Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


On the Edge

Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth
On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left
ME Sharpe, New York 2000, pp. 250

REVOLUTIONARY History has quoted Robert Conquest, the well-known historian of Soviet Russia, on its back cover. Conquest says of Revolutionary History: ‘What distinguishes the Trotskyite tradition of which I am speaking is its scepticism, its acceptance of the principle of critical thought.’ The book under review here examines something quite different. It is an attempt to present a number of political groups which are doggedly sectarian and unable to treat themselves critically.

This work argues that a number of movements at opposite poles on the political spectrum share common characteristics. The authors are, of course, not alone in drawing together organisations which sharply oppose each other. Trotsky, for example, pointed to Stalinism’s similarity to fascism:

… the crushing of Soviet democracy by an all-powerful bureaucracy and the extermination of bourgeois democracy by fascism were produced by one and the same cause: the dilatoriness of the world proletariat in solving the problems set for it by history. Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity. (L.D. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 278)

What is the basis of the similarities? Ultimately they are rooted in the nature of the groups. Thus they tend to have rigid belief systems, with beliefs that are immune to falsification. The members live under authoritarian inner-party regimes in which the leader has arbitrary powers. The organisations deify their leaders (dead or alive). A key technique to keep members in the loop is to insist on intense activism. This helps to break off members from other interests, and thereby increase their dependence on the group. But why should anyone join an organisation like that? The argument that you would have to be mad to join is rejected by the authors. However, the key seems to be in psychology. A central fact is that continuing cults draw in potential members using skilfully baited psychological hooks.

The book examines a number of cults which, despite the title, really form three distinct groups. These are right-wing cults, leftist political/psychotherapy groups and left-wing organisations.

Eyes Right: The first group are right-wing organisations. Christian Identity, Posse Comitatus and Aryan Nations are all included. These are made up of people gripped by racist ideologies and paranoid conspiracy theories. They love their guns in a way that few people here, even in the Countryside Alliance, could imagine. The gun culture and extreme anti-statism frequently bring these groups up against the public authorities. Their admiration of Hitler and their enthusiasm for the trappings of the Third Reich are of interest. Note, however, that what they get from Hitler is racism, a cult figure, symbols and regalia. They are wildly opposed to any government beyond the most local, and they seem ignorant of the extreme enthusiasm of prewar fascism for the state.

The most interesting right-wing group is the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). This is headed by Lyndon LaRouche. His group’s name betrays its origins on the political left. LaRouche has shifted a long way since his decision to join the American Socialist Workers Party in 1947. He has journeyed to a neo-fascist position. LaRouche is important for our authors, partly because he seems to have been a cultist wherever he has been on the political spectrum. He illustrates a key point. This is that cultists are primarily interested in the organisation for its own sake, rather than the political positions it holds.

It’s all in the mind: A group of cults have combined leftist politics with psychotherapy. Just as plain political cults share many positions with more normal movements, so the groups linked to psychotherapy share something with the conventional psychotherapists. However, they are ultimately very different sorts of movements. Whatever our views of normal psychotherapy, readers will recoil in horror at the damage done by these movements. They are worth studying, mainly because they bring to the fore many of the techniques used by cults to win obedience. For example, Gerry Healy, Chairman Mao and many others have found that the sensible notions of criticism and self-criticism can be used to devastate internal critics and to undermine the independence of members. The well-known thought that the personal is the political is abused to mould the personal to the requirements of the sect.

Children of the Revolution: Readers of Revolutionary History will (like the authors) feel on surer ground when dealing with left-wing sects. We have all come across them, and all too many have inside knowledge of them. They all exhibit similar characteristics. They inhabit a curiously closed world in which the full-time party worker has special status. Policy disputes are generally settled by reference to a text by a long-dead great thinker. The thinker is normally Trotsky, but is sometimes Lenin. Although the word ‘Marxist’ appears in titles, poor old Karl is a second- or third-rate runner in the great quotations race.

Since Lenin and Trotsky have been dead for a goodly time, they need a more recent interpreter. Soon the interpreters act as the dead guru’s messenger on earth. Two of the classic left cult leaders, Gerry Healy and Ted Grant, and their organisations are each given a chapter. It is worth remarking here that Healy’s organisation exploded over the issue of his sexual exploitation of a large number of women. Here Tourish and Wohlforth show a surprising lack of touch. They say of Healy that ‘he transformed his cult into a personal brothel’ (p. 172). Interestingly, after 1985, a number of women in Cliff Slaughter’s organisation discussed the issue of Healy’s exploitation with an incest support group. Although Healy was not committing incest, his relationship with his victims had an incestuous aspect. He used the special relationship he had developed as the party’s special guru to abuse vulnerable women. The phrase ‘personal brothel’ demeans his victims.

Healy’s long history shows a determination to dominate whichever group he was in. His ruthless tactics ensured his dominance of various groups from about 1950 onwards. The price was paid by the membership, the Trotskyist movement and the broader labour movement. Grant’s dominance of his corner of Trotskyism has been less spectacular than Healy’s, but probably just as damaging.

Left Cults and their Ideology: Lenin’s early ideas are very suitable for sects. What is to be Done? exists as the classic élitist reading of Marxism. Its demand for a close-knit group of leaders clutching the magic key of Marxism is ideal for other-worldly sect chieftains. An interesting comment here is that although Trotsky was never convinced of the validity of What is to be Done?, most of the Trotskyist groups are. The book’s formal ideas are too good to miss. Indeed even as LaRouche has moved to the far right, he has found a useful crutch in Lenin’s organisational schemas.

Behind the Cults: Why do political movements degenerate into weird cults? The answer seems to be in part that each has a certainty which meets a broader world that is not in tune with its ideas. The right-wing racists find that integration and acceptance of difference are tending to grow. The mood of the times is strongly against extreme authoritarianism. Going off to the mountains, armed to the teeth, and living in a peculiarly perverse variant of a utopian community seems a possible way out.

Several of the left sects flowed from the break-up of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949. Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson comment on the decline of Trotskyism into the ideology and justification of a sectarian group (The War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937–1949, London 1986, p. 239). However, once such groups have so declined and ideology has replaced politics and autocracy has replaced democratic leadership, they may rise again. The organisations now appear in a new form. A key warning from our authors is that cults can be successful despite the fact that they often hold views that are irrational and are defended with a mixture of circular thinking and paranoia. We can think of the influence of Militant in Liverpool and in the Parliamentary Labour Party as an example. The leader has contradictory goals. He or she needs both a large body of supporters and control of the organisation. Thus: ‘The more supporters he or she [the leader] has, the harder it is to maintain control. Binges of recruitment alternate with bloody purges, in an exhausting spiral of effort that sees the group ascend to fresh peaks of demoralisation.’ (p. 31) Ultimately, the leader normally prefers control to numbers. The groups’ developments thus come to very little.

The authors point to a phenomenon that has long puzzled me. The sects are generally a bookish lot. They each have a body of ideas that can explain everything and answer all the world’s problems. And yet when they talk to outsiders, these highly able and articulate people can explain little. They reduce all problems to a few simple ones, and are strikingly narrow. Mostly they are uninterested in serious discussion of the development of their ideas. It seems that sectarianism screws you up in all sorts of ways.

Cults in Crisis: Marx saw sects in the workers’ movement in a way that was similar to Bornstein and Richardson. In commenting on Ferdinand Lassalle, who combined charisma, considerable political skills and deep opportunism, Marx said:

Like everyone who maintains that he has a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket, he gave his agitation from the outset a religious and sectarian character. Every sect is in fact religious … instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class for the real basis of his agitation, he wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe … The sect sees the justification for its existence and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement. (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 257–8)

Today the sects flowing from the death of the RCP in 1949 are winding up. The implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985–86 has been followed by the fragmentation of the remnants of that group. Grant is now brooding outside the mainstream of the organisation he founded.

The Socialist Alliance is significant because it has become the centre for a kind of regrouping. The various sects around the Trotskyist left have joined up, along with one of the fragments of the old Communist Party. They have come together with a variety of independent forces. Although it is clearly not the final curtain for the sects, it is certainly something new. Sects have to talk to each other and work together around a broad platform (they have long found it possible to cooperate in single-issue movements).

This level of cooperation is not easy. The Socialist Party found it too challenging and wandered off in December 2001. Sect life for the Taffeites is preferable to the peculiar threats of joint work around a broad programme.

The Socialist Workers Party has dominated the Socialist Alliance, but in a very odd way. Most of the effective debate in the Socialist Alliance around policy and the nature of socialism in e-mail discussion passes with no comment from the SWP leaders (although some ordinary members join in). The SWP appears to be incapable of working out its relationship with the Socialist Alliance. Dancing too close would lead members off into the broad movement and out of the sect. Keeping too distant means that the Socialist Alliance will either fall into crisis or reduce the SWP to a large but marginal player. Whether sectarian organisations walk out or try to be back-seat drivers, their whole existence is undermined by a broad socialist movement.

The rise of a broad socialist movement can only be rooted in the revival of independent working-class political activity. A rising tide of activity will put enormous pressure on the sectarians. In the long run, it is the only force that can lead to the defeat of the cults, but leaders and supporters of such groups will fight hard to defend their movements and ideologies.

Is this book worth a read? Yes it is. The issues raised need to be dealt with by the left, even if readers come to different conclusions from those reached by Tourish and Wohlforth. There are clearly problems with the larger thesis. Too much rests on drawing direct links from psychology to politics. The authors’ fears that cults will do great damage to society at large are undermined by their demonstration of the distinct limits of the cults’ own capacities.

The book argues that the set of beliefs held by cultic movements is of little importance. These are bodies with the simple goals of defence and advance of the group. This is an intriguing idea. As evidence, Tourish and Wohlforth look at groups that have shifted from the radical left to the neo-fascist right. However, very few groups make that sort of journey.

Behind the firm ideological statements of the groups, the thinking is often very inconsistent. Thus the Militant made the words of Trotsky central to its life, but increasingly that life was devoted to Labour Party activity and a thirst for elected office. Healy’s supporters could fiercely denounce leaders of many countries for blocking off social revolution, while they received money from such regimes. The SWP’s Marxism has enabled it to vary its strategy from refusing to contest elections to going overboard for a chance to stand for office. As referred to earlier, neo-fascist groups are no more consistent. Despite all this, surely ideas play some rôle. The great majority of ex-members of these groups have moved on after political disagreements. The gulf between the groups’ words and deeds have mattered to the members. No simple formula answers the problem, but ideas are more important than this work seems to suggest.

With all the above criticisms, the book should to be read as a contribution to debate, and not as an end to discussion.

Geoff Barr

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011