The cult of the professional revolutionary

A cult is generally considered to be a group that indoctrinates its members into regarding themselves as a select group different from the rest of society. Some, but by no means all, such groups seek to isolate themselves. A typical example would be the closed Plymouth Brethren who avoid association with “the ungodly” (you and me). But others, such as the Scientologists and the Moonies actively engage with the rest of society in order to gain new recruits.


Cults are organised around a charismatic leader whose views are regarded as authoritative. The leader is surrounded by a group of seconds who transmit his or her views to the other followers. New members are encouraged to break off all relations with their previous life, often to change their name and surrender their property to the group; they are encouraged to identify totally with the group and to subordinate their individuality to it.


In some cases so total is the identification that the followers can be persuaded to voluntarily follow their leader in committing suicide, as notoriously in 1978 when some 900 members of the “Reverend” Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult committed mass suicide in Guyana and in 1997 when 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult did so in California. The 7 July suicide bombers in London could be another example.


But how can humans be persuaded to kill themselves for what most people can see is a delusion? A recent attempt to explain this has been made by Janja Lalich in her book Bounded Choice, subtitled ‘True Believers and Charismatic Cults’ (University of California Press). Her explanation is given in the book’s title: by means of a number of psychological techniques to which the cult members voluntarily, and often eagerly, submit, they come to so identify themselves with the cult that their freedom of choice becomes limited – “bounded” – to those offered by its ideology, however bizarre this might be.


Thus, for instance, in the Heaven’s Gate cult, which is one of her two case studies, the members came to believe that they really were aliens who had assumed human form and who were striving to return to their previous higher level of existence. Given this core belief, it was a logical – “bounded” – choice to decide to leave their human bodies, considered as mere “vehicles”, to await rescue by an alien spaceship their leader told them was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that was then passing by the Earth.



From 1975 to 1985 Lalich was a member of a Maoist group in San Francisco called the Democratic Workers Party. This is her second case study. Having ourselves been many times labelled a “sect” we are naturally wary about the concept of a cult being applied to political organisations. But Lalich makes out a good case for describing the DWP as a cult – in view of the type of organisational and psychological techniques employed, as by some religious groups, to weld the members to their organisation and its leaders – though one, of course, more like the Moonies than the Closed Brethren. And it is true that the Leninist principle of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries does, outside the political context of an openly repressive regime, lend itself to the would-be professional revolutionaries being organised as a cult.

We are of course opposed to Leninist organisational methods but we can see how, in the context of Tsarist Russia, a vanguard party organised on hierarchical and secretive lines would be one political option for anti-Tsarist revolutionaries, even if not a socialist form of organisation. The Bolshevik Party could not legitimately be called a cult; it was a political organisation. But why, in conditions of relative political democracy allowing people to organise openly, would some want to organise on such a basis? Why would anyone want to organise a corps of professional revolutionaries when there was no political necessity to do so?


The DWP aimed to be a party of disciplined, full-time professional revolutionaries under a strong leader, dedicated to serving the cause of “the proletariat” (perceived, in accord with Leninist theory, as being incapable of acting by and for themselves). The party was organised on a hierarchical basis with the Leader at the top surrounded by a small staff, an intermediate level of department heads (appointed and revocable by the top leadership) and the ordinary rank-and-file members.


There were three levels of membership: trial, candidate and general:


All General Members had full voting rights and were considered full-time, which meant they were to be on call, at the Party’s disposal, twenty-four hours a day. Trial Members had no rights; they were to learn. If the Trial Membership stage was passed (based on study, level of participation and good behavior), then appropriate leadership personnel commended that the young militant be moved up to the status of Candidate Member, with partial political rights”.


As in the Heaven’s Gate cult, all members had to adopt a new name:


Once a Party name was chosen, only that name was to be used; and immediately new members learned others’ Party names. Militants were never to reveal their real name to other members, not even to roommates. Party names were used in all meetings or gatherings, in all DWP facilities and in all houses where members lived. For the new member, taking on a name was the first stage in losing his or her pre-Party identity and assuming a Party-molded one”.


And to sacrifice their income and property:


The dues structure was set up so that each militant gave over all monies received above a group-determined living amount, set at approximately poverty-level standards. All monetary or substantial gifts (such as a car), job bonuses, legal settlements, and inheritances were turned over to the Party”.


The poverty-line income forced members to live together in communal houses, thus making them even more dependent on the party and its leaders. Its leader (one Marlene Dixon) did not have to live on the poverty line, but had other members assigned to cook and clean for her.


The DWP was committed to the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism”. On paper this means that there is a full discussion of some policy document but that, when it has been adopted, all members, including those who voted against it, have to be committed to carrying it out. Some Leninist groups do try to operate on this basis, allowing the preliminary democratic discussion, but not the DWP. According to Dixon, in a document entitled ‘On the Development of Leninist Democracy’:


[D]emocracy is a method for the selection of leadership and a method of assuring that the most developed and tested comrades, the cadre, the bones of a Leninist party, govern the party”.


What this meant in practice was:


[T]he leaders would give a presentation on a change in direction of some work, or would open a denunciation of a militant for some error. Each militant present was expected to say how much he or she agreed with what was just said”.


Members were subject to public sessions of criticism and self-criticism in which they had to confess to any “petty bourgeois” failings or lapses the leadership pointed out to them. There were also sanctions for breaches of discipline (and even a security service trained by an ex-Marine):


Given the emphasis on obedience and discipline members understood that they could be sanctioned for not following rules or for in any way breaking the discipline. Militants were ‘punished’ in a variety of ways besides submitting to collective criticism sessions and writing self-criticisms. More practical sanctions, for example, were increased quotas, extra work duty, demotion from a particular position or function, removal from a practice, and instructions to leave a workplace or cease contact with a particular person. In more serious cases, there were periods of probation, suspension, or even house arrest (which could mean being confined and guarded by security forces)”.


It might be wondered why the members put up with such a regime. Lalich’s explanation is, once again, “bounded choice” in that they had convinced themselves, and had had this conviction continually reinforced by the group’s practices, that such a hierarchically-disciplined party was necessary to further the cause of the proletariat. In the end they didn’t put up with it. When Dixon was away on a trip to Europe in November 1985 the other leaders, including Lalich, met and decided to expel Dixon and dissolve the organisation.


It’s a disturbing story but is one consequence of the application of the Leninist theory of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries in conditions other than a political despotism. All Leninist groups engage in some of the practices described by Lalich, for instance, different levels of membership, leadership-dominated meetings and a willingness on the part of the members to be told what to do. That doesn’t mean that all Leninist groups are cults in the sense that the DWP was. But some are. It is clear, for instance, from their external behaviour that the Sparticist League (who publish Workers Hammer) must be and there is documented evidence that the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière and the ‘left communist’ International Communist Current are. In his 1999 book La vraie nature d’Arlette (‘The True Nature of Arlette’ – Arlette Laguiller, LO’s permanent presidential candidate) the journalist François Koch describes LO militants as “soldier-monks”, because of their self-imposed life-style (marriage and children are discouraged so that the professional revolutionary has only a loyalty to the group). In 2000 a group of ex-members of the French section of the ICC published a pamphlet Que Ne Pas Faire? (‘What Is Not To Be Done?’) which exposed similar practices to some of those described by Lalich in the DWP (an older, charismatic leader; adoption of a new name; an order-giving hierarchy; interrogations; a security service).


Because these organisations use some of the same terminology as we do – even to the extent of allowing us to engage in an apparently rational debate with them over the best way to get rid of capitalism – this sort of thing discredits the whole idea of socialism and organisation for socialism. Fortunately, a Leninist vanguard party of professional revolutionaries is not the only way that those who want socialism can organise. There is another way, which we in the Socialist Party have adopted and practice: an open, democratic organisation in which all members have an equal say and in which policy is made by a conference of mandated branch delegates or by a referendum of the whole membership; in which there is no leadership and where the executive committee’s role is merely to carry out policy decided by conference or the membership, apply the rulebook, deal with correspondence, pay bills, etc without having any policy-making powers.


With such an organisational structure it is simply inconceivable that anything remotely like what happened in the DWP could happen nor indeed like what happens in non-cultic but still leadership-dominated Leninist organisations such as the SWP.


Leninists imagine that workers are only capable of reaching a trade union consciousness and flatter themselves that their consciousness as a vanguard is higher. Actually, it’s the other way round. Most trade unions have democratic constitutions, even if largely these days only on paper. The Leninist theory of organisation is a throw-back to political conditions such as existed in Tsarist Russia, and its introduction into more politically-developed Western Europe following the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia has been an unmitigated disaster for the working class and socialism. As a theory of leadership it is anti-socialist and to be rejected on political grounds. In practice it can easily lead to such aberrations as the DWP and so is to be rejected on grounds of human dignity too.


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