- Direct Action has been re-launched, this time as the paper of the ( LPF + MSN = ) Revolutionary Socialist Party. This follows the exciting news that the ( ISO + SAG + Solidarity = ) Solidarity site is all systems go. Note that during the mid- to late- nineties and thru until the late-naughties the Wobblies in Australia also published a zine titled Direct Action. And may still…
A few years ago I stumbled upon Dennis Tourish’s essay on ‘Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left’ (Cultic Studies Journal, 1998). I thought it was an interesting examination of ‘cultism’ as it applied to one particular left-wing grouping, the Socialist Party (a member of the Committee for a Workers’ International) in the UK. The essay was later expanded upon in a book dedicated to examining political cultism more generally, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left (Dennis Tourish & Tim Wohlforth, M.E. Sharpe, 2000). The book is reviewed — and condemned — by Bob Pitt in ‘Cults, Sects and the Far Left’ (What Next?, No.17, 2000): “Tourish and Wohlforth claim that one of their purposes in writing On the Edge is to counter the negative methods of the far left and encourage “a balanced form of political activity on the part of many more people”. Which is an entirely admirable aim. Unfortunately, this malicious and incoherent book contributes virtually nothing to the achievement of that objective.”
Above: SAlt members in Sydney hear the good word on Paris ’68
I recently cited the essay (on Leftwrites) as perhaps being of interest in the context of Bob Gould’s account of a Sydney meeting of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), titled ‘Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting about May 1968’. It gave a rather caustic account of the meeting, comparing it — and SAlt — to the Hillsong Church. Not unexpectedly, Bob’s post and the subject of cultism on the Left have proven to be controversial. It’s also sparked a few comments by Tourish, which I think are sensible and bear repeating:
1) My attention has been drawn to this discussion. I know little about [SAlt], and have no desire to comment at length on something I have not studied. However, an organisation which thinks that convening public meetings in which the only purpose appears to be the presentation of a party line by its leaders without public discussion, debate and disagreement appears at the very least on a worrying trajectory.
Someone has also posted a link to my paper on the CWI [Committee for a Workers’ International], in which I argue (I believe convincingly) that it is a cult. I won’t repeat those points: anyone interested can follow them up in the paper concerned. The wider point is that many of the cult like dynamics I identify within the CWI are shared by many groups on the left, I believe to the detriment of the cause they advocate. A member of the CWI in Ireland responded to this criticism some time ago, and a very spirited debate ensued. Anyone interested might like to follow that up at the following.
I also find it interesting that almost always my arguments are rejected on such grounds as the fact that I am an academic. Well, yes, guilty. (Incidentally, I know of at least one prominent activist in [SAlt] who lectures in a business school at one of Australia’s main Universities – evidently, I am not alone in sinning). We all have to earn a living somehow. I chose to earn mine by working in a University, as much as anything because it permits me to write and say what I think – a privilege not found in a growing number of other occupations. There is much wrong with the University system, but this is about the major thing that is still right. I have used this privilege in the past to, for example, denounce managerialism in Australian higher education in the pages of The Australian [Management bent on worst practice, January 18, 2006]. I am against authoritarianism when it is practiced in business organisations, in the public sector, in Universities – and, amazingly enough, when contemplating far left groups who trumpet an emancipatory agenda, but deliver the opposite in their own practice. The word that best describes this paradox is: hypocrisy. Exposing it is an elementary duty on the part of anyone interested in building a better world than the one we currently inhabit.
2) A defender of [SAlt] writes, of my own contribution here: ‘Yes, slamming groups dedicated to making the world a better place by ascribing to them the characteristics of reactionary religious organisations is truly a worthwhile use of academic freedom.’ I have actually said very little about [SAlt], but have suggested that the cult like dynamics of many far left groups are an obstacle to the achievement of their goals, and that activists interested in social change should study these dynamics, learn from past mistakes, and create better organisational structures in the future. I believe that these forms would value dissent, debate and internal democracy, rather more often than the monolithic and oppressive structures that far left groups habitually create at present. Again, my readily available writings on the CWI spells this out in some detail. It is for others to judge whether any of this is applicable to [SAlt], DSP or other Australian groups on the far left. It appears that at least some of it is.
However, ‘Chav’ sees something inherently wrong in suggesting that groups on the left can share some organisational forms with reactionary religious organisations (the Moonies etc). I question this. As is well known, the Stalinist parties in the 1930s, at least in words, espoused socialist goals – but as Trotsky among others pointed out they actually shared many norms and organisational practices with fascist organisations. Of course the Stalinists howled – but it was a fair point. History knows all kinds of transformations. It is quite possible to start out with noble goals, but end up adopting organisational forms which are destructive, dysfunctional, oppressive and which act as a barrier to these goals. Why wouldn’t it be? Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to suicide and murder in Guyana in the 1970s, also espoused socialist goals. Should the existence of such goals have prevented us exposing his organisational methods to some scrutiny? Gerry Healy in the WRP in Britain promoted a Trotskyist agenda, and no doubt deep down inside himself was firmly in favour of human liberation – so long as everybody did precisely what he decreed in the interim. As is now well known, he actually created one of the most vicious political cults that we know of. Why should the existence of emancipatory goals automatically emancipate people from having their organisational practices scrutinised? It is well known that the Catholic Church favours celibacy for its clergy and sexual abstinence – this hasn’t exactly prevented many of its priests from abusing children. I don’t see why Trotskyist organisations should be immune from the well known, and all too human, dynamics of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A belief system isn’t a magic talisman, warding off the evil spirits of impurity.
Ultimately, these organisations advocate revolution. They want the leadership of the working class. They want to replace existing mass parties with mass formations of their own. It would be crazy not to look closely at what they actually do, and crazier still to avoid highlighting examples of abuse, oppression and – yes – cultism where it applies. A little less sensitivity to such examination, and a greater willingness to argue the issues, might well be in order.
As things stand, such organisations mostly burn out the energies of enthusiastic young people, turn them off politics for life, and achieve very little other than a colossal waste of everybody’s time. I modestly suggest that we can do better.
3) I’d like to thank Andrew for his comments on my piece on the CWI. Although the discussion on this site is mainly about SA, I suppose people may feel that many leftist groups have things in common in terms of ideology and organisational dynamics, so there may be some worth in studying such groupings across the board. I won’t say anything about the CWI in Australia, which I have not studied, but would like to comment on a couple of Andrew’s general points.
The first is that he seems to reject my analysis as being somehow ‘post-modern.’ This is news to me. I am not a postmodernist: it is the modern syphilis of intellectual engagement. My long article on the CWI sets out a definition of cults, identifies their main characteristics, and then seeks to explore the extent to which these characteristics are present or not present in the CWI. This does not seem like a post-modern endeavour to me. But that’s not a huge point.
Cults are organisations which display a fanatical obsession with a theory or ideology, which is usually held to be the key to solving all the world’s problems (this could be a religious belief; one of personal development, such as found in some ‘counselling’ systems; or politics). The notion is that only this particular organisation understands the ideology correctly – thus, for example, the CWI sets itself up as the defender of ‘genuine Marxism’, from which all its rivals are said to have deviated. Fired up with this conviction, a leader (or two) become viewed as demi-Gods by the membership, who are naturally encouraged not to question them too carefully. Influence flows from the leader to the followers, rather than the other way round. Rather, the role of other leaders and certainly of followers is to cheer lead the insights of the extraordinary leaders – and do what they say. Events and conferences become showcases for the latest wheezes of the leaders: the followers listen and applaud. Recruiting others to the one belief system, or programme, that is indispensable for the salvation of humanity follows next. People work at extraordinary levels to achieve their goals – selling, recruiting, persuading, and running in circles. Quick, no time to lose. We must grow now, or we will miss our historic opportunity. This leaves little time for genuine reflection. If members notice that yesterday’s predictions (such as the CWI’s view that the 1990s would be the most revolutionary decade in human history) have not quite come to pass, there is always the next campaign to distract them. Naturally, some doubts arise. Occasionally, some minor little bit of disagreement is tolerated – all the better to show the organisation’s democratic credentials. The problem is that when this bit of doubt becomes substantial, or involves significant forces, the doubter(s) are excommunicated at warp speed – they have betrayed the movement, become corrupt, gone senile, violated procedures for raising issues, behaved disloyally, split (as with recent shenanigans in Australia’s DSP), and/or engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the leadership.
I contend that this has been the reality of the CWI. Since I published my piece originally the situation has become worse rather than better. Andrew suggests that each national organisation has in reality great freedom of movement from London and the leadership of Peter Taaffe. Yet in each country they all implement practically the same line, are called Socialist Parties, and stand outside any formal labour movement structures. It doesn’t look very independent to me. Additionally, both in the UK and internationally, there have been a series of splits and expulsions, as groups and individuals who disagreed with Peter Taaffe were excommunicated. For example, one of their leaders in the US – an old friend of mine from Ireland, who does not share my analysis of the CWI – named John Throne was fired as a full timer and expelled some years ago, and incidentally left with unpaid medical bills in the health climate of the US. John’s crime? Apparently he ‘refused to accept the decisions of the CWI’ – whatever that means. No one has ever explained precisely what his alleged crime was, despite repeated invitations to be specific. It looks to me, and many other observers, that it was a ‘thought crime’ – yes, the CWI (or more accurately, Peter Taaffe) ‘decided’ – and John dared to hold onto and campaign for his views. (Nor was he allowed his right of appeal to the CWI’s international congress). I offer this as just one example. In Scotland, Merseyside, Pakistan and elsewhere we have had the same. The CWI is today a shrunken sect of little importance, including in its UK heartland, where it has just a few hundred members. I would suggest that its intolerant internal regime is an important part of the reason for this decline, and it is one other forces on the left would be well advised to learn from rather than emulate.
Andrew draws attention to the fact that people belong also to things like football clubs, to which they have been known to show great loyalty. Well, I suppose everything has something in common with everything else, in this interconnected universe which we inhabit. But this is like comparing the rusty old bicycle in my garage to a Ferrari: what they don’t have in common is more important than what they do. I am not saying that ‘loyalty’ denotes a cult – I am saying that when people have an inordinate conviction that only their group has all the answers to the world’s problems, when dissent from this view results in expulsions, when other groups who share the same basic ideology are demonised and ridiculed, when people work to the exclusion of almost everything else to advance their group, when recruitment, recruitment, recruitment is a daily mantra, when nothing is learned and no ideological advance occurs, when this and the other phenomena I explore occur: then we have a cult. Political groupings are not immune to these processes: leftist groups seem less immune than most. Whether people like or approve of the word cult that I use to describe this, I really do hope that they conclude there must be better ways of organising.