all power
between conferences onto a central committee, allowing it to become the arbiter of when a
dissident viewpoint is in danger of creating such a disturbance, normally presumed to be
lethal. The evidence suggests that they are strongly minded to view any dissent as
precisely such a disruption, and respond by demanding that dissidents cease their action
on pain of expulsion from the party. It should be borne in mind that the leadership of
Trotskyist groupings views itself as the infallible interpreter of sacred texts which are
seen as essential for the success of world revolution, which in turn is seen as vital if
the world is to be saved from complete barbarism. This "all-or-nothing" approach
to political analysis reinforces the tendency to view dissent as something which
automatically imperils the future of the planet, and a justification (perhaps unconscious)
of whatever measures are required to restore the illusion of unanimity. The following
quotation, from a document written by some members expelled in 1992, suggests that such
unanimity was endemic to the CWI method of working:
The immense authority of the leadership created an enormous degree of
trust.... In reality, the leadership of this tendency enjoyed more than trust. It had
virtually a blank check (even in the most literal sense of the word) to do what it liked,
without any real check or control. No leadership, no matter how honest or politically
correct, should have that amount of "trust."... We built a politically
homogeneous tendency. Up to the recent period there did not appear to be any serious
political disagreements. In fact, there have been disagreements on all kinds of political
and organizational matters, but these were never allowed to reach even the level of the CC
(Central Committee) or IEC (International Executive Committee). Nothing was permitted to
indicate the slightest disagreement in the leadership.... There was uniformity, which at
times came dangerously close to conformism.... The tendency became unused to genuine
discussion and debate. To be frank, many comrades (including "leading comrades")
simply stopped thinking. It was sufficient just to accept the line of the
leadership.... We have a situation where the leadership enjoys such trust that it amounts
to a blank check; where there is uniformity of ideas, in which all dissent is
automatically presented as disloyalty; where the leadership is allowed to function with
virtually no checks or accountability, under conditions of complete secrecy from the
The document just quoted, independent testimony from journalists and
other observers, and my own interviews and conversations with ex-members, all support the
view that intense fear of real debate and discussion was a defining characteristic of the
CWI. All resolutions at party conferences would either come from the leadership or be
completely supportive of its position. If branches or members submitted resolutions which
were insufficiently enthusiastic about the general line, CWI leaders exerted enormous
pressure for the resolutions to be withdrawn. They invariably were. The leading role in
the elimination of dissent appears to have been played by the CWIs General
Secretary, determined to inherit the mantle of Lenin and Trotsky in modern-day Britain.
The "Oppositionist" document quoted in the above paragraph recounts on this
to cross the General Secretary would result in a tantrum or some kind
of outburst. Comrades became fearful of initiative without the sanctions of the General
Secretary. Incredibly, even the opening of a window during an EC (Executive Committee)
meeting would not go ahead without a nod from him! Under these conditions, the idea of
"collective leadership" is a nonsense.... The EC as a whole--which is supposed
to be a subcommittee of the CC--is out of control. In 99% of cases the CC is simply a
rubber stamp for the EC.
The picture that emerges is of elected bodies usurping the normal
democratic rights of members and becoming increasingly removed from formal controls. It
was reported in early 1992 that more than two years had elapsed between party conferences,
during which time the leadership was effectively removed from all practical accountability
to the membership for its actions. It also appears that power continued to flow upwards to
the General Secretary and the full-time staff, which the General Secretary had ample scope
to mold in his image. The Oppositionist document quoted above recounts:
No decisions of any significance are taken without the full knowledge
and consent of the General Secretary, and that the great majority of them are taken,
either on his initiative, or at least with his active participation.... The full-timers
tend to order and bully the comrades, instead of convincing them. They rely upon the
political authority of the leadership handed down from the past, in order to get their
way. If you do not accept the targets handed down by the full-timer, you are "not a
good comrade," you are "conservative," and so on.
Second, Cialdini (1993) reviews a variety of studies that show that
when people take a public position in defense of a proposition, there is then a strong
tendency for their private attitudes to shift so that they harmonize with their public
behaviors. In short, if people tell others that they support X (for whatever reason),
their belief system will begin to agree that indeed they do support X. The more public
such declarations have been, the more likely it is that such a shift will take place. This
will then contribute to future public activities in line with a now firmly held belief.
Such findings suggest that if, in the name of democratic centralism, party members
publicly uphold the party line, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold a private belief
at variance with attitudes publicly expressed. The evidence suggests that it is not
possible to have a group of people presenting a conformist image to society at large while
maintaining an inner party regime characterized by frank and full discussion. Conformity
in public tends to equal conformity in private.
The Gospel of Catastrophism
It has been widely noted that apocalyptic images pervade the ideology
of cultic groups. Cultic religious groupings routinely predict the end of the world
(Richie, 1991). Some cultic psychotherapy groups also claim that unless their methods of
producing rationality are widely adopted, global catastrophe is assured (e.g., Jackins,
1990). What some writers have termed "catastrophism" (Callaghan, 1984, 1987)
pervades the ideology of Trotskyist groupings (e.g., Cannon, 1969). A leading Trotskyist
theorist expressed this position thus:
Monopoly capitalism...considerably limits the development of the forces
of production.... Crises become longer and more frequent, from the beginning of the
twentieth century. Monopoly capitalism becomes more and more a fetter on the development
of the productive forces. Henceforward its parasitic character explodes in the
worlds face in a new epoch of history, filled with convulsions: the age of
capitalist decline, the age of war, revolutions and counter-revolutions. (Mandel, 1962, p.
This mode of analysis is the norm rather than the exception in
Trotskyist circles. A 1981 CWI document, written by a leader with a penchant for death
analogies, anticipates the closing decades of this century in the following terms:
On a world scale capitalist economies not only find themselves in a
crisis, they find themselves ensnared in an epoch of crisis, stagnation and decline...
short-lived half-hearted booms, followed by downturn and recession in an ever tightening
cycle--these are the characteristics of the new period of general decline of world
capitalism... the search for lasting concessions and lasting reforms is now as futile as
the search for flesh on an ancient skeleton.
It is further held that this economic contingency will have enormous
political repercussions. In particular, it is argued that it poses a "black and
white" choice for society: there will be either a triumph for socialism or the planet
will be engulfed by unprecedented barbarism. A CWI internal document from 1975 proclaims
that the period of class struggle inaugurated by the 1973 oil crisis will
end either in the greatest victory of the working class achieving power
and the overthrow of the rule of capital with the installation of workers democracy or we
will have a military police dictatorship which will destroy the labor movement and kill
millions of advanced workers, shop stewards, ward secretaries, Labor youth, trade union
branch secretaries and even individual members of the Labor movement.
Such a toxic perspective poisons the internal atmosphere of the
organization concerned. First, it tends toward black-and-white thinking in terms of
prognosis, combined with a straining sense of urgency. Mutually exclusive and totalistic
options for the future are assured. Either there will be a completely new form of
society, hitherto unknown in human history, or there will be a relapse into forms
of Nazism, this time threatening global nuclear destruction. No other options are
available. The future is presented as a choice between imminent salvation or eternal
damnation, and one which hinges on every action that party members take.
Second, such a perspective is a classic cultic means of extracting
maximum involvement from people alongside a minimum critique of the groups position.
It imbues the organizations routine activities with a sense of colossal urgency,
purposes, and conviction which normal politics can never hope to match. This reinforces a
conviction on the part of members that they are destined to play a more vital and
indispensable role than any previous group in human history.
Power Dynamics and Life Within the CWI
It has already been noted that the organizational norms of democratic
centralism imply a concentration of power at the top. There is abundant evidence that such
a concentration has been a vital feature of the CWI.
A passive membership uncritically adopted a political position handed
down by the leadership. Structures, communication systems, and organizational behaviors
ensured a one-way transmission of information and precluded the possibility of corrective
pressure being exerted by the rank and file. Callaghan (1984), writing of the CWI,
It is unclear what the contribution of the ordinary supporter can be.
For a perusal of the groups internal documents...reveals that these consist of
unsigned articles carrying instructions, reports and, in general, attempts to co-ordinate
or in some way organize the membership. There is no evidence of discussion and debate or
of the involvement of the rank and file.... The national meetings which (CWI) does hold
appear to be organized more like rallies than conferences with the audience playing a
relatively passive role. (p. 180)
The question arises at this point: What did life within the CWI under
such a regime feel like to the average member? How were members recruited and how was
their compliance and then conformity to the groups ideology obtained? The following
comments on these issues from one interviewee is typical of the accounts gained from many
former CWI members. (One told me that when meeting other former members he felt that they
had all been through a shared religious experience together!) Ronnie spent a number
of years working full time for the CWI. Much of his experience echoes the points made by
Siegel et al. (1987) and Lalich (1992, 1993) concerning the DWP:
6/7 day weeks for activists were common, particularly those full time.
We nominally had a day off, but I can remember another leader saying to me proudly of
another that "he uses his day off to prepare his lead-offs [introductory lectures]
for meetings." Full timers were also kept in poverty. Wages were virtually
nonexistent, and I found out recently that from 1985 to 1991 they got no pay raise at all!
When we worked, the pressure was awful. Key committees often met
Saturday and Sunday 9 to 5, on top of your normal weeks work. There would be
different sessions, with a leader making an hour-long introduction which laid out the
line. Everyone else then would come in and agree. The more you agreed with the leader, the
more he or she cited your contribution in a 15 - 20 minute summing up at the end. If you
disagreed, your contribution would be unpicked, but if it wasnt sufficiently
enthusiastic about the line it would--even worse--be ignored. In this way you soon knew
who was in and who was out. There was a distinct tendency to promote the most conformist
comrades to key positions, even if they were also the most bland.
High dues or subs were extracted from members. A certain minimum sub
per week was set, which at several pounds a week was far in excess of what normal parties
extract. But people were "encouraged" to go beyond this. At big meetings a
speech would be made asking for money. Normally, some comrade would have been approached
beforehand and would have agreed to make a particularly high donation, say �500. The
speaker would then start off asking for �500, its donation would produce an immense
ovation, and people would then be pressured to follow suit.
Everything was also run by committees, and we had plenty of those.
Branches had branch committees which met in advance of branch meetings to allocate all
sorts of work, this went on to districts, areas, and nationally and internationally. Very
often it was the same people on these committees wearing different hats! But nothing moved
without the committees say-so. This was accompanied by persistent demands for people
to take more initiative, but in practice there was no mechanism for this to happen. Also,
at national conferences, leaders were elected by a slate system, that is, the CC proposed
a full list of names for CC membership. If you opposed it you theoretically stood up to
propose a full list of new names, but needless to say no one ever did. New members were
regarded as "contact members" and allocated a more experienced comrade who was
supposed to have weekly discussions as part of the "political education."
I do remember feeling absolutely terrified when I first left--what was
there for me now, what would I do, where did I start? I eventually managed to get my life
together, but it was a hard slog.
Indoctrination began with the recruitment
process. Given the CWIs secret existence within the Labor Party, people who came
into contact with it would not have immediately known that it was an organization, with
its own annual conference, full-time officials, and central committee. Potential
sympathizers encountered CWI members in the normal environment of the Labor Party or trade
unions. Once their left-wing credentials were established they would be asked to buy the
CWI newspaper, make a small donation, and support CWI motions at other meetings--a process
of escalating commitment. Only after a series of such tests had been passed would the
person be initiated into the secret of the CWIs existence, and provided with further
internal documents detailing aspects of its program. As many ex-members have testified,
the effect of this was to create a feeling that the potential recruit was gaining
privileged information, and being invited to participate in the transformation of history.
Furthermore, recruits could only access more of this knowledge by escalating their
involvement with the group. The excitement at this stage was considerable.
In the 1970s, before the CWI grew to any significant size, the mystical
aura around joining was heightened by the formality with which it was concluded. New
recruits traveled to London, where they were personally vetted by the organizations
founders. When this became impractical, they were formally welcomed "in" by the
nearest member of the Central Committee--an exercise close to the "laying on of
hands" found in baptism ceremonies. Tremendous feelings of loyalty were engendered by
this process, and fused together a group which saw itself as intensely cohesive and
blessed with the evangelical mission of leading the world revolution. Research suggests
that merely being a member of a group encourages the development of shared norms, beliefs
systems, conformity, and compliance (Turner, 1991). Belonging to a group with such a deep
and all-embracing belief system as that offered by the CWI encourages this process all the
Once in, however, the picture began to change. More and more demands
were placed on members. In particular, they were expected to contribute between 10% and
15% of their income to the party, buy the weekly newspaper, contribute to special press
fund collections, subscribe to irregular levies (perhaps to the extent of a weeks
income), recruit new members, and raise money from sympathizers. Tobias and Lalich (1994)
argue that cults have only two real purposes: recruiting other members and raising money.
These certainly emerge as central preoccupations of the CWI. Crick (1986) cites a former
member as follows on some of these issues:
A lot of it boiled down to selling papers. The pace didnt bother
me, but one day I suddenly realized that after a year my social circle had totally
drifted. I had only political friends left, simply because of the lack of time.
Thered be the...branch meeting on Monday evening, the Young Socialists meeting
another evening, "contact" work on Friday night, selling papers on Sunday
afternoon, and on top of that, to prove to the local Labor Party we were good party
members, we went canvassing for them every week and worked like hell in the local
Such a level of activity could be physically and emotionally ruinous,
and required members to redefine their entire existence in terms of their membership in
the CWI. Crick cites another interviewee as recalling:
The most abiding memories of life (in the CWI) are filled with the
sheer strain of it all. If you were even moderately active, you would be asked to attend
up to six or seven boring meetings in one week.
You built up an alternative set of social contacts as much as political
activity. It can easily take over peoples lives. It became obsessive. They were
almost inventing meetings to attend. There was a ridiculous number of meetings held to
discuss such a small amount of work. Even if you didnt have a meeting one evening,
youd end up drinking with them.
The kind of commitment...required was bundled together in the form of
highly alienating personal relationships. You had to make sure your subscriptions were
paid and your papers sold so as not to feel guilty when you chatted to other members. The
only way out seemed to be "family commitment" and the unspoken truth that as
soon as a young...member got a girlfriend he either recruited her or left. (p. 182)
What runs through all these accounts is the boredom which
accompanied CWI membership, after the thrill of initiation and the feeling of being
special had worn off. For example, recruitment itself, and much of party life, consisted
of hearing the same basic ideas endlessly repeated: there might be variations, but they
would be variations around a minimalist theme. As Scheflin and Opton (1978) point out,
paraphrasing no less an expert on mind control than Charles Manson, such repetition,
combined with the exclusion of any competing doctrine, is a powerful tool of conversion.
Even if the belief is not fully internalized a person hearing nothing but a one-note
message will eventually be compelled to draw from it in expressing their own opinions. But
once inside the CWI this became akin to spending every night listening to an orchestra
playing the same piece over and over again. However well accoutered the musicians or
however superb their performances, boredom, tiredness, and cynicism inevitably set in.
The recruitment process
can also be interpreted as a means of indoctrinating new recruits by presenting them with
an escalating series of challenges, or ordeals. Wexler and Fraser (1995) have argued that
this is an important method of establishing the cohesiveness of decision elites within
cults, thereby activating the extreme conformity known as groupthink. However, within the
CWI, it seems that such methods were used on all new recruits in order to embroil them
more deeply in CWI activities. Thus, the prospective recruit first expressed private
agreement with some CWI ideas. They were then required to advance this agreement publicly
at Labor Party or trade union meetings, then contribute money, buy literature, and sell
newspapers on the street. This continued until their entire life revolved around the CWI.
The process seems to be one of extracting commitment and then forcing a decision. The
full extent of the groups organization and program would not be immediately made
clear, and given the secretiveness of the CWI about its very existence would not be
readily known via the media. Nevertheless, a commitment to some form of activity was
obtained, and sounded on first hearing to have nothing in common with a life-transforming
commitment. One interviewee told me:
We would routinely lie to recruits about what their membership would
involve. They would ask what level of activity we expected, and we would talk mostly about
the weekly branch meeting and tell them that they could pick and choose what else to do,
if anything. But once they were inside there would be systematic pressure to do more and
more. Once they were in, very few could resist. But we knew that if we told them in
advance all that was involved they would never join. I remember telling a full-timer once
that I thought this new recruit we had met didnt have any friends. He looked
absolutely delighted, and told me that meant we would at least get plenty of work out of
Thus, recruits soon found their initial levels of activity rising:
"come to one more meeting," "attend one more conference," "read
an extra pamphlet this week." Whether they had consciously decided anything became
irrelevant: a real commitment had been made to the organization. They often then found
that their attitudes changed to come in line with escalating levels of commitment, and
eventually reached such an intense pitch that a formal decision (if it needed to be made
at all) was only a small final step--a classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance
theory (Festinger, 1957).
The evidence therefore suggests that, until the mid-1980s, the CWI was
a growing political force, with several thousand predominantly young and enthusiastic
members. Prospects seemed limitless. Members were certainly encouraged to believe that the
British revolution would develop within a 10-year period, and that their organization
would play a decisive role in historys most crucial turning point. It was at this
point, with pride at its peak, that everything began to go wrong.
Collapse and Disintegration
The steady growth which the CWI experienced in the late 1970s and 1980s
created the twofold illusion that the partys entire program had been confirmed, and
that permanent expansion was assured, if everyone merely redoubled their already
incredible work rates. New members were recruited without the period of lengthy
indoctrination which had hitherto been a major condition of CWI membership. Consequently,
their loyalty, conformity, and respect for CWI methods of working were much less
pronounced. Simultaneously, the Labor Party began to take action against CWI members,
expelling them in large numbers. This created the first ripples of doubt concerning the
organizations rationale for its existence.
Fundamentally, the CWI was hoping to remain a highly cohesive grouping,
but with a mass membership: in essence, it was attempting to design a round square. Given
an influx of new members not prepared to devote all their energies to party building, nor
to avoid challenging CWI leaders when their predictions failed to materialize, this proved
impossible. For many, after a short period of time, applause gave way to a slow hand clap.
The consequences are well summarized in a document published in 1992 by those expelled
from the organization:
1987 was a watershed.... The membership fell each year.... Then the
sickness of commandism and substitutionism rose apace. The leadership hid the real
situation from the ranks. Instead of "success" we were faced with retreat, which
did not suit the prestige of the leadership. Comrades were telling other comrades what
they wanted to hear. The Center became more and more out of touch with the situation on
the ground. The CC generally accepted this state of affairs as they were too fearful of
raising real criticisms and being labeled "conservative." The situation led to
the burning out of a whole layer of comrades and Full Timers. Since 1988, the organization
halved in size...the turnover reached 38% in 1990...we have lost 1,000 comrades since Jan.
1991--a turnover of 20%...according to the census conducted at the 1990 congress less than
1,100 were attending the branches, which includes 200 FTers.
For years the uniformity then exhibited began to be transformed into
conformity. Those who stepped out of line were clarified (sic) as "pessimists,"
"conservatives," "troublemakers," etc. More and more the pressure was
exerted to accept the line - more or less to stop thinking for yourself. The need for a
critical minded membership was transformed into its opposite.
Latest reports suggest that the CWI has continued to decline since the
early 1990s. An official history of the organization (Taaffe, 1995) boasts of increased
membership figures up until the late 1980s, when it seems to have peaked at around 8,000.
Thereafter, no figures are claimed. However, material published by expelled members of the
Opposition suggests that membership had fallen to below 3,000 by 1993, with only a small
proportion of that active in any meaningful sense. It appears that this has since dwindled
to well under 1,000, and falling. It has lost its three MPs, positions in trade unions,
and a great deal of money. In a real sense, the glowing future once anticipated by its
leaders is by now well behind it.
The rise and fall of the CWI can also be understood in terms of
Liftons (1961) classic study of thought reform programs in China. His work
introduced the term ideological totalism into the literature on social influence.
Lifton defined this as "the coming together of immoderate ideology with equally
immoderate individual character traits an extremist meeting ground between people
and ideas" (p. 477). He made it clear that the potential for such ideological
totalism is present within everyone, in that extreme conformity exists at one end of a
continuum, while at the other end lies extreme dissent. However, totalistic convictions
most likely to occur with those ideologies which are most sweeping in
their content and most ambitious--or messianic--in their claims, whether religious,
political, or scientific. And where totalism exists, a religion, a political movement, or
even a scientific organization becomes little more than an exclusive cult. (p. 477)
As this discussion makes plain, extremist Trotskyist organizations
adhere to what could only be described as such an ambitious and messianic ideology,
thereby holding an enormously exalted view of their role in society. The case history of
the CWI suggests that conformity, the banning of dissent, intense activism, and ultimate
collapse are inevitable features of such a political landscape. This analysis is
reinforced if we consider the extent to which the practice of the CWI accords with the
eight main conditions which Lifton identified as indicating the presence of ideological
totalism. These are:
1. Milieu Control
As Lifton (1961) postulated it, this is primarily the use of techniques
to dominate the persons contact with the outside world but also their communication
with themselves. People are "deprived of the combination of external information and
inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to
maintain a measure of identity separate from it" (p. 479).
In the DWP, discussed earlier in this paper, blatant measures were
employed to achieve such effects--for example, members were "encouraged" to
share living accommodations. However, within the CWI, this seems to have been managed in a
more subtle way. First, the norms of democratic centralism (which, it will be recalled,
require members to only put forward the partys position in public) disrupt
members capacity to critically appraise party ideology. It is difficult to say one
thing in public and hold to a set of private beliefs at variance with what is publicly
expressed. Second, intense activism means that the party environment comes to dominate
every aspect of the members life. In this way, members are bombarded with party
propaganda, in endless meetings, through reading party literature and by virtue of the
fact that there is no time to read anything but party publications. Most points of contact
with the external world are eliminated or drastically curtailed. As the material
pertaining to the CWIs collapse suggests, this form of milieu control can be more
subtle than in its most blatant cultic manifestations, but is still capable of exercising
a profound influence on those affected.
2. Mystical Manipulation
Lifton (1961) argues that "included in this mystique is a sense of
higher purpose, of having directly perceived some imminent law of social development, of
being themselves the vanguard of this development" (p. 480). This becomes a means of
achieving higher and higher levels of commitment. Frantic work rates are intrinsic to
vanguard notions of party building, and to the philosophy of Trotskyism, which claims in
its starkest form a special ability to illuminate all intellectual discourse. Thus, Woods
and Grant (1995), two leading British Trotskyists, have recently published a book on
science, which attempts to apply a Marxist understanding to the origins of the universe,
chaos theory, time travel, geology, and evolutionary theory. The discussion above shows
the extent to which the claim of privileged insight is central to the appeal of Trotskyist
organizations and is ritually invoked to encourage supporters into binges of party
3. The Demand for Purity
Here, "the experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and
the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil" (Lifton, 1961, p. 483).
Within the CWI, this process was best illustrated through its enormous emphasis on
unanimity. For most of CWIs history internal debate was effectively squashed, for
ideas that challenged party orthodoxy could be beaten off as tainted by "the
pressures of capitalism." But when the organization experienced significant setbacks
in the late 1980s internal debate became unavoidable, particularly since an Opposition was
declared by several of the most prominent leaders. However, and again this is more the
norm than the exception in Trotskyist politics, this rapidly led to the formation of
factions, uproar, and expulsions, with each side of the dispute claiming (1) complete
fidelity to sacred traditions and (2) that opponents were under the influence of bourgeois
ideology. The "demand for purity" is thus central to Trotskyist practice, but is
inimical to the norms of democratic debate.
4. The Cult of Confession
In essence, this condition requires people to confess their
inadequacies, their relative unsuitability to act as a vessel for the groups pure
ideas, and the many ways in which they have let the organization down. The DWP, discussed
earlier, institutionalized the ritual of confession into its program of criticism, a norm
at party meetings. There is no evidence that such practices gained such a hold in the
internal life of the CWI. This may be partly because, up until the 1991/92 schism (and as
noted earlier), vigorous measures were taken to sustain an illusion of unanimity within
the organizations top ranks. Without the role models of lively discussion above it
appears that the ranks retreated into an abject conformity unusual even in Trotskyist
circles. This minimized the opportunity for confession rituals in party practice.
There is some evidence that in the 1992 split this changed. People who
initially sided with the Opposition but then "changed their minds" were required
to publicly retract their previous opinions. However, this was obviously mild in
comparison to the practices of the DWP.
5. The " Sacred Science"
This aspect of ideological totalism is particularly apt to Trotskyist
politics. Lifton (1961) describes it as follows:
The totalistic milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic
dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence.
This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the
questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the
originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself...the
milieu...makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific"
precision. Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who
dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only
immoral and irrelevant but "unscientific." (p. 487)
This could be a purpose-built characterization of the CWI, as discussed
above. Trotskyism, as defined by the CWI, is the only pure strain of such ideology (and
hence of Marxism) left in the world, since the many others claiming such sanctity have in
reality capitulated to "the pressures of capitalism." Only the groups
ideology offers salvation. The effect is to secure a redoubled effort from the members in
party building, presented as a race between the creation of mass revolutionary parties
built in the image of the CWI and world destruction.
6. Loading the Language
Lifton (1961) has described this as the extensive use of what he termed
"the thought-terminating clich�," used as "interpretive short-cuts"
(p. 488). Repetitive phrases are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent
further analysis. Expressions such as "bourgeois mentality" are bandied around
as a signifier of something which is an ultimate evil, in contrast to the ultimate
goodness of the groups beliefs. Lifton describes the overall effects thus:
For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological
totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is...linguistically deprived; and
since language is so central to all human experience, his capacities for thinking and
feeling are immensely narrowed. (p. 489)
This is observable in the CWIs documents, and has been widely
commented on by independent observers. The writings of CWI leaders are an anthology of
clich�s--"dazzling" prospects are always said to exist in the immediate future,
"colossal" opportunities to build are identified in every situation, the years
ahead are invariably referred to as "the coming period," the groups
prognoses are frequently signaled by the tautological expression "we predict in
advance." The spectacle is one of thought attempting flight, only to find, in
mid-motion, that all its moving parts have been superglued together.
In addition, the language of demonization is used to describe
dissidents. Both sides in the 1991/92 split accused the other of "bending to the
pressures of capitalism." It is inconceivable that honest differences could exist
which should be debated on their merits--they are invariably viewed as signifying the
presence of alien class interests, to be engaged in mortal combat. The language is one of
all or nothing--complete agreement or absolute separation becomes the norm.
It is also startling, in reading CWI documents over an extended period,
to see how the same catastrophist ideas are repeated over and over again, without members
apparently noticing that the predictions of 20, 30, or 50 years ago are the same as today
and have yet to be borne out. A 1996 document produced by the faction expelled from the
CWI in 1992 closes by advancing the by-now familiar prediction:
The coming period into the new millennium will be a period of
convulsions for capitalism nationally and internationally. The socialist transformation of
society will once again be on the agenda. The whole world situation is such that one
victory in an important country, would electrify the masses and lead to the socialist
transformation of the entire globe.
The impoverishment of language used by these groupings, in which
historical analysis regularly gives way to hysterical analysis, is clearly a major reason
for the members inability to grasp either the repetitious nature of its perspectives
or the derivative nature of its analysis. Linguistic asphyxiation leads to intellectual
paralysis. By narrowing the range of thought it also hinders falsification. Members lack
the information required to compare predictions with reality, to distinguish between
evidence and assertion, and eventually to think.
7. Doctrine over Person
Essentially, Lifton (1961) argues that historical myths are engendered
by the group as a means of reinforcing its black-and-white morality. Then,
when the myth becomes fused with the totalist sacred science, the
resulting "logic" can be so compelling and coercive that it simply replaces the
realities of individual experience...past historical events are retrospectively altered,
wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic. (p. 490)
Trotskyist organizations have no shortage of such historical myths, but
the one that is most doggedly advanced concerns the 1917 Russian Revolution--often simply
referred to in CWI circles as "October." A recent article in the journal of
those expelled in 1992 is typical, and reads in part:
The October Revolution was, and remains, the most significant event in
history...perhaps the most important lesson of the October Revolution, and the failed
revolutions which followed it, is the role of Marxist leadership. Among Lenins
greatest contributions to the ideas of Marxism are his writings on the role of the
party--ideas upon which he built and molded the Bolshevik Party.
The objective then becomes one of repeating this glorious chapter under
modern conditions. Countless subsidiary myths are woven around the primary myth of
October. For example, a document by those expelled from the CWI describes the Bolshevik
Party as "the most democratic party in the history of the world working class."
There are also frequent references to the lonely but allegedly indispensable role of the
CWI in maintaining the "sacred science" of Trotskyism in the post-war period.
Historical myths console members for their present-day impotence, provide a ready-made
historical schema to impose on the complex realities of modern politics
and--principally--act a straitjacket on innovative thought.
8. The Dispensing of Existence
Fundamentally, this condition proposes that only those who adhere to
the groups ideology are fully human or fully good. Others are either conscious
agents of evil forces or unconscious barriers to historical progress who may well deserve
annihilation. The notion is promulgated that outside the ranks of the grouping, the member
may be corrupted by alien pressures, while only within its ranks can true purity be
The desire for affiliation is one of the most deeply rooted features of
human existence (Hargie & Tourish, 1997). A driving force behind it is our desire to
reduce uncertainty, by embracing ready-made explanations for the conduct of others
(Berger, 1987). In particular, a number of crucial studies (Burgoon, Hunsaker, &
Dawson, 1994) show that anxiety-producing situations increase individuals need to
affiliate with others and can also change their preexisting criteria for choosing
companions. Within all of this, it has been argued that the concept of a group is "a
pervasive, ever-present psychological mechanism which creates social cohesion and
collective action and makes possible certain higher-order, emergent forms of social
life" (Turner & Oakes, 1997, p. 364). We attempt to reduce uncertainty through
what might be termed a process of "social testing," in which we measure the
validity of our attitudes by comparison to what significant others believe. How does this
relate to the CWI?
Clearly, the huge levels of activity demanded of CWI activists ensured
that their entire lives revolved around it. The groups ideology also offers
ready-made explanations for everything, thereby providing a convenient explanatory
framework for the rapid reduction of uncertainty. This constituted one of its main
appeals, particularly among young people, for whom uncertainty about the meaning of life
and the future is naturally greatest. In addition, the high activism and frequently
hostile climate in which people attempted to advance the CWI program increased anxiety in
the manner discussed by Burgoon, et al. (1994), and which therefore exaggerated the
tendency toward affiliation, compliance, and belief.
There is also evidence that the organization took a dim view of
ex-members. An internal circular labeled those expelled in 1992 as "a hostile force,
against which we will have to fight in the labour movement." The comrades of
yesterday had become the demons of today. One interviewee, Robert, also recounted
When people left, we always said that they had "dropped out."
I suppose that kind of implies that by leaving you were falling down or showing weakness!
We also often said that they had "degenerated." There was never a good reason
for calling it quits.
This article has explored the techniques used by some groups on the
Left to maintain high levels of conformity, activism, and intolerance on the part of their
members. None of this necessarily implies that radical movements to change society are
inherently destined to become obscure cults, or that a radical critique of modern society
is inappropriate. In the final analysis, the condition of society is a vitally important
issue, and requires a political rather than a psychological analysis. However, the
evidence plainly suggests that a number of traditional Leninist or Trotskyist assumptions
endanger internal democracy, political thinking, and what must be a central goal of any
movement seeking wider influence--the regular updating of ideas to retain relevance.
In particular, the Trotskyist conception of the role of the
revolutionary party has become transmuted into a rationale for the creation of tyrannical
fiefdoms locked into a spiral of irrelevance, fragmentation, and ideological petrifaction.
Rigid adherence to democratic centralism, a term which appears to be an oxymoron, reflects
an excessive veneration for "October," which in turn precludes an updated
historical analysis of the 1917 Revolution and its aftermath. Accordingly, the Trotskyist
tradition eschews innovation. Those marooned in its static preoccupations find themselves
condemned to an ever greater isolation, in which the search for other footprints in the
sand is always in vain. This is combined with a catastrophist political analysis which
(despite its frequent falsification by events) spurs such intense activism that the
energy, time, and confidence required for political reflection is consumed by party
building. Such party building is generally signified by the presence of innumerable
factions--and the absence of a party. The question therefore arises: To what extent can
the CWI and Trotskyist groupings in general be regarded as cults?
It has been suggested here that political cults possess six main
distinguishing features, namely:
1. A rigid belief system
2. An immunity to falsification
3. An authoritarian inner party regime
4. A leadership able to exercise arbitrary power
5. The deification of leader figures
6. An intense level of activism
The discussion of the CWI suggests that virtually all of these were
present within the organization, to one extent or another. However, no evidence has been
presented that CWI leaders enjoyed a privileged lifestyle above other members, either
sexually or financially. In addition, aspects of party ideology that reinforced
conformism, including its enthusiasm for democratic centralism, have been identified. Much
of this also suggests that the grouping concerned made ready use of the means by which
Lifton (1961) suggested that social influence can be exercised to create ideological
totalism. Nevertheless, not all of these elements were used equally, and their relative
impact clearly varies from group to group.
Thus, Tourish and Irving (1995) have argued that it is useful to
conceptualize the issue of cultism as a continuum. At one end of the spectrum we find
voluntary associations of people cooperating to work out their ideas and develop a shared
sense of purpose. At the other end are manipulated individuals, compelled to uncritically
accept the theories of unchallenged, supposedly infallible, and uncorrectable leaders.
Organizations and individuals can move back and forth along this continuum. Harmful
practices may reach such a level that the group experiences a qualitative rather than
quantitative transformation, emerging as a fully fledged cult. In one sense this approach
makes analysis more difficult, because it becomes more conditional and less "black
and white." Groups are not necessarily either cults or not cults. They can be both,
at different times and under different circumstances. The key is to identify which
techniques of social influence are being used, and the extent to which the people involved
recognize the dangers inherent to a great many forms of organization.
This article opened with a brief review of the DWP in California, and
then moved on to consider the CWI in Britain. It is clear that the vices of cultism were
much more pronounced in the former case. Activity levels were greater, the arbitrary power
of the leaders more entrenched, a cult of confession much more widely practiced, and the
overall harm inflicted on members all the greater. Nevertheless, as has been shown here,
many standard practices and beliefs of the CWI (and the Trotskyist movement in general)
suggest that it does occupy a place on the spectrum of cultic organizations, albeit
perhaps not always at the most severe end.
Left-wing activists, in common with all those interested in movements
that set themselves ambitious goals of social, moral, or commercial regeneration, need to
temper enthusiasm for change with a stronger awareness of the techniques of social
influence and a greater skepticism toward totalistic philosophies of social change.
Without such an approach, individuals face lifelong disillusion with any form of political
action. Cults prey on our aversion to uncertainty. Yet, in reality, they only illuminate
the darkness with burnt-out candles. The disillusionment they cause itself becomes an
enormous waste of democratic energy. In learning from organizations such as the CWI, it
will be possible to avoid such a fate and strengthen peoples willingness to engage
in political action that genuinely liberates their thinking and thereby contributes to
social, economic, and political growth and change in our society.
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Ph.D., is a lecturer in communication at the University of Ulster, Northern
Tourish, Dennis, Ph.D.: " Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism, and Cultism"
Tourish, Dennis, Ph.D.: "Cultic Dimensions of the London 7/21/ Bombings"
Tourish, Dennis, Ph.D.: "Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism, and Cultism Abstract"
Ω Conference 2003 CA: Presenter