Delusions of Grandeur

A Review of On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth

by Avery Minnelli

It has been more than five months since the publication of our first essay, “Where’s the Winter Palace?” and I plan on returning to the topics discussed in that essay in due time. However, my primary focus as of late has been further research on a particular topic of interest to The Left Wind: group dynamics within leftist organizations and broader social milieus. Given that group dynamics profoundly shape not just our efficacy as political actors but also our own personal well-being, I feel that this topic is important to pay particular attention to, especially given the left’s propensity to shirk organizational self-reflection in favor of ideological squabbles.

In light of this, I decided to read On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth. I stumbled on this book after previously reading a paper by Professor Tourish on a Trotskyist group from the UK that exhibited characteristics of cults. While the majority of leftist organizations are not full-blown political cults1, I believe that by studying the most extreme examples of unhealthy group dynamics, we can be more self-aware of the practices in our own circles that may be harmful.

Tourish & Wohlforth note in the introduction that “The tendency of political cults to destroy people’s commitment to political activity over time is one of the most pernicious consequences of their destructive activities in modern society.” Here they uncover the danger of political cults: not that they encourage political commitment, but rather that, in the long run, they actively destroy it. It is with this ethos in mind that the authors proceed to the first chapters. It is also important to note that they argue that cultic practices exist on a spectrum. All groups require cohesion in order to exist; it becomes a problem when conformity is taken to the extreme at the expense of the physical, mental, emotional, and financial well-being of the members and those in the orbit of the organization.

The book is divided into four sections: The Nature of Cults, Cults on the Right, Psychotherapy Cults, and Cults on the Left. In this review, I will primarily focus on the first and last sections, as they are most relevant to The Left Wind’s project.

Characteristics of Cults

In the first section, Tourish & Wohlforth focus primarily on defining the common characteristics of cults, particularly political cults. Political cults are defined as follows:

In political cults, people are encouraged to fantasize about what society will be like when they have seized state power. Members are hailed as inspired founders (sometimes called “cadres”), who will be guaranteed a particularly powerful position in the new world order. Simultaneously, they are denounced in the present day for their weak grasp of the founders’ inspired ideals. Their inability to work even harder is blamed for the slow rate at which the cult’s dream is being realized. The cult’s achievements are credited to the wisdom of the leader. Whatever goes wrong is attributed to the slovenly behavior of the members. Thus, grandiosity of vision is combined with a punitive internal atmosphere, aimed at suppressing all dissent. There is a pathological fear of anything that calls even peripheral aspects of the group’s ideology into question.

The authors then list the following characteristics of political cults:

  • A rigid belief system. “The view that the group’s belief system explains everything eliminates the need for fresh or independent thought, prevents a critical reappraisal of past practice or the acknowledgment of mistakes, and removes the need to seek intellectual sustenance outside the group’s own ideological fortress.”
  • The group’s ideas are immune to falsification. “Those who question any aspect of the group’s analysis are branded as deviationists bending to the ‘pressures of capitalism’ or as traitors colluding with the conspiracy, and are driven from its ranks as heretics.”
  • An authoritarian inner party regime is maintained. “Members are excluded from participation in determining policy, calling leaders to account, or expressing dissent.”
  • There is a growing tendency for leaders to act in an arbitrary way, accrue personal power, perhaps engage in wealth accumulation from group members or in the procuring of sexual favors.
  • Leading figures, alive or dead, are deified. “In the first place, this tends to center on Marx, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, or another significant historical figure. It also increasingly transfers to existing leaders, who represent themselves as defending the historical continuity of the “great” ideas of the original leaders… There is a tendency to settle arguments by referring constantly to the sayings of the wise leaders (past or present), rather than by developing an independent analysis.”

Tourish and Wohlforth then introduce the concept of “ideological totalism,” coined by Robert Jay Lifton, to characterize the dynamic in which “ideas cease to be provisional theories about the world and instead become sacred convictions, dependent on the word of hallowed authorities for their validation rather than evidence.” The characteristics of ideological totalism are as follows:

    1. Milieu control: limiting contact with the outside world
    2. Mystical manipulation: the notion that the group has a higher purpose than those outside the group
    3. The demand for purity: “Members of the cult are assured that they possess a superior insight to ordinary members of society. At best, nonmembers are considered the dupes, at worst the degenerate accomplices, of a vast conspiracy against the cult’s core beliefs. Many groups on the far left characterize those who sympathize with them as the ‘advanced workers.’”
    4. The cult of confession: confessing one’s sins or inadequacies, i.e. “self-criticism”
    5. The sacred science: the group’s doctrine is considered sacred dogma
    6. Loading the language: the group uses unique jargon to reinforce its dogma and the notion that it possesses special knowledge (e.g. the way Maoists overuse “revisionist” as an epithet)
    7. Doctrine over person: personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science
    8. The dispensing of existence: only those who adhere to the group’s ideology are considered fully human.

The above characteristics of (1) political cults and (2) ideological totalism comprise the majority of the first chapter of the book. I am not a sociologist or social-psychologist, so I cannot in detail defend or appraise the above criteria as a useful metric for identifying cultic group dynamics. However, I believe that it is readily apparent that the above characteristics at least in part illuminate undesirable attributes of organizations, even if the reader may disagree with which organizations actually exhibit said attributes.

The second chapter details particular mechanisms that cults use to extract maximum commitment from their members. They include groupthink, the suppression of dissent, power dynamics of authority, intergroup conflict, lovebombing, and paranoia. In this chapter, the authors also make the important point that people who join cults, while often in a vulnerable position, are generally not “crazy” or “irrational,” they are “everyday” people.

The first point that the authors make is that any group, as a minimum for maintaining cohesiveness, will need to have a level of agreement around ideals (or “groupthink”). This becomes a problem, however, when the group’s beliefs override the individual members’ critical thinking skills. In particular, the discouraging or outright suppression of dissent enables dogmatic adherence to the group’s particular beliefs. Democracy, critical thinking, and avenues for expressing dissent are listed as antidotes to totalizing group beliefs.

Integroup conflict is a mechanism to isolate cult members from the outside world, breeding an “in-group vs. out-group” mentality. For the left, this does not simply mean the acknowledgement of class society (i.e. we are the proletariat, our enemies are the bourgeoisie), but it extends further into Othering working people who do not fit our notions of what sort of politics we feel they should have.

“Lovebombing” is the practice of overwhelming potential recruits with attention and affection. This manipulative tactic creates a manufactured atmosphere of intimacy that has the effect of opening up new members and recruits to commitment and dedication. This practice is not wholly dissimilar to that deployed by individuals in manipulative relationships, but it functions on an institutional level. To be clear, lovebombing is different from simply being nice and welcoming. It is conditional affection based on conformity to the group’s norms. This affection often comes to an abrupt halt the moment one steps out of line.

Finally, ambient paranoia is endemic among political cults. As the authors put it, “the group dynamics of conformity, ingratiation, and unwonted obedience cultivate a hermetically sealed environment in which the social ecosystem is dominated by paranoia. The bizarre becomes commonplace, conspiracy theories run amuck, and today’s friends could be tomorrow’s bitter enemies, today’s enemies tomorrow’s vital allies. The cult, which often begins with noble ideals and high hopes, turns into a closed system of institutionalized paranoia.” This characteristic is especially difficult to confront on the left, given the very real threat of state repression and long history of persecution of communists and anarchists in the United States.2

Left-Wing Cults

In the final section of the book, Tourish & Wohlforth study four left-wing organizations that they believe to be political cults: the Democratic Workers Party (DWP) under Marlene Dixon, the cult around Trotskyist Gerry Healy, Ted Grant’s “Militant”, and Gino Perente’s Communist Party USA (Provisional). I will not go into great detail about these organizations, but I will highlight a few key points.

The DWP was, in my evaluation, the most alarming of all the groups studied. Marlene Dixon and her clique extracted an incredible level of commitment from their cadre, imbuing them with the idea that they alone could spark revolutionary fervor into the masses. Cadre were expected to live together, devote up to 12-16 hours per day on party activity, and subject each other to “criticism/self-criticism” sessions which were essentially 7-10 hours of emotional abuse. Those who stepped out of line were punished severely, including through physical violence. Janja Lalich, a former member, wrote a study on the DWP that describes in gruesome detail the destruction that the group enacted upon its membership.

Healy’s and Grant’s groups were slightly more mild, especially in the latter case. However, both exhibited common cult symptoms of uncritical worship of their leaders, seen as cut from the same cloth as Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. In Healy’s case, milieu control was much more severe, and he used his position of authority to sexually exploit dozens of women members. Not only can political cults blunt further political involvement of their members, but they can also be incredibly violent, as these women know all too well. Perente’s CPUSA(P) was the most clandestine, essentially functioning as a proto-militia.

Marxism-Leninism: Seedbed for Cults

The following section is an excerpt from the concluding chapter book itself. I provide the excerpt in full because I feel it is important to present the entire argument.

Many of the groups surveyed in this book trace their origins to Marxism-Leninism. These include the Maoist/Stalinist Democratic Workers Party and the Communist Party (Provisional), the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party and Militant Tendency, the Radical Therapy Newman/Fulani group, and the rightist National Caucus of Labor Committees. Harvey Jackins and Charles Dederich were both influenced by Marxism-Leninism, while Jim Jones considered himself a reincarnation of Lenin. Given the enormous influence of this ideology on the left, it is appropriate to consider whether it has become inherently cultic in its political practice. The groups discussed here could be exceptions, with other currents in the same tradition updating their ideas, maintaining a healthy internal regime, and achieving wider influence.

Our study of left-wing political cults, including many that are not discussed in this book, leads us to the conclusion that the ideology in question has become cultic. Each and every Marxist-Leninist (or Trotskyist) grouping that we have examined has exhibited the same cultic symptoms—authoritarianism, conformity, ideological rigidity, and a fetishistic dwelling on apocalyptic fantasies. These characteristics vary from group to group in degree but not in kind. Not all Leninist groups are full-blown cults. However, we have yet to discover a single one lacking at least some cultic features.

For example, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party, the largest Trotskyist group in Great Britain, and its American affiliate, the International Socialist Organization, has an internal dynamic that is similar to the Grant group at its height. In France, Lutte Ouvrière has been relatively successful. Its annual fete attracts around 30,000 people and it presently has representation in the European Parliament. However, as reported in the French press, it operates in a clandestine fashion, and forbids marriage and having babies. Both the American Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party display a rigid internal life and cultic adulation of their leaders. The Spartacist League has made a specialty out of disrupting other organizations and has become increasingly bizarre. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party’s members wave red flags at street corners and hawk their paper, Revolution, which sings the praises of the brutal Marxist-Leninist Shining Path of Peru. The list goes on and on. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the “source code” for cultic practice must lie within Leninism itself.

There are many causal factors for this. Here, we will highlight but a few. Marxism-Leninism insists on the necessity of building “mass revolutionary parties” around the principles of “democratic centralism.” Without this, its adherents believe that humanity is doomed. It is this perspective and this method of organizing that lies at the root of the movement’s degeneration into myriad cultic sects.

The notion of a vanguard revolutionary party inherently predisposes its adherents to view themselves as the pivot on which world history is destined to turn. Revolution is seen as the only route by which humanity can avoid annihilation, but revolution is only possible if a mass party is built around a group of “cadres”: that is, devotees of the party with a particularly deep insight into its ideology. Members become possessed by a tremendous sense of urgency and a powerful conviction of their group’s unique role in bringing about the transformation of the world. They develop delusions of historical grandeur. Religious zealotry soon follows.

As Lenin spelled out in What Is to Be Done?, socialist ideas were to be introduced into the working class from the “outside” by professionals, drawn largely from the middle classes. This essentially elitist view leads members of Leninist groups to view themselves as a kind of chosen people, the possessors of a gnosis beyond the grasp of ordinary folk. Therefore, separate organization is in order, tight discipline is required, and superhuman sacrifice is demanded from members. A centralized party structure transforms the cadres into the willing tool of the self-appointed disciple of Lenin. All the elements of cultic organization and conduct thus flow quite naturally out of Leninist tenets.

It is beyond the scope of this book to explore the extent to which the Leninist tradition, as practiced by contemporary Leninist groups, accurately expresses the views and practices of Lenin. Nor do we intend to discuss the cultic aspect of the former Soviet Union (what Khrushchev called the “cult of the personality”) and other states based on the same model. Our concern is with the actual practice of self-described Leninists.

In the 1930s, Keith Woods joined the Communist Party after attending a congress in Paris. He wrote a letter to his wife, attempting to convert her to the cause. The letter perfectly captures the messianic mood we are describing here, and flags the presence of a cuitic belief system. His words also convey the internal atmosphere we have found in all the leftist groups discussed in this book:

I am fired with a new zeal and I am going to pass it on to you or die in the attempt…. Just think what a difference it would make to have something in life to strive for that was bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than both of us, something that burns down deep in your bones, that gives you strength and imagination and the courage of which you never thought you were capable, which gives a meaning to life where before there was nothing but a selfish search for pleasure, that helps you to feel in true relationship not only to present history but to all history. Can’t you feel it pulsating within me, the hope and the certainty that if the millions of ordinary people like you and me would only take fate by the throat and strangle it, we can literally change the world?

How could intelligent people think like this, then and now? To understand this complex issue requires an attempt to penetrate the mind-sets of true believers, so that we can grasp why they believe the fanciful, suppress any knowledge of the grisly reality behind their political practice, and lure others into the same web of deceit in which they themselves have been caught.

The writer Arthur Koestler also belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930s. The accounts of many writers who shared the same experience are revealing on this point. Koestler characterized his state of mind while he was a Communist Party member in the following terms:

Gradually I learnt to distrust my mechanistic preoccupation with facts and to regard the world around me in the light of dialectic interpretation. It was a satisfactory and indeed blissful state; once you had assimilated the technique you were no longer disturbed by facts; they automatically took on the proper color and fell into their proper place. Both morally and logically, the Party was infallible: morally, because its aims were right, that is, in accord with the Dialectic of History, and these aims justified all means; logically, because the Party was the vanguard of the proletariat, and the proletariat the embodiment of the active principle in History.

In addition to foregrounding the need for a revolutionary party, Marxist-Leninist groups insist that such a party must be governed by the principles of what Lenin termed democratic centralism. For those on the far left, Lenin is regarded as a demigod, beyond criticism. The hope is that imitating his practice and rote-learning his writings will, by alchemy, transform groups from small sects into mass organizations.

Democratic centralism sees the “party” as a tightly integrated fighting force with a powerful central committee and a rule that all members publicly defend the agreed positions of the party, whatever opinions they might hold to the contrary in private. The goal of the members is to become professional revolutionaries, preferably on a full-time basis. Between conferences the party’s leading bodies have complete authority to manage its affairs, arbitrate in internal disputes, update doctrine, and decide the party’s response to fresh political events. As Lenin expressed it: “The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local party organizations implies universal and full freedom to criticize, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a defined action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult unity of action decided upon by the party.”

Given what is now known of social influence, this approach is intrinsically destined to prevent genuine internal discussion. First, it is not at all clear when “full freedom to criticize” can be said to disturb the unity of a defined action. The norms of democratic centralism confer all power between conferences onto a central committee, allowing it to decide when a dissident viewpoint is in danger of creating such a disturbance, normally presumed to be lethal. The evidence suggests that they are strongly minded to view any dissent as precisely such a disruption, and to respond by demanding that the dissidents cease their action on pain of expulsion from the party. It should be borne in mind that the leaders of these groupings view themselves as the infallible interpreters of sacred texts which are seen as essential for the success of the world revolution. This “all-or-nothing” approach to political analysis reinforces the tendency to view dissent as something that automatically imperils the future of the planet, and a justification (perhaps unconscious) of whatever measures are required to restore the illusion of unanimity. All organizations on the Marxist-Leninist left claim to permit open democratic debate among their members. We know of none that do.

Second, Bob Cialdini has reviewed a variety of studies that show that, when people take a public position in defense of a proposition, there is then a strong tendency for their private attitudes to shift so that they harmonize with their public behaviors. In short, if people tell others that they support X (for whatever reason) their belief system will begin to agree that indeed they do support X. The more public such declarations have been, the more likely it is that such a shift will take place. This will then contribute to future public activities in line with a now firmly held belief. Such findings suggest that if, in the name of democratic centralism, party members publicly uphold the party line, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold a private belief at variance with attitudes publicly expressed. Conformity in public tends to equal conformity in private.

Tightly disciplined and driven cadres are capable, in some periods, of having a significant impact on broader political processes. Perhaps the most impressive example of this was Ted Grant’s Militant Group in England. It controlled the city government in Liverpool and had members in Parliament. Marlene Dixon gained influence in San Francisco as well as control of the Peace and Freedom Party through her disciplined cadres. LaRouche’s right-wing cult captured significant positions within the Illinois Democratic Party. Fred Newman played a role in black politics through support of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, ran an effective progressive third party; and has influence today within Perot’s Reform Party and the Buchanan campaign. NATLFED functions exclusively through “entities,” its name for front groups. The Communist front form of organization is particularly suited to political cult manipulation. It permits the cult leader to control the environment within which his or her followers operate, to exclude competing political tendencies that could “corrupt” cult members, and to recruit from the front group’s membership.

The far left is organized, or disorganized, around these guiding principles. In consequence, it has become a warring assortment of tyrannical fiefdoms, locked into a spiral of irrelevance, fragmentation, and ideological petrifaction. Their internal regimes emulate that of Stalin. Had they state power, they would also emulate his blood lust. Accordingly, they display an intense veneration for “October,” as a distraction from their present-day impotence. Activists become archives of useless trivia from the history of Bolshevism. This prevents them from updating their analysis of the 1917 Revolution and its aftermath.

Many on the left have begun to revise their earlier reliance on Leninist orthodoxies. They have concluded that the October Revolution was by no means above criticism. In addition to such a political reappraisal, left-wing activists need to temper enthusiasm for change with a stronger awareness of the techniques of social influence, and a greater skepticism toward totalistic philosophies of change. Without such an approach, individuals face lifelong disillusionment with any form of political action. In learning from organizations such as those discussed in this book it will be more possible to engage in political action which genuinely liberates our thinking, and thereby influence the political process.

The Religiosity of Revolution

I believe that Tourish & Wohlforth’s framework actually applies to a great deal of contemporary and historical leftist practices and organizations beyond the outliers studied in the book. My focus will be mostly on Marxism-Leninism and its variants, as this is what I am most familiar with. However, I have trustworthy comrades who come out of the anarchist tradition and have reported similar dynamics in their own milieus.3 To me, this suggests that the problem is in no way limited to any single ideological tradition, but rather the problems of activist subculture more generally.

Historical Precedent

Cultic practices and unhealthy group dynamics are not new to the Marxist-Leninist tradition. In particular, the mass executions and purges in the USSR in 1935-37 as well as the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 exhibit alarmingly violent group dynamics. In the former case, “wreckers” and “saboteurs” were seen everywhere as the CPSU ate itself alive in a fit of paranoia. In China, the outgroup were the “capitalist roaders” and “revisionists.” In both cases, political persecution resulted in public humiliations, imprisonment, and mass death.

It is interesting to note that both cases also featured a phenomenon present in Marlene Dixon’s cult, namely that members were eager to join in on “struggle sessions.” In cults, it is common that members, due to ideological buy-in, go above and beyond what their leadership officially requires. Furthermore, pointing the finger in the other direction by accusing a fellow party member of being a “Trotskyite” or “revisionist” is an effective way to take the heat off oneself.

Regardless of whether mass repression was a reaction to real problems (it does not spring from nowhere, of course), to me it is evident that such widespread violence was not strictly “necessary” in a deterministic sense nor was it indicative of particularly healthy or well-functioning group dynamics which value democracy and dissent. If we are to learn from our movement’s history, it does us well to understand these organizational dynamics and how to build healthier ones; it is not enough to simply make a moral appraisal of what happened.

The Sect World

Hal Draper has characterized a sect as an organization that “presents itself as the embodiment of the socialist movement, though it is a membership organization whose boundary is set more or less rigidly by the points in its political program rather than by its relation to the social struggle.”4 I have previously characterized much and perhaps most of the organized U.S. left as comprising sects, but the relationship between sects and cults remains unclear to me. While I think the latter are more extreme than the former in controlling the lives of their members, I do believe that sects are prone to somewhat cultic dynamics due to the very foundation of their organizational practices: ideological rigidity, a self important worldview, and hyper-centralized organizational structure.

Groups that distinguish themselves foremost by their political program as the pinnacle of socialism are prone to believe that they possess “special knowledge” about the world that outsiders are ignorant of. These groups sometimes even see their political program as a comprehensive, totalizing ideological worldview capable of answering all questions in life. Externally, this view has the effect of placing primacy on ideological conversion through proselytizing to the masses who have been distracted by “false consciousness.” This is often at the expense of more concrete forms of class struggle, but not necessarily so. It is interesting yet unsurprising that Marxist sects often focus their recruitment on college campuses, especially middle class youth. In this setting, sects can weaponize petit-bourgeois guilt and the impressionability of youth into maximum ideological adherence and organizational commitment. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Marxism does not hold explanatory power or that all ideas are equally wrong. However, when the Marxist method is enshrined into a rigid doctrine, it loses its scientific character. In other words, the “special knowledge” attitude actually hinders genuine insight.

Internally, inflated self-importance demands total and unwavering dedication to the cause because the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. This devotion to doctrine engenders a mindset in members that they are destined to play an inordinate role in social change, or even in saving humanity from impending annihilation. In this conception of politics, discourse around revolution is almost structurally religious, functioning as some future paradise  after which nothing will be the same. In other words, because we have access to Truth, it is incumbent upon our groupsicule to save the world from utter destitution and destruction. Additionally, it is an incredibly effective way to chill dissent, because any sort of disagreement may disrupt one’s organization from achieving victory. In other words, an unwarranted sense of urgency encourages membership to put their lives on hold in complete dedication to revolutionary upheaval that is likely not in the cards in the near future. Even if it was in the cards, it would not likely be led by one’s tiny sect. A revolution is a protracted political process of societal transformation, rather than an abrupt rupture from the old order.

Finally, hyper-centralism engenders dogmatism and bureaucratism. Tourish & Wohlforth convincingly argue above that “democratic centralism” (perhaps more accurately bureaucratic centralism) suppresses dissent and trends towards excessive groupthink. Previously, we have argued that this organizational structure hinders genuine debate and theoretical struggle, and is perhaps more fit for military conflict than political organizing in a non-revolutionary period such as the one we find ourselves in today. Hyper-centralism creates a strict chain-of-command that makes accountability and rank-and-file democracy difficult to achieve.

While sects are not necessarily cults, they are capable of mirroring cultic dynamics that result in overcommitment and narrowed critical thinking on the part of the membership. I believe that in order to create healthier group dynamics we must seek a new paradigm in organizational practices.

Breaking the Paradigm

I have to admit that I provisionally agree with Tourish & Wohlforth’s argument about Marxism-Leninism in the Anglosphere tending towards cultism, basically in its entirety. This is especially the case if we understand “Leninism” not just as the works of Lenin, but as a dogmatic mythologization of the October revolution and making virtue of necessity of military measures of the Russian Civil War.

One obvious departure I have with the above argument is that I do not believe the elitism outlined to originate from Lenin himself or the Bolshevik Party.5 Hal Draper and Lars T. Lih have convincingly argued that the idea that Lenin’s concept of the Party is based on an intellectual elite is a myth. Lenin was more critical of intellectuals being in the party than most of his contemporaries. Further, his views espoused in What is to Be Done? are taken out of context of absolutist Russia. Other than that, I feel that this excerpt is congruent with our critique of “democratic centralism”. I also sympathize with the point about mythology around October; our first essay was titled “Where’s the Winter Palace?” precisely to hit on this point.

Political commitment is a beautiful thing in the era that tells us “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. Fredric Jameson’s famous statement that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is indicative of the times we live in, even if since 2011 the prospects for a new socialist movement have improved greatly. However, in a capitalist society in which we are inundated with capitalist realism, I believe there is great risk in reacting through sudden and drastic devotion to a cause that can jeopardize one’s own well-being and, in the long run, one’s passion for political engagement, even if said cause is just.

It has been said that cults exist for only two reasons: fundraising and recruitment (in other words, they exist in order to reproduce and expand themselves, much like capital). Sects that primarily focus on spreading their ideas can very easily fall into this dynamic. If we want to build effective, healthy organizations, I believe we have to totally scrap the paradigm of special knowledge, revolution-as-heaven, and “vanguardism”6 as the notion that one’s own groupsicule is destined to lead the revolution solely because of ideological pedigree. To be clear, I do not think that the left is simply comprised of cults, but I do think that studying them can help us illuminate ineffective organizational attitudes.

Since Tourish & Wohlforth are not themselves communists, they do not analyze why the Anglophone Marxist sects have been ineffective. While their framework allows us to probe our organizational practices and seek to create healthier ones, it does not really help us understand why these organizations came to be this way or how to be more effective organizers. Ideology plays a role, but it is by no means the only or even necessarily the most important factor. I do not believe these organizations have been unhealthy simply because they held incorrect ideas; rather, it runs deeper into historical, cultural, and organizational factors that may yield fruitful interrogations in the future.

I believe that in order to build healthy political organizations the key is to encourage democracy, dissent, reasonable commitment levels, and real projects (not front groups) that materially impact people’s lives that don’t have the end-goal of recruitment or fundraising. While no organization is perfect, I do believe that with self-awareness and level-headedness, we can strive to participate in class struggle in ways that are ultimately both healthier for individuals and more effective for the collective.

“Communism is not a programme one puts into practice or makes others put into practice, but a social movement. Apart from perhaps a clearer understanding, those who develop and defend theoretical communism are moved by the same practical personal need for communism as those who are not especially concerned by theory. They have no privilege whatsoever: they do not carry the knowledge that will set the revolution in motion.” – Gilles Dauvé, “Capitalism and Communism


  1. (back) Many, however, come quite close or do qualify as cults. Consider Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party, the Spartacist League, “the O”, or even Jonestown.
  2. (back) See “COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story” by Paul Wolf or Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists by Aaron J. Leonard and Connor A. Gallagher.
  3. (back) See “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman for a discussion of informal power dynamics in nominally “non-hierarchical” organization.
  4. (back)Anatomy of the Micro-Sect”, Hal Draper
  5. (back) See “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of The Party’” by Hal Draper and Lenin Rediscovered by Lars T. Lih.
  6. (back) The term “vanguardism” is a bit fraught, but I am starting to believe that strict adherence to vanguardist conceptions of socialist organizing makes one’s organization prone to sectarian or cultic dynamics that places one’s organization at the epicenter of world history. Of course I recognize the role a political party can play in social revolution, and we cannot pretend that we don’t have our own ideas when we interface with our neighbors and coworkers. However, I cannot help but think that vanguardist conceptions of party-building are a dead end into sect-building, even (or especially) if such conceptions are not found in Lenin himself.

Further Reading

Anatomy of the Micro-Sect”, Hal Draper

The Cult of Uhuru: An Autoethnographic Essay from a Former African People’s Solidarity Committee Member”, Cort George

The sociology of Leninist organizations”, Scott Jay

What is a Marxist organization?”, Scott Jay

The Cadre Ideal: Origins and Development of a Political Cult,” Janja Lalich

Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left,” Dennis Tourish

On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth

2 replies on “Delusions of Grandeur”

Interesting article. I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that Mr. Wohlforth has a long history in the Trotskyist movement and was himself the leading Healeyite in the US for a decade or so as the leader of the Workers’ League, the organization that became the Socialist Equality Party in the 90s.

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