Friday, 12 April 2013

On Cult-like Thinking

by China M.

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

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

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

Given the CC's lies about a perfidious 'witchhunt', and/or 'hostility to Leninism', it's worth recalling that this catastrophe unfolded when a large section of the SWP was aghast at the initial cover-up of, and subsequent shameful, sexist and indefensible 'investigation' into, allegations of rape and sexual harassment within the party.(1) A scandal in its own right, this episode also illustrated a deep cultural rot,(2) that shocked even those of us in the party who had long argued that there was a democratic and accountability deficit in the organisation. Things were, simply, much worse than we had thought.

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

Nowhere is this more evident than in the CC's response to complaints that the members of the Disputes Committee who examined the case were close associates, friends and colleagues of the accused high-ranking member. '[W]e reject', they stress, in the most recent Internal Bulletin (IB, p6) 'the notion that "unconscious bias" in these matters cannot be overcome. We hold that, on the basis of their political commitments, comrades can operate in an unbiased manner. Indeed they took special care at their hearings to consider this factor and to overcome it.'

Such a position has been repeated at all stages. What inoculated members of the Disputes Committee, it is stressed, was their 'political morality'. Of course no one is suggesting that we're all in ineluctable thrall to the muck of ages in which our minds are steeped. Nor that people cannot make perfectly sincere efforts to put aside their preconceptions, with varying success. But unconscious biases are unconscious. The clue is in the name. One cannot know that one has overcome them, nor even that one is aware of them or what they are. One can certainly not be confident one has overcome them by 'special care', or by the sprinkling of some magic fairy dust called 'political morality'. For anyone to claim this is ridiculous. To hear this from those who consider themselves Marxists, with a materialist theory of consciousness, is simply astounding.

If you are Good enough, goes the claim, you can effectively shape your own consciousness, by choice. There are, of course, theories of mind according to which certain people can confidently step outside history in this way. A particularly degraded version of the liberal historical theory of Great Men [sic]; fascist models of ubermenschen, stamping their will through 'the act'; and religious conceptions of saintly souls. The last, religiosity, provides the most obvious analogy with the CC position, but there is also a strong strain of the first, 'Great Men' and Women. Who but the Great never make errors? Who but they deserve to so enthusiastically self-valorise, as the CC do, in, for example, their document 'For an Interventionist Party', proudly citing not only their ability to 'shift the situation in a direction more favourable to the revolutionary forces' (how's that going?), but even their bullying - 'our tradition of polemical leadership'.

It is hard to overstate quite how politically impoverished and theoretically vacuous the CC position is. Compared to this deluded sanctimoniousness, even bourgeois legalism is, at least formally, considerably more progressive, calmly acknowledging as it does the fact of conflicts of interest, and that, in certain situations, the least bad option is to recuse oneself.

Not, in this context, that the mere replacement of individuals would have solved the problems. Are all SWP members supposed to be able to perform this 'politically moral' trick? Are none ever sexist? Or does one have to be a member for a certain length of time to bleach away all such legacies? Perhaps to be active a certain number of hours a week? To sell a certain number of papers? Of course, defining the Elect can only be the prerogative of the priesthood.

And this is the rub. Not only does such degenerate Herculean moralism manifest in a range of SWP tics - from guilt culture to voluntarism and substitutionism - but recognizing it also goes some way to unpicking the peculiarly defensive and impoverished attitude to questions of oppression and identity, such as those around race, sexuality, and gender.

Among the many tasks facing us as socialists is to respectfully and open-mindedly engage with current approaches to these complex terrains. Not to dilute, but to strengthen our Marxist theory. The idealism of the CC is a model of how not to do so. A corollary of their idealism with regard to their own internalised biases and methods is an inability to deal theoretically seriously with internalised biases at the level of social structure and psychology.

The CC protest that they are shocked, shocked at allegations of SWP sectarianism towards feminism, but a leadership not lucky enough to be infallible might i) admit that this has been the case, and ii) take some responsibility for it. Such behaviour of course is related to the theoretical impoverishment that sees the same bibliography on such issues replicated year after year, refusing to address important advances in feminist (and indeed other) theory.

A knee-jerk unease and/or dismissal characterises any discussion of, for example, 'privilege', in terms of sexuality, gender, race, etc. There are of course excellent Marxist reasons to be cautious of such theories, but that does not justify traducing them, nor that the substantive content of some such are without insight. This possibility is precluded in the mainstream SWP discussion by a theoretically crass elision of the categories of 'privilege, 'benefit' and 'interest'.

This allows any discussion of such topics to slip rapidly into reassuring banalities. 'Workers’ objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side' (IB, p10). This is true, but in and of itself not very helpful. When the conclusion drawn is the, sadly, patently false one that 'workers are forced by their objective circumstances to unite across the many divisions in the working class, the division of gender being the oldest and most deeply rooted', it is clear that the complexities of ideology and consciousness are not being explained, but explained away.

Normally one might associate such arrant Marxist determinism with the most mechanical materialism: here, however, it is inextricable from that idealism of a pure-souled priesthood. This Overcoming Of Division is an eschatology, a Rapture.

The crude materialism in fact serves and justifies the moralist idealism. There are two tiers: a few have the magic of Political Morality to efface reactionary detritus in their souls; and by their intercession, the cunning of history will do the job for the rest. There is, therefore, no need to detain oneself too long on these awkward theoretical issues of psychology.

It is one thing to have a respectful and sharp-eyed Marxist caution about identity politics. It is quite another to ossify a body of theory. Tactically it is bankrupt to leave members ill-equipped to engage with advances in radical social theory, particularly now.(3) Theoretically it is arrogant and stultifying not to be open to the idea that we might not only debate with but learn from different theoretical traditions.(4)

Key to any discussion of such issues, and of internalised relations of oppression, is what, in his discussion of race and class, Du Bois called 'a sort of public and psychological wage' paid to white workers (and by careful and cautious extension, in different ways, other groups). It remains the case 'that Workers objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side', but it is nonetheless quite inadequate to insist that 'this "psychological wage" is not a material benefit for white workers'.

For a start, it is misleading to separate the 'psychological' component of the wage from the 'public', and Du Bois is clear that this latter included 'public deference and titles of courtesy', and access denied black people. Even now, when some of these overt and formalised expressions of racism have been overcome, can it be denied that such differentiation still forms part of the 'public and psychological wage'? And among other things these are material effects - and indeed, relative to the oppressed group in that moment, benefits, or privileges. And a nuanced materialist theory of psychology would acknowledge that even a nebulous and 'unformalised' sense of racist superiority, if in a complex and mediated fashion, is and has material effect itself. Indeed, the overlap of the two components of Du Bois's wage is arguably now stronger than ever: it is precisely when the 'public' element of the wage, including these immediate and local - shall we not hedge? -privileges relative to the oppressed are stripped of official validation, removed from 'formality', while retaining informal but real material power (as in the reality of structural racism in an era of formal legal equality), that their imbrication with the 'psychological' element of the wage becomes ever closer. To consider the material reality of oppression must include considering such social psychological factors.

None of which, it should go without saying, is to give ground on essentialist or inevitabilist theories of racism: to gloss and dismiss the approach to the 'public and psychological wage' tentatively sketched here as a claim that ‘white people benefit from racism’ is ridiculous, a function of an allergic reaction to the very word 'benefit' in these contexts, fostered by the CC's idealism, and their commissars of acceptable theory.(5) Strident citation of workers' objective long-term interests, even to those of us who agree that such are key and indeed exert a pressure for solidarity, are inadequate to tracing the contours of consciousness and ideology, including internalised bias and relations of oppression.

The SWP’s leadership can offer nothing better. Faithful to their idealist method, they pose a sharp division between Thoughts and Things, putting their faith in the latter and effectively dismissing the former (for most people - because their thoughts, we know, are magic, but those of others are not). In their risibly crude formulation, '[t]his is not about the consciousness of male workers; this is about their objective interest' (IB, p10). The obvious Marxist point is that this is about both: and indeed that the two are complexly related. This is how social psychology works.

It's almost tempting to apply a carefully modulated variant of Du Bois's model. Can a public (if on a pitiful scale) and psychological wage perhaps explain the leadership's investment in antidemocratic behaviour, unshakeable certainty in their own infallibility, and such political and theoretical dereliction?

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that under their watch, the dominant SWP culture is now one not only of defensive ignorance of the scholarly discipline of social psychology, but of moralistic and idealist suspicion of the very fact of social psychology itself.


1) It should be relentlessly demanded of all loyalists whether they defend putting the question 'Is it fair to say you like a drink?' to a woman alleging sexual harassment. There have in fact been a very few gutter-Jesuitical efforts to do just this, but for the most part, in what might be evidence of some dying-fish flappings of shame, the fact that this question was put is simply not mentioned, let alone acknowledged as shameful.

2) This rot was evident among other things in the disgraceful behaviour of the leadership and their loyalists; their denial of reality (in particular 'this is having no effect on the party's reputation', and 'this is entirely due to one member blogging and another giving a one-paragraph quote in a soft-left magazine', preposterous claims growing daily more dizzyingly absurd); their smearing and cynical misrepresentation of opposition members; and their wholesale gerrymandering of the 'special conference' in an effort not to engage with but to humiliate the opposition (including at least one largely loyalist district passing a special motion to underrepresent itself at conference, solely to exclude an opposition member).

3) This is particularly lamentable when the internet, even on its Dark Side, has, in its messy, scattershot way, brought such issues into the mainstream, as in the fantastic attacks on racist/sexist/homophobic tropes by bloggers. This should be a delight to the left, and the intemperate online critics should be among those to whom we relate.

4) After all, the IS has quite rightly done this before, over, for example, Gay Liberation. Compare even the rather theoretically wan SWP approach to LGBT issues now to, say, the cringe-making article from the 1957 Socialist Review on 'Equality' by 'C Dallas' (Chanie Rosenberg), explaining that with 'complete equality between the sexes ... homosexuality would disappear naturally'.

5) Breaking from this culture is bracing. It is not mere self-congratulation to point out how many comrades have stressed how much more stimulating, engaged and serious they have found intellectual life in the SWP opposition than for any time in years within the mainstream of the party.


  1. Granted all your points about idealist thinking I am not convinced that 'cult' and 'cult-like' are remotely useful terms of analysis. I don't detect any cultish veneration of the leadership, or sacred icons (as one did with the WRP and Trotsky's death mask) even among CC loyalists. And the point of 'cult' allegations is to make minority beliefs (like a belief that socialist revolution is possible) appear bizarre and beyond all reason: it is a risky analysis to take on. There is a perfectly good word from the Marxist tradition to adopt instead - 'sect' and its cognates. And there are other, perhaps more productive, analogies. I am reminded for instance at times, by the SWP's internal regime, of the work of modern management consultants, personal trainers and the like. The moral voluntarism you rightly identify seems more likely to originate from that kind of milieu than any other. We would be better served by a materialist sociology identifying the ways in which a liberating, critical philosophy can be crushed by giving primacy to organisational imperatives; and an organisation set up to smash capitalism becomes indistinguishable, internally, from a capitalist enterprise. The point of religious cults (or nominally secular ones like Scientology) is surely that there ideas are, in fact, worthless. That is, actually, not so for the SWP, and we should not concede the point to the enemies of all liberation from below by using their terms.

    1. I absolutely agree Richard A. I think there's a lot that's good in China's article, but I think what's most striking is the way in which the SWP has ADAPTED to the worst aspects of the system in relationship to modern management techniques etc- far more then the extent to which it has some *special* internal world. I think you could write up a good piece like that and carry the discussion on...

    2. Very nicely phrased there, Johng. It appears to be quite obvious that the CC has realised that they/it has/have (an obligation) to react to far-reaching movements from "below", whatever their/its previous motivation seems to have been.

      I still believe that the system we have in the SWP of democratic centralism remains a valid system of securing a maximum of action within our remit. All the, very necessary, arguments were a wake-up call to bring to mind that we're all for the hard slog towards final enlightenment and justice and equality for all.


  2. Dear IS network,
    Former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, died earlier this week.


    1. Yes JM, and we all know that ...but she did not take her policies to hell with her. For that reason, celebrating her death is in vain unless revolutionaries organise and fight against her policies. There are many people out there who are celebrating for different reasons: One of my friend's post on her death was simple ..I remember Margaret Thatcher, she snatched our school milk...such people are not political but politics affects them and their we really need a revolutionary party that is so old fashioned that it does not realise that these kind of people are working class people who should be agitated and educated on revolutionary politics? But how can we convience them when we are busy squabling among ourselves? And don't tell me that you disagree with China's arguments either...they are factual and based on what really happened and still happening in the SWP..

    2. Dear John Mulllen - the SWP leadership are turning Tony Cliff's party into a dangerous cult.

    3. Dear John Mullen,

      I have learnt how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

  3. I think China's right and the term 'cult' can be accurately applied to the SWP in its present incarnation.

    First of all, I can't agree with Richard's assertion that there's no 'cultish veneration of the leadership' in the party. There are many members who will not countenance any criticism of Great Man Cliff and his holy writ. I remember the extreme anger verging on accusations of heresy I faced from comrades when I once jokingly referred to him as a 'guru'. Cliff's aura of sanctity extends to his family, who are likewise to be treated as objects of veneration. Remember the cynical wheeling on of Saint Chanie to discredit the faction caucus at ULU a few months ago?

    Secondly, it really won't do to to deny that the SWP is a cult simply by reference to its stated aims - to smash capitalism and liberate humanity - which of course are not worthless. The WRP has exactly the same stated aims and Richard seems to have no problem in identifying them as a cult. Even Stalinism and Maoism claimed the same aims and I'm certain nobody's going to question that both of these operated personality cults of the most extreme kind. The point, surely, is that we cannot take the stated aims of an organisation at face value. These can become mere window dressing to keep the troops on side while the true aim of the leadership degenerates into no more than their own self-perpetuation.

    Thirdly, the argument over the correct terminology - 'sect' or 'cult'? - can disappear up its own fundament. Some people argue that the word 'cult' is not a Marxist term and should be left to the bourgeois ideologues. This argument strikes me as sophistry. After all, the word 'sectarianism' is used by the bourgeois media with a radically different meaning (usually as an explanation for conflict between religious groups) from that of the marxist tradition. That doesn't mean that we should stop using the word according to our own definition. I don't see why the word 'cult' should be any different.

    However, for me the main point is that what truly defines a cult is far more more than details such as leadership worship, totemism or even the official ideology. The hallmark of a cult lies in its social psychology, particularly in its group dynamics, which transcend sectarianism in many important ways. I haven't got time now to go into what I mean by this - I'm writing something at the moment which I hope to submit to the blog soon - but I'm absolutely convinced that the social psychological processes we have witnessed recently in the SWP are in all major respects identical to those of any cult, religious or otherwise, when it finds itself in crisis.

  4. Comrades,

    My "rule of thumb" in distinguishing sects and cults is whether or not the organization attempts to control comrades' personal lives-- choice of friends and partners, relations with families of birth, where one lives, etc. My sense is that while China and other comrades' descriptions of the SWP is 100% accurate, they don't quite rise to the level of a cult. Clearly a sect-- and one that has convinced itself it is a "party"-- but I'm not sure about "cult."

    Charlie Post

  5. Unconscious biases are members of that strange category "unknown knowns"

  6. I absolutely think it is a cult. The way that people in her branch were told not to talk with the victim was a further example of how anyone who might challenge the power of the party is ostracized, marginalized or discredited. Another piece which suggests a cult is the refusal to tolerate different views, even if they are only SLIGHTLY different to the party line, and I thought I'd mention that because no one has mentioned it so far. Also, cults manipulate, exploit, and control their members; the SWP has absolutely done this.

    1. Absolutely. Re the intolerance of only slightly different views, one of the most important social psychological processes within cults which I was referring to in my earlier post is the way they deal with 'cognitive dissonance', i.e. the existence of contradictory facts, ideas, beliefs etc. In normal times, cults can maintain cognitive consistency by ignoring contradictions, denying them any validity or simply suppressing them. However, there can come a point at which the dissonance is so great (e.g. allegations of rape within a supposedly anti-sexist organisation) that it can't be ignored and these strategies are no longer adequate. Others must be adopted. Many will realise there must have been something seriously wrong in their original cognitions and will take drastic action, for example trying to change the cult from within or in extremis leaving it altogether. Sadly, others will try to resolve the difference by imagining them out of existence and actually ramping up their blind loyalty to the cult as it degenerates into an ever smaller, isolated, defensive and inward-looking irrelevance. Read 'When Prophesy Fails' by Leon Festinger.

    2. But cognitive dissonance is an everyday social/psychological process - there's nothing inherently abnormal or cultish about it and its concomitant processes (rationalisation, denial, etc). I think the cult issue isn't relevant. Much more important in this argument, I would have thought, is the evaluation of the idealistic/mechanical determinism of the SWP's method of analysing the world - one whose imprint is evident in pretty much all of its official theorising on everything including resistance to austerity, the role of politics, the role of economics, feminism and class, postmodernism, human nature... all of which ultimately gets embodied in the kind of political practice that seems to have finally led to the current rupture

    3. You're quite right that cognitive dissonance is part of the day-to-day experience of human beings living in a world which constantly presents new information contradicting or challenging our existing conceptual frameworks. But that's not the point. What typifies a cult is not the existence of dissonance but the way in which it's handled. Most of us don't have the extreme investment in a totalistic worldview that a cult demands, don't centre our entire lives around its nostrums, such that a challenge to its ideology constitutes a challenge to our ontology. So, when antitheses come along to confront our theses, we normally engage in some synthetic process that attempts to make sense of the contradictions and our ideas develop to accommodate the new reality. This strategy is not available to cultists, who would literally lose all sense of self if any doubt arose and so will fortify their cognitive armouring instead, even at the expense of further cutting themselves off from reality. I'm sure we've all known football nuts who behave a little like this in the face of obvious downslides in their teams' fortunes or music fans who'll insist their favourite band's latest album is a masterpiece when it's obviously rubbish. I guess they're a bit culty too, so their political equivalents aren't unique, but obviously operating in a far more dangerous arena.

  7. Leaving to one side the issue of cults I thought this was an important piece precisely because it raised the issue of the psychology of the loyalist mentality and the need for Marxists to engage with recent theory in these areas. I may be wrong but I think you would find nothing at all in the 138 issues of ISJ series 2 on those questions other than the occasional book review used to dismiss somebody else's version of identity politics. I was also reminded by the reference to 'great men' of the curious way in which sometime in the 1990s articles began to appear along with talks at Marxism about the role of the individual in history - which it turned out invariably meant the role of the individuals leading the party (with Lenin as the exemplar of course).Perhaps someone like John G who was in throughout could dig up a reference or two please. It bothered me then and still does that this appeared to divide not just the class but the party itself into the priestly elite and the mass of members who were in need of 'political' leadership. Which is why I was pleased to see someone in the opposition posing the question of 'who teaches the teacher'?

    So China is right to identify idealism in all this - and he is not the first to do so. Peter Sedgwick was talking about this back in the 1970s. Andy Wilson in 1992/3 (before his expulsion) was critiquing Rees's version of Lukacs as a justification for an elitist model of leadership as Molyneux would echo much later when it became politically appropriate. But then the Althusser who so influenced the young philosopher Callinicos (see his book in the 1970s) had a strong streak of idealism as well with his simplistic opposition of scientific knowledge to the ideological consciousness of the masses.

  8. Interesting article, but the SWP are undoubtedly a sect not a cult, however cult sounds nastier so the pressure is on for us to call them a cult. This pressure to conform to a belief, along with a couple of charismatic leaders (Mieville and Seymour) means unless the ISN gets it right then becoming a cult orientated solely on hatred of the CC is a possibility.

    Incidentally one aspect of the cult that the SWP lacks is charismatic leadership, I mean among the living of course.

    1. Oh come on! China and Richard are both highly intelligent and both very good communicators and arguers, which I guess you could say imbues them with a certain type of charisma if that's what you're into, but I think it's ridiculous to see them as setting themselves up as 'charismatic leaders' who pressure us in any way to 'conform to their beliefs'. What makes them utterly different from the (yes, uncharismatic!) nebbishes who run the SWP is that they're both perfectly prepared to listen to other people's ideas and, if necessary, adjust their own accordingly. Neither of them, on present evidence, would ever demand total unquestioning loyalty to their version of things. At the risk of being boringly repetitive, I reiterate: what makes an organisation a cult as well as (not instead of) a sect is not any particular structural detail or characteristic of the individuals involved but the social psychological processes through which total conformity is enforced and any criticism rendered impossible.

  9. Long live the SWP. They have only gone up in my estimation over recent months and those who have stayed in the party deserve applause.