20 February 2008

100th post special!: A unified theory of cults

Scientology, Objectivism, most varieties of "orthodox Trotskyism" (more here) or Maoism... all the same sociological features. A Marxist analysis would locate the foundation of all these political cults (and similar religious organizations) in a social base almost restricted to the middle-class intelligensia, who, in modern capitalism, are the layer devoted to ideological production on which the system depends. The essential principle of a cult is an unchallengable ideology and an unchallengable leadership who "bear" or "preserve" the ideology. So the features of all such cults are:

1) Idealism - the belief that physical reality is "less real" than the words of ideas. Note that the pretend-Marxist cults, although holding to materialism as a dogma, by that very act betray Marxism - any dogmas, any ideas which are untouchable and unamendable, and the associated belief that those who hold the "correct" ideas are the elite, are against anything that Marx or indeed Lenin would have recognized. The belief that the test of practice is not the deciding question is the only thing that means that a single set of ideas can be set up as untouchable.

2) Elitism - as above. Also - those who produce the correct ideas are not only elite but godlike. Some flavours of Objectivist even claim that only Ayn Rand herself is a valid source for Objectivism (exactly the same opinion that the Scienos have about their dead conman guru). Note that in some cases the mythical godfigure was dead before the cult showed up - all the better, because then s/he's not around to contradict them. Stalinism got going by turning Lenin into an idol before they dared put Stalin in his place.

3) Thought reform. Since ideas are what's important, and the idea-bearers are the elite, they must continually purge their ranks of thought-criminals or those who just aren't up to snuff ideologically (or just different). Sadly, you can see this starting in the Fourth International during Trotsky's time - despite his many achievements and genius insights, Uncle Leon was a middle-class intellectual building a "party" out of middle-class intellectuals. Of course it was going to go wrong.

A combination of all three of the above expresses themselves in moralism - since ideas are not determined in practice but are in themselves good or bad things, the logical outcome is to seek the origin of the "wrong" ideas in "wrong" personalities. Cults believe in the idea of "evil" - that ideas can be wrong in themselves - and generally lump oppositionists in that bracket. A defining feature of every cult is personal attacks against adversaries and internal critics(as opposed to, say, reasonably pointing out that it was funny for Ayn Rand to talk about the wonders of rationality when she was off her face on speed all the time). If you are wrong and you won't be convinced, the only solution is that you are bad and you should feel bad.

(It's tempting to locate the social origin of cults in clever kids with a middle-class education who dream of their internal world of ideas being, not only accepted, but dominating others in the way that they feel that the existing ideas dominate them. Which would explain why I've always dreamed of having my own cult. Never mind.)

Before the snobs at Infoshop start crowing, let me note that you don't need a formal leader to be a cult. All you need is sufficient peer pressure to "maintain the consensus". Many modern anarchist "communities" fail on the tests of ideology/dogma, elitism and anathematization of contrary opinions - just look at the "uniforms" they wear (patches, t-shirts for "correct bands", body hair on women, etc), the pressure to eat the right (vegan) food and listen to the right music, etc. Also note the pressure on newbies to start anathematising the hated Leninists - identified as "the enemy within". And of course the pseudo-Leninist cults fight straight back. You can be a leaderless cult, no problem.

In passing, I want to blow away the mystical belief that "the consensus process" is always and everywhere the correct way for a group to make decisions, which in itself is an idealist and therefore potentially cultist idea. A consensus process can be a means by which a "secret" leadership group simply enforces its dominance as nastily as the most Stalinist Central Committee - and with the same level of self-serving hypocrisy. In contrast, a majority-democracy group which fully tolerates dissent in thought and word while requiring unity in action may grow a "group mind" which is always a little unsure of itself and self-reforming, which has to be a good thing. The process of decision-making is less vital than ensuring the total freedom of each individual consciousness to have opinions different from the group ideas, and to have real opportunities to change the group's ideas.

Here's a classic description of how cults operate, as opposed to their basic premises as explained above. I was thinking of making "Humour is the one thing cults can't stand" a CM aphorism. However, that's not precisely true - all cults have endless jokes about outsiders. Just not about the leadership or the sacred ideas, at least not in public.

Just in passing - "cult" is not an absolute term. But the more a group is idealist, elitist and obsessed with purifying its own dogma, the more "cultish" it is. On the contrary, a real political party - or any social or cultural change organisation - values the test of practice - what people actually do - above all else. Requiring unity in action is not cultish - requiring unity in thought is.

A true collective consciousness (aka "culture") can only arise where every member of the culture gets to transmit as well as receive. A cult is closed - a culture is open. A cult is simply the prejudices and personality problems of a leadership group written large - a culture might be less of a "strike force", but it will be more flexible, more healthy, and more likely to perpetuate itself.

1 comment:

  1. Trot cults: I have attended an SL meeting where it was asked, "Are there any other groups which you (the person conducting the meeting) feel are in line with the SL?" The answer was: "If there were any other groups in line with the SL, they would have joined us already." To my knowledge, limited as it is, there are no more than 50 people in the local chapter.

    Elsewise: While I agree with most of your analysis, I want to emphasize the importance of joining such groups in spite of their cult-like tendencies. However distorted in their thinking, these groups are filled with people whose hearts are in the right place (or at least were in the right place somewhere along the way). These people are at least motivated enough to join an organization. They want their efforts to translate into real-world political gains. They are probably at least convinced enough of the foundational tenets of the group to bear witness to them to outsiders. They know that working with others is almost always better than slogging at it alone.

    Just as a Marxist would infiltrate ostensibly apolitical organizations to introduce Marxist ideas into the ranks, it may now be necessary for Marxists to infiltrate nominally Marxist organizations.

    I do have a semantic issue with your analysis. I wouldn't call the dogmatic content of these organizations "ideas." Rather, I would refer to this content as a collection of "mantras," since the people who repeat the mantras seem not to need to understand them in order to repeat them. This misunderstanding is evidenced by the extremely narrow applications to which these mantras are put--specifically the reinforcement of the emission and repetition of the mantras, both internally and externally.

    True Marxist thought is structural; the core of Marxist theory could be restated without reference to any of the identifiable keywords which Marx himself used. All that would be necessary is that the restatement illustrate the same basic relationships between the actors of history which Marx identified. Conversely, an entirely anti-Marxist doctrine could be built out of Marxist language.

    Hence the need for a magical orientation. The material world is not an "illusion" as the dualists of all stripes insist, but the world of human relations is aggressively rife with paradox.