(This article was originally published on the Cosmonaut.blog on November 18, 2020. Gus Breslauer is a gay space communist from Houston, Texas who writes about shame, gay politics, HIV/AIDS, and capitalism.)
Destructive cults are usually considered the domain of religious movements. The Left, however, has its own track record of cults. Gus Breslauer sympathetically examines this history in search of the political questions that produce such groups, how they operate, and how to overcome them.
“Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Rev. James Warren “Jim” Jones, last words, 1978
JONESTOWN, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Over 900 people are dead, mostly black, mostly women, and many children. The tragedy was one of the most widely discussed news stories of that year, and to this day, it remains a symbol of the danger of cults. Many know the story, and yet the consequences of how that story is remembered and understood are often understated. Jonestown and Peoples Temple need to be understood as a continuum; too often its triumphant road of struggle and liberation is overshadowed by its extreme end. Jim Jones is often remembered as an evil tyrant and murderer, and less often as the person almost entirely responsible for the integration of Indianapolis in the early 1960s.1 To truly learn the lessons we need from this tragedy, we must look at both.
Communists, already the bearers of a burdensome history,2 rarely take any ownership of the tragedy at Jonestown. There is a common way the story is told which leaves a lot of the politics to the side and gives a dangerous presentation of a New Religious Movement with a side of the New Communist Movement, rather than the other way around. Peoples Temple wasn’t a “doomsday cult” either, even if Jim Jones did prophesize a coming reckoning; the threat he identified was real. Although he wrapped this up in his own delusions about his “Trotskyite defectors”, the FBI and CIA had destroyed black movements and socialist movements all over the world throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and Jones decided early on they would be his enemy.3 There was a major shift away from religion and spirituality altogether in the period after the settlement of Jonestown in Guyana. The truth is, Peoples Temple was pretty serious about being communists, and emerged directly out of the Civil Rights movement. Think less Woodstock counterculture, and more March on Washington and the Freedom Riders. Members changed their names to Lenin, Stalin and Guevara. They eagerly awaited transmissions from Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton.4 Listening to the infamous death tape and sermons leading up to the tragedy, the only logical conclusion is that the boogeyman of Jonestown was not the Devil or the Rapture, but rather the FBI, CIA, and US State Department. Despite their fate, members of Peoples Temple were communists, and therefore in the face of the tragedy and out of respect for their sacrifice, they deserve critique and guidance.
The vision of Peoples Temple from the outset was church in form, and party in content.5 That might seem like a disastrous formula, but the truth is that most religious communist movements do not have this kind of tragic end. What’s most horrifying about the death tape6 and Jim Jones’ sermons are that Jones puts forward arguments that are eerily familiar. There are cries to appeal to the USSR for help, paranoia about political repression, and the treatment of revolutionary suicide as a “protest” or an act of propaganda of the deed.7 The whole thing is altogether not far from the typical wide-eyed visions of the anti-social left: go to the woods and start a commune, ”leave this world”, commit huge symbolic acts to show your devotion under the guise of raising people’s consciousness.
It could happen again, and there is more inventory for us to take stock of as well. Peoples Temple wasn’t the only group that began as a religious movement and turned to quasi-communist or anti-capitalist ideas. Today, there is more and more information about the Rajneeshees, who were a melting pot of various Eastern mysticisms, and who considered Western Capitalism to be their enemy. They have been accused of acts of bioterrorism in the area surrounding their Oregon commune, as well as harmful internal practices. They recently came to prominence through the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, which casts them in a complicated light, with a mix of sympathy and hostility. While not as deadly, the Rajneeshees had the same impulse as Peoples Temple: go out and create a post-capitalist enclave in the wilderness.
Not into religion? You still have plenty to worry about. Arguably the most destructive example we’ve seen of a cult on the left is the UK Workers’ Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought (henceforth WI-MZT). WI-MZT is notable for its transition from sect to cult. The already-intensely sectarian group was raided by police in 1978, and afterward went completely underground. Their practices mutated from passionate devotion and secrecy, as they already suffered from grandiose delusions, to total isolation and surveillance. What followed was slavery, rape, and abuse, which shocked the world when police raided the group again in 2013.8 It would be decades before members were allowed to leave, and one woman was born into the group and spent her first 30 years of life under their rule, never allowed to leave a London apartment. She did not even know another member was her mother until after the woman died when the daughter was already an adult. WI-MZT again shows the danger and ultimate cost of this kind of path: the unimaginable torture and extreme deprivation of socialization that a person lives under for an entire lifetime, a kind of cruelty which puts the abuses of new religious groups to shame.
Peoples Temple and WI-MZT are extreme examples and for that reason don’t serve as the best case studies. Nevertheless, plenty of cadre groups have cult-like practices and cults of personality which are harmful at worst and ineffective at best, even if they appear more like extreme sectarianism, rather than what we’ve come to know as cults. The O (short for “the Organization”) was a New Communist Movement group which is something of a legend, living rent-free in the heads of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Left. The O was a residual of the Minneapolis Cooperative Wars, in which members of the group competed with other locals for control of worker’s cooperatives in the 1970s.9 By the 1980s, the group came to practice total secrecy and social control, strictly controlling what members could do and say, and who they could associate and have a relationship and children with. They were even paranoid of one another, communicating only by memo and implementing a number of other highly secretive practices.10
Other cadre groups from the New Communist Movement era have formed cults. In the early 1970s, a group was formed by sociology professor Marlene Dixon which would eventually become the Democratic Workers Party. This Marxist-Leninist and Feminist group was largely lesbian and women-led, and also, less commonly known, armed and trained in firearms.11 Dixon herself was a sociologist, and studied psychiatrist and brainwashing theorist Robert Jay Lifton’s ideas on thought reform.12 Ironically she served as something of a nexus for the development of cultic studies herself in this way, as future brainwashing theorists would be applying Lifton’s analysis to her personality cult. Of the groups that have been called cults and associated with the left, the Democratic Workers Party may be the one with the most classically Leninist party structure.
Today, a staple on the US left raises the question of what qualifies as a left wing “cult”. The Revolutionary Communist Party (henceforth, RCP), is often called a cult or cult of personality. The RCP is the most enduring Maoist group to come out of the remnants of the Students for a Democratic Society’s leadership and the subsequent New Communist Movement. They are very open and evangelical about their party leader, Bob Avakian. Avakian once remarked, when asked if the RCP had become a cult of personality, “I certainly hope so – we’ve been working very hard to create one”.13 Earlier RCP writings openly discuss the history and theory of a cult of personality. However, these writings were rare and today the cult of personality is not openly theorized, despite assertions that it is stronger than ever. The RCP thoroughly denies the claim.14
Left-wing cults become more destructive when you circle back from the Leninist groups and look at those influenced by psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. The Sullivanians (alternatively called the Sullivan Institute for Research and Psychoanalysis, and also their associated theatre company, Fourth Wall) were an Upper West Side Manhattan cult that took a unique psychoanalytic and post-Marxist view to frightening ends. The group viewed, not so controversially for leftists, the mid-century nuclear family as related to the form of democratic capitalism that exists in the US.15 The group practiced communal living, and the leadership strictly controlled who could become a parent, who could become a parent with whom, and all other aspects of the childbearing and rearing process. Parents did not live together and children did not live with parents, and generally were raised with limitations on the relationships they could have with their parents. Sexual abuse followed some of the practices by which children were expected to experiment with sexuality and human anatomy without limits.16 Although the group discouraged corporal punishment, they used a psychologically-harmful form of social ostracization in order to discipline children who fell out of favor with the leadership.17
The Sullivanians’ psychoanalytic model isn’t the only of its type. There were similar groups outside the anglophone world. Wilhelm Reich-inspired artist Otto Muehl led the Austrian Friedrichshof Commune18 (officially named “Aktionsanalytische Organisation”) from 1972 to 1990, in which sexual abuse to both children and adults also followed psychotherapeutic practices. Muehl instituted a pecking order that was also tied to his sexual favoritism, and young women were incorporated into this system. After the second decade, the group shifted from an anti-capitalist model to high-class exploitation. Members were expected to make up to millions a year in finance, insurance, and real estate. All of this went to the commune. The group collapsed when Muehl was prosecuted and convicted for his sexual crimes in 1991. However, after he was released in 1997, he moved to Portugal to establish a similar group with some followers who were still devoted to him.
The followers of Lyndon LaRouche19 are a well-known and studied example of a political group which has been characterized as a cult. The LaRouchites began, like much of the New Left, in the Students for a Democratic Society. However, LaRouche’s Trotskyist origins allowed him to provide an alternative intellectual analysis to the trends of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism that were popular at the time. At the dissolution of SDS, Larouche was able to win a small piece of the leftovers by convincing people that he alone held the correct ideas, a theme which would persist in his activities until today. Larouche would find himself out of the fringes of the left and into the fringes of the Democratic Party, but not without inventing a great deal of conspiracy theories around everything from AIDS to Jews.
Larouchites aren’t the only group accused of cultism which has given support, or tried to gain the support of, the Democratic Party. NXIVM, which is currently in the news and has even more exposure after a successful HBO documentary, sought favor with the Clintons and supported the Democratic Party. Although they are not leftist by any means, even as far as the Democratic Party goes, their proximity to it, modern-day relevance, and similarities and differences to the other groups included here make them worthy of analysis. A more liberal group, they began as a fusion of the self-help industries and multi-level marketing. This helped them attract a certain number of white, professional career-driven people (and even Hollywood stars and royalty) with charisma and money. What follows is a pattern: systematic sexual abuse centered around the primary charismatic leader. They do not look and act quite like any of the groups analyzed here, perhaps other than the left psychoanalytic groups like Friedrichshof and the Sullivanians. In spite of this, they came to many of the same operations, functions, and ends.
Anarchists can also produce cults of personality. The anarcho-primitivism and ecological anarchism influenced group, Deep Green Resistance, has been called20 a cult of personality by former members for several years as of now. The group is known especially for its brand of transphobic feminism and white-guilt-driven decolonization politics, but also for its leadership and the politics around which they put forward in their book. In 2014, dozens of student, ecological and Indigenous groups signed a joint letter21 against the group. The Kazynskyite group, Individuals Tending Toward the Wild22 is extremely secretive and mysterious, having been called a “death cult” by other anarchists. We can only speculate if they belong on this list.
With all of this stock, it may seem as though left-wing groups are particularly susceptible to this problem. The combination of an ideology which dares to buck the status quo, devotion on the part of partisans, and the unavoidable question of leadership, creates the perfect spell for cult-like enchantment.
The scientific analysis of this issue that exists is troubled. The field of sociology, while helpful, can only provide us so much guidance, as it is itself divided on the issue. I feel that for us, the problem is fundamentally political. The problem is not located in one particular tendency, organizational forte, or the leadership and bad people who occupy it, but rather in how organizations are structured and what they functionally do. The rational solution is like all things, something located and riddled in the history of struggling classes. As Marx said, all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
Misconceptions about Cults and Cults of Personality
“The capacity to distinguish between empirical knowledge and value-judgments, and the fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever-increasing firmness.” Max Weber, “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy” (1904)
The biggest problem in the study of cults seems to be that of categorical analysis. There are no universally agreed-upon criteria, definitions, or tests which determine what is, and what is not, a cult. It is a major point of contention between sociology of religion scholars, as each cult or cult-like group has many different traits, some shared with others and some unique. The first thing we should accept, however, is that the word is here to stay. It existed as an analytic category prior to its crude adaptation into an epithet by the mass media, and if we are to have a value-free approach as a social scientist, the categories should be spared judgments of what makes a cult “good” or “bad”, but rather serve an unbiased view on how they function.23 The term “new religious movements”, which some sociologists have used in place of “cult”, is not sufficient and even misleading for our purposes, as our main focus is on political groups.
One of the things that further complicates the cult classification problem when trying to apply this to leftist groups is that much of the far left is made up of sects24, for which many have their own classification system (most commonly that of Hal Draper). There is both distinction and overlap: not all leftist sects are cults, although some certainly are. Meanwhile, it may also be possible for a leftist group to be a cult without being a sect, a less intuitive case. Whether or not one wishes to call the groups referenced in this article “cults” there is a clear identifiable trend towards destructive groups with a totalist culture, and that is what we mean when we refer to them as such.
Everyone from sociologists of religion to psychologists to anthropologists have come together across disciplines to try to answer the question: “What is a cult?”, and the debate might never end. It is best to start somewhere and proceed cautiously. Of particular contention is the validity of the concept of “brainwashing”, and the debate25 around this. The present situation cannot be understood without understanding the roots of this historical polarization.26 To this day, the field of sociology of religion remains divided into two opposing camps which are mutually hostile27: those who agree with brainwashing as a theory and find categorical analysis of cults to be somewhat sufficient, and those who are skeptical of the categories and do not believe brainwashing theory is sufficiently scientific. Both sides accuse each other of being in the pockets and sympathetic to outside forces which render them unable to put forward an unbiased analysis. The skeptic camp is critical of the anti-cult movement’s excesses, such as contribution to the 1980s Satanic panic and the civil liberties violated by “deprogramming”. The pro-brainwashing theory sociologists point to expert defenses from sociologists of groups like Scientology and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon as damaging to the reputation of their field.
This creates serious problems for us, as we need a theory by which to analyze these groups in order to avoid repeating them while also remaining scientific and balanced. Otherwise, an innocent Capital study group might be called “brainwashing” or “indoctrination”. It also begs the question, even more than that of whether the category of “cult” is applicable, of how so-called “brainwashing” functions differently than ideology in general. The anti-cult movement has targeted leftist groups before28, so it’s not beyond consideration that it may simply be incompatible with a communist outlook. Brainwashing theorists always reference the techniques which are most likely to produce value-judgments (particularly those which look like torture) but not the ones which look like schools and churches generally do. There is a definite possibility I am missing something, but if someone is not torturing you, but is instead feeding you, sheltering you, and keeping you safe and warm, it seems likely that this will impact the development of ideology as do the adverse negative techniques associated with “brainwashing”.
We need to be very careful and principled as well. The origins of brainwashing theory were during an environment of intense anti-communism, and my own suspicion is that this influenced the formulation and study around it. The subjects of the original studies which produced brainwashing theory were Chinese and Korean POWs. This was also while there were Hollywood blacklists, academic bans on Marxists, and generally compulsory hostility to communism at all levels of social life in the US. However, I think we can still perform an analysis that arms us with the ability to overcome “leftist cults” in the future while maintaining our skepticism.
Janja Lalich comes from the Margaret Singer and Robert Jay Lifton-influenced school of cult studies, which puts her firmly in the “anti-cult” camp. However, I appreciate Lalich because she has raised the need for a categorical analysis with clear criteria and the kind of scientific rigor necessary to serve as useful paradigms. She focuses on Lifton’s “totalism” as the essence of the cult category, exemplified by a trinity of charismatic leadership, thought reform/mind control, and abuse/exploitation.29 She offers, for better or worse, the only categorical analysis which allows us to both understand groupings that go beyond the New Religious Movement category (which sociologists of religion have adopted in place of “cult”), and draw a distinction between these and more “healthy” communist groups. Lalich also extends an olive branch to our analysis by explaining her intention is not to make Marxism itself the domain of cultism.30 Lalich, having come from the Democratic Workers Party herself, while also being a sociologist specializing in cults, is incredibly useful for our task in this essay. She gives us some workable categories in an essay31 that served as the basis of her book Bounded Choice. Lalich considers the following to be the “dimensions” of a cult’s anatomy:
- Charismatic authority: This is the emotional bond between leader and followers. It lends legitimacy to the leader and grants authority to his or her actions while at the same time justifying and reinforcing followers’ responses to the leader and/or the leader’s ideas and goals. The relational aspect of charisma is the hook that links a devotee to a leader and/or their ideas.
- Transcendent belief system: This is the overarching ideology that binds adherents to the group and keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms. It is transcendent because it offers a total explanation of past, present, and future, including a path to salvation. Most importantly, the leader/group also specifies the exact methodology (or recipe) for the personal transformation necessary to qualify one to travel on that path.
- Systems of control: This is the network of acknowledged, or visible, regulatory mechanisms that guide the operation of the group. It includes the overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control members’ behavior.
- Systems of influence: This is the network of interactions and social influence residing in the group’s social relations. This is the human interaction and group culture from which members learn to adapt their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to their new beliefs.
Despite the rigor behind the analysis of the Lalich criteria, it is rough. I would say that groups that do not fit all these are still susceptible to being cults of personality, which is a more broadly applicable category than the “full-blown” cult, meeting criterion 1 or more, but not all, of Lalich’s criteria. An open question is also whether criterion 3 and 4 are understood to extend to members’ private lives outside the organization (if they were so much as to be allowed to have them), or whether this would include party discipline confined to the political sphere. Clearly, there is a need for a category that includes cults of personality that do not meet all of Lalich’s criteria. The next section will focus on such groups, and less so on “overt” cults.
We, unfortunately, happen to be in the position of active political militants, who cannot simply wait for the perfect academic positions and theories on “cults” and “brainwashing” to drop from the sky in order to actively overcome them. We are also painfully limited in the empirical dimension. There is simply not enough data on groups like the O, Sullivanians, and the DWP to dismiss the testimonies of ex-members to appease the skeptics, because these are sometimes the only serious researchers on the group (in the case of the Democratic Workers Party) or because memoirs and ex-member testimony are all that exist (in the case of the O). Lalich gives a barrage of examples and citations of deep research and analysis by ex-members in her debates with skeptics of brainwashing theory, and how their specific perspective has been contributory.32 Rebecca Moore, founder of the Jonestown Institute, who was family to multiple inner Peoples Temple members, also became a historian and is an indispensable resource and expert on Peoples Temple. These are voices that social scientists may dismiss, but without them, we are left with few ways by which to understand these self-destructive groups, as people who may be sympathetic to their origins.
Soft Cults of Personality
“Once you teach people to say what they do not understand, it is easy enough to get them to say anything you like.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, 1762
Jonestown and Peoples Temple might be the archetype, but most cults of personality are not so destructive. It is important to delineate between cults which meet all of Lalich’s criteria above, and cults of personality, which do not meet all of the criteria, yet have a great impact on the organizations they are present in.
In theory, there’s likely nothing preventing your grandmother’s knitting club from becoming a cult of personality. Many begin as benign or innocuous. Cults of personality operate in a completely different and much more free manner than “cults” that may fit Lalich’s criteria. Any fervent belief has the ability to lead its adherents to fanaticism, and Marxists should not be considered exempt from this.33 The passion, ardor, faith and devotion of far-left groups are no less a perfect terrain than religious movements. A central question emerges, however, and it’s one that has serious consequences for us. If we broaden the criteria too much, any group with a dedication to an idea or each other may qualify, which has been a criticism often made of the anti-cult movement. If we make the criteria very restrictive and particular, a very harmful group may be left out of our analysis.
There are few myths about Cults of Personality on the left:
- Cults of personality are always the intention or design of the subject of the cult of personality
- Cults of personality always involve abuse and/or exploitation and are always overtly and visibly harmful to the participants on a personal basis
- Cults of personality can never be salvaged or overcome
- Cults of personality are populated by people who cannot think for themselves
- Cults of personality are never accidents or mistakes
- Cults of personality are a thing that needs prevention
- Cults of personality do not contain any wisdom or truth, at the core values must be something irrational, are the mere product of evil
None of these are universal truths. They are, if anything, more contributory to the problem of leftist cults of personality than useful in raising our awareness of them. Being absent of criteria 3-4 of the criteria put forward by Lalich, some groups are not seen as cults, but they may still function as cults of personality.
As a brief case study, let’s take a closer look at the RCP-USA, which has been called both a cult and a cult of personality. Mike Ely, former member and critic of the RCP, points to the “cult of personality” as a critical strategic failure. While leadership is an unavoidable necessity, cults of personality are clearly not.34 However, the focus of Ely’s critique is mostly on the political shortcomings of the cult of personality, and does not go into how this affects the daily, private lives of RCP members.
Ely has a point, however. We can and should also position ourselves as opposed to the cult of personality on strategic grounds. So, even without any highly publicized or known events of overt abuse and exploitation, cults of personality are still a problem for us. While it’s not necessarily a “full-blown cult”, the lessons from the RCP show us the limitations of creating a brand around our leadership and bolstering charisma. Most cults of personality on the left are not the self-destructive groups that are the subject of this article, but are no less ineffective. How the leadership imposes itself and takes the helm of charismatic leadership is the starting place for understanding how a group makes the jump from an ineffective sect to an even more ineffective cult of personality.
The Communist Guru
“We are not a cult, and we’re not brainwashed. Why? Because we willingly and consciously submit to cadre transformation. Transformation is our goal!” – Marlene Dixon
Most communist groups have some kind of political leadership. This may not be the official or elected leadership. Some may build up support in a genuine way over time, deserving of their leadership in one sense or another. I also do not mean to dismiss the political question of leadership itself, this is a reality we all have to deal with. Leadership is necessary. However, undue influence often follows. There is a question of when and how, but first I want to describe some features of the communist guru.
Cults of personality can also exist within otherwise benign organizations, such as an IWW Branch or a DSA chapter. People follow a charismatic leader because of the extraordinary traits of that person, whether it be tales that give a history of their heroic values, seemingly unattainable theoretical development, or the majestic spectacle of their speech.35 This creates a source to which members feel compelled to get closer.
The personality profile of the communist guru is familiar. It is common for a communist guru to self-aggrandize. Marlene Dixon of the Democratic Workers Party would fabricate much of her involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, a mythology she built an entire organization on and demanded devotion on the basis of.36 These kinds of grand mythologies are perhaps curbed by a more fact-checkable internet era, but the tendency for people to invent their past on the left still persists37.
Putting aside whatever disagreements Marxists may have with his view on class society, sociologist Max Weber38 gives us an analysis of charisma which can inform us as to how the communist guru emerges. The most prevalent type of authority on the far left in Weber’s tripartite view of leadership is that of charismatic authority. This leadership does not rely on folklore and divinity to derive their power, but rather a combination of “secret knowledge” (however scientific and of merit Marxist analysis may be), the transcendental belief system they give, and graciousness. It is outside the legal-rational (bureaucratic) authority paradigm. An organization may also have such apparatuses, but these may or may not align with the actual charismatic authority and may instead serve a purely administrative function. Marxists may be critics of, and position themselves against, tradition and bureaucracy, but the charismatic authority reigns supreme time after time.
However, if we only look at the leadership for the source of a group’s problems, we are left with the tired analysis of trade-unions and other institutions simply not having the “right leadership”. Most left-wing groups already profess a transcendental (or, as they would prefer, revolutionary) belief system, which also lays down the terrain on which a charismatic authority operates.
The Group and the Implementation of their Belief System
“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, 1845
There is no guru without followers. Despite the undue influence of charismatic authority, an analysis of their cult of personality must be that of a group, and it may be the design of someone other than the guru themself. Ely interestingly points to the construction of Mao’s cult of personality by Lin Biao and Chen Boda. Mao could not functionally do this himself, and he also repudiated it at times.39
A prevalent practice of cadre-type cult organizations, when looking at the Democratic Workers Party and the O, was the taking, processing, and sharing of what they called “class histories”.40 The 1970s left were all from the baby boom, as well as often from the middle class, and thus were expected to confess these origins and receive criticism on the basis of them. Class traitorship was not understood to be getting rooted in the working class, or using resources usually reserved for those with bourgeois backgrounds for movement purposes, but rather a matter of personal salvation, self-flagellation, and group “criticism”.
It’s a myth that there cannot be more than one charismatic leader in a group, even if every group referenced so far has had a single, dominant personality. Jim Jones could see this and realized he needed something to navigate, discipline, and control the other charismatic personalities. Thus came the “Planning Commission” (henceforth, “P.C.”), which allowed him to monitor the group’s activities by means of a system of open discussion of everyone’s comings and goings, impress the women he wanted to, and reward members based on loyalty and bring them closer to him.41 A charismatic leader can desire or even need other charismatic personalities in order to sustain the cult of their own.
The P.C. would become more and more unhinged and backward over time. Jones initially allowed it to be a space for the church’s politics to play out and did not treat it like he would his pulpit. However, as he began to become a louder voice, the meetings became abusive. Members were beaten, stripped naked, humiliated, had their sexual lives meticulously surveilled, all in front of dozens of people, eventually to grow to over a hundred. The charges could range from the frequent and rather arbitrary charge of “bourgeois behavior”, to literally nothing at all.42 Despite eventually serving as fuel to the fire, the P.C. didn’t need Jim Jones to sanction much of its misery, Peoples Temple’s core leadership were glad to do it themselves.
There are a number of ways by which a group grows and thereby implements its belief system that are circumstantial but nonetheless worth consideration. Peoples Temple was a family affair: many joined with their families and, in many cases, extended families. Of those who died at Jonestown, only 20% of people died without family at their side. The vast majority had family present, and the majority of those had 3 or more family members, forming hundreds of family units.43 It may seem more reasonable to take adverse, self-harmful action against yourself, or look past it being done to others, when your parents, siblings, partners, and children show no signs of disapproval.
The demographics and composition of a group can be part of what attracts recruits as well, providing something worth being able to look past the charismatic leadership and towards the group. Peoples Temple was particularly attractive for communists because it was racially integrated and mostly black, while most black leftist groups were either smaller or exclusively black at that time. The Democratic Workers Party was able to recruit many feminists on the basis of the success of building a majority-women Leninist organization.44
An external threat takes the group to new destructive heights. Sexual assault is pervasive and can form the social fabric of the group in the face of accusations that could destroy them. Political repression gets everyone looking inward. It begins often with criticism of a leader being treated as external, and this can often follow up with a conflation of criticism of the group with an external attack. The Democratic Workers Party, the O, and the Larouchites were known for their intense beefs with other organizations. If a group is perceived to be competition or a challenge, the cult of personality may form as a defense mechanism.
Why Misogynists Make Great Cult Leaders
“A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself.” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1953
Sex almost seems to inevitably follow this conversation. Why do womanizers find themselves at the head of the cult? Why do women so frequently take the important position of second-in-command? Sex is a gravitational force. People have sex with someone, they sometimes want to do it again, and they develop strong attachments at times, and this has been used by groups to recruit.
It gets more sophisticated, as well as disturbing. Beginning with his wife Marceline, Jim Jones used women to fill gaps in his ability to administer the organization, as his drug problem continued to cause him to deteriorate. This came to include a number of women, mostly white, almost all of whom he had sex with. Jones created and brought many of these women into the P.C., where they reported on the membership’s activities, carried out its justice (however humiliating and abusive the punishment), and carefully guarded Jones’ greatest secrets, like staged healings.45
You cannot understand Jonestown and Peoples Temple without knowing the stories of these women. After Marceline, there was the fascinating Carolyn Moore Layton, who was Jim Jones’ sanctioned mistress, and mother of his son, Kimo. She was a dedicated communist long before Peoples Temple. She was amongst Jones’ most faithful followers, as well as a highly effective administrator. She was smart and educated, had a forceful and dominating personality, and provided a great deal of things Jones vitally needed.46 Along came Terri Buford, who like Carolyn Moore, came to the organization as many young socialists did and helped run it as a quasi-party, even if she wasn’t initially impressed by Jones.47 Annie Moore, Carolyn’s sister, would also join later and was a vital part of Jones’ circle and his personal nurse. Maria Katsaris, who can be heard above the cries of dying children on the death tape, calming parents and assuring a “painless” death from the cyanide, became of vital importance to Peoples Temple’s final days. Some of the most dangerous defectors from Peoples Temple were also women, who held the most sensitive secrets and knew its vulnerabilities the best.
This is a very repeatable pattern. The male charismatic leader will often surround himself with women because he believes other men to be a threat to him. This leads to a near-ubiquitous phenomenon: where the charismatic leader serves their function as the long term visionary and final controller of the destiny of the group, the day-to-day operations are maintained by women who are readily committed to enforcing the utmost devotion.
Sexual assault in leftist organizations is not a new conversation but remains urgent, and very relevant here. There were at least 2 rapes in Peoples Temple by Jim Jones. However, the coercive modus operandi of Jones sexual practices begs the question if any of his sex was truly consensual.48 The infallibility of charismatic leadership in this regard becomes a loyalty test and can develop into a cult of personality. Critics of the group’s sexual activities, or survivors who name a leader as a rapist, become external threats by which the most loyal prove their worth and willingness to overcome them.
Organizations that lack a clear and impartial process for grievances that involve sexual assault, harassment, and bullying are particularly at risk for developing a cult of personality. This is almost always mishandled, with an overwhelming precedent for the perpetrator being protected. Thus, in face of sexual assault, the group puts up walls and fortifies, reinforcing the power of the charismatic leader even more than before. Some organizations do have a policy; however, the policy is flawed in that it is treated like other organizational matters, flowing back and forth from the top and bottom, instead of depending on structures which are independent of this, and therefore do not protect leadership. Such policies are about as effective as having none and produce the same result. Without a basic policy that is designed to be impartial and does not protect senior members, misogynists will continue to make great cult leaders.
The Village it Takes
“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1847
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and while this is one dimension of the truth, the village giveth and the village taketh. The move towards communal living and collective childcare is almost a rite of passage for groups in the cult category. Some believed themselves to be abolishing the family, but unfortunately ended up reproducing the worst features of it.
The Sullivanians saw the family and class society in a very sophisticated but broken way. The psychoanalytic side of their thought tended to look at childhood as the crucial period which impacts adulthood and creates pathology through negative interactions with hostile or neglectful parents. Their opposition to the American nuclear family led them to the conclusion that only children raised outside of it could grow up to not oppress their own children.49 Their theory was not as controversial as their practices: estranged parenthood shows no signs of being any less neglectful or harmful for children’s development. It should also be noted, the Sullivanians were no less harmful to parents as they were to the children.
The move to communal living is multi-faceted, and the degree to which it was pursued was specific to each group’s motivations and impulses. For Peoples Temple it was not quite an undoing of the nuclear family or a core desire to live through collective child-rearing (although not likely a controversial position within the group), but the synthesis of its messianic and religious roots with its socio-political motivations. The commune of Jonestown was to be the Promised Land. Members of the O and Democratic Workers Party lived together in urban environments suitable for high degrees of control, but not with the clear motivation to stake out a new world this way, and certainly not by getting back to the land. It served a more practical purpose for these organizations; the members could be more easily monitored and directed this way. For the Sullivanians, the child-rearing aspect was the motivation above all else. Children were to be raised away from the influence of their parents so as to not be bound by the inhibitions of the capitalist family structure. The adults living communally were primarily motivated by its purported therapeutic value, and the ability to control child-rearing.50
It is not a position against the nuclear family that puts children at risk for neglect and abuse, rather it is the nature of the group’s structure and the power mechanisms within it.51 It should be understood and reiterated that in studying the practices of these groups, communal child-rearing is not to be considered inherently harmful. However, if we need a guide for how not to do it, look no further than the Sullivanians.
Socialism in One Commune and the World We Must Leave
“You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” -Grace Lee Boggs, 2003 interview
Back to the earth initiatives are a common proposal amongst leftists. It is easy to find a solution in establishing sustainable, egalitarian communities in the “here and now”. They existed in Marx’s day as the Utopian Socialists, whose US equivalents formed a wave of communes in the 1840s. They had a 20th-century equivalent as well, the socialist-borne (but white-only) New Llano Colony, which spanned 3 decades across California and Louisiana. Beyond just socialists, a huge explosion of commune settlements in the US emerged with the hippie movements of the late 1960s, increasing the number of existing communes tenfold to an estimate of over 1000.52 Marx and Engels said of the Utopian Socialists in section III of the Communist Manifesto:
Since the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry, the economic situation, as they find it, does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat. They therefore search after a new social science, after new social laws, that are to create these conditions.
Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.
There is no easy road that leads to the world beyond capitalism. The impulse that produced Jonestown thrives today in the impatience and adventurism of the left, constantly on the lookout for cheap fixes and shortcuts. Autonomous zones are propped up in territory that cannot be held, with forces that are not organized, completely out-of-tempo with the general thrust of a proletariat in action. The Paris Commune is frequently celebrated, but rarely understood in terms of failure and defeat. When we erect walls and attempt to “leave this world”, we have chosen defeat and failure. We have given up on agitation, getting rooted, and the difficult road of organizing the working class to be an actual challenge to bosses and landlords.
Jonestown struggled and underperformed economically and productively. Despite having access to several millions (upwards of $27 million), Jonestown was a logistical nightmare, and the leadership believed it was better to allow the people to go without than to admit defeat by trading with and spending the church’s coffers on resources from outside.53 Money was spent in a meticulous but sometimes bizarre manner, often on equipment purchased from the Guyanese government, but also on art supplies and uniforms for the Jonestown band, and thousands of dollars of beauty supplies while people were sick and hungry.54 Jones did live in private quarters with more basic amenities than most residents, but generally throughout the history of Peoples Temple, in spite of economic exploitation, Jones did not live what we would call a “lavish lifestyle”.55 Rather, the circumstances by which Jonestown lived in harsh conditions were based on a principle of self-reliance.
Why do communes so often fail? This feature of cults is one that cannot be so easily attributed to charismatic leadership. The problems of class society cannot be resolved in enclaves, surrounded by a world of competition and market forces. The proletariat is interdependent on a global scale. It cannot free itself apart from itself as only aligned with a section of itself, especially within the confines of a major imperial power. Between Jonestown and the New Llano Colony, we’re left with plenty of examples for communal living on the left and broadly. The question is fundamentally political and we have to continuously argue against it. We must leave this world together, as the point is not to leave it, but to change it.
Is Militancy Alienating? Inside and Outside
“If you beat your head against the wall, it is your head that breaks and not the wall.” -Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince”
Central member of French Ultra-Left group UJTR, Dominique Blanc writes in “Militancy: the Highest Stage of Alienation”56:
The efforts which they demand of themselves, and the degree of boredom which they are capable of putting up with, leaves no doubt: these people are primarily masochists. It’s not just that in view of their activity, one cannot believe they sincerely want a better life, but that even their masochism shows no originality. While certain perverts may put into a body of work an imagination which ignores the poverty of the old world’s rules, this is not the case for militants. Within their organisations they accept the hierarchy and petty leaders they claim they want to rid the world of, and the energy which they expend spontaneously takes on the form of work. Because militants are the kind of people for whom eight or nine hours of daily degradation are not enough.
UJTR had good points on militancy and its potential for alienation. However, I do not think it always lends itself toward the cult-like exploitation they suggest. Militancy should be a fulfilling, life-affirming experience. It is certainly not easy, but it should generally improve and maximize our life. Organizations of militants, for example, can elect to have membership rights by which we are not exploited. We should actively discourage each other from spending eight or nine hours a day on organizational work.
The tendency of militancy to look and feel like drudgery is a fundamental problem of the effectiveness of that work. Administrative labor should be something that makes organization easier and more fulfilling for militants. Political militancy may be broken in most of the contexts in which it lives, but the reality that people are going to devote themselves to politics is unavoidable. Work smarter, not harder.
It is not just political militancy that can produce alienation, but tactical militancy as well. Persecution and political repression, real or imagined, was a major development that drove many of the groups examined here underground, and away from their more righteous and worthy origins.
It is not enough to consider this a matter of “security culture”; it’s political as well. Being able to position ourselves against the most adventurous and impatient proposals for activities that will put everyone in jail has to be more than “this is scary”. It often emerges from a poor analysis of capitalism and how it actually functions in society, it sometimes takes political education to make clear that you can’t blow up a social relationship57.
Overcoming and Prevention
“At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny.” -Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
I think a cult of personality can be undone, though this is difficult, and it can certainly be actively prevented. The Democratic Workers Party had a refreshing set of circumstances and heterodoxies which gave it a good start and a lot of potential. It was one of the few organizations of the New Communist Movement dominated by women, and did not initially have the campist orthodoxies of others and encouraged members to go outside the Marxist-Leninist canon and look at things like World-Systems Theory.58 Peoples Temple’s earlier integrationism was also a par above the New Communist Movement of its time. If the group had taken a different course at one point or another, we would not be talking about them here and would instead be singing their praises elsewhere.
Peoples Temple was an independent political machine in San Francisco, but the group was never seriously involved in any labor struggles, nor were its members known to have been.59 The Democratic Workers Party departed from its working-class foundations via Marlene Dixon’s obsessions.60Their bi-weekly local newspaper shifted to academic books and journals, their anti-imperialism shifted away from local organizing to geopolitics, with Dixon serving as a movement diplomat, banking the party’s future on trips to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Their origins in labor solidarity, workplace organizing, and other efforts became more and more distant after these shifts.
Looking at these examples, it is pretty clear that a shift away from above ground movements spells danger for a healthy, fulfilled membership, and moves us away from the kind of openness and transparency that makes that possible. There is also the impact of the historic defeat and failure of working-class movements. Communist groups turn towards all kinds of practices in the face of this. Social democracy and sectarianism are the primary graveyards of revolutionary organization, but cultism and terror are also the ends of intensified sectarianism. With nowhere else to go, the tendency to eat your young and throw yourself into the void of ineffective and outmoded practices is unfortunately all too common.
There are few things that we can do to proactively curb cults of personality, discourage their development, and possibly undo them:
- Stay focused on and propelled by target-and-demand driven fights outside of the group that raise up new leadership and give the group meaning and purpose beyond personalities.
- Have a well-written, clear constitution or organizational document, influenced by groups you believe have decent living democracy, which clearly outlines membership rights.
- Have term limits and recallability for any leadership role, make official leadership administrative in function.
- Share skills and knowledge amongst the group instead of allowing them to consolidate, and actively try to build a group that can survive without its strongest member.
- Promote a culture of good faith criticism, transparency and debate.
- Have a policy around sexual assault, harassment and bullying and any other grievances, which does not just flow to the top and back down, and does not treat these as external problems.
- Encourage the group or a body within the group to address outsiders, instead of a single spokesperson.
- Have a policy against senior members dating or having sexual relations with newer members.
- Try to curb fear-based rationales that may be rooted in persecution complexes, even in the face of repression. Create a healthy culture instead of digging deeper into insularity.
- Have a principled anti-imperialism that is focused on a baseline revolutionary defeatism, instead of getting too caught up in geopolitics.
- Have an above-ground practice which can be a real mass force against political repression.
Lalich gives a fantastic account of precisely how the membership of the Democratic Workers Party came into their own and dismantled the organization democratically.61 This is presently happening with NXIVM. It is a common misconception that the only ways out for a cult is to either escape individually, or commit acts of murder and suicide which effectively destroy the organization. They are often undone by major reckonings in their membership from within. It speaks to the powerful dialectic between human will and collective realities,
You might notice, these are things we should already be doing. A small group may believe it can get by on an ad hoc decision-making process, where ideological consensus serves a democratic function which negates the need for formal democracy. This could not be more of a mistake. As any wise old Wobbly will tell you, “run your meeting like it has 100 people even if there are only 10”. Do not wait for the problems of a cult of personality to arise to do the things which actively preclude it. Depending on ideological consensus and good faith alone are the perfect grounds by which a small group can develop into a cult of personality.
Sociologists, bound by their commitments to be “value-free”, won’t tell you what values are really at stake here. I am of the opinion that the cult of personality and charismatic leadership is not the destiny of all communist groups. Instead of having to deal with deprogramming down the line, and having to question what “brainwashing” is and if it applies to our experiences, we can think critically and hold ourselves to the values we already have. We need to deepen our sense of a real democracy, where decision-making is egalitarian and people can be heard, even when in the minority opinion. We vitally need communist groups that are committed to the basic human rights of its membership, which offer fulfillment and make our lives genuinely better. We need theories that are tried and proven by our collective experience in struggle, not the whimsical thought games of the charismatic leader. We already have the answers and the truth of the “cult problem”. The antidote is in the tasks of organization building in the here and now, and they are the same things that make us resilient and effective in struggle.
Appendix A: Tables of Categorical Analysis of Left Wing Cults
A. Ideology, Leninist Structure, Lalich Criteria and Systematic Sexual Abuse and Abuse of Children (regardless of sexual abuse)
|Lalich 1||Lalich 2||Lalich 3||Lalich 4|
|Peoples Temple||Synthesis of pro-Soviet Marxist Leninist socialism and the US Black church||No, the group was ideologically Leninist but was not structured as a Leninist party||X||X||X||X|
|WI-MZT||Originally Mao Zedong Thought, evolved into a conspiracy about “JACKIE”, a concept invented by its leader, with Marxist-Leninist tinge.||Initially, but not for the final decades||X||X||X||X|
|The O||Maoism/New Communist Movement Marxist-Leninist||Yes||X||X||X||X|
|Sullivanians||Post- Marxist Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy||No||X||X||X||X|
|Deep Green Resistance||Post-anarcho-
Maoist, Avakian’s “New Synthesis”
|Larouchites||Initially Trotskyist/Post-Marxist, moved towards conspiracy theories unique to the group, later support for the Democratic Party||Initially, but moved away from this form||X||X||X||X|
|NXIVM||Multi-Level Marketing styled Self-help/Improvement psychotherapy, supported the Democratic Party||No||X||X||X||X|
- Groups accused of abuse of adults, abuse of children regardless of sexual nature, political repression, real or imagined
|Sexual Abuse||Abuse of Children||Political repression imagined||Actual target of repression/
|Dissociation from Family of Origin|
|Peoples Temple||Yes, systematic around Jones, arranged relationships and marriages||Yes, systematic but not sexually, but at least 2 cases of child sexual abuse||Yes||Yes||No, except in the case of defection or purges|
|WI-MZT||Yes, systematic||Yes, systematic and sexual||Yes||Initially, yes||Yes, even family relations within the group were hidden from children|
|The O||Yes, through arranged marriages and relationship control||Yes, but mostly the group interfered with parents child rearing practices||Yes||Unknown, although a member recalls a visit from the FBI||Yes|
|DWP||Unknown, a few accusations of unwanted sexual advances by Dixon||Unknown||Yes||Unknown||No|
|Sullivanians||Yes, systematic, breach of therapeutic ethical standards, arranged relationships and relationship control||Yes, systematic, and sexual in cases||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Deep Green Resistance||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|RCP-USA||Unknown||Unknown||Somewhat, remains movement based and open||Initially yes, there is likely a history memory of COINTELPRO but not likely to be targeted today||No|
|NXIVM||Yes, systematic sexual slavery||Unknown||Yes||Yes||In cases of those working against the group, yes, but not required of every member|
- Material and economic life
|Communal living||Communal child rearing||With Child-Parent Estrangement||Economic Exploitation (labor and resources)||Group enterprises|
|Peoples Temple||Yes, after move to CA from IL, and onto Jonestown||Somewhat, not to the systematic degree that entailed estrangement from bio-family||No, unless in the case of defection||Yes, members were expected to donate large amounts of labor and savings||Group sustained itself through a variety of cooperative practices that were mostly unsuccessful, the Jones sold monkeys|
|WI-MZT||Yes, after 1981||Yes||Yes, child born into group did not know other members were her parents||Not directly, members were not allow to leave the apartment||None|
|The O||Yes, although in small cells who were isolated||Somewhat, group did interfere with parenting||No, although group did interfere with parenting||Yes||Cooperatives, Machine shops, Printing Press|
|DWP||Yes, although more urban and practical, members lived together but seemingly as roommates||No||No, although Lalich recalls neglect of children raised in the group||Yes, members finances and allowances were tightly controlled and members were expected to work outside the group for the group’s financial benefit||Printing Press|
|Sullivanians||Yes, by gender and not with their families or sexual partners||Yes||Yes||Yes, members finances and allowances were tightly controlled and members were expected to work outside the group for the group’s financial benefit||The Fourth Wall theater company and psychotherapy, but most money came from professionals who worked outside the group|
|Deep Green Resistance||Unknown, unlikely||No||No||Unknown||None|
|RCP-USA||No||No||No||No||None, other than party owned bookstores|
|Larouchites||Unknown, unlikely||No||Unknown, unlikely||Unknown||Unknown|
|NXIVM||No||No||No, unless in the case of defection||Yes||Yes, several brands under an multi-level marketing umbrella for self-help/self-improvement services|
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